Texas Tech University
4th Triennial Vietnam Symposium
April 11-13, 2002
Citizen Anthropologist/Military Adviser: Doing Ethnographic Fieldwork in Vietnam's Central Highlands during the Second Indochina War
Neil H. Olsen
(formerly Sgt., 4th Infantry Division)
Salt Lake City, Utah
Anthropology as a science is entirely dependent upon field work records made by individuals within living societies. ...[T]he model of the field worker, as a single trained observer living for a specified period within and observing an ongoing community whose members share a single culture, different from his own, and organizing and integrating his observations and records of the behavior of living identified individuals, is basic to anthropological methods.
Margaret Mead (1973:246)
Ethnographic fieldwork between 1964 and 1973 was conducted under conditions of a war that eventually left no place in the highlands untouched. One result was that avenues of inquiry were often blocked, and at times villages and whole ethnic groups became inaccessible. ¼ The limitations of wartime field research and the fragmentary data reported by other investigators have rendered variable the amount of ethnographic information from group to group.
Gerald C. Hickey (1993:xvi)
This paper is not an ethnographic description per se of any of Vietnam's ethnic minorities—also known as montagnards—but rather an account of some of my experiences trying to conduct field work in the Central Highlands of Vietnam during a one-year tour of duty with the United States Army (1967-68). I will detail my various roles: first , as an anthropology student; then as an infantryman in the 4th Infantry Division; and finally as a military adviser to the Vietnamese Regional Forces. Despite severe limitations due to the wartime situation, I was able to integrate knowledge gained from basic field work with the local indigenous people into the military mission of advising and training Regional Forces troops.
When I received my draft notice in late 1966 to report for induction into the U. S. Army, I was an undergraduate student in anthropology at San Fernando Valley State College. I had taken basic theory courses, but had had no opportunity to practice actual field work. Training for the field consisted of reading “classic” ethnographies (Margaret Mead, Edmund Leach, A. L. Kroeber, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, etc.) and interviewing “interesting” friends and family members or informants brought into the classroom. Because my father was a field representative with a major aircraft manufacturer, our family lived in different parts of the U.S. and in Europe for several years at a time. Since high school, I also had been a student volunteer with the curator of anthropology at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. All of these experiences reinforced my serious interest in other cultures and languages.
After being inducted into the U. S. Army on 2 February 1967, I reported for basic training to Ft. Ord, California, then Ft. Polk, Louisiana, for advanced individual training (AIT), and finally Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for armored personnel carrier (APC) driver training. I was stationed in Vietnam from August 1967 until August 1968.
Since my MOS (military occupation specialty) was 11B4O (combat infantry), I was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division, based at Camp Enari (“Dragon Mountain”) near Pleiku. I joined Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, part of the 1st Brigade, which was patrolling the western portion of Pleiku province along the Cambodian border. During the time I was with that unit, we were based at Le Thanh (“Jackson Hole”). Our mission was “to screen and guard the strategic border west of Pleiku” and assess bombing damage from Arc Light B-52 air strikes.
In my role as an infantryman, it was difficult to even think of attempting anthropological field work. There was little or no chance for contact with the people because our area of operation (AO) was sparsely inhabited jungle or forest and had hostile military units.
My very first contact with the montagnards was with the Jarai people in Pleiku province. I had seen highlanders in military camps and from convoy trucks, but I had never talked to any of them because of language barriers and the military situation. One day, my squad was on a patrol; it was raining and cold—the highlands are over a thousand feet high. On a rest break, we went into this one area that had a protective covering. We were wet, miserable, hungry, and tired. Some of the tribespeople came over and brought flaming embers and started a small fire. We sat and sort of talked as much as we could. I, at that point, had been in-country about one month. So I did not speak Jarai, or any of the tribal dialects, or have any knowledge of them. My Vietnamese was ghastly, but that did not matter because they did not speak Vietnamese or French or English. They only spoke Jarai—a language I had never heard of. The gentleman we met was the village chief; later, he brought his brother over to meet us. They brought us some food to eat; we traded cigarettes. They weren't scared of us; it didn't matter too much to them, we were just somebody visiting (Olsen 1970:39).
