The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam, by Douglas Valentine, was first published in 1990 and reprinted in 2000. In his introduction in 2000, Valentine described Phoenix: “This book is about terror and its role in political warfare. It will show how, as successive American governments sink deeper and deeper into the vortex of covert operations—ostensibly to combat terrorism and Communist insurgencies—the American people gradually lose touch with the democratic ideals that once defined their national self-concept. This book asks what happens when Phoenix comes home to roost.”
John Prados, author of The President’s Secret Wars, wrote in 2000 that this was “the definitive account of the Phoenix program, the US attempt to destroy the Viet Cong through torture and summary executions.” Listed by Counterpunch magazine among the 100 best works of non-fiction ever written, Valentine’s book tells the tale of how the United States government handed the running of the secret war against the whole population of South Vietnam—what the US military conflated as “the Vietcong infrastructure”—to the Central Intelligence Agency’s Phoenix program from 1968 to 1972.
On 10 June last, Open Road Media launched its Forbidden Bookshelf series, curated by Mark Crispin Miller, author of the Bush Dyslexicon. Among the five books chosen to launch the series was Valentine’s The Phoenix Program. On its website, Open Road Media writes that “Forbidden Bookshelf titles fill in the blanks of America’s repressed history by resurrecting books that focused on issues and events that are too often left in the dark.”
Mark Crispin Miller explains the rationale behind the creation of Forbidden Bookshelf: “Despite our First Amendment—or because of it—countless crucial books have been adroitly ‘disappeared’ through methods far less crude than outright censorship, from threats of litigation to press black-outs and/or charges of ‘conspiracy theory.’ Such tactics have repeatedly erased those books that we most need to read, because of their important truths about the powers that be; and so our purpose is to bring those books to life again.”
In his recent review of Phoenix’s e-publication on 10 June, John Prados again reiterated the importance of Valentine’s book and, implicitly, the value of giving it digital access: “I first became acquainted with Valentine’s Phoenix program book when a publisher asked me to take a look at the draft manuscript [in the 1980s]. I saw immediately that it was a major advance in our knowledge.” Prados goes on to describe the CIA’s efforts to suppress the book: “There have been few books that zeroed in directly on this subject, and of them, Douglas Valentine’s The Phoenix Program is the only book based on extensive interviews with Phoenix operatives. Indeed, the CIA, which furnished much of the staff for the program, tried to suppress this book when it was written in the 1980s.”
Valentine’s new introduction is fueled by an increased sense of urgency to inform about the massive encroachment of the Phoenix template in essential areas of American life. He writes: “Take heed, reader: Phoenix has come to define modern American warfare, as well as its internal ‘homeland security’ apparatus. Indeed, it is with the Phoenix program that we find the genesis of the para-militarization of American police forces, in their role as adjuncts to military and political security forces engaged in population control and suppression of dissent.”
Indeed, The Phoenix Program is essential reading for anyone trying to understand what in the world is going on with this endless “war on terror.” It excavates the origins of the incremental consolidation of the CIA’s ideology and tactics beyond its institutional boundaries. Phoenix’s scope in controlling the government of South Vietnam, as Valentine describes it in this latest introduction for Forbidden Bookshelf, was sweeping: “As conceived by the CIA in 1967, the Phoenix program coordinated all military, police and intelligence agencies in South Vietnam, in pursuit of civilian members of the VCI [Vietcong]. To this end the CIA created the Phoenix program’s Intelligence and Operations Coordinating Centers (IOCCs) at region, province and district levels. A particular IOCC would amass data on suspects in its area of operations, often through the CIA’s brutal interrogation centers, and mount targeted operations against them in enemy controlled areas through the CIA’s counter-terror teams, or other US Special Operations forces.”
It takes no conspiratorial talent to read, “the Phoenix program [in Vietnam] coordinated all military, police and intelligence agencies,” and relate this process to the reorganization of the security apparatus in Ukraine, where the CIA reportedly established a “training center” in the vicinity of Lvov, occupied an off-limits floor in the Ministry of the Interior in Kiev, and where CIA Director Brennan visited as secretly as possible just prior to the launching of Kiev’s campaign against “terrorists” in the Dombass and Lugansk regions, which refused to accept the illegitimacy of the junta’s authority and asked for self-determination. One of the horrors of this “anti-terror” operation was the burning of the Trade Union Building in Odessa on 2 May, which caused a largely unreported number of unarmed civilian deaths and casualties under terrifying conditions. A similar act of terror occurred in Marioupol, shortly after the shock in Odessa. As the Phoenix program specialized in “selective” acts of mass terror for the purpose of intimidation, I asked Valentine if he saw the Phoenix model being applied to Ukraine.
He replied: “I don’t know much about what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine, but the most obvious feature of Phoenix is the labeling of separatists as ‘terrorists’ and probably a lot of CIA-authored, secret emergency laws which enable all the other features—administrative detention, kidnapping, torture, assassination—to take place. It’s no coincidence that a rebel leader was targeted just a few hours after Petro [President Petro Peroshenko] signed a deal with the CIA. The minibus belonging to Donetsk rebel leader Denis Pushilin has been blown up in the restive eastern Ukrainian city, killing two of his entourage and wounding two, the rebel government says. The CIA having signed this ‘military agreement’ with Petro signals the imminent reorganization of Ukraine’s security forces on the Phoenix model.”
