Wiped out by a long day, Moshe Dayan described the obstacles to sleeping on a base in the Vietnamese jungle.
“I spread a double layer of mosquito repellent on me,” he wrote in his Vietnam diary on August 22, 1966. “There are two elements to the problem of sleeping, mosquitos and artillery. The guns within the base’s perimeter shake the land and the walls with every firing (mainly the 175mm guns). Besides that, you have to be awake to distinguish between ‘outgoing’ shells (aimed outside the base) and ‘incoming’ shells (fired by the Vietcong) that explode inside the base.”
After five years as agriculture minister, the country’s most renowned chief of staff in history was treading through his political career. He joined Rafi, the party of his patron David Ben-Gurion, in 1965. The experiment failed. The party that purported to replace the ruling party won just 10 seats.
He went from being agriculture minister to a marginal opposition member. Dayan desperately needed a new experience to help him achieve the acme of his ambitions, the defense portfolio.
A year later, he received an offer he couldn’t refuse – an invitation from the Maariv newspaper to fly to South Vietnam to be embedded with American troops on the ground as a reporter. Dayan was criticized from every possible direction for deciding to go to the war-torn country. His party comrades considered it a misstep.
MK Shmuel Mikonis of the Communist Maki party attacked the trip alleging that the presence of such a well known Israeli personality in the middle of a controversial war would undermine Israel’s neutrality.
Foreign Minister Abba Evan discounted this claim but did express wonder at what he saw as a hasty step.
He asked why Dayan didn’t consult with the government before departing. The Knesset held a stormy debate on the question of his trip to Vietnam, but the criticism didn’t deter Dayan from going.
Americanization of the war
Dayan landed in Saigon, the South Vietnam capital, on July 25. After dozens of conversations and briefings, festive meals and off-the-record meetings, Dayan tired of words and maps and demanded to go out into the field.
The next day, Dayan received three press cards – American, South Vietnamese and Israeli, got equipped with proper fatigues and had a not particularly impressive military briefing from a sergeant who did not hesitate to stress every time he got a question “that he is just a PR man.”
Dayan got his wish by the end of this long day, of going out to see the war for himself.
Dayan could not even keep his opinion to himself on the first maritime patrol that he joined. He told the soldiers and officers he met that the beefed up American patrols on the river delta would not prevent enemy forces from smuggling weapons and ammunition.
Without stopping any boat, conducting a serious search and thus shutting down regional trade, the impression created among the residents is that the Vietcong are so strong there is a need for backup troops equipped with the best weaponry to defeat them. He suggested instead, according to a diary entry of July 27, to significantly reduce American forces “and in certain places to have sea and air backup, which can be called in over the wireless.”
After the marine patrol, which included sleeping on aircraft carriers, Dayan was initially assigned to a company in the First Marine Division and later to the Green Berets, America’s elite anti-guerilla unit.
Despite his advanced age of 51, his American handlers knew that the one-eyed journalist had seen a battle or two in his lifetime. He didn’t fear drawing near to the front lines that were constantly moving between the enemy and American forces, to lie in ambush, to cross rivers or to get dirty in mud and sweat.
He moved like a worm in hot dust, one American general said. That does not mean that the Vietnamese mud didn’t leave a deep impression on him.
“I have seen mud in my life; we were knee deep in it the early years of Nahalal, but I have never seen mud like this,” he wrote on August 13, adding that the mud “is mainly ‘thanks’ to the tanks, which churn up the ground soaking from the ceaseless monsoon rains.”
He encountered American power and arrogance everywhere he looked: the aircraft carrier battling wooden boats, tanks attacking wooden huts and helicopters pursuing two carelessly armed guerillas to their deaths. Dayan gained an impression from his conversations with soldiers and officers that they were in general liberal, polite and pleasant. “As individuals, they are ‘gold,’” he wrote on July 29. “However, everything has its limit, the contempt of the United States’ power. In this regard, even in conversation, they do not show any flexibility.”
What he saw convinced him that the war in Vietnam is an image war in which the North Vietnamese were paying a heavy price by daring to defy the superpower.
“My impression is that they are not fighting at the moment against infiltration of the south, not a guerilla war and not even a war on Ho Chi Minh (the commander of the North Vietnamese forces) but rather an American war against the entire world,” he wrote on July 29. “They are demonstrating to all (including England, France and the USSR) their power and the adherence to their decision, so that all will know that when the Americans join a war there is no stopping them.”
However, Dayan did not only see and document the military experience and the battles. In contrast to many of the soldiers and officers he encountered, he insisted on trying to understand how the divided country would look at the end of the military campaign, assuming it would end in the Americans’ favor.
He interviewed soldiers who dealt with civilian development, who helped with farming, building infrastructure for schools and the health system. He heard from them the common assessment in the American army that decades would be needed until the residents would be able to establish for themselves a “local administration that would take over the work with its own hands,” he wrote on August 3.
Dayan did not spare criticism from the senior officers.
He refused to accept the claim by General Westmoreland that the military goal was to help the Vietnamese people but that the American goal was to destroy the Viet Cong.
“It is neither assistance to the Vietnamese or anything else but the United States’ war against the Viet Cong. It is not important how they got there, even if it was out of a desire to help the Vietnamese, to maintain the Geneva Accords or because of another reason,” he wrote of his impression. “They will not stop the war now, even if the benefit of Vietnam (and who will determine that?) demands it.”
It was not a pacifistic outburst. Dayan supported the right of an imperial superpower like the United States to shoot “every enemy sniper with an artillery barrage.” Still, he deeply opposed what he called “the Americanization of peace. He wrote on August 4:
“The doctors, the teachers, the administration, the desire (stemming from positive impulses) to teach the children here baseball, to create the Scouts. All this is unfounded. Vietnam, like any country, can accept assistance from abroad, but not patronage. Progress has to be organic and independent, through consulting and help but not dictation and training.”
Insights to take home
Toward the end of his stay in Vietnam, Dayan was convinced that the war – which would certainly last much longer – was lost.
He figured that the American army had the power to destroy the Vietcong, but that it could never eradicate support and admiration for North Vietnam’s struggle for independence.
Dayan’s Vietnamese adventure gave new life to one of the most prevalent clichés that Israel’s founders kept raising: The need of the State of Israel to meet its challenges alone.