This “first contact” experience and several others like it made me realize that although I was in the middle of the highlands, surrounded by several groups of ethnic minorities, I was not going to be able to do anything “anthropological” in my current military role.
Regional Forces Adviser
Several months later, I was transferred to a Combined Mobile Improvement Team (CMIT), one of the mobile advisory teams being recruited from personnel in the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division. After the team was assembled at Camp Enari, we drove in a convoy down Highway 19 to Camp Radcliffe, base camp of the 1st Cavalry Division, at An Khe, Binh Dinh province, where the training site was located. The five-day training course included weapons training on ARVN equipment, instruction in basic strategy and tactics, logistics, and civil operations. It was strictly “on-the-job” training and did not include language instruction or cultural orientation (Clarke 1988:510; Olsen 2001:2).
Upon completion of our training, the CMIT was assigned to MACV Advisory Team 38 in Lam Dong, the southernmost province in the Central Highlands (II Corps). Once established in Bao Loc, the capital, our team alternated between conducting classes at the provincial training center there and going out in the field to live with the Regional Forces units we were training.
According to the Handbook for U.S. Forces in Vietnam, which was distributed to new personnel in the country,
The Regional Forces (RF) are a nationally administered military force assigned to and under the operational control of the sector commander (province chief). The basic combat unit of the RF is the light infantry company, though in certain provinces there are also a number of RF mechanized platoon, intelligence platoons and squads, and river patrol companies (U. S. Department of Defense, 1966:4-5).
The RF/PF Handbook for Advisors detailed the potential contribution of these units to the war effort:
The Regional and Popular Forces have one of the greatest untapped potentials of any armed South Vietnamese units for destroying local VC units, caches, and infrastructure. Since the RF/PF are locally recruited, they operate at the rice-roots level. They know which families have information concerning VC movement, meetings, supplies, and future operations. In most cases, they have grown up in their own operational area. Therefore, they are familiar with all trails, streams, canals, hills, forests, fences, and other natural and man-made features (U.S. MACV, 1967:2).
When our team was training in the field, we lived on the “local economy” which meant we ate, slept, and patrolled with—and occasionally, fought along side—the Regional Forces troops. Most of the units we trained consisted of montagnard conscripts. As an adviser, I had the opportunity of living near and visiting in highlander villages. I made a concerted effort to learn Koho, the language of the majority of montagnards in the province. Learning the language was an important factor in my military role; although I wasn't very fluent in Koho, I could nevertheless carry on a decent conversation, explain a concept to the troops, and obtain information that would otherwise have been unavailable to a non-speaker.
During my first month in Lam Dong, I realized that what I was observing about the highlander troops could be useful in our training and advising. All of our advisory training had been based on the assumption that we would be working with ethnic Vietnamese, not people (or troops) with a different linguistic, cultural, and social background. Although almost all of the highland people we encountered were serving in the Regional Forces or living in relocated settlements (“strategic hamlets”), these people knew a lot about the surrounding countryside and its environment. Most of the men were hunters and were familiar with the traditional crossbows as well as rifles and shot guns. How do we make the connection between stringing a crossbow and zeroing the sight on a rifle as equivalent skills?
I also realized that the method of instruction had to be adjusted because of cultural and linguistic realities. We taught with static materials, blackboards, and talked about abstract concepts rather than showing how something should be done. So I adjusted my classes to include more participation and hands-on experience.
Classes were usually conducted outside (except during the monsoon season), and sitting in the heat, even under a canopy, made the environment less than conducive for learning. Another problem was that many of the troops were from tribes that spoke different languages. Most men understood at least some Vietnamese, but instruction had to be translated from English into Vietnamese, and then into Koho and often into Rhade (another minority language spoken by troops from Darlac and Quang Duc provinces).
