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SD Vietnam Stories: Dr. Adrien Hannus

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In the Moment welcomed Dr. Adrien Hannus to tell his story. Hannus is an archeologist and professor at Augustana University. He served in the United States Army as an intel officer. This is an edited version of that conversation. You can listen to it in its entiretyhere.

Lori Walsh:

Let's start with the sole surviving son aspect of this, because you were exempt from Vietnam service, but you didn't know that. Tell me about that.

Adrien Hannus:

Well, that's true. I guess that it demonstrated to some degree the naivety of my mother and I who, whenever I entered the university programs, the draft was in effect, and so the choice that was given to us, especially by the propaganda, the ROTC departments, was that, "Wouldn't you rather be in as an officer and a gentleman than be in as a draftee?" I mean, it seemed like a reasonable enough argument, so I signed up. I was at the Wichita State University campus, so I signed up for the Army ROTC and chose the Military Intelligence Branch as my branch. So in any case, I went through the program there.

Of course, in signing up for the program, there was no doubt what my status was, as far as being a sole surviving son. My father died when I was eight, and they certainly had all those records. My father was from France and came over to set up the food exhibits for the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago and later met my mother at the fair, and later married, and so was a naturalized citizen, and I had to come up with all of that documentation whenever I was entering the military.

In any case, following graduation, I went to law school on a delayed active duty and then that later was canceled, sent over to take in a friendly Southeast Asian vacation package that the government was providing us with. In doing that, I guess that my mother was just overwrought and talked to a couple of people, including, finally, someone, director to one of the US senators from Kansas who said, "Well, you shouldn't be going. You're a sole surviving son." But the answer of the military, of course, was, "Well, no, you volunteered, because you signed the paperwork to get your commission." Well, of course, so it goes back to unraveling this idea that the people who were recruiting for the ROTC cared little or no part at all about whether they were taking away something that you could have been told very simply upfront that there's no reason that you need to serve.

Anyhow, all of that aside, I guess that, then, I went over, ultimately, in July of '67 and came back in July of '68, so I was there for probably the high point of both military presence, and, of course, that was the 1968, February was when the Tet Offensive occurred, and so it was ... When I got to Vietnam, I was reassigned to a program that was part of the broader Phoenix Program that the Central Intelligence Agency was created. I don't know how many of the listeners are familiar with the Phoenix Program, but it was a very broad-based counterinsurgency program.

There was just one dimension of it that I came to be involved with, and it was created at the very time that I was arriving there. They took some 247-plus of us who were same junior officer grade and put us into the various Vietnamese districts scattered across South Vietnam, in the four provinces and then those provinces were further divided into districts. The districts had a military component that was sort of like a home guard, I mean if you were trying to describe it. So we were put out to formulate what were called the District Intelligence Operation Coordinating Center, or the DIOCCs as the acronym. Those were supposed to be instructing the Vietnamese in creating dossiers much like, for instance, our Federal Bureau would do here on individuals who were of interest, especially, in that case, supposedly of either interest as being Viet Cong or North Vietnamese connected cadre. Then we were supposed to build these dossiers and ultimately then target these individuals to be assassinated.

I and all the other people who went out in these roles were given a team of 20 Vietnamese who had been taken out of some of the prisons in Saigon, and our Central Intelligence Agency had taken these folks to Guam and trained them as assassins and then brought them back into the country. Basically, the program that I was connected to was a CIA-based program, and I was supposed to be answerable, as were all of us, to the CIA. At the same time, we were sent for our support to these district compounds that had military advisory teams, which were our first entry into the engagements in Vietnam, creating these advisory teams that had been there present for quite a number of years already.

So these teams were made up of a major, a second or first lieutenant, and three or four enlisted people, US, who were then advising the district chiefs, who were Vietnamese, and the district chiefs' cadre of military people. At the time that I went out, it turned out, coincidentally, that probably no advisory team in the entire country had their junior officers. So we arrive on the scene and the friendly major says, "Well, you're my new infantry junior officer," and I, saying, "No, no, no, you don't understand. I'm the friendly intelligence officer," and, "See, I have this intelligence brass on my uniform," and he's shaking my uniform, saying, "This is the army, and this is an army uniform, and you're here as my friendly junior infantry officer."

