A free-fire zone was an area that had been cleared of all civilians, with any remaining people assumed to be hostile forces. “Free-fire zone” is also one of those terms that if repeated often enough will make folks dive under the coffee table and hide their heads. Only in Vietnam was political clearance required prior to placing fire on the enemy, that is, clearance from ARVN officials was required for all but clearly defensive fire except into a “free-fire zone.” A free-fire zone, however, did not relieve the commander of his concurrent obligation to comply with the laws of war, operating authorities, and the rules of engagement.
Search and destroy operations gave villagers three choices:
(1) Stay close to his land (and risk living in a freefire zone).
(2) Join VC (become a target in a free fire zone).
(3) Move to an area under GVN control (become a refugee).
In retrospect, on that day America declared war on the peasant, and that is the day they lost the war. The United States forces should have attempted to keep the hamlet intact. The village elders administered the government at the hamlet level. For many rural Vietnamese, the village was the only government they knew. The catch phrase used during the conflict was winning of the hearts and minds of the people. It was the people, not the materials, that held the key to success in Vietnam.
“In a free-fire zone; if it moves, it is VC. Kill it! Most of the murdered Vietnamese appeared to be guilty only of being peasant farmers who didn’t want to leave their land. The real atrocities began with the routine and relentless use of free-fire zones: 105- and 155-millimeter howitzer random harassment and interdiction fire; helicopter gunships; Puff, the Magic Dragon; fighter and attack jets and their napalm; the B-52 carpet bombing, etc., etc., .”
Some regarded a “free-fire zone” as an area where American troops were “essentially authorized to kill anything that moved,” – but this is a pejorative misrepresentation of the Rules of Engagement. Vietnam was unique for US forces. It was fought almost entirely within the Republic of Vietnam, with control of areas often changing with the setting sun – sometimes with a change of command, and sometimes by the outcome of search-and-clear operations. In areas under the political control of the South and its Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces, clearance to fire from Vietnamese authorities was required; in other areas it was not. The latter areas were labeled, with an overabundance of military testosterone, “free-fire zones.” These areas were not legal jungles. The Geneva Conventions, the Hague Rules, and the US Army’s Rules of Engagement were as applicable in a “free-fire zone” as they were in the most developed, set-piece battle area. It is not difficult to understand why this is so consistently misrepresented.