The Viet-Minh 4

Little could be heard in fact along most of the reaches of water above the tremendous chirpings of frogs, which as we turned into narrow channels plopped into the water ahead of us in their hundreds. Twisting and turning through a maze of waterways we went on. The mosquitoes were very troublesome, biting through the three pairs of stockings I always wore, to get at their favourite area, the ankles, as well as feeding greedily on the neck, wrists and forehead. We passed clumps of water palms where fireflies were carrying on an extraordinary display, weaving a scroll-work through the fronds like the fancy terminals of the signatures of the Victorian era. In such a clump the sampan was stopped, with the engine switched off, while the soldiers listened to heavy mortar and machine-gun fire, which sounded, allowing for the water, as if it might be two or three miles away. A few hundred yards further on we stopped again. A dark shape, silhouetted by moonlight, lolled in the water ahead. Someone on our boat switched on a small searchlight and, as this happened, large aquatic birds flustered up with a great commotion from some low bushes among the reeds. The dark object was a sampan lying low in the water. We approached it slowly with levelled tommy-guns, but it was empty and partially waterlogged. Further down still, we ran into another obstacle; a log across the water. But this was the equivalent of a roadblock, and after an exchange of passwords with unseen guards on the bank it was pulled back far enough for us to pass through.
Soon after, a plane passed low overhead. It dropped a Very light a long way from us, so that the flickering reflection hardly imposed itself on the moonlight. The machine-gun and mortar fire started again. Dinh said in English ‘exciting’. This was one of the three English adjectives he occasionally produced; the others being ‘captivating’ – used to describe any aspect of life in Viet-Minh territory – and ‘regrettable’ – reserved for the French and all their doings.
We stopped again when we overtook a sampan full of peasants. They were ordered ashore, where one of the soldiers, who it appeared was an officer, harangued them in angry tones. Dinh said that the brother officer had criticised them for failing to obey the curfew order; summary criticism being the lowest grade of disciplinary measures. And what came next? I asked. Arrest followed by public criticism, Dinh said. Although nobody wanted to be too hard on first offenders. I mentioned the old, Vietnamese simple correction of thirty strokes with the rattan cane, and Dinh said that naturally anyone would prefer that, as public criticism was so much less dignified. There had never been any stigma in a beating, because the offence was purged on the spot, but a public criticism took a lot of wearing down. People tended to say, there goes so- and-so who was publicly criticised. Psychological methods, besides being less barbarous, were more effective. A typical offence in the case of which such a punishment might be awarded, said Dinh, would be the failure, after warning, to build a proper outside latrine for the use of one’s family.
We landed and went in single file up a lane through the palms. The moon was sinking now and the sound of the distant firing had ceased. In Indo-China the two sides seem to have reached an informal agreement to restrict their nocturnal combats to the early part of the night. Even the relentless chirping of the frogs had quietened. A few yards from the water’s edge we came to huts made of branches and palm leaves. It was the local military headquarters.
Dinh explained that the unit, which had been newly established here, was chiefly occupied with observation of enemy movements, but that all male members were fully trained for combatant duties to which they could be transferred in emergency. It was one of a number of similar posts which formed an outside screen, interlinked by radio and sending back information to the army’s headquarters in the centre of the plaine des joncs. Observers were sent out from here with portable signals equip¬ment with which they kept a twenty-four-hourly observation of troop movements in a defined territory. This information was passed on regularly to the army signals centre where it was all pieced together and collated with the other information received, so that in theory a complete track was kept of the movement of every French patrol or operational group from the moment it left its barracks until it returned. A great deal of stress was laid upon the necessity for absolutely accurate information regarding numerical strengths and types of weapons carried. In this way army headquarters was able to decide whether the enemy was to be attacked or avoided. This particular post, Dinh said, owing to its perfect situation, was invulnerable, except from the air. It could only be ap¬proached by small, lightly armed craft which could be blown up in the narrow waterways by mines manufactured specially for this purpose. It was screened from the air by the method of building the administrative huts into the palms, close to the water’s edge. Reconnaissance planes were never fired at, however low they flew. At a later stage – quite soon now, Dinh thought – these peripheral posts would throw out offshoots, further in the direction of French occupied territory, while they them¬selves would be transformed into battalion headquarters, with a purely operational function.
There was a second purpose which the post fulfilled. This was an educational and propaganda one. It was their job, for which they were allotted a certain time, to stamp out illiteracy in their area. From total literacy in the old pre-colonial days, when every man’s ambition had been for his son to be able to compete in the civil service examinations, the literate minority of the population had dropped as low as twenty per cent. The people would now be educated, said Dinh, and in the interior of Viet-Minh territory where peaceful conditions prevailed it had been declared (with a touch of the old authoritarian sternness) a punishable offence to be unable to read and write. In frontier areas such as this it was left to public opinion. To be illiterate was unpatriotic, the Viet-Minh had told the peasants. And when they could read the Viet-Minh would of course supply their intellectual food.

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