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American Free-Fire Zones

From the Vietnam Jungle to the American Ghetto

By James T. Phillips
10 May 2001

What Americans now need is a quick education about free-fire zones. Combat veterans, the soldiers of the United States who engaged enemies in dark jungles, are now being asked to explain why and how tens of thousands of innocents died in these zones during the Vietnam War.

One prominent explanation has been that the rules of engagement in a Vietnamese free-fire zone were ambiguous, therefore easily misunderstood by scared young boys: "kill 'em all" was standard operating procedure during many missions. The enemy was the Other, and they all looked alike when dressed in black pajamas. An angry young man carrying a weapon could not be distinguished from a 9 month-old baby when night fell and guns blazed. Most Americans have not experienced war as fought by the young American soldiers of Vietnam. The grainy black & white film footage presented on television, the colorful movies that explode off movie screens and the thousands of books written about the war in Vietnam are a poor substitute when compared to the memories of the traumatized veterans.

Veterans claim that only they can understand war. They believe that the vast majority of Americans will never be able to comment intelligently about what occurred, or question the actions of soldiers who killed civilians in the free-fire zones of wartime Vietnam. The veterans are probably correct. There are some citizens in the United States, though, who are now (and have been) living in situations similar to those experienced by soldiers and civilians in Vietnamese free-fire zones. The most intense homegrown free-fire zones are located in the poor, black ghettoes of decaying American cities. Other, less dangerous zones exist wherever militarized police forces are able to sniff out illegal drug use. As in Vietnam, these zones sometimes consist of individual homes filled with innocents.

The exclusive lessons learned by the combat veterans of Vietnam can, in some small way, be better understood by American citizens if they travel to these easily accessible areas of conflict and illegal activity. Like the communities in Vietnam, these locations are filled with an enemy Other. American ghettoes and drug dens are populated by domestic enemies whose color or personal habits have engendered an authoritarian rage that now offers up daily incidents that can be compared to the brutal actions of soldiers in wartime free-fire zones.

In America, many African-Americans suffer from the "driving while black" syndrome when entering or leaving the ghetto, or if caught in areas designated as off-limits. This is akin to what was suffered by Vietnamese civilians during the war: the "living while wearing black" syndrome.

" It was routine for Vietcong to dress as peasants and blend into them for camouflage. Americans never knew when a 'civilian' they came across might pull a gun and kill them. They'd seen it happen to friends. And if Americans therefore killed more civilians than they otherwise would have, that guilt lies with the Vietcong," writes conservative columnist Mona Charen. Ms. Charen could have been commenting about how American ghetto dwellers are being perceived by American police forces.

When a young African-American is gunned down on the streets of an American free-fire zone, the police always resort to the same defense used by soldiers in Vietnam: "it was dark, I was scared, the Other was wielding something that looked like a weapon, I was following orders". If the dead victims are innocent, a blue wall of silence is built around the facts, memories fade and questions are deflected. Entire communities are accused of not controlling their own youngsters. The guilt lies with the victim.

Americans who want to learn more about free-fire zones in Vietnam have to listen to the veterans of that war. Americans who want advanced learning can go to the free-fire zones located nearby and observe the actions of other uniformed personnel engaged in combating the forces of evil. And, a higher education can be had if one is courageous enough to enter the dark hallways where drug addicts are killing themselves with needles before the police get the opportunity to do it with guns.

Or, considering the danger that could erupt at any time in ghettoes and drug haunts, Americans can sit comfortably at home in front of their television and tune in the program "COPS".© The News Insider 2001James T. Phillips is a freelance journalist who has reported on the conflicts in Iraq, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Currently, Phillips edits the web publication

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