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As guerilla strength continues to grow in South Vietnam, the government and its American advisors have embarked on a population regroupment plan which will supplement military measures against the Communist-led Viet Cong. Operation Sunrise, by creating well-fortified and concentrated peasant communities, is an attempt to isolate these Communist guerillas from their sources of local support. But its prospects are not good.
Inspiration for the program came from a similar plan that the British used successfully to put down a Communist guerilla revolt in Malaya. But the Vietnamese situation is fundamentally different from the Malayan. In Malaya the guerillas were Chinese and therefore could not effectively appeal for support on nationalist grounds. Moreover, the British offered immediate compensation to evicted peasants. As Malaya is a peninsula, the war was in effect quarantined from foreign assistance. And the British still had to spend ten difficult years crushing the revolt.
Already Operation Sunrise is bogging down in peasant opposition. Twelve hundred families have been forcibly moved into these strategic villages, but in a majority of cases, men of fighting age have escaped to the forests before they could be rounded up into the fortified settlements. "They have gone to cut wood," say the old men who stayed behind. Meanwhile, back at the camps, there is widespread discontent in the long communal barracks which house the families. The peasants will not be compensated for their destroyed homes until they "demonstrate loyalty" to the government. And in the countryside the guerillas continue to attract support by their successes.
Operations such as "Sunrise" fail because of a misunderstanding of the nature of guerilla warfare. Although the American soldiers and military advisors sent to Vietnam have all been specially schooled in guerilla theory, they do not see that guerilla warfare is more than skill. Guerillas require the active support of a sizable portion of the area they occupy. Indeed, the Communists consider guerilla warfare nothing less than a means of social revolution. It is the same Che Guevara, after all, whose guerilla handbook American soldiers now study, who described effective guerillas as ready "to die, not to defend an ideal, but to convert it into reality."
Operation Sunrise was a response to a situation in which conventional military action seemed to be getting nowhere. America already has stationed in South Vietnam some four thousand military personnel. And three thousand more are scheduled to arrive by August. U.S. military advisers in the Operation Sunrise region alone have increased from a dozen at the beginning of the year to more than 1400 now. The State Department claims these military personnel are present in non-combat capacity. But U.S. soldiers are taking part in tactical operations, airlifting supplies and combat equipment to strategic places; and U.S. helicopters have been transporting South Vietnamese troops into the jungle and sometimes pursuing guerilla attackers.
There seems little doubt that American involvement must reach the shooting stage. American soldiers have been given orders to shoot if they are shot at--and they will be, if they continue to cover South Vietnamese action. If the ninety U.S. airmen killed on an aircrash on their way to Vietnam are included, over a hundred Americans have already lost their lives by non-direct military participation. And after a few atrocity stories in the American press,--complete with photographs of American boys mutilated by Communist guerillas--this country will be in a fighting mood. Unless America wants to take full responsibility for suppressing a rebellion which although Communist led, becomes more widespread by the day, it will have to reevaluate both the effectiveness and goals of its present position. The status quo is intolerable. As long as the South Vietnamese must endure an autocratic government which they have had no part in choosing, the terror of civil war, and the presence of thousands of foreign (American) troops, they will become increasingly susceptible to guerilla propaganda, which offers a future of economic progress and certainly no less political freedom than they presently enjoy.
If there is a common note in all the political and military wrangling in Vietnam, it is a desire for eventual unification of the country. There is no reason why the possibilities for negotiating a unified, neutral Vietnam cannot at least be explored. The alternative is continuing chaos and dangerous instability.
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