So this whole program got off the ground very poorly, let us say. We had no training in the language. We had no training in any part of what gathering data to create dossiers would have to do, so, in fact, my intelligence training was very inadequate. It was just a one-month instructional period at Fort Holabird in Baltimore. I had done a nine-week training in the Infantry School at Fort Benning and then went to intelligence school. And so, we were really not ... Then, to go over and be presented with being part of this program that had no real definition to it was certainly ill-conceived.

I suppose that, especially now that I'm a practicing anthropologist, in deep hindsight, the US was certainly not prepared to be engaged in that particular area of the world. They really didn't understand the culture, and of course, at that time, the conflict was probably an economic and political conflict. The conflicts that we have found ourselves embroiled in more recently have even a more sinister dimension to them, I think, because they're political, economic, and religious. Again, I think we have very poor understanding, as far as the way in which we implement our programs as to what would instruct us in a valuable way as to what we should be doing in some of these parts of the world.

In any case, of course, Vietnam also left a legacy that was an odd legacy, because we who were involved in that whole embroilment came back to a country that was severely divided over the war and over many other issues, but it's certainly a very tumultuous time in the nation's history. Coming back, I think most of us, I know I found myself getting off a plane at Travis Air Force Base, and the first thing that happened to me was, I was just walking from the plane to the hangar where we were going to be processed to get planes to our various hometowns to take a month's leave, and I had a colonel pull me out of line and say he wanted to see the orders that I had allowing me to wear the combat infantry badge, because I was a intelligence officer and I wouldn't be deserving of that badge.

And so I had to go through my paperwork and show him that, I think the fourth day in the country, I was in a very brutal firefight, and I think I logged about 197 of those engagements while I was there, not that anybody was counting, but ... So that was fine, so I got in, got my plane tickets for the next day, and a couple of fellows that I had been in San Francisco with before we left for Vietnam happened be on same flight with me. We felt, "Well, we'll get a hotel and go have a meal in a restaurant that we had eaten in in San Francisco before we left."

We got a cab driver who took us into the downtown area, and we went to the hotel that we had stayed at a year earlier, and one of us went in, I can't remember which one, but anyway, we were told there were no rooms, and so this fellow started driving us from hotel to hotel, and he had said nothing particular. Finally, after about the sixth hotel that told us there were no rooms, he said, "These people are really jiving you. There's nothing going on in San Francisco. It's because you've got uniforms on." He said, "Does anybody have any civilian clothes?"

Well, our civilian clothes that we had had fairly well molded and everything else, but one of the guys said, well, he had some in his bag. So this fellow took us to a service station, and my counterpart put on his civilian clothes, and he only looked like he had been dragged behind a dump truck for about six, or seven, or eight, or 10 blocks. I mean, let's say he was somewhat unkempt. We went back to the original hotel that we had gone to, went in and got us rooms. In other words, so this is four or five hours into this return to the United States, and then, of course, it became more intriguing as it went on.

I guess that that has to be what happened to many, many of the people that came back, and I'm sure that that's why we have all the people suffering from various types of post-traumatic stress syndromes and so on. I think to a large degree, many of the people that I have met over the years who were in Vietnam have chosen not to talk about their experiences at all. I think I've probably spoken about them more than some only because ... I mean, when they described Vietnam as the killing fields over in Southeast Asia, it certainly was no ... That's not in any way an exaggeration. The carnage was unbelievable, and I was one of the people that, for instance, I think I had never seen anyone badly, even injured in more than cutting their finger or something before I showed up over there.

And on the first time out, several days after I got there, we killed several people, and in the ensuing year that I was there, there were people that were dying right beside me, and I was sent out, these assignments that we had to these district intelligence centers included, we were going to gather information for the folks in Washington. One of the things that had been, being charged was that the body counts were not accurate, so they started sending officers out, of which I was one.

