Cheeseburger Gothic

"The horror, the fkn horror, mate"

Posted March 12 by John Birmingham

The Herald today has a fascinating obit for an old digger, "Barry Petersen was an Australian army captain who led top secret CIA operations in the highlands during the Vietnam War."

He wasn't the model for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. (That was arguably US army Colonel Davd Hackworth) but like Kurtz "he got too close to the natives and the CIA wanted him out, dead or alive."

Petersen got on well with the Montagnard, particularly the Rade tribe who lived around the highland city of Ban Me Thuot. He learnt their language, honoured their customs and traditions, including drinking the potent rice wine. He paid them well with CIA money and armed them with CIA-supplied guns.

Even though he was operating alone in the mountains, Petersen was so successful that within a year he had more than 1000 Montagnard militia fighters using the same guerrilla tactics as the Viet Cong – ambush the enemy, hit hard and disappear into the jungle.

The communists learnt to go around Petersen’s territory rather than take him on. They put a price on Petersen’s head, but his militia kept a close guard on him.

He was extremely popular with his men. They declared the Australian officer a demi-god, and showered him with honoured brass armbands denoting him a tribal chief.

At his home he kept a pet sun bear and a baby leopard he’d been given by one of his men. Petersen’s militia became known as the Tiger Men because of the striped jungle camouflage uniforms he’d obtained from the CIA warehouse. He had snarling tiger head badges made for their berets to make the various Montagnard tribes in his units feel united.

But after almost two years in the highlands with the Montagnard tribesmen, Petersen’s relations with the CIA soured. Some CIA agents thought Petersen was becoming too successful, and getting too close to the Montagnard.

After that, things did not go well. They didn't send Martin Sheen after him, but his command was terminated, with prejdice.

Full obit is here.

5 Responses to ‘"The horror, the fkn horror, mate"’

HAVOCK21 asserts...

Posted March 12
And yet, here we are, knowing so little about a man and his deeds that at first blush appear to be extraordinary. One might well find that its all political bullshit as usual, but we should not let that deviate us from acknowledging his rather heroic efforts!

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jl puts forth...

Posted March 12
Going native is an occupational hazard. Godspeed, LTC Petersen.

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Naut mumbles...

Posted March 13
He wrote a book Tiger Men which is worth a read. Pretty full-on story

Naut puts forth...

Posted March 13
It actually reminded me of some of the Coast Watcher stories from WWII.

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damian is gonna tell you...

Posted March 16
Of course, Apocalypse Now is a movie adaption of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and that’s where the Kurtz character comes from. In practice sure it’s possible that Coppola had a modern inspiration, and it’s a pretty neat idea, but it isn’t a necessary one.

There are some really interesting learnings from Heart of Darkness in relation to current debates on a number of issues, but that’s a separate concern.

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