American Free-Fire Zones
From the Vietnam Jungle
to the American Ghetto
By James T.
10 May 2001
What Americans now need is a quick education
about free-fire zones. Combat veterans, the soldiers of the
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 claim that only they can understand
war. They believe that the vast majority of Americans will
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
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
these zones sometimes consist of individual homes filled
The exclusive lessons learned by the combat
veterans of Vietnam can, in some small way, be better understood
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
authoritarian rage that now offers up daily incidents that
can be compared to the brutal actions of soldiers in wartime
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.
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.
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
enter the dark hallways where drug addicts are killing
themselves with needles before the police get the opportunity
it with guns.
Or, considering the danger that could erupt
at any time in ghettoes and drug haunts, Americans can sit
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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