So, that’s the measured but informed answer to the question of what does the US covert intervention and supervision of the US-friendly junta in Ukraine have to do with the CIA’s Phoenix program in Vietnam.
Everything, I suspect, from Valentine’s answer—and from reading the impressive research in his book, which convincingly argues that the template for compelling unwilling or resisting nations and populations to submit to the will of the US was developed and codified during the Vietnam War.
Take a look at how the US has been acting in the world without regard to international law. One of the advantages that Phoenix offered in conducting a “secret war” of terror in Vietnam was that it could go where the US military could not without being accused of “war crimes,” “genocide,” or “crimes against humanity.” The increasingly terrifying illegitimate character of US foreign policy has been on display since 2001 in a vertiginously accelerated pace of interventions, most of which have treated the statutes of the UN Charter, Geneva and Hague Conventions, and international law in general, as so much disposable toilet paper.
These arbitrary interventions are being foisted upon an ever-widening range of unfortunate countries, targeted for US makeover. Cheerleaders for this Nietzschean uber-force celebrate it gleefully and sadistically as “creative chaos”—the emergence of a muscular US, idealized as “humanitarian” in its liberal version, strutting its can-do stuff without seemingly sparing a thought for the consequences.
Indeed, chaos has been this power’s main largesse. It has been paid for in epic human suffering—just as it was in Vietnam, with three million Vietnamese dead, the country left in ruins, its countryside poisoned by napalm and agent-orange, its minefields continuing to kill for generations to come. The US left Vietnam to itself; no war reparations. To add further injuries to the “scrappy little country” that had dared defy the empire and win, punitive economic sanctions were applied.
No mechanism of international law put the US leadership on trial for its crimes in Vietnam. Had it dared, Phoenix would have provided the cover of “plausible deniability”—sorry, judge, we had no idea what was going in the back lots of Langley.
Immunity for US war crime continues, partially because the Phoenix model of undercover, psy-op warfare lays siege to the very foundation in the architecture of international law, which the US so laboriously constructed after WW II, when it needed to appear a model of bourgeois liberal democracy in contrast to the purported “totalitarianism” of the Soviet Union.
Three countries today—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—victims of America’s wars for “democratization” now lie in ruin, not so much “failed states” as “caused-to-be-failed-states,” deliberately or casually laid waste, mauled, enfiefed, and castrated politically, looted economically, and devastated socially. One of these, Iraq, appears to be in the process of falling into the hands of a more extreme extremist group than al- Qaeda. This makes Bush’s “War on Terror”—in which enemy/terrorist shape-shifters began to proliferate, dizzily morphing into a blizzard of bewildering acronyms, monstrous creatures of Phoenix’ devilish psy-ops—and its ardent continuation by the present administration, more aptly classifiable as a “War for the Benefit of Terror.” Ukraine has now been placed on this fateful foreign-policy assembly line of creative destruction, which will churn it out eventually as a manufactured national basket case.
Take a look at the political and paramilitary cohort that enforces Kiev’s current regime—elements culled from the most reactionary and hitherto marginalized political groups in Europe. There’s dismay and outrage—openly at least in rebel Ukraine—at the recruiting, funding, training, or legitimizing by the American government of fascist parties such as Svoboda and Right Sektor; by the covert use of Neo-Nazi activists in manufacturing the civil disorder that led to the overthrow of Ukraine’s elected president, Yanukovich; by behind-the-scenes maneuvering to place openly fascist leaders in key junta positions (especially at the Interior Ministry and its subordinate police, intelligence, and security branches); by the Kiev’s government’s campaign of terror in the South-East, carried out by a reluctant Ukrainian army, unwilling to turn its guns on a population it has sworn to defend; by the killing zeal of Ukraine’s more reliable newly-formed National Guard, the most realistic definition for which is as Nazi-style shock troops; by the hiring of mercenaries from American military contractors (said to amount to four hundred initially), such as Academi, an offspring of Iraq-infamous private military contractor, Blackwater; by the addition to these fighting forces of US “advisors,” a euphemism for CIA and Special Forces experts in “counter-insurgency”—and even criminals, reportedly recruited from prisons and by imported jihadists from abroad.
Such a rogue rabble army was assembled by Phoenix in Vietnam and was accountable only to the structure of authority planned and put in place by the CIA. The rabble secret army, consisting of Laotian Montagnards, criminals, hybrid, synthetic, and traditional religious groups (prominent among these the privileged Vietnamese and French Catholics), Special Forces, and colonial adventurers of all sorts—was paid for by the CIA’s secret fund collected from trafficking in drugs. On this topic, I highly recommend reading Valentine’s novel, TDY, based on real events of how the US military attempted to document and expose the involvement of the CIA in the drug trade—and was thwarted. Hard to believe now, but the US traditional military highly resented the banditry of CIA’s operations and its arrogant interference in the conduct of the war. TDY is a thrilling read, in the tradition of Graham Greene’s novels in colonial settings—like Greene’s magisterial Vietnam/CIA novel, The Quiet American, which Valentine clearly admires.