So after any of the engagements that happened in our district, I, on a number of occasions, like at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, was dragged out to some of our outposts that had been overrun, and I was supposed to make some determination as to whether there were any bodies, or parts thereof, of the enemy. Went out and did this, which was certainly quite gruesome. Came back, and after the first couple months of turning in these records, we started getting printouts from the center in Saigon that was called CDAC, which is what was amassing the records, and I went, looked at my district, and I thought, "Oh, these don't look like the figures that I remember sending in."

So I went back to my filing cabinet and looked up, well, what did I send in for number of individuals that I counted, physically, parts of, and I noticed that the figures didn't match. The figures that were on this report were greater than the figures I had sent in. Then that set up a pattern, because each month as I was submitting the figures, a month later, I'd get the readback of all the districts in the country, and looking mine up, it continued to be just an exaggeration of what I had turned in.

When I went, finally, to Saigon for the day before I flew back to the United States, one of the fellows I knew who had been stationed at that center in Saigon, and had been doing these data processing exercises, happened to be someone that I ran into. I said, "I'm just curious, honestly, because these figures are supposed to be generating a correct approximation of what number of people are being killed during these engagements that are the enemy," and I said, "My printouts always came back with exaggerated numbers from what I had sent in."

He said, "Well, the thought process, though, that drives this is that if you went out and counted three people, or parts thereof, we know that the enemy, as well as ourselves, try to recover our dead and wounded. So when it went to the next higher headquarters, as your report went forward, they'd say, 'Well, if three, well, we'll make it six.' And then it goes to the next higher headquarters." So, of course, I'm being facetious, but before this was all over, we had probably killed most of the population of the South and half of the population of the North, but the people kept coming.

Of course, then, we have the Tet Offensive, which was sort of the Waterloo of the entire exercise, I guess, because from that point on, at least where I was, our compound was under attack, as most were, and it turned out that when the attack was finally broken, if that had been a fully-coordinated, fully-coordinated attack with all of the different installations in the country being attacked simultaneously, I'm not sure that we would have come out making it through that particular program.

However, there was enough of a time lapse between some of the attacks launched against different bases earlier so that we were under attack for about 14 hours and we finally only were saved by some helicopter gunships that we managed to get to support us from one of the near US bases. It turned out that when we counted the ammunition that we had amongst us in the compound, I think we had about 400 rounds total, which would have been like a millisecond, because the way you went through ammunition, it was ... So it was a pretty grim situation.

Then, from that point on, I actually, in the compound I was in, we never slept at night again. We sort of slept off and on during the day because we kept thinking that there was another attack coming. Of course, again, looking at it in hindsight, realized that it was, the carnage inflicted on the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese was massive, and of course, they were waiting for us to counter-attack. But instead of counter-attacking, it was the perception on the part of our structure that there'd be another attack coming. And so it was one of those situations where it certainly changed the dimension of the engagement from what was happening, although we continued to go out and run operations, and certainly had a lot more firefights before I departed.

Lori Walsh:

Adrien, I'm curious, as an anthropologist knowing what you know and studying what you've studied over the years, how important is it to tell the stories of a time like the Vietnam War? How important is it to record them, pass them down? Is that something people do throughout history?

Adrien Hannus:

I think, as far as in the deep time of prehistory and history, stories really are, because we are ... We're an organism that is wired to be a social organism, and storytelling, I think, is really the essence of the way in which things are passed from generation to generation, lessons learned or not so much learned. Because, of course, what happens with any of these military circumstances, it seems to me that they ran in cycles. So you get, the memory fades about, say, Vietnam, and the next thing we find is that we're wandering into another set of engagements that have many similarities to some of the same problems that underlie the situation that we were involved in in Vietnam.

