The phoenix program

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Douglas Valentine


© 1990, 2000 by Douglas Valentine


Publisher: iUniverse (August 7, 2000)

In his autobiography, In the Midst of Wars, Lansdale gives an example of the counterterror tactics he employed in the Philippines. He tells how one psychological warfare operation "played upon the popular dread of an asuang, or vampire, to solve a difficult problem." The problem was that Lansdale wanted government troops to move out of a village and hunt Communist guerrillas in the hills, but the local politicians were afraid that if they did, the guerrillas would "swoop down on the village and the bigwigs would be victims." So, writes Lansdale:

A combat psywar [psychological warfare] team was brought in. It planted stories among town residents of a vampire living on the hill where the Huks were based. Two nights later, after giving the stories time to circulate among Huk sympathizers in the town and make their way up to the hill camp, the psywar squad set up an ambush along a trail used by the Huks. When a Huk patrol came along the trail, the ambushers silently snatched the last man of the patrol, their move unseen in the dark night. They punctured his neck with two holes, vampire fashion, held the body up by the heels, drained it of blood, and put the corpse back on the trail. When the Huks returned to look for the missing man and found their bloodless comrade, every member of the patrol believed that the vampire had got him and that one of them would be next if they remained on the hill. When daylight came, the whole Huk squadron moved out of the vicinity.

Lansdale defines the incident as "low humor" and "an appropriate response ... to the glum and deadly practices of communists and other authoritarians."


Counterterror was one way of co-opting uncommitted civilians. To facilitate their political awakening, according to Manzione, "We left our calling card nailed to the forehead of the corpses we left behind. They were playing card size with a light green skull with red eyes and red teeth dripping blood, set against a black background. We hammered them into the third eye, the pituitary gland, with our pistol butts. The third eye is the seat of consciousness for Buddhists, and this was a form of mutilation that had a powerful psychological effect."

Curiously, terror tactics often involve mutilating the third eye (the seat of insight and secret thoughts) and playing on fears of an "all-seeing" cosmic eye of God. Used by morale officers in World War I, the eye of God trick called for pilots in small aircraft to fly over enemy camps and call out the names of individual soldiers. Ed Lansdale applied the technique in the Philippines. "At night, when the town was asleep, a psywar team would creep into town and paint an eye (copied from the Egyptian eye that appears atop the pyramid in the Great Seal of the United States) on a wall facing the house of each suspect," Lansdale writes. "The mysterious presence of these malevolent eyes the next morning had a sharply sobering effect."

To appreciate the "sobering effects" of the "malevolent" and "mysterious" eye of God, it helps to know something of the archetype's mythological origins. In ancient Egypt, the eye of God was plucked from Horus, an anthropomorphic sun-god with a falcon's head. Pictured as the morning sun cresting a pyramid, the eye of God represents the dawn of self-awareness, when the ego emerged from the id and no longer required human sacrifice to overcome its primeval anxiety. Awed by the falcon's superlative sight, talons, and flight, the Egyptians endowed Horus with the bird's predatory prowess, so he could avenge the murder his father, Osiris, whose name means "seat of the eye." Set on high, scanning the earth for the forces of darkness, the falcon as sun-god -- as the manifestation of enlightenment -- carries out the work of organization and pacification, imposing moral order on earth.

The eye of God assumes its mysterious "counterespionage" qualities through this myth of the eternal cycle -- the battle between good and evil -- in which, if the perfidious gods of darkness can guess the sun-god's secret name, they can rob him of his powers and trap him forever in the underworld. Thus a falcon emblem was placed above the gates of all Egyptian temples, scanning for the sun-god's enemies, while the sun-god relied on code names to conceal his identity.

Oddly enough, the eye of God was the symbol of the Cao Dai sect, whose gallery of saints include Confucius, Buddha, Joan of Arc, Jesus, and Victor Hugo. Inside the Cao Dai cathedral in Tay Ninh City, the Cao Dai pope divined upon his planchette the secrets of the Great pyramid; over the temple door loomed a huge blue "all-seeing" eye surrounded by snakes and trees. For this reason, some people suggest that the Cao Dai eye of God endowed Phoenix, the all-seeing bird of prey that selectively snatched its prey, with its ubiquity.

