Lost Crusade: America’s Secret Cambodian Mercenaries, by Peter Scott, Naval Institute Press, $27.95.
Peter Scott’s tour in Vietnam began after the Tet Offensive, so he served during that twilight period in the war when the Americans were beginning to withdraw and their enemies were catching their breath. He was a Ranger and airborne qualified lieutenant and had hoped for an infantry platoon, but instead was assigned as an adviser to indigenous forces in the western portion of the Mekong Delta.
His assignment took him to the Cambodian border, in the shadows of a mountain–Nui Coto–that had been a Viet Cong stronghold for years. The men Scott would be advising had lived in the caves on that mountain when they were still fighting for the Communists against the South Vietnamese.
Now they were on Scott’s side, and it became his job, according to the theories of counterinsurgency, to earn the trust and respect of these men, to live and fight with them, to become, as much as possible, one of them. Scott, a dedicated soldier, saw his duty and did it. The men he worked with were ethnic Cambodians whose long history of hostile and bloody relations with the Vietnamese added one more layer of difficulty to Scott’s job.
Scott did what he had been sent to do. He gained their trust and respect and became, in his own mind, one of them. He ate their food–including things like boiled ants–took part in their ceremonies, and got drunk with them on rice wine. He fought in small, hot actions with them, sharing their danger and their victories. This was the way counterinsurgency was supposed to work.
When Scott’s orders came sending him back to province headquarters, he was reluctant to leave. And, after he was gone, the men who had been his brothers in arms came to complete and utter grief. The program that he and the other Americans had controlled was taken over by Vietnamese who felt contempt for the ethnic Cambodians. Then, after Scott went home, his old comrades were ground up in the Cambodian holocaust.
The people who were trained and supplied by Americans like Scott to fight against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were, in the end, abandoned and betrayed by the government that had recruited them. The fortunate ones ended up in reeducation camps. Some, eventually, made their way to the United States. Most, however, died–the fortunate ones in combat. Many others were slaughtered in the Cambodian killing fields.
Scott is a gifted writer, as well as a good soldier. He has found in his own experience the material for a fine, honest, enduring book about a part of the Vietnam story that has remained largely untold. His account of how he and the men he was sent to advise came to trust and admire one another is both touching –and incredibly–funny. The experiences of living out in the hamlets, in an alien culture during dangerous times, is powerfully described by Scott.
Scott’s history of the Cambodian catastrophe is taut and clear. His disillusionment is deeply felt without being self-indulgent or sentimental. The man is still a soldier. For this reason, perhaps, Scott never emotionally abandoned the men he was sent out to fight with and with whom he formed the kind of bonds only warriors truly understand. And, long after the war was over and the betrayal had been forgotten, he accomplished what would have seemed impossible to most people–he was reunited with some survivors from those days.