Dateline: Vietnam

Cai Lay Tragedy Degenerates Into Polemics

Published in American Report, April 15, 1974

By John Spragens, Jr.

SAIGON — Nowhere in the world, except perhaps the Middle East, are the real agonies of people turned into the stuff of propaganda more rapidly than in Viet Nam. A moment of terror has only that moment’s life, followed instantly by the tedium of charge and counter-charge, the placing of blame on “the other side.”

Saigon propaganda poster about Cai Lay
Saigon propaganda poster denounces “communist slaughter” of school children

Nothing in recent Vietnamese life illustrates the point more painfully than last month’s shelling of a school in Cai Lay, a village in the province of My Tho. A mortar shell hit the building at 2:55 in the afternoon, on March 9, killing 32 of the children, wounding 50 others and a teacher.

Though it was a moment for tears, ink flowed more freely. Two weeks later the battle of the rhetoricians still continued. The dead bodies of the children might well have been forgotten, except that Saigon was still distributing photos.

Saigon had advantages over the Provisional Revolutionary Government in exploiting the incident. Cai Lay itself is under Republic of Viet Nam (RVN) control, so that an RVN attack seemed pointless. Apart from that logic, there was tactical control. The PRG turned that into an occasion for skepticism, however, asserting that RVN police, troops and militia immediately cut off access to the school, “preventing parents of the students and neighbors from bringing help to the wounded, keeping journalists from entering the grounds.”

That last point has at least some confirmation. One paper, Dai Dan Toc, told of a photographer who was riding a bus near the school when the explosion was heard. He scrambled from the bus and headed for the area but was blocked and threatened with arrest before he could take a single photo. Foreign journalists find the story credible.

The RVN forces also took the wounded to a military instead of a civilian hospital, the PRG charged, and kept them in isolation. Each side accuses the other of maneuvering to prevent immediate inquiry by the full International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS).

According to Saigon’s own account, its protest was filed with the ICCS team in neighboring Dinh Tuong on the day of the shelling — and two full days before notification was sent to the PRG.

The following day a six-man ICCS team — three Iranians and three Indonesians — arrived at the school. The Poles and Hungarians refused to join the investigation, adhering — as they have in the past — to a requirement of the Paris Agreement that the ICCS can act only at the invitation of both the RVN and the PRG.

The absence of the communist delegations, plus the 15-to-20-hour interval between the explosion and the arrival of the investigators, takes some of the proof power from the prize exhibit allegedly discovered by the ICCS team at the site: the tail fins of a Chinese-made mortar shell of a calibre (82 mm) used only by PRG forces.

At a special dress briefing by Saigon officials, photographs were distributed showing the ICCS members “discovering” the tail fin from a mortar round resting in a small depression in the ground. This, supposedly, was the hole caused by the mortar blast — and reporters were asked to tell the world that the discovery photo proved that the students were killed by the mortar once attached to that fin.

The investigation by now has become an exercise in forensics — it’s hard to imagine how a team could find evidence to prove anything this late in the game. Both sides, however, continue to demand investigations, each on its own terms.

Saigon wants the inquiry limited to the school grounds, whereas the PRG wants it to include the surrounding area. The PRG hopes for evidence to show that ARVN forces were engaged in shelling the area. (Some Cai Lay residents have said — without offering concrete evidence — that they believe it was a short round from ARVN artillery that hit the school.) The RVN believe the real PRG aim in pushing a wide-area inquiry has to do with its recent territorial advances in the area — they would like an ICCS witness to their gains.

The death of the children, the waste of war — these are irrelevant.

Copyright John Spragens, Jr.

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