In South Vietnam the eye of God trick took a ghastly twist. CIA officer Pat McGarvey recalled to Seymour Hersh that "some psychological warfare guy in Washington thought of a way to scare the hell out of villagers. When we killed a VC there, they wanted us to spread-eagle the guy, put out his eye, cut a hole in the back [of his head] and put his eye in there. The idea was that fear was a good weapon." Likewise, ears were cut off corpses and nailed to houses to let the people know that Big Brother was listening as well.

"Now everyone knows about the airborne interrogation -- taking three people up in a chopper, taking one guy and saying, 'Talk,' then throwing him out before he even gets the chance to open his mouth. Well, we wrapped det [detonator] cord around their necks and wired them to the detonator box. And basically what it did was blow their heads off. The interrogator would tell the translator, usually a South Vietnamese intelligence officer, 'Ask him this.' He'd ask him, 'Who gave you the gun?' And the guy would start to answer, or maybe he wouldn't -- maybe he'd resist -- but the general idea was to waste the first two. They planned the snatches that way. Pick up this guy because we're pretty sure he's VC cadre -- these other two guys just run errands for him. Or maybe they're nobody; Tran, the farmer, and his brother Nguyen. But bring in two. Put them in a row. By the time you get to your man, he's talking so fast you got to pop the weasel just to shut him up." After a moment's silence he added, "I guess you could say that we wrote the book on terror."


The most valuable quality possessed by defectors, deserters, and criminals serving in "sensitive" CIA projects was their expendability. Take, for example, Project 24, which employed NVA officers and senior enlisted men. Candidates for Project 24 were vetted and, if selected, taken out for dinner and drinks, to a brothel, where they were photographed, then blackmailed into joining special reconnaissance teams. Trained in Saigon, outfitted with captured NVA or VC equipment, then given a "one-way ticket to Cambodia," they were sent to locate enemy sanctuaries. When they radioed back their position and that of the sanctuary, the CIA would "arc-light" (bomb with B52's) them along with the target. No Project 24 special reconnaissance team ever returned to South Vietnam.

Notably, minds capable of creating Project 24 were not averse to exploiting deviants within their own community, and SOG occasionally recruited American soldiers who had committed war crimes. Rather than serve time in prison or as a way of getting released from stockades in Vietnam or elsewhere, people with defective personalities were likely to volunteer for dangerous and reprehensible jobs.


On the forbidden subject of torture, according to Muldoon, the Special Branch had "the old French methods," interrogation that included torture. "All this had to be stopped by the agency," he said. "They had to be retaught with more sophisticated techniques."

In Ralph Johnson's opinion, "the Vietnamese, both Communist and GVN, looked upon torture as a normal and valid method of obtaining intelligence." But of course, the Vietnamese did not conceive the PICs; they were the stepchildren of Robert Thompson, whose aristocratic English ancestors perfected torture in dingy castle dungeons, on the rack and in the iron lady, with thumbscrews and branding irons.

As for the American role, according to Muldoon, "you can't have an American there all the time watching these things." "These things" included: rape, gang rape, rape using eels, snakes, or hard objects, and rape followed by murder; electrical shock ("the Bell Telephone Hour") rendered by attaching wires to the genitals or other sensitive parts of the body, like the tongue; "the water treatment"; "the airplane," in which a prisoner's arms were tied behind the back and the rope looped over a hook on the ceiling, suspending the prisoner in midair, afterwhich he or she was beaten; beatings with rubber hoses and whips; and the use of police dogs to maul prisoners. All this and more occurred in PICs.


"I have described the intelligence service as a socially acceptable way of expressing criminal tendencies," [Nelson Brickham] said. "A guy who has strong criminal tendencies -- but is too much of a coward to be one -- would wind up in a place like the CIA if he had the education."