If the current tactics of US foreign policy—“plausible deniability, “selective terror,” organizing the media into virtual “political committees” for spreading propaganda, averting the scrutiny of international law, for example—can be dated to their origins in Phoenix, the ancient program’s ongoing shaping of the US domestic security apparatus is chilling. In the 2000 edition of Phoenix, Valentine concluded his introduction by wondering when Phoenix would come home to roost. In the current introduction he no longer wonders; he confirms, “The Phoenix has landed.”
He further remarks: “The ultimate fusion of bureaucracy and psychological warfare, Phoenix has been applied as the model for America’s Homeland ‘internal’ Security apparatus, as well as its global war on terror. And that’s not a theory. In his strategy paper ‘Countering Global Insurgency’ published in Small Wars Journal in September-November 2004, Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, called for a ‘global Phoenix program.’ Kilcullen would become the government’s top ‘counter-insurgency’ advisor.”
What this means, Valentine intends to underscore, is that the structures and methods used to “pacify” the Vietnamese population—methods of surveillance and terror—are being planned for Americans.
It is worth facing, in Valentine’s own words, at length, the hard reality of what Phoenix did to “them” that it shows every sign of planning to do to “us”:
“To facilitate this sweeping method of population control [in South Vietnam], every citizen’s biographical data was fed into a computer at the Phoenix Directorate in Saigon. The Phoenix Directorate was managed by a senior CIA officer, whose primary job was to funnel information on top-ranking VCI members to the CIA station, where attempts were made to turn these people into penetration agents who could report on the enemy’s strategies, plans, and allies in North Vietnam.
“Any South Vietnamese citizen could become a VCI suspect based on the word of an anonymous informant. The suspect was then arrested, indefinitely detained in a CIA interrogation center . . . and tortured until he or she (in some cases children as young as twelve) confessed, informed on others, died, or was brought before a military tribunal for disposition.”
Valentine, then, issues a warning: “Let me make this perfectly clear: America is on the brink of having its democratic institutions similarly corrupted, and for the same insidious purpose: the political control of its citizens through terror, on behalf of rich military-industrial-political elite who rule our society.”
I asked Valentine how the Phoenix’s incremental (his word) creep since the 1970s managed to alter and subvert America’s domestic and foreign-policy institutions and their legal traditions.
He responded, “By incremental, I mean a series of trumped-up ‘emergencies’ that allow Congress to pass ever more restrictive laws for security purposes, so masses of people can adjust, for example, to being under total surveillance. Another good example is the administrative detention laws that have been passed and are used against terrorists—in time they’ll be used for disturbing the public order. All this already happened during the Civil War, but it doesn’t look like we’ll ever have another one of those, so the ruling class is putting these laws and practices—use of drones in the US—in place incrementally, as part of its overall psychological warfare campaign so people can adjust. This happens in sync with the income gap getting wider and the struggle for resources getting greater. It basically started with Phoenix and the all-volunteer army of 1973.”
Central to controlling a population is the denial of the right to due process. This happened to Americans in January 2013, when President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act. It provides for indefinite detention of Americans. Thus, as Valentine observes, “This Phoenix-based network [of security] target[s] you, under the guise of protecting you from terrorism. And that is why, more than ever, you need to understand what Phoenix is really all about.”
I think that Valentine has made himself “perfectly clear” about the dangers that threaten our increasingly anemic democracy, and its impending coma, unless we do something—the first prerequisite of which is becoming informed. In this regard, reading Valentine’s meticulously researched book (and his impeccable prose, crossed by flashes of withering humor and wry irony—the man is a novelist and poet, after all—a “wordsmith”) is far more salutary and empowering than reading the news in the corporate media or bothering to keep up with the chatter prognosticating the four-year extravaganza ritual of controlled presidential elections.
I asked Mark Crispin Miller why Valentine’s book was selected as one the first five books to be e-published for Forbidden Shelf, and his reply is the best tribute to an author who spent fifteen years researching a harrowing topic solely for the purpose of being of use to his country and its people in their hour of need (more critical now than twenty-four years ago) for the lifeblood of truthful information, without which no democracy can live.
This is was what Mark Crispin Miller replied: “The Phoenix Program is a masterpiece—among the best books ever written on the war in Vietnam, and, therefore, an indispensable corrective to the various revisionary lies that have been used to obfuscate that genocidal horror since the Reagan years. No one who reads this book with both eyes open can go on saying, or believing, that that war was ‘a noble cause,’ or a ‘tragedy’ for the United States.
“Surely it’s because The Phoenix Program shatters those delusions that it barely entered public consciousness, and soon slipped out of print—and that’s why we included it among the first five titles in Forbidden Bookshelf.”
Luciana Bohne is an Intrepid Report Associate Editor. She is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and taught at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.