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The Legend of the Phoenix
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It would seem the CIA has gone back into their archives, blown the dust off the Phoenix Program, and put it into play again as the “Drone War.” The similarities with the Drone War are readily evident to anyone old enough to know of the Phoenix Program.

For those who aren’t old enough or who have forgotten, the Phoenix Program is usually referred to as an assassination program and was the subject of investigation by the Senate’s “Church Committee.” Indisputably, thousands of South Vietnamese civilians were killed under this CIA directed program. According to Marine Lt. Col. W. R. Corson, a Combined Action Platoon Commander in the Vietnam War: “Almost immediately in the wake of the first operations of the Phoenix hit squads in I Corps, the rapport in the CAP hamlets between the Marines, the PFs, and the people, as well as the intelligence flow dried up. Upon examination we found out that the people and the PFs were scared shitless that the Phoenix hoodlums would come and take them away, or kill them. The Phoenix tactics reeked of the same kind of terrorism practiced by Ngo Dinh Nhu’s thugs in the Delta region during the early 60s, and I knew it had to be stopped . . . . Bob sympathized and agreed with me about the counter-productive aspect of the Phoenix “Murder Incorporated” approach to ferreting out communist sympathizers . . . . I added that, as far as I was concerned, every member of the Phoenix mob was a greater enemy to the Americans in Vietnam than any member of the VC or NVA . . . . No matter the CIA metaphysical intransigence. The plain fact is that the Phoenix program was a dirty stain on American’s reputation.”

Phoenix was far more than a mere assassination program , however. It was a Counter-Insurgency, COIN, program, using the tactic of counter-terrorism, including assassination, against the insurgent’s so-called infrastructure. This was the Vietnamese civilian population in which the insurgent, the Viet Cong guerilla, operated and from some of whom they drew their support. To the U.S., these civilians were the Viet Cong Infrastructure, the VCI. And the VCI was the target to be terrorized by any means necessary in the hope that they would turn against the Viet Cong.

The VCI would have included the families, close and extended kinship groups, of alleged active Viet Cong combatants, fellow villagers, and other Vietnamese civilians who were not actively opposed to the Viet Cong. Some of this “support” was voluntary and some coerced. As the Phoenix Program went on, with its assassinations, torture practices, and “disappearances,” more support became voluntary as Vietnamese peasants turned against the U.S. and the South Vietnamese government as a result of the program. An error in identification of a victim was irrelevant to those in control of the program, the CIA, as it still served the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, which was the true purpose of the program.

For the Viet Cong, this was a classic example of achieving the guerilla’s goal of having a civilian population turn against a government by a government’s own harsh over-reaction to the guerilla threat. Today, a guerilla and the people whom they are amongst are deemed “terrorists” if they find themselves on the wrong side of a domestic conflict that the U.S. has taken a side in, such as Yemen. As we saw in Libya, and see in Syria, these guerillas can become instant U.S. allies who must be supported, if, or when, the U.S. makes policy changes. But unless those U.S. policy changes occur, these groups remain part of the global terrorist network of “associated forces” with al Qaeda, in the eyes of CIA and military officials, and targeted with drones. From the relatively large number of civilian victims of drone attacks as claimed by residents of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the political party, Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI), this Drone Program has all the hallmarks of the Phoenix Program.

One doesn’t need to speculate that some officials in government look upon the Phoenix Program positively. In the rankest form of historical revisionism, or dissembling, the Rand Corporation published a paper, “The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency,” in 2009. There, it states that “assassination was never part of Phoenix policy.” But the Rand Paper does make clear what this so-called infrastructure was suspected of which led to so many of their deaths. It states: “The VCI was the instrument through which the PRP disseminated propaganda and established front associations of farmers, women, and students and other sectors of the population to weaken family and other social institutions and establish the party as society’s new focal point. Additionally, these organizations served operational purposes by holding demonstrations and disrupting government tax collection and military conscription efforts. They also functioned as revolutionary “transmission belts” by spreading antigovernment propaganda and rumors.”

Immediately, the question comes to mind: how were “farmers, women, and students and other sectors of the population” who were supporters of the Viet Cong distinguished from other civilians who were merely unhappy with an oppressive South Vietnamese government? But the conclusion drawn by Rand’s authors was: “As the United States and its allies shift their focus to Afghanistan and weigh counterinsurgency alternatives for that country, decisionmakers would be wise to consider how Phoenix-style approaches might serve to pry open Taliban and Al-Qaeda black boxes.” Since that was published in 2009, it would appear that “decisionmakers” not only considered this but have actually put it into practice. But unlike with the original Phoenix Program in which civilians were also captured and imprisoned; the Drone Program only allows for them to be killed.

The military seemed to be coming out in favor of Phoenix-type programs as well, having forgotten that the Phoenix Program wasn’t a success. The U.S. Army War College published a similar proposal to Rand’s in 2005, “From the Ashes of the Phoenix: Lessons for Contemporary Counterinsurgency Operations.” That this seems to have now been accepted was on display at the McCain Center in a fairly one-sided debate on drones recently. A retired Major General, in discussing this “continuous state of war” we’re now in, as he phrased it, euphemistically stated of some individuals that “they must go away.” So perhaps it shouldn’t be suggested that any Yemeni, Pakistani, Somali, American, etc., should be killed by drones in a Phoenix type program, but only that “they must go away,” taking their family and friends with them seemingly. What could George Carlin have done with “they must go away?”

Without more transparency by the government, no other conclusion can be drawn that the reason we see so many civilians killed by drones, while denying it as John Brennan did, is because we are targeting civilians as the “infrastructure.” While Anwar al-Awlaki was declared to be an “operational leader,” with the extremely elastic category of “infrastructure” as used in Vietnam, his “operational” activity may have only been “spreading antigovernment propaganda and rumors,” as the Rand Corporation put it, which led to his extrajudicial execution. How many other American citizens might that reach?


Todd E. Pierce retired as a Major in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps in November 2012. He was assigned as Defense Counsel in the Office of Chief Defense Counsel, Office of Military Commissions from 2008-2012. He served on both active and reserve duty during his career including as a Senior NCO in the Gulf War in 1990-1991.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Drone War, Vietnam War 
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  1. Excellent points Maj. Pierce: as in all aspects of this war, we have forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. Funny, how easily everyone has accepted this shift from “population-centric” COIN to targeted killing by drone as the new way of war. No one talks about the population anymore. Shows what a sham that was. It’s really about “whatever works” anyway.

  2. We lost in Vietnam – we will lose more surely in the Mideast. Instead of defending the corrupt, breakaway entity of South Vietnam, we are defending the racist, artificial nation of Israel. Instead of facing 20 million hostiles, we are facing a billion. Once again, our “enemy” is considered to be primitive, our “ally” sophisticated. The only difference is that this time, both we and our ally will use nuclear weapons to try to prevent the inevitable.

  3. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    The drone war was designed for psychopaths, let’s face it. You would have to be a psycho, to sit in front of a computer all day and kill civilians in real time. And of course to send instructions from the field (?) to the assassins. My blog-post “The war against women” in October last year included this opinion: “… there are strict rules for the ordering of drone strikes; there is nothing casual about them. The targets are carefully identified and certified, and their assassinations justified and specified. Only then are their executions passed into the steady hands of the drone-pilots in military bases inside the USA. There is nothing casual about the exercise.”

  4. Lorraine says:

    Excellent analysis. History repeats itself… but now on steroids, thanks to advanced technology, the killing is so much swifter and neater. Drones are more evil, more inhumane and sadly more efficient. They may be here to stay, but we must protest them until our last breath.

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