[The counterterror teams'] unofficial emblem was the Jolly Roger skull and crossbones. When working, CTs dispensed with the regalia, donned black pajamas, and plundered nationalist as well as Communist villages. In October 1965, upon returning from a fact-finding mission to Vietnam, Ohio Senator Stephen Young charged that the CIA hired mercenaries to disguise themselves as Vietcong and discredit Communists by committing atrocities. Indeed, CT teams disguised as the enemy, killing and otherwise abusing nationalist Vietnamese, were the ultimate form of psywar. It reinforced negative stereotypes of the Vietcong, while at the same time supplying Special Branch with recruits for its informant program.

In his autobiography, Soldier, Anthony Herbert tells how he reported for duty with SOG in Saigon in November 1965 and was asked to join a top-secret psywar program. "What they wanted me to do was to take charge of execution teams that wiped out entire families and tried to make it look as though the VC themselves had done the killing.


I remember one evening on an LST, right after an operation, sensing there was nothing but anarchy bordering on idiocy in how we were conducting the war ... It was just absolute chaos out there ... It was absolutely insane.


Operationally our biggest grapple was the demand to go out and capture VC cadre," Wilbur continued. "Word would come down from Saigon: 'We want a province-level cadre,'" Wilbur said. "Well, very rarely did we even hear of one of those. Then Colby would say, 'We're out here to get the infrastructure! Who have you got in the infrastructure?' 'Well, we don't have anyone in the infrastructure. We got a village guy and a hamlet chief.' So Colby would say, 'I want some district people, goddammit! Get district people!' But operationally there's nothing more difficult to do than to capture somebody who's got a gun and doesn't want to be captured. It's a nightmare out there, and you don't just say, 'Put up your hands, you're under arrest!'

"First of all," Wilbur explained, "the targets in many cases were illusionary and elusive. Illusionary in that we never really knew who the VC district chief was. In some cases there wasn't any district there. And even if there was someone there, to find out where he was going to be tomorrow and get the machinery there before him -- that's the elusive part. Operationally, in order to do that, you have to work very comprehensively on a target to the exclusion of all other demands. To get a district chief, you may have to isolate an agent out there and set in motion an operation that may not culminate for six months. It was much easier to go out and shoot people -- to set up an ambush.

The problem with the PRU, writes Warren Milberg, was that "the idea of going out after one particular individual was generally not very appealing, since even if the individual was captured, the headlines would not be very great in terms of body counts, weapons captured, or some other measure of success." As Milberg observes, "careers were at stake ... and impressive results were expected."


As a SEAL in Quang Tri Province in 1964 Elton Manzione dressed like the enemy, worked with CTs who committed atrocities as standard procedure, and was told to ignore the rules of engagement. "But there was no sense of our role in the war," he said to me forlornly. He resented the fact that he was trained to kill. "In psychology it's called cognitive dissonance -- the notion that once you make a commitment, it's impossible to go back. It's something about the human psyche that makes a person reluctant to admit a mistake. This is what training is all about. You've already killed the gook. So what if it isn't a dummy in the bed this time? So what if it's a living, breathing human being? This is what you're supposed to do. And once the first time comes and goes, it's not as hard the second time. You say to yourself, 'Well, hey, I've killed people before. Why should I have any compunctions about doing it now?'"

"Training is brainwashing. They destroy your identity and supply you with a new one -- a uniform identity that every soldier has. That's the reason for the uniform, for everyone having the same haircut and going to dinner together and eating the same thing .... They destroyed the street kid from Newark and created the sailor. They destroyed the sailor and created the SEAL. But people aren't robots, and despite their training, eventually they react; they turn on their trainers and confront the outside forces that have used them. That's what happened to me.

"I was a guinea pig," Manzione insisted. "There is no doubt in my mind today, and there was very little doubt then, even after five months in Vietnam. All the training and all the 'special' programs -- it eventually began to backfire on them. I thought, 'Oh, yeah, great program you got here; you're using me to see how I react. I'm expendable. I'm a pawn.' And that's kind of a heavy realization when you're an eighteen-year-old kid.

