The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog that PA&E might be considered a progenitor of the likes of Blackwater. It begins to look as if Blackwater was worse—a great deal worse—than PA&E was, or even thought it might have been.

Don’t get me wrong: an open-ended “cost + 10″ contract was  an invitation to steal, and many in the company DID. It was a situation rife for manipulation, and the firm abounded with manipulators. In my experience, for that company in that time, one could re-write the old adage: ”there’s a fresh apple in any barrel of rotten ones”: I did in fact meet and work with a few Americans over there who knew their stuff, were willing  to work hard, and who earned their keep. Most of those I met were a motley collection of drunks, lounge-lizards and misfits. On the other hand, I was never close to any of the top brass in PA&E: I expect there was a lot of hanky-panky going on I never saw.

But it begins to look as if Blackwater in Iraq has taken the “cost + 10″ concept to new depths. Allegations by two former employees, in sworn affidavits, accuse the company’s former CEO, Erik Prince, of arranging prostitutes (including children), deliberate murder, gun-running, cover-ups, lying and other horrors. Prince appears to be badly misnamed and up to his ears in complicity, and comes across as a far-right wing-nut out to kill as many “rag-heads” as he could. The Company has been denied permission to continue in Iraq, although it is pretty clear some of its operatives are still there.

I wonder how long it will be before some real charges are brought against this malevolent “sumbitch”, Prince. Sadly, Blackwater (now re-named Xe) remains is Iraq, and no doubt has its eyes on Afghanistan.

There’s more information here:



and many other places on the web.


Here is my next letter from Vietnam, written 41 years ago. I was struck, transcribing it, that it could be re-written today substituting “Iraq” for Vietnam, and it would be as true now as it was then.

AM – Monday, 26 February 1968

Dear Everyone~

The Long Binh bus failed to appear this morning, so after waiting until nearly 9 [since first-light, around 5], I walked back to the Loc Bldg and am writing this letter. I’ve been here just one month tomorrow, and can certainly claim no great accomplishment as yet. That’s the rule here, though, not the exception.

With painful slowness, Saigon is returning to something of a pre-Tet normalcy. Final figures on PA&E’s losses amounted to only 7 dead Americans, 8 Koreans and a few Vietnamese. Earlier reports of as many as 20-30 Americans killed resulted from interruptions of communications—a number of people were unable to report in any way, and were listed as MIA for a while. Open-market food & other prices have suddenly dropped back to something near 15-20% above pre-Tet, rather than the 100-200% that prevailed a couple of days ago. The dusk-to-dawn curfew affects only the bars, for the most part, and allows most other businesses to carry on pretty much as before.

The complexity of the American position here is beginning to come to the surface. President Johnson cannot be blamed rightfully for getting us involved; depending on one’s individual view, he may or may not be correct in his handling of affairs here. But on one point at least he can be strongly and rightfully criticized: for not telling us at home what’s going on. The “credibility gap” is wider than most people imagine. [I had received clippings from the States].

And regardless of who is to blame for it, Vietnam at the present time represents a colossal failure for America. We have not “won the hearts and minds” of the people here—our heavy-handed civilian population—the ugly Americans—have assured that. Neither have we succeeded in arousing any significant degree of nationalism—certainly nothing to compare with NVN & the VC. We have not brought a strong or popular central government, and needless to say we have not won the war by any means. But what are some of the reasons for these failures?

For one thing, we are still a “military assistance command”, largely devoted to providing support, materiel and training for ARVN. Remember, though, that it’s been 15 years or more (since Korea) that the commanders here saw any actual combat—and most of them did just that—they SAW it; they watched it, but didn’t participate in it. Even those combat veterans from Korea here now saw action in very different terrain, in very different circumstances, and, most significantly, in an offensive war (I use the term in its tactical sense!).

Vietnam represents the first time we’ve been on the defensive, and our military machinery is just not geared for it. It is demoralizing to the troops, particularly, to know where the enemy is and what he’s doing and how to stop him, but have to wait for the enemy to “make contact” before anything can be done. With some exceptions, any offensive against the VC must be cleared with VN authorities before it can proceed—and by the time clearance is obtained (and often it is denied) the VC have vanished—usually leaving behind some destructive memento for any unwary person to fall into.

The news today says that U Thant assures Pres. J. that if we stop bombing in the North (one of the areas where we have a fairly free hand), Hanoi will begin to negotiate in “a few days”. Johnson has replied—with some logic one has to admit, if not actual justification—that he must have first some assurance the NV will not use the “few days” to re-trench. Communist treachery is well known; North Vietnamese treachery is equally documented (if you want to distinguish between the two), most recently by the Tet debacle amidst their own truce declaration. Under these circumstances, both sides feel obliged to carry on “business as usual” until some other approach can be found.

