Free fire zone was a common term used by the U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. Its definition could be found in the Field Manual FM 6-20 as a specifically designated area in which any weapons or weapon systems might fire without having to coordinate with the main headquarters1. In general, free fire zone is an area where all friendly forces had been supposedly cleared, and any remaining people were hostile. Within its borders, military action could be used for a complete annihilation of any movable objectives.
The reason for establishing free fire zone was that American forces often had a lot of troubles in distinguishing between the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese peasants. In fact, the guerrillas regularly dressed and acted the same way as the peasants did to heighten the confusion. Additionally, in some areas, the Viet Cong even maintained a strong relationship with local peasants, making it even harder to tell the enemies and innocent people apart.
Thus, in order to reduce civilian casualties while searching and destroying the Viet Cong, free fire zone tactic was implemented as an effort to structure the conflict along conventional lines, with the Viet Cong was separated from peasants and occupied distinct and identifiable zones2.
In areas under control of Saigon government and its ARVN forces, South Vietnamese district and province chiefs were responsible for charting these free fire zones as well as authorizing the use of unrestricted military power. However, as those government officials usually did not come from the zones which they approved targets, their decisions, therefore, were often flawed due to the lack of information from those areas. In other places that were not controlled by Saigon, the situation was not any better. Instead of the South Vietnamese officers, the U.S. forces took the responsibility to decide which villages should be labelled as “free fire zones”. However, they faced the same if not even more serious problems than the Vietnamese fellows. In fact, later investigations revealed that many of those “free fire zones” were actually peaceful villages and should not have been assaulted3.
Following the authorities’ approval, civilians living in the zone were warned in advance that it had become a free fire zone. The warning was carried out by loudspeaker, leaflet drops from low-flying aircraft and infantry sweeps. Non-combatants were asked to leave their homes immediately and seek safety in the so-called “protected villages”. Many civilians who were reluctant to leave their ancestors land were often forced to leave by trucks at rifle point. Those who still remained in the zone for some reasons became hapless casualties of the war.
After the evacuation was done, the U.S. forces began to conduct the raids. Anyone remaining in the zone were presumed as Viet Cong or their sympathizers and could be lawfully eliminated. This free-killing policy caused a big internal conflict among American forces. According to many soldiers, some high-ranking offices often pressured them to take a heavy toll on the enemy’s side and encouraged shootings at remaining villagers. In contrast, there were many officers who really preached against those genocidal things4.
Moreover, the U.S. forces also assumed that anything left behind could be used by Viet Cong. Thus, all remaining rice crops were destroyed; animals were shot;wells were poisoned; churches, haystacks and huts were burned to the ground in order to prevent further usage. Most villages were completely destroyed soon after being declared as free fire zones.