"It's a paradox. You know," Manzione continued, "they would send a guy over there to be a replacement for a specific person who was being pulled out. So what consciously came across to you was 'I'm functioning as a part of a machine. And if I fail as a part or break down as a part ... then another part will come along to replace me.' Then you find yourself thinking, 'The last time I looked at somebody as not a part of the machine, and I thought he was a really great guy, and he's a friend of mine, he stepped on a land mine and came down dust, hair, teeth, and eyeballs.'

"Then you realize, 'I can't afford to do that. Because I feel terrible for a month afterwards.' And you can't function when you feel terrible. The only thing we could deal with at any particular time was survival. 'What do I want to do today? I want to eat, sleep, and stay alive.' And you did it. And you related to those kinds of things. Suddenly you looked around and said, 'Wait a minute! That's what those little guys in black pajamas are doing, too!" You get to a point where you begin to see these people just want to be left alone to grow their rice.

"I'll give you one last example of what I'm talking about. I'm sure you've heard about the laser-guided smart bombs we had. Well, they would drop these laser-guided smart bombs, and what the VC would do was take a bunch of old rags and tires and stuff and start a bonfire with lots of smoke. And the laser beam would hit the smoke particles, and it would scatter, and the bombs would go crazy. They'd go up, down, sideways, all over the place. And people would smile and say, 'There goes another smart bomb!' So smart a gook with a match and an old tire can fuck it up!

"The whole perverse idea of putting this technological, semiantiseptic sort of warfare against these people -- who didn't have much more than a stick -- was absurd. The sticks won!"


"In the Delta," Willson told me, "the villages were very small, like a mound in a swamp. There were no names for some of them. The people in these villages had been told to go to relocation camps, because this was all a free fire zone, and technically anyone there could be killed. But they wouldn't leave their animals or burial grounds. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force had spotters looking for muzzle flashes, and if that flash came from that dot, they'd wipe out the village. It was that simple.

"It was the epitome of immorality," Willson suggested. "One of the times I counted bodies after an air strike -- which always ended with two napalm bombs which would just fry everything that was left -- I counted sixty-two bodies. In my report I described them as so many women between fifteen and twenty-five and so many children -- usually in their mothers' arms or very close to them -- and so many old people. When I went to Tan Son Nhut a few days later, I happened to see an after-action report from this village. A guy I knew showed me where to look. The report said one hundred-thirty VC dead.


"It was part of the regime's ideology that anyone who opposed them must be a Communist. They could not accept the fact that there might be people who hated them for the travesty they had made of the country's life, for their intolerance and corruption and cold indifference to the lot of their countrymen."


Ralph McGehee found the CIA squaring statistical facts with ideological preconceptions in Vietnam, just as it had in Thailand. "The station's intelligence briefings on the situation in South Vietnam confirmed all my fears," he writes. The briefers "talked only about the numbers of armed Viet Cong, the slowly increasing North Vietnamese regular army, and the occasional member of the Communist infrastructure. They made no mention of the mass-based Farmer's Liberation Association, or the Communist youth organization, all of which in some areas certainly included entire populations."

The reason for this deception, McGehee contends, was that "U.S. policymakers had to sell the idea that the war in the South was being fought by a small minority of Communists opposed to the majority-supported democratic government of Nguyen Van Thieu. The situation, however, was the opposite .... The U.S. was supporting Thieu's tiny oligarchy against a population largely organized, committed, and dedicated to a communist victory."

