A young Australian among the Rhade Montagnard of Vietnam.
by Barry Petersen
First published in Australia/UK in 1988. Third edition 1994. xii, 246
pp., 22 b&w pl. 21.5 X 15.2 cm., softbound.
ISBN-10: 974-8299-13-9 $18.00
|One man’s war
Book 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
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
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.
[More Orchid Press Reviews]