by Hannah Kohler
Over the course of the Vietnam War, the US Army stockade at Long Binh or Long Binh Jail, nicknamed LBJ and the Marine Brig in Da Nang incarcerated thousands of US military personnel. To give an idea: of the total 2.2 million men drafted between 1965 and 1973, 34,000 were imprisoned following courts-martial (Jerold M. Starr, “Who Fought for the U.S.: The Lessons of the Vietnam War”). Crimes varied from more minor offences (refusing a haircut, smoking marijuana)—to significant acts of military disobedience (refusing military orders, going AWOL)—to serious violent felonies (murder, rape). Those convicted of felonies requiring sentences of less than a year completed their sentence in Vietnam (which did not count against the offender’s year-long tour in country); those who committed more serious crimes were held in the stockade until transfer to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Inside the Long Binh Jail
The combination of a surge in troops deployed to Southeast Asia, a slow martial justice system and a zealous prosecution of the widespread drug abuse in the field meant that by the time the war reached its height in 1968, the stockades were acutely overcrowded. Long Binh Jail was built to hold around 400 men, but by mid-1968 it held over 700 inmates; the Marine Brig was built to accommodate 200 inmates, and in August 1968 it housed nearly 300.
These military prisons were a little known aspect of the American experience in Vietnam, and only flared in the public attention in August and September 1968, when both prisons succumbed to riots. Problems of racial tension, overcrowding, and frustration at poor conditions, stringent regulations and long delays awaiting trial erupted into violence at both Long Binh Jail and the Da Nang Brig. Guards were attacked, cell-blocks were burned down, and inmates turned violently on one another. Within a matter of days, both riots were contained, and the prisons receded to the hazier areas of collective American memory. But if Long Binh Jail and the Brig feature little in American stories of the Vietnam War, they loomed large in the imaginations of the men who fought in the conflict.
GIs feared Long Binh Jail, and Marines dreaded the Brig, and the risk of being sent to either kept many men away from trouble.
US Military Prison Design in Vietnam
For they were harrowing places, plagued by rumors of violence and abuse. Perimetered by cyclone fences and barbed concertina wire, they divided inmates into minimum, medium, and maximum security. Maximum security and pretrial inmates were often housed in large metal Conex shipping containers. In searing temperatures of up to 110 degrees, the Conex containers were furnaces, with the slits made in front and back doing little to relieve the airlessness within. In monsoon season, they often flooded. The Conexes held up to eight men; each cell was equipped with a mosquito net, a blanket, a Bible and a bucket; and cots were removed before dawn so that there was nowhere for an inmate to sit or lie.
Respites from the Conexes were brief: inmates were released for short spells to exercise and shower. In medium and minimum security, the conditions were better, with inmates housed in tents with wooden floors; but tough, tedious work details filled their waking hours—filling sandbags, building new accommodation, cleaning, burning excrement. Regardless of their security level, prisoners often contended with bad food (dehydrated potatoes, bread with bugs baked in), long trial delays (with many inmates waiting more than 30 days for trial), fractious relationships with prison guards, and simmering racial tension. In his compelling book, Long Binh Jail: An Oral History of Vietnam’s Notorious U.S. Military Prison, Cecil Barr Currey captures the recollections of dozens of inmates who report humiliations and inhumane treatment ranging from the petty (verbal harassment and enforced push-ups) to the extreme (water-boarding and beatings).
Prison Conditions in Vietnam
Of course, like many war stories, some of these prison tales may have grown better with age. In many cases, inmates were arguably no worse off than their comrades in the field—poor food, tough living conditions, hard labor, fear of violence—and the military prisons were extremely challenging places for the guards, too, faced as they were with a high proportion of recidivists (Jack Shulimson cites that over a quarter of inmates in the Marine Brig had previous civilian convictions) and in many cases insufficiently trained to deal with a large, restless, often hostile prison population.
Nonetheless, Long Binh Jail and the Marine Brig became intense focal points for the wider social issues that plagued American troops during the Vietnam War: low morale, dissatisfaction with a seemingly harsh military leadership, drug abuse, and racial unrest. Draftees to the war were extremely young, often poorly educated, and ill-equipped to deal with the boredom, hardship, terror, and temptations of being in a combat zone (drugs, alcohol, sex). It was men such as these who could find themselves in military prison after acting out against a leadership that seemed increasingly punitive, which was pushing its men to fight a limited, unpopular war while maintaining a hard grip on discipline.
Racial Issues in Military Prisons
Black military personnel, reacting to domestic racial unrest, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the rise of the Black Power movement, were angry at the disproportionate number of black casualties; and in the military prisons, at the disproportionate number of black inmates and the harsher punishments they received compared to their white counterparts. The U.S. military prisons in Vietnam didn’t just reflect the social problems in the field that divided enlisted men from the leadership, blacks from whites; Long Binh Jail and the Brig—stuffed as they were with the most disenchanted and disenfranchised troops and plagued with wretched, testing conditions—amplified these problems until they erupted into riot.
In my novel, The Outside Lands, the brig becomes the setting in which the frustrations and disappointments of one of my characters come into sharp focus; the setting in which he wrestles with his motives for the terrible act of violence that has landed him behind bars. If the military prisons in Vietnam bring the sicknesses of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps into stark relief, for my character, the Brig forces an uncomfortable focus on his own sins and self-delusions.
Find out more
For more information on military prisons in Vietnam, read Long Binh Jail: An Oral History of Vietnam’s Notorious U.S. Military Prison, by Cecil Barr Currey, and Marines and Military Justice in Vietnam: Trial By Fire, by Lieutenant Colonel Gary D. Solis.
Hannah Kohler was raised on the south coast of England. She studied English and American Literature at Cambridge University and Business Administration at Oxford University. She began The Outside Lands during a Master’s in Creative Writing at City University, London. She lives in London with her American husband and two children. She is the author of THE OUTSIDE LANDS: A Novel.