Troops will show for training in zories (which seem to be the national footwear) and we question them about their boots, and receive an answer to the effect that he didn't feel like wearing them! That is, if he has been issued a pair of boots. “Boots” are black canvas, high-top tennis shoes, by the way. We have a definite problem in keeping the troops interest span for more than thirty minutes because usually there are two interpreters: one to translate English into Vietnamese, and another to translate Vietnamese into Koho. Once we had four languages used in instruction because a majority of the company understood only Rhade, a Montagnard language from the next province north. It is thus a tedious process even to get across the simplest concept. I had a particularly hard time convincing the men that feces can spread disease and germs. There is no word for germs in Vietnamese, much less in any of the tribal languages. Also, the concept of flies carrying disease is utterly alien. Sickness is caused by evil spirits (I'm not kidding!!!!) which can be cured by a Chinese-type “bac-si”, would you believe witch doctor. We try (Olsen letter, 26 January 1968).
During a class session on map-reading and directing artillery fire, I found that most of the men could not read—letters or numbers—in any language, so we had to work with those troops that were literate. The same problem arose with tuning a radio to a particular frequency; I developed a technique using sound and pitch. We also had to adjust the type of weapons used in training. The large, cumbersome M-1 rifle would bowl some of the smaller troops right over. So we taught them how to brace themselves before firing.
It was also during this process that it dawned on me that I was doing ethnographic field work. I had bridged the gap between the pristine theoretical concept of what I thought a field work experience should be to an acceptance of a very pragmatic and opportunistic situation. In my spare time, I was buying blankets and backbaskets in the Bao Loc market, tape recording word lists and texts, and taking lots and lots of photographs.
In 1970, I wrote the following in a student anthropology publication:
The Montagnards are proud of their culture. They realize that it is waning, and they wanted me to get everything that I learned written down correctly. In 1951, Norman Lewis, an English journalist, traveled throughout the central highlands. At that time, he was told by anthropologists in Ban Me Thuot, one of the highland capitals, that the Montagnards would be culturally extinct with the next decade. Presently, the culture is only functioning in a few isolated areas and is slowly disappearing. Even if the Montagnards can survive the present conflict intact as an ethnic entity, they will probably be forcibly assimilated. They realize and are thus very receptive to anyone who has an interest in their language or culture. Some aspects of the culture are already well documented, but much work remains to be done. Especially important is studying their culture as it changes and thus, perhaps, also being able to help ease the transition into the modern world (Olsen: 40).
Despite the fact that most of Lam Dong province was under NLF/VC control—a situation that severely limited troop movement and combat initiative, some progress was made in training and advisory efforts with Regional Force companies composed mostly of montagnard troops. Although conducted under wartime conditions, I was able to collect ethnographic and linguistic information on the Koho people that was useful in our training and advising effort with the Regional Forces.
After returning to civilian life, I continued my undergraduate studies in anthropology at San Fernando Valley State College, receiving a B.A. degree in 1971. After that, I pursued graduate studies in linguistics and Vietnamese at the University of Hawaii at Manoa from 1973 until 1977. Subsequently, I earned an M.A. degree in linguistics from the University of Utah in 1994. I returned to Vietnam in 1991, 1992, and 1999. Unfortunately, I found that conducting field work among the highland peoples is still very difficult. Since 1967, I have been trying to properly document what I have learned and continue to learn about the language and culture of the Koho people.
Clarke, Jeffery J. Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965-1973. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U. S. Army, 1988.
Grandson, Virginia M. “The Hearts and Minds of the People.” M. A. thesis. Columbia U., .
Hickey, Gerald Cannon. Shattered World: Adaptation and Survival among Vietnam's Highland Peoples during the Vietnam War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993
Lewis, Norman. A Dragon Apparent. Oxford: Alden Press, 1951.
Mead, Margaret. “The Art and Technology of Field Work,” in Raoul Naroll and Ronald Cohen, eds., A Handbook of Method in Cultural Anthropology, pp. 246-265 (Ch. 14). Reprint of the 1970 edition. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1973
Olsen, Neil H. Unpublished Vietnam field notes. 1967-68.
