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Free-fire zone

Free-fire zone

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A free-fire zone in U.S. military parlance is a fire control measure, used for coordination between adjacent combat units. The definition used in the Vietnam war by US troops may be found in field manual FM 6-20:
A specific designated area into which any weapon system may fire without additional coordination with the establishing headquarters.

Free-fire zones in the Vietnam War


Initially, the free-fire zone was an area near an airbase which was cleared of civilians to allow aircraft bomb disposal
Bomb disposal
Bomb disposal is the process by which hazardous explosive devices are rendered safe. Bomb disposal is an all encompassing term to describe the separate, but interrelated functions in the following fields:*Military:...

 prior to landing.

Returning veterans, affected civilians and others have said that U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam MACV, based on the assumption that all friendly forces had been cleared from the area, established a policy designating "free-fire zones" as areas in which:
  • Anyone unidentified is considered an enemy combatant
  • Soldiers were to shoot anyone moving around after curfew, without first making sure that they were hostile.

Dellums hearings


The following quotes are from 1971 ad-hoc (i.e. not endorsed by Congress) hearings sponsored by Congressman Ron Dellums
Ron Dellums
Ronald Vernie "Ron" Dellums served as Oakland's forty-fifth mayor. From 1971 to 1998, he was elected to thirteen terms as a Member of the U.S...

 (California). The hearings were "organized by Citizens' Commission of Inquiry on US War Crimes (CCI)
Citizens Commission of Inquiry
The Citizens Commission of Inquiry into United States War Crimes in Indochina was founded, according to Michael Uhl, by Ralph Schoenman in November 1969 in New York. Schoenman had earlier worked on Bertrand Russell's unofficial War Crimes Tribunal in Europe. In 1970, Tod Ensign and Jeremy Rifkin,...

".

GREG HAYWARD, Capt. U.S. Army West Point, Class of 1964:



I would like to tell a few personal experiences and relate them to a policy perspective and then talk a few minutes about some of the questions that have already been asked. We had an area that General Williamson considered a thorn in our side. It was called the Citadel area. It was the home of about 200 to 300 Vietnamese. We had a fire support base
Fire support base
A fire support base is a military encampment designed to provide indirect fire artillery fire support to infantry operating in areas beyond the normal range of direct fire support from their own base camps....

 called Persian where your 2nd Bn, 12th Infantry, was, and General Williamson decided we were to systematically remove these people from their homes, so we could expand the free-fire zone around the FSB Persian.


We did this by having ambush patrols at night in the road networks leading in and out of the village. One of our units was given the mission to remove the villagers, the civilians from this area. They went through with armored vehicles and started burning these homes and burnings the villages in the Citadel area. The CG's guidance was not, of course, to go through and burn there was so much pressure on the commander of this battalion to perform and to accomplish his mission that I am sure in his mind that anything went.


This was a clear violation of the rules of land warfare

Rules of engagement
Rules of Engagement refers to those responses that are permitted in the employment of military personnel during operations or in the course of their duties. These rules of engagement are determined by the legal framework within which these duties are being carried out...

, forcibly moving the civilian population from their homes.



Another officer, Captain Robert B. Johnson, U.S. Army, West Point, Class of 1965, related experiences corroborating the testimony of numerous returning veterans to the effect that free-fire zones, if not official policy, were widely understood as being unofficial policy conveyed by osmosis
Osmosis
Osmosis is the movement of solvent molecules through a selectively permeable membrane into a region of higher solute concentration, aiming to equalize the solute concentrations on the two sides...

:



[Representative] SIEBERLING: You talked about the purpose of the free-fire zones. You have mentioned the fact that the free-fire zones and the harassment and interdiction fire at villagers were obviously designed to force the villagers to leave and go to resettlement areas
Strategic Hamlet Program
The Strategic Hamlet Program was a plan by the governments of South Vietnam and the United States during the Vietnam War to combat the Communist insurgency by means of population transfer.In 1961, U.S...

. Did you ever hear anyone in a position of rank indicate expressly that was one of the purposes?


JOHNSON: No, I did not, because a few months after I left, there was a big report in Stars and Stripes, one area very close to us, having got 12,000 people, there was a whole operation planned where all of them at once were forcibly moved

Population transfer
Population transfer is the movement of a large group of people from one region to another by state policy or international authority, most frequently on the basis of ethnicity or religion...

 to detention camps, not by the bombings but by U.S. Marines
United States Marine Corps
The United States Marine Corps is a branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for providing power projection from the sea, using the mobility of the United States Navy to deliver combined-arms task forces rapidly. It is one of seven uniformed services of the United States...

 and the ARVN
Army of the Republic of Vietnam
The Army of the Republic of Viet Nam , sometimes parsimoniously referred to as the South Vietnamese Army , was the land-based military forces of the Republic of Vietnam , which existed from October 26, 1955 until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975...

 troops forcibly removing them to these detention camps. That happened in June, 1968.


SEIBERLING: Did you ever hear of the expression "turkey shoot

Turkey shoot
A turkey shoot is an opportunity for an individual or a party to very easily take advantage of a situation.A "turkey shoot" is also a shooting contest where frozen turkeys are awarded as prizes. The shoot is most commonly held, using shotguns aimed at paper targets about 25-35 yards away...

s"?


