A Forgotten Chapter of Vietnam: How an Indigenous Tribe Won the Admiration of the Green Berets—and Lost Everything Else

Unsung battles.
Nov. 27 2013 8:12 AM

The Snake-Eaters and the Yards

The Vietnamese tribesmen who fought alongside American Special Forces won the Green Berets’ admiration—and lost everything else.

(Continued from Page 2)

If the 1960s found Montagnard life disrupted by combat, the 1970s were disastrous for the tribes. The Special Forces turned the command of remaining Montagnard mobile strike force groups over to the Vietnamese in 1970, and the transition did not go well, with the traditional conflicts between the two groups souring their collaboration. After the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam in 1972 and 1973, the Montagnard situation worsened further. Tribesmen who had been moved from their traditional lands for security reasons returned to find their former homelands occupied by Vietnamese refugees. More than 150,000 Montagnards became refugees themselves, as fighting between the North and South intensified in the central highlands.

Some American Special Forces personnel continued their involvement with the tribes in civilian capacities after the military had officially withdrawn. Jacques Leslie of the LA Times and Philip A. McCombs of the Washington Post both interviewed Ed Sprague, a former Special Forces master sergeant. Sprague returned to work with USAID in Phu Bon Province, spending his days driving around back roads in a car with Montagnard assistants, visiting tribesmen in his capacity as USAID adviser for economic development.  

The Sprague stories were, in some respects, humorous accounts of a seemingly eccentric man—McCombs described Sprague as he “lounges in his tribal dressing gown” in his “spacious, modern compound on a jungle hilltop surrounded by watchful Montagnard guards.”

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But Sprague’s commitment, if unique in degree, was a vestige of the long-standing Special Forces affection for the tribes. Amid the chaos of the 1975 fall of South Vietnam, Sprague took 2,000 tribesmen to the beach at Nha Trang, where the group hoped for an American evacuation. Help was not forthcoming.

Despite the isolated efforts of some former Green Berets and of the government ministers appointed to help ethnic minorities, the Montagnards suffered in postwar Vietnam. By the time the hostilities between North and South Vietnam ceased, according to historian John Fredriksen, around 200,000 Montagnards had been killed and 85 percent of their villages leveled. Known to have fought with the Americans, the Yards entered a new phase of repression under the Communists. Many of their remaining leaders were thrown in prison or escaped across the border to Cambodia. There, the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and killed those it could find.

In 2001, according to Human Rights Watch, about 1 million highlanders lived in four Vietnamese provinces, along with 3 million ethnic Vietnamese. The Vietnamese raise coffee in state-owned plantations on former Montagnard land. Many Montagnards have now converted to Christianity—a fact that increases their vulnerability as a minority in a Communist country.

Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, some 3,000 Montagnards with combat records have emigrated to the United States. The tribesmen chose to settle in a cluster in North Carolina, in part because of the strong Special Forces presence near Fort Bragg. The Special Forces Association, a veterans’ group, has assisted with the process of immigration, circulating images of refugees who claimed to be veterans, in hopes of finding former Green Berets who could verify their stories.

* * *

Special Forces veterans seem to see the abandonment of the tribes as part and parcel of the larger American amnesia surrounding Vietnam. As with the related Hmong people of Laos, many of whom fought with the CIA in the “Secret War” and then petitioned to emigrate to the United States, the Montagnards’ plight has become politicized, their abandonment seen as analogous to the general neglect American service members felt upon returning from the war. Discussions of the tribes’ plight on pro-military message boards focus on the Montagnards’ loyalty, Christianity, and sense of duty, drawing a contrast between the worthy Yard immigrants and an ungrateful American public. The fight to help Montagnard refugees enter the U.S. has created strange bedfellows, as the Special Forces have advocated for tribesmen alongside organizations like Human Rights Watch.

To the extent that most Americans know of the Montagnards, it is likely through film. The wide gap in style and sentiment between the jingoistic Wayne vehicle The Green Berets (1968) and Francis Ford Coppola’s meditative, almost nihilistic Apocalypse Now (1979) is often cited as symbolic of the way American public opinion turned on the war in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There are Montagnards in both movies. The tribesmen in Green Berets are simple, childlike victims whose appearance on screen is accompanied by a variation on the Oriental riff. And to a cynical eye, the highland group that surrounds Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now is but a living manifestation of the soldier’s madness. Their loyalty to Kurtz, their superstitions, and their traditions of animal sacrifice are all decoration for the former Green Beret’s ultimate descent into “the horror.”

But a look at the movie through Montagnard eyes challenges this interpretation. In a 2002 interview on the Degar Foundation’s website with leader Kok Ksor, who has lived in the United States since seeking asylum after he led a Montagnard protest against the Communist government in 2001, Ksor speaks of Apocalypse Now as emblematic of the relationship between the Special Forces and the Montagnard.

Ksor began working for the Americans in 1960 when he signed on as a messenger carrying word between Americans and his tribe. Later, he ran messages to exiled FULRO leaders living in Cambodia. Watching Apocalypse Now with the interviewer, Ksor began to weep. The alliance with the Special Forces is one that he still holds dear, even as he mourns everything else that has happened to his people.

Telling of Viet Cong atrocities, he adds that he felt his people had been “used” by the American government, which “allowed that the Viet Cong attack our villages ... and promised that at the end of the war they would help us attain independence.” To this bitter assessment, Ksor adds a firm confirmation:

We have been the fiercest allies of the Americans. But not of the Generals or of the Politicians: of the soldiers, of the non-commissioned officers. For us it was people who had come to help us, had come to die of [sic] a country that was not our own.
Yes, the loyalty of the tribe around Colonel Kurtz in the film is real.

As Ksor acknowledges, the Special Forces couldn’t set American policy or dictate Vietnamese attitudes toward the tribes, so their good intentions had limitations. No matter how hard some Green Berets wished for and worked for better lives for the Montagnards, the end result of the war, for the tribes, was disaster.

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