In 1969, I served as commander of a Mobile Advisory Team (MAT-36) in the Mekong Delta. My training had included Infantry OCS at Ft. Benning, MATA (Military Advisor School) the JFK/SWC at Ft. Bragg, jump school at Benning and Vietnamese Language Training (DLI at Ft. Bliss). Army tests had revealed my facility for languages and I was soon fluent, able to operate alone with my Vietnamese units, allowing two-man teams from my five man unit to work with other elements. I lived with my soldiers, spoke with them, drank with them, trained them and operated with them
I had spent almost 5 of my first 25 years in Europe as a student. I became fluent in Modern Greek and have a minor in German. When there, I traveled extensively. This is all to say that I began my work as an advisor with an uncommon appreciation for the languages, cultures and traditions of other people. That exposure was however limited largely to Western culture.
I quickly gained the trust of my allies during intense attacks early in my tour and I had a very close working relationship and friendship with my Counterpart, Lt Nguyen Van Dai. Late one afternoon, he accompanied me on a trip to a distant US Signal base for supplies. My base could only be reached by our boat or chopper; I kept a jeep parked by the Binh Dinh Bridge, several klicks away. My base was in what was called a “VC-contested area”, meaning the enemy and sympathizers were always around us, much I imagine like operating in villages in Iraq and Afghanistan today
As we drove back to the bridge, there was heavy civilian traffic in both directions….foot traffic, mopeds, cars, busses, trucks and animals. One moped in particular seemed bent on following us, driving ahead, falling behind, cutting in and out of traffic. At some point, the driver (there was also a passenger) cut in front of us from the right, braked and went down. It seemed quite deliberate but there were no injuries and the damage was limited to a broken tail light and dented fender.
Armed, Dai and I exited and I allowed him to speak to the driver. I listened intently. The man began wailing about his loss, demanding that he be compensated for his damage. A small crowd began to gather, slowly increasing in size. It was a hot day like most, we had work waiting for us back home, ambush patrols to plan and accompany and I was losing patience with this man’s ploy for a payday.
I spoke for the first time and I spoke quite clearly. I told him that his conduct was not honorable, that he refused to take responsibility for his own actions which had led to the accident; I told him that I would treat him as someone that must be cared for, like a child or a woman. I offered him a few hundred piasters and advised to take it and leave. There was then silence…and I heard Dai switch off the safety on his M-16. I did too.
The man accepted the bills and resentfully left. I drove away, now even more alert. We reached the Binh Dinh Bridge without incident and we talked it on the way back in my Boston whaler. “Face” is an Asian concept involving having or losing respect; it is quite important to these farmers and my actions had caused this man to “lose face.” On that day, I was less successful in my efforts to “win hearts and minds”, largely because I put my own concerns above local customs. All of my cultural knowledge and respect, my language skills, my strong intentions to support my allies did not prevent me from doing damage that day, however small.
Such western impatience can undermine a great deal of good work. As advisors, we must always strive to be on the right side of respectful conduct if we hope to be successful in our service. If a salesman’s mantra is ABC – Always Be Closing then an advisors mantra must be ABL.
Always Be Learning.