JOHNSON: I have heard the free-fire zone referred to by the pilots and other people as "Indian Country

Indian Country
Indian country is a term used to describe the many self-governing Native American communities throughout the United States. This usage is reflected in many places, both legal and colloquial...

."


SEIBERLING: But you are not familiar with the expression "turkey shoots"?


JOHNSON: I am familiar with it, but where I was operating I didn't hear anyone personally use that term. We used the term "Indian Country."


SEIBERLING: What did "Indian Country" refer to?


JOHNSON: I guess it means different things to different people. It is like there are savages out there, there are gooks out there. In the same way we slaughtered the Indian's buffalo

American Bison
The American bison , also commonly known as the American buffalo, is a North American species of bison that once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds...

, we would slaughter the water buffalo in Vietnam.


SEIBERLING: Was there any indoctrination, official or semi-officially, that incorporated the ideas that these people are gook

Gook
Gook is a derogatory term for East Asians which came to prominence in reference to enemy soldiers. U.S. Marines serving in the Philippines in the early 20th century used the word to refer to Filipinos. The term continued to be used by American soldiers stationed around the world to refer to...

s or that the only good gook is a dead gook or similar philosophies, or was this just something once you got there you picked it up from the other people who bad been there?


JOHNSON: I just picked it up from other people. Before I went to Vietnam, I remember one adviser who had been there before and had been through some tough straits telling me you can't trust any of these. That was not official policy.

I don't think you could find it anywhere that you can't trust the gooks in writing.


SEIBERLING: Do you have any evidence that this was so widespread that it must have been known to people at all levels of command?


JOHNSON: I don't have any specific evidence except my 6 months in the infantry division, an American unit, and the disdain and disgust of the Vietnamese was extremely widespread there.


Wilkerson


Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson
Lawrence Wilkerson
Lawrence B. "Larry" Wilkerson is a retired United States Army Colonel and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell...

 flew helicopters low and slow through Vietnam. He claims to have had vocal disagreements with some of his superiors and members of his own gunner crew over free-fire zone
Free-fire zone
A free-fire zone in U.S. military parlance is a fire control measure, used for coordination between adjacent combat units. The definition used in the Vietnam war by US troops may be found in field manual FM 6-20:- Free-fire zones in the Vietnam War :...

s, including an incident in which one of his crew shot a wagon that wound up having a little girl inside of it. He describes one incident in which he prevented a war crime by purposely placing his helicopter between a position that was full of civilians, and another helicopter that wanted to launch an attack on the position.

Yeager


General Chuck Yeager
Chuck Yeager
Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager is a retired major general in the United States Air Force and noted test pilot. He was the first pilot to travel faster than sound...

 in his autobiography describes his (and his associates) disapproval of shoot-anything-that-moves low level strafing
Strafing
Strafing is the practice of attacking ground targets from low-flying aircraft using aircraft-mounted automatic weapons. This means, that although ground attack using automatic weapons fire is very often accompanied with bombing or rocket fire, the term "strafing" does not specifically include the...

 missions during World War II (although they were not necessarily called 'free fire zone' missions). He described his feeling that, had the US lost the war, it might have been considered a criminal activity.

Other uses of the term


There is an assertion of an anonymous
Anonymity
Anonymity is derived from the Greek word ἀνωνυμία, anonymia, meaning "without a name" or "namelessness". In colloquial use, anonymity typically refers to the state of an individual's personal identity, or personally identifiable information, being publicly unknown.There are many reasons why a...

 U.S. government worker using the term to describe a situation where civilian
Civilian
A civilian under international humanitarian law is a person who is not a member of his or her country's armed forces or other militia. Civilians are distinct from combatants. They are afforded a degree of legal protection from the effects of war and military occupation...

 Defense Department leadership "pushes the envelope", that "It’s a finesse to give power to Rumsfeld
Donald Rumsfeld
Donald Henry Rumsfeld is an American politician and businessman. Rumsfeld served as the 13th Secretary of Defense from 1975 to 1977 under President Gerald Ford, and as the 21st Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006 under President George W. Bush. He is both the youngest and the oldest person to...

—giving him the right to act swiftly, decisively, and lethally," as quoted in a book by Seymour Hersh
Seymour Hersh
Seymour Myron Hersh is an American Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and author based in Washington, D.C. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine on military and security matters...

. "It’s a global free-fire zone."

See also

  • Rules of engagement
    Rules of engagement
    Rules of Engagement refers to those responses that are permitted in the employment of military personnel during operations or in the course of their duties. These rules of engagement are determined by the legal framework within which these duties are being carried out...

  • Area bombing
  • Strategic Hamlet Program
    Strategic Hamlet Program
    The Strategic Hamlet Program was a plan by the governments of South Vietnam and the United States during the Vietnam War to combat the Communist insurgency by means of population transfer.In 1961, U.S...

  • Search and destroy
    Search and destroy
    Search and Destroy, Seek and Destroy, or even simply S&D, refers to a military strategy that became a notorious component of the Vietnam War. The idea was to insert ground forces into hostile territory, search out the enemy, destroy them, and withdraw immediately afterward...


Further reading

  • Lewis M. Simmons, "Free Fire Zones", in Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, Roy Gutman, Ed, W. W. Norton & Company, July 1999, ISBN 978-0393319149