--- Letter to Juanita Olsen. 26 January 1968.
--- Basic K¸ho: grammar and conversation guide. Mimeo. Bao-Loc: MACV Advisory Team 38, 1968.
--- “Montagnards: The People in Between.” Assay: San Fernando Valley State College Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 5 (1970), pp. 37-41. Based on a taped interview with the author by the Assay editors.
--- “Matrilineal Societies in Southeast Asia: Examples from Highland Vietnam,” in David J. Banks, ed., Changing Identities in Modern Southeast Asia, pp. 249-255. The Hague, Paris: Mouton Publishers, 1976.
--- “The Future of K¸ho: A Mon-Khmer Language of Viêt Nam,” in Nicholas Ostler and Blair Rudes , eds., Endangered Languages and Literacy, pp. 43-46. Proceedings of the 4th Foundation for Endangered Languages Conference. Bath, England: The Foundation for Endangered Languages, 2000.
--- “Advisers to the Regional Forces: Experiences of a Combined Mobile Improvement Team (CMIT) in Lam Dong Province, 1967-68.” Paper presented at the 2001 Vietnam Symposium “The Advisory Effort and the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam”. April 20-21. Texas Tech University, Lubbock.
U. S. Department of the Army. Minority groups in the Republic of Vietnam. Ethnographic Study Series. DA Pamphlet 550-105. Washington, D.C.: The American University, Center for Research in Social Systems, Cultural Information Analysis Center, 1966.
U. S. Army, Fourth Infantry Division, Public Information Office. English-Jarai Phrase Book. Mimeo. 16 p. n.d.
U. S. Army, Fourth Infantry Division, Public Information Office. The Fighting Fourth in Vietnam: The Third Call to Arms. n.d. [1968(?)]
U. S. Army, Fourth Infantry Division, Public Information Office. Traditions, Customs, and Taboos of the Fighting Fourth's Montagnard Neighbors...with picture tips. Illustrated by A. W. Higgins. 24 p. n.d.
U. S. Department of Defense, Armed Forces Information and Education. Handbook for U. S. Forces in Vietnam. DoD GEN 25 (=DA Pam 360-521). U. S. Government Printing Office, 1966.
U. S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam. RF/PF Handbook for Advisors. APO 96309: U. S. Army Regional Force and Popular Force Advisory Group. 92 p. 1 June 1967.
 Montagnard is the French word for “highlander”; other common terms are “ethnic minorities” or “tribespeople”. Some Americans refer to them as ‘yards—a contraction of the mispronunciation of montagnard: “mountain-yard”.
 Now California State University at Northridge.
 For an overview of the 1st Brigade's activities, see U.S. Army, Fourth Infantry Division, Public Information Office, The Fighting Fourth in Vietnam: The Third Call to Arms, n.d., p. 2.
 Much later in my tour of duty I discovered that there were materials on the Jarai language and culture issued by the 4th Infantry Division's Public Information Office for soldiers to use with the populace (a English-Jarai phrase book and a cultural sensitivity guide to the montagnards).
 In 1968, Lam Dong province had a total estimated population of 65,232 (of whom, 40% were montagnards), and an area of 3,139 square miles (Grandison: 36-38). All references to provinces in this paper indicate pre-1976 jurisdictions as they existed during the Republic of Vietnam.
 See chapters 10 (pp. 388-435) and 11 (pp.436-472) in U. S. Dept. of the Army, Minority Groups in the Republic of Vietnam, DA Pamphlet 550-105, 1966, for detailed ethnographic background on the Koho and Ma peoples.
 See the map “The Present Security Situation,” in Grandison (p. 50), and the chapter on “The Political-Military Strategy of the Viet Cong in Lam Dong Province” (pp. 54-72).
 See my publications (Olsen 1968, 1970, 1976, and 2000).