There is a lot of sentiment here that our best approach at this point should be to seize the offensive and obliterate NVN, even if this requires the use of “Nukes”. Our reluctance to do this is frequently interpreted here as a) weakness b) softness on Communism c) actual collaboration with the communists (to prolong the war & boost our economy) and, least often, d) fear that such an action would lead directly to armed conflict with Russia or (worse) China. Thus, we are damned if we do and damned of we don’t, a dilemma we have somehow got ourselves into and from which extrication seems very remote.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the government we have pretty much single-handedly created, now that it is created, wants to govern in its own way (not necessarily an unreasonable desire, it seems to me)—and most particularly wants no truck with a coalition type set up with anybody (such as the NLF, or—God Forbid—with the NVN government).

Our Ambassador, Mr. Bunker, is one of the most thoroughly disliked Americans over here. The press gives lavish coverage to the afternoon Teas he has with the ladies, and otherwise ignores his presence whenever possible. His credentials as a statesman are questionable at best (he’s a good businessman, has made a fortune, etc; but he’s not here on “business” of that sort). Westmoreland is well enough liked, but his hands are so well tied that he’s not as effective as he should be.

The USAID program, which administers the various “pacification” attempts, is a colossal failure on every count. Not to mention the internal boon-doggling that amounts to millions of dollars, their usual approach has been to build schools, precinct stations and hospitals in the small towns—on a give-away basis; these structures have cost millions, and for a few hundred dollars worth of dynamite the VC have systematically destroyed them, or frightened the residents out of using them. The point that seems to be beyond anyone’s real appreciation is that in the provinces, political allegiance goes automatically to whoever provides the greatest protection against getting killed or losing one’s crops. Politics is a concept beyond the grasp of most of the provincial bourgeoisie, whose only desire is to be left alone to live their lives unmolested. It is essentially a feudal system in which the town Chief settles all disputes, collects taxes, and gives some measure of protection. If he is supported by the VC, we wipe out the whole town with the argument (albeit a non-sequitur) that they’re all VC. Admittedly, the VC do the same exact thing if the town Chief goes along with us. But the failure to protect the lives and property of millions of South Vietnamese during this last offensive has been a bitter pill for a lot of people to swallow, and is resulting in a lot of shifting allegiances. The final outcome, of course, has yet to happen.

What is the way out of this quick-sand? If we summarily withdraw, mutual assistance pacts all over the world will be torn up by the hundreds, and a global re-allignment of allegiances would result—almost certainly to Russia and China’s benefit. If we bring Hanoi to the conference table, the result  almost certainly will be another “Pueblo crisis” off the waters of North Vietnam fifteen years from now. If we obliterate NVN (especially if we use Nukes) can we ever again call ourselves the world’s peacemakers?

I still am inclined to feel that the honorable way out is through the Geneva Convention of 1954, to which we have never paid more than lip-service, but which still contains a workable formula for the reunification of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh would be elected—and not very long later he would die, as he soon must in any event, for he is both old and unwell. The crux of this is still the question of whether Ho’s power stems from fervent nationalism of fervent communism; it is hard to imagine VC suicide-squads being ready to die a certain, violent death for the sake of a concept such as communism—a concept both “foreign” in the sense of being alien—and foreign in the sense that it goes against established traditions. But suicide-squads willing to die for their country? What is so strange in this? We ourselves have used this gambit from 1776 on, and technological superiority is all that has made it a successful gambit in the past. Our refusal to recognize our own Nationalism for what it is blinds us to the possibility that others may feel as fervently—and as righteously—about their country as we do about ours. It is sheer stupidity to become involved against nationalistic trends—ask any Frenchman (or, for that matter, Englishman) and  he will have to agree, if only because he has been forced to in recent years.The sun is about to set on the U.S. empire, too, and it is high time we realized it.

That’s how it looks after a month here—it will be interesting to see if the next months change this view in any significant way.

The weather continues perfect as far as I am concerned—warm, sunny, consistent from day to day, and thoroughly enjoyable. Haven’t had even the suggestion of a cold since I got here!


A typical street scene in 1968 Saigon

Note the relative size of the Army tractor and the little Peugeot taxi! This is probably Tu Do Street, which was one-way, but the bicyclist is going in the wrong direction, and risks being wiped out by a deuce-and-a half at any moment. I did not carry a camera with me most of the time in Vietnam: there were still folks there who objected to having their photo taken, and one risked a confrontation over a random snap-shot. I did have a camera though: a Kodak Instamatic, and I used it much more when I departed Vietnam on my motor-cycle trip.

The Kodak Instamatic

The camera was later stolen in Bangkok, but I managed to get it back! Unfortunately, rather than have films developed  along the way, I accumulated the rolls and had them all done when I got back to the states. This led to some film deterioration (that will be seen here in future images), but for the most part I got decent pictures of my adventures.

Stay tuned for more letters, and remember you can discuss these adventures with me at MYOB@brucebramson.com



Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Posted in Saigon 1968

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