From a military standpoint, free fire zone was considered as a failed tactic. The conventional lines which American forces tried to structure seldom occurred. Its main objective to reduce non-combatant casualties seemed impossible to achieve. Many civilian evacuations were ineffective because most of the people did not understand why they supposed to leave. Some people were not even warned at all. They only found out that their place had become a free fire zone when they were under attack. These types of incidents, in which My Lai massacre was a perfect example, occurred frequently in most areas throughout South Vietnam. Obviously, the loss of lives among non-combatants was enormous. According to a U.S. Senate estimate, civilian casualties from such actions were 100,000 in 1965 and 300,000 by 19685.
In addition, the free fire zone tactic even resulted in a major political consequence. These free fire zones usually gave villagers three unappealing choices. They could either stay at their home and know that they could be killed anytime, or they could leave their homes to move to a “protected” village or they could also join the Viet Cong and fight the Americans. Undoubtedly, there were not many people who chose the first option. Those who chose the second option soon became angry when they found out that the facilities in the new places were either strange or insufficient for them to begin their new lives. As the first two options seemed both unsound, many peasants were inclined to the third option particularly under propagandas from the Viet Cong.
By the end of 1960s, facing adverse publicity and enforcing international laws, the establishment of free fire zones was gradually restricted by the U.S. military. Nowadays, it was regarded by the U.S. government as an illegal action. In fact, subsequent U.S. military manuals tend to follow closely with the principle of international law on the prohibition against targeting civilians6.
- Headquarters, Department of the Army (30 Sept. 1997), “Army Field Manual 101-5-1/Marine Corps Reference Publication 5-2A”, Retrieved April 8, 2014 from http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/army/docs/fm101-5-1/f545con.htm
- Tucker, S. C., “The Encyclopedia of The Vietnam War”, p.394.
- Simons, L. M., “Free Fire Zones”, Retrieved April 8,2014, from http://www.crimesofwar.org/a-z-guide/free-fire-zones/, para.2.
- Appy, C. G., “Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam”, p.194-197.
- Tucker, p.395.
- Simons, para.10.