McGehee blames the American defeat in Vietnam on "policy being decided from the top in advance, then intelligence being selected or created to support it afterwards." In particular, he singles out William Colby as the principal apostle of the Big Lie. A veteran of the Far East Division, McGehee at one point served as Colby's acolyte at Langley headquarters and bases his accusations on firsthand observations of Colby in action -- of watching Colby deliver briefings which were "a complete hoax contrived to deceive Congress." Writes McGehee of Colby: "I have watched him when I knew he was lying, and not the least flicker of emotion ever crosses his face." But what made Colby even more dangerous, in McGehee's opinion, was his manipulation of language. "Colby emphasized the importance of selecting just the right words and charts to convey the desired impression to Congress. He regarded word usage as an art form, and he was a master at it."

"Here the U.S. was trying to fight an enemy it only slightly acknowledged. Why? What had happened to all the idealism, all the rules of getting and reporting intelligence? Why did the agency blind itself while pretending to look for intelligence? Why did we insist on killing people instead of talking to them? How long would this insanity go on?"


"Phoenix," [Ed Murphy] said, "was a bounty-hunting program -- an attempt to eliminate the opposition. By which I mean the opposition to us, the Americans, getting what we wanted. Which was to control the Vietnamese through our clients -- the Diems, the Kys, the Thieus." For Murphy, all other definitions of Phoenix are merely "intellectual jargon."

"In order to get into military intelligence school," Murphy continued, "I and the other candidates had to write an essay on the debate about the Vietnam War. And the thrust of my paper was 'What we do in Vietnam will come back to us.' It was a one world thesis. Well, I go to Vietnam and I see the bullshit going down. Then I come back to the United States and see the exact same thing going on here. I'm at the Hundred Sixteenth MI unit, and as you leave the room, they have nine slots for pictures, eight of them filled: Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Ben Spock, Jerry Rubin. And I'm being sent out to spot and identify these people. This is Phoenix. This is Phoenix," he repeated, then added for emphasis, "This is Phoenix!" ... and it still is used in the United States."


How the Senate hearings came to address Phoenix is unusual. It concerns Francis Reitemeyer, a Seton Hall Divinity School dropout who was drafted and attended officer candidate school in late 1968. Along with forty other air defense artillery officers, Reitemeyer was trained at Fort Holabird for duty as a Phoenix coordinator in Vietnam. He was appalled by the instruction he received from veteran Phoenix advisers. Loath to participate in what he considered a program that targeted civilians for assassination, Reitemeyer approached American Civil Liberties Union lawyer William Zinman in November 1968. On behalf of Reitemeyer, Zinman filed a petition for conscientious objector status in U.S. District Court on February 14, 1969, while the rest of Reitemeyer's class was departing for Vietnam.

In the petition Reitemeyer said that he was told that he would supervise and fund eighteen mercenaries "who would be explicitly directed by him" to "find, capture and/or kill" as many VCI as possible within a given area. The VCI were defined as "any male or female of any age in a position of authority or influence in the village who were politically loyal or simply in agreement with the VC or their objectives." Reitemeyer was told that he would be required to maintain a "kill quota" of fifty bodies per month and that for him to locate VCI, "resort to the most extreme forms of torture was necessary." As an example of what was expected of him, Reitemeyer was told of one VCI suspect being killed by "said mercenaries and thereafter decapitated and dismembered so that the eyes, head, ears and other parts of the decedent's body were displayed on his front lawn as a warning and an inducement to other VC sympathizers, to disclose their identity and turn themselves in to the Advisor and the mercenaries."

Reitemeyer was told that Phoenix "sought to accomplish through capture, intimidation, elimination and assassination what the U.S., up to this time, was unable to accomplish through the ... use of military power." The Vietnamese were characterized in racist terms, so that the cruelties perpetrated upon them might be more easily rationalized. Reitemeyer was told that if captured, he could be tried for war crimes under "precedents established by the Nuremberg Trials as well as ... the Geneva Convention."

On the basis of this account of his Phoenix instruction, Reitemeyer was granted conscientious objector status on July 14, 1969. The Army filed an appeal but, for public relations purposes, withdrew it in October, just as the March Against Death was getting under way.