But Vietnam was probably particularly distinctive, in that the way in which people that were involved in the conflict, like myself, felt whenever we returned to this country, and ... I had no illusions. I was really quite opposed to a military intervention in Vietnam before I ever arrived in Vietnam, and being there only further substantiated my deeper feelings that we were not doing the right thing, in the right place, for the right set of reasons. The reasons that were being presented to the public for our engagement there were, I think, quite distorted. I mean, we were supposedly fostering democracy and stopping communism or something, but probably to a greater degree, it was the interest in the oil that was under the South China Sea that was driving it, or the interest of the military-industrial complex for continuing their adventurism.

But all that aside, it's a situation where if you don't tell the stories, then you really have lost a major dimension of human consciousness which we so critically need. Because human cultural systems are totally based on sets of understandings, as far as within the members of a particular culture. There has to be some kind of a base of, I think, homogeneity to the messages that are being moved across the system so that you get, let's say, for some strange way of saying it, you get all the actors on the same page.

When you have as much divisiveness as we have had, say, flowing forth from Vietnam, and certainly in the current period as well, there are so many different sides to the debates, and the sides become so solidified in their positions that you're not any longer hearing the essence of what we should be talking about, which is trying to hold the structure together. Of course, as the friendly archeologist, I'm looking at a deep time story, and that story is littered with failed systems. There's no doubt about it.

I mean, culture doesn't have any prescribed direction to it. It's a very random process, and you have decision-makers taking you to different places, and you have populations either following or not following those decision-makers. But there are points in time, and it's certainly very eloquently documented in many past cultures of the world, where those systems imploded, and they frequently imploded because of internal bad decision-making rather than external hostilities and so on.

Thinking about that as an anthropologist, I try to, in my lectures and so on, get the students to just think about, well, we aren't moving in a particular set of directions because there's some predetermined blueprint for that. It is a very random process. I mean, that's something that I think most cultural anthropologists would agree with that kind of a perspective, at least many would, and I guess that the evidence is extraordinarily on the side of that argument, that we need to have, rather than responding to things in the very shortest timeframe, we need to have some kind of greater thought process informing us on what all the, what are going to be the consequences of the next set of actions. It's the consequences that just don't seem to be very well thought-out.

Of course, today, as you well know, the news cycle is such that things are happening absolutely with an intensity that they've probably never been reported on previously. It's also the case that the decisions that are being made are being taken, in a lot of cases, very rapidly, with really not sorting out, well, what are, really, the long-term potential implications of this. So the Vietnam stories, I think, are critical. Of course, since we were received so poorly when we returned to this country in so many instances, I think most of the folks that I have talked to over the years who had the same similar, some kind of experiences in Vietnam that I had, that we all had, probably tended to bury a lot of that information, feeling that either no one wanted it or that it was something that it was just an embarrassment that we were involved in it in the first place, but ...

At least it's improved to some degree that people that are now serving in our various expeditions around the world, I hope, are being treated with a little better level of respect, although at the same time, you get comments like, "Thank you for your service," and so on, and that ... I'm always bothered, not by the comment being something that isn't sincerely stated, but I think that it's got a certain level of shallowness to it that really doesn't take us to where we probably really should go in reflecting on what this meant. I would certainly hope that this major piece that Ken Burns has been working on, when it comes out ... Burns has been very good at capturing, in his past pieces, many of the more subtle and nuanced parts of these stories, for, it's either the positive side or the negative side, and in this case, Vietnam, I think, will never be able to be pooled into any kind of a framework where we'll be able to say that this was an admirable thing for us to have done.

I would not expect Burns to be doing anything other than trying to get as tight and as neutral, and of course, there is neutrality, is one of those very slippery qualities, very hard to get your arms around, because we're neutral, but we always are tainting the story with our own biases and so on. Anything that I think about what happened to me has certainly a very strong set of biases built into it, even though I've tried to erase some of that.

Lori Walsh:

The Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary is called The Vietnam War. South Dakota Public Broadcasting Television airs that in September. Between now and then, we're helping you get ready and process not only the story but the events of Vietnam and how they impact our lives and our state today. You can find those stories at Adrien Hannus, I hope that you will come back and talk to us again about Vietnam, maybe during the week of the Ken Burns documentary as we see it, and sort of help us continue to process is.

Adrien Hannus:

I'd enjoy that very much.