One man’s warBook review by Sandy Barron (The Nation, Bangkok, May 15 1994)
Australian Barry Petersen was a legend for the “Tiger Men” he led against the Viet Cong—but the CIA didn’t like it. Sandy Barron reviews the story of a Vietnam war experience with a difference.
Barry Petersen was 28 years old when he was dropped off in mountainous Darlac province, South Vietnam, with a bag of cash worth about US$350 (Bt 8,750) and vague instructions from the CIA to “get to know the locals”. Almost thirty years later, Bangkok-based Petersen is full of affection for the Montagnard hill-tribe people he found in the highlands and downright chilly about his former CIA masters. So what happened?
Petersen had been sent to Vietnam in 1963 as a member of the 30-strong Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, having previously put in a stint in counter-insurgency operations in then Malaya.
After his arrival in Saigon, where foreign military contingents were officially still “advisers” in the early stages of the war, he was surprised to find that the Australian team leader had arranged that he was to work under the CIA.
“I was not a secret service officer, but a simple soldier with that special operations training. Now I was to become a CIA man, without understanding what the term meant, or what it entailed.” He writes in Tiger Men the story of his two years in the highlands which was a bestseller in Australia and has just been published by White Orchid Press in Bangkok.
Petersen’s American masters were the CIA’s Covert Action Branch, located in a small villa near central Saigon.
The young Australian was also surprised to find that the CIA men there were more interested in chit-chat than in briefing him. About the only item of information he received early on was that he was to go to Darlac (now Dak Lac) where the CIA supported two paramilitary political programmes. The Agency suspected that one of the groups, under the control of the Darlac province chief, was a dud, and one of Petersen’s first jobs was to find out if thousands of CIA dollars were being wasted every month on “payments” to non-existent soldiers. It turned out they were— and not just in Darlac. He was dropped off at the provincial town of Ban-Me-Thout, with instructions to remain apart from the group of about 80 Americans already there, most of whom were military advisers to the 23rd Vietnamese Army Division. After months of getting to know the area and a bunch of politicking, Petersen went on to take over the command of the paramilitary group that did exist, a hundred or so Montagnard who had been under the control of the director of police for the Central Highlands region. Montagnard is a French term for the tribal peoples of the mountains of the Indochina peninsula. The Montagnard of the central highlands of South Vietnam are of two distinct ethnic backgrounds—Malayo-Polynesian and Mon-Khmer. The tribes in Darlac were predominantly the matriarchal Rhade and some Jarai, both of Malayo-Polynesian background, while the M’nong Gar were Mon-Khmer. Petersen could speak Malay, which made learning the Rhade dialect much easier than it might have been.
With money from the Americans, Petersen started recruiting, and arming up his force with CIA-acquired equipment that had passed into obsolescence in America. Viet Cong activity was increasing in the strategic highlands and Petersen was eventually to command a force of more than a thousand men. The objectives of his Truong Soc Force, (the official Vietnamese name) or the Tiger Men (the unofficial Viet Cong name) were, to begin with, the dissemination of anti-Communist propaganda and the collection of intelligence. Under Petersen, the goals went on to include “the disruption of Viet Cong activities, ambushes, small scale raids, and the kidnapping or assassination of Viet Cong agents and officials”.
Petersen doesn’t elaborate overmuch on individual operations, but does describe how he changed strategy by mobilising small fighting patrols of eight men to roam between villages. His force also began burning the houses of communist sympathisers and clearing out villages after Viet Cong activity stepped up in Darlac.
He was earning his keep with the CIA in other ways too, after being supplied with a two-piece receiver by the Covert Action Branch. Once when he was taping a meeting with the province chief and the police director, the Australian was almost caught, when the sticky-tape holding his wires up under the desk started to give way.
What the CIA didn’t know was that Petersen was keeping copies of all the files he made for them. Initially he says now, that was for “souvenir” purposes, but later on it was because he simply didn’t trust the Americans. Petersen had found himself in a unique position in the middle of a web of tangled relationships involving the Montagnards and the Vietnamese, both North and South, who called the hill-tribe people “mois”, meaning savages. The Montagnard in turn were deeply resentful of the Vietnamese policy of settling lowlanders in their areas. And there was continuous tension between the CIA and the Vietnamese over control of various military operations.
Petersen seems to have established a unique and lasting relationship with the Montagnard he worked with, to a point which discomfited elements of the Vietnamese military and more specifically his CIA masters.
During his time in the highlands the wider Montagnard began to complain of bad administration by the Vietnamese, misappropriation of salaries, collaboration with the Viet Cong, etc. Eventually they revolted, and their surrender not long afterwards—with crucial input from Petersen—brought to the surface a good deal of tension between the various players in the area, which later reverberated on the Australian. By chance more than design, none of his men were involved in the actual uprising. After the revolt, many Montagnard deserters headed for Cambodia to form a new autonomy movement, the Front for the Liberation des Races Opprimées (Fulro). The isolated remains of that group were discovered last year by Untac soldiers in Cambodia and they have since been resettled in North Carolina in America.
Petersen’s time in the highlands came to an end after more than two years and before he wanted to leave. He is certain the CIA was behind his removal—his influence by then far surpassed that of any American and he was accused of fostering a personality cult and of fomenting Montagnard revolt. When he was directed by the CIA to organise “counter-terror” teams—basically professional assassins along the lines of the later notorious Phoenix Operation, he refused. A further nail in his coffin came after the American ambassador visited Petersen’s operation. After praising what he found, the Ambassador was heard later to remark, “Why can’t an American do this?”. Petersen discovered that his mail had been tampered with and his phone calls were being intercepted.
Australian historian Ian Mcneill (The Team: Australian Army Advisers in Vietnam 1962-1972) points the finger over Petersen’s removal at Vietnamese resentment over a foreigner taking a lead role in the delicate relationship with the Montagnard. Petersen says this was the line promulgated by the CIA to cover the agency’s determination to get rid of him, and he cites evidence of high level Vietnamese support for him and his work to back up his claim.
Years later, he writes, he found out that the CIA’s determination to get rid of him had gone much deeper than he had previously realised, and that maverick elements in the agency had planned to kill him. Thirty years hasn’t changed Petersen’s feelings about either the CIA (“I still wouldn’t trust them with a bucket of water”) or the Montagnard, some of whom he has helped on a personal basis over the years and some of whom remain personal friends.
Many Montagnard are now settled in America. Those who remained in Vietnam have not fared well as a group. In Southern Vietnam now there are efforts by the Vietnamese government to use the “curiosity factor” of the Montagnard to attract tourism. In other areas a policy of “assimilation” has been implemented.
“With the Rade in particular that means their whole way of life is being suppressed,” says Petersen. North Vietnamese have been resettled in the highland areas and “superimposed” over Montagnard villages. “The Rade are very demoralised—it’s very upsetting. I think the Vietnamese did have to take steps to suppress the insurgency, but I think the steps they chose were very harsh—they’ve destroyed the way of life of ethnic minority groups.” Resistance to the Vietnamese is now limited to the level of “banditry” says Petersen.
Tiger Men is written in the first person in a tight, readable style and illuminates a fascinating and little known aspect of the Vietnam War. This new edition would have been enhanced by the inclusion of more follow-up on the fate of the Montegnard since the mid-sixties, but that might have called for a different kind of book. Tiger Men’s strengths, and limits, are in its sharp focus: the pragmatic Petersen sticks with his own story and ventures little into the realms of analysis of the wider dimensions of the war in Vietnam.
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