The press tended to characterize Phoenix as an absurdity. In a February 18, 1970, article in The New York Times, James Sterba said that "the program appears more notorious for inefficiency, corruption and bungling than for terror .... If someone decided to make a movie about Phoenix ... the lead would be more a Gomer Pyle than a John Wayne." Playing on the notion that the Vietnamese, too, were too corrupt and too stupid to be evil, Tom Buckley wrote that the PRU "were quicker to take the money, get drunk, and go off on their own extortion and robbery operations than they were to sweep out into the dangerous boondocks." There was no motive behind the madness. Phoenix was a comedy of errors, dopey disguises, and mistaken identities. There was nothing tragic in their depictions; even the people directing the show were caricatures subject to ridicule. Twenty years later the facts speak for themselves.


What is important to remember is that in order to achieve internal security in South Vietnam, America's war managers had to create and prolong an "emergency" which justified rule by secret decree and the imposition of a military dictatorship. And in order to gain the support of the American public in this venture, it was necessary for America's information managers to disguise the military dictatorship -- which supported itself through corruption and political repression -- as a bastion of Christian and democratic values besieged by demonic Communists.

Table of Contents

Opening Pages

Chapter 1: Infrastructure

Chapter 2: Internal Security

Chapter 3: Covert Action

Chapter 4: Revolutionary Development

Chapter 5: PICs

Chapter 6: Field Police

Chapter 7: Special Branch

Chapter 8: Attack on the VCI

Chapter 9: ICEX

Chapter 10: Action Programs

Chapter 11: PRU

Chapter 12: Tet

Chapter 13: Parallax Views

Chapter 14: Phoenix in Flight

Chapter 15: Modus Vivendi

Chapter 16: Advisers

Chapter 17: Accelerated Pacification

Chapter 18 Transitions

Chapter 19: Psyops

Chapter 20: Reforms

Chapter 21: Decay

Chapter 22: Hearings

Chapter 23: Dissension

Chapter 24: Transgressions

Chapter 25: Da Nang

Chapter 26: Revisions

Chapter 27: Legalities

Chapter 28: Technicalities

Chapter 29: Phoenix in Flames


"No book to date conveys the hideousness of the Vietnam War as thoroughly as this one." -- Publishers Weekly

This book is dedicated to my darling wife, Alice. Special thanks to my father for his editorial assistance; the Fitchburg Arts Council for its financial aid; Adria Henderson, Bill McCoy, Jack Madden, John Kelly, and Nick Proffitt for their comradeship; Sandy Kelson, Larry Hill, and Any McKevitt for their generosity; Dave Coggeshall, Ian Fleming, the Fat Angel, and Robert Graves for inspiration; Lucy Nhiem Hong Nguyen, Lien Johnson, and Pham Thi Ngoc Chan for their efforts on my behalf; Larry Tunison for the night on the town; and all those who contributed to this book.

Douglas Valentine lives with his wife Alice in western Massachusetts. He is the author of The Hotel Tacloban, a widely praised account of life and death in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.


It was well after midnight. Elton Manzione, his wife, Lynn, and I sat at their kitchen table, drinking steaming cups of coffee. Rock 'n' roll music throbbed from the living room. A lean, dark man with large Mediterranean features, Elton was chain-smoking Pall Malls and telling me about his experiences as a twenty-year-old U.S. Navy SEAL in Vietnam in 1964. It was hot and humid that sultry Georgia night, and we were exhausted; but I pressed him for more specific information. "What was your most memorable experience?" I asked.

Elton looked down and with considerable effort, said quietly, "There's one experience I remember very well. It was my last assignment. I remember my last assignment very well.

"They," Elton began, referring to the Navy commander and Special Forces colonel who issued orders to the SEAL team, "called the three of us [Elton, Eddie Swetz, and John Laboon] into the briefing room and sat us down. They said they were having a problem at a tiny village about a quarter of a mile from North Vietnam in the DMZ. They said some choppers and recon planes were taking fire from there. They never really explained why, for example, they just didn't bomb it, which was their usual response, but I got the idea that the village chief was politically connected and that the thing had to be done quietly.

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