"We killed anything that walked"
November 14, 2003 | Page 5
THE TOLEDO Blade newspaper ran a four-part investigative series last month in which journalists Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss exposed war crimes committed during the Vietnam War by an elite Army platoon called Tiger Force. The Tiger Force killings were an atrocity on the scale of the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which 500 Vietnamese civilians were slaughtered by U.S. soldiers. Yet in spite of a four-and-a-half-year Army investigation, not a single person from Tiger Force was charged.
For decades, the story was locked away in government files--until last month. ELIZABETH SCHULTE looks at the Toledo Blade's expose--and explains why the war crimes weren't isolated to Tiger Force, but go all the way to the top.
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"IT WAS out of control," Rion Causey, a former Tiger Force medic, told Toledo Blade reporters. "I still wonder how some people can sleep after 30 years." Between May and November 1967, an elite platoon of the 101st Airborne division of the U.S. Army, known as Tiger Force, moved across the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. They left behind a path of death and destruction.
In their eight-month investigation, Blade reporters Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss reviewed thousands of classified Army documents, National Archive records and radio logs, and interviewed more than 100 former Tiger Force soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. They found not only that Tiger Force was responsible for horrifying war crimes against the Vietnamese people, but that the Army and U.S. government did nothing to stop them.
"A culture had developed within the unit that went far beyond aggression," Sallah explained to Socialist Worker. "It got to where many members of the platoon went far beyond the bounds of war and began killing unarmed civilians--men, women and children--in some cases, very routinely, very systematically."
As soon as Tiger Force arrived in Quang Ngai.province in May 1967, it was clear that the soldiers were out for blood. Reports show that its troops not only tortured and executed Vietnamese soldiers who they had taken prisoner, but also routinely went after civilians.
In June, they shot a Buddhist monk for complaining about the treatment of villagers. One soldier shot a 15-year-old boy because, the soldier said, he wanted the boy's tennis shoes. Then he cut off the 15-year-old's ears and put them in a ration bag.
Other soldiers followed this example. "There was a period when just about everyone had a necklace of ears," former platoon medic Larry Cottingham told Army investigators. Others would kick out the teeth of the dead--and collect the gold fillings.
The platoon was sent into the Song Ve Valley, led by field commander Lt. James Hawkins. Their assignment was to move villagers from their rice farms to "relocation camps"--imprisoned behind barbed wire and concrete, without food or shelter. For the next two months, Tiger force burned villages and terrorized Vietnamese civilians.
According to the Army, the valley was a "free-fire" zone. Technically, this meant that soldiers didn't need permission from commanders to fire on enemy troops. In practice, it meant that Tiger Force members were free to fire on anyone--soldiers and civilian alike.
"We killed anything that walked," former Sgt. William Doyle, a platoon team leader, told the Blade. "It didn't matter if they were civilians. They shouldn't have been there." For example, U.S. soldiers fired on 10 elderly farmers who were simply working their crops.
"We wouldn't even have meals because of the smell," 66-year-old Nguyen Dam told the Blade. "There were so many villagers who died, we couldn't bury them one by one. We had to bury them all in one grave." Tiger Force was sending a message: If you defy us, we will annihilate you.
In August, the platoon moved on to Quang Nam province. The next month, the Army launched Operation Wheeler--one of the bloodiest campaigns of 1967. Lt. Col. Gerald Morse, nicknamed "Ghost Rider," was put in charge of a battalion made up of Tiger Force and three other units. He gave his A, B and C companies new names--Assassins, Barbarians and Cutthroats. And the soldiers lived up to these names.
Within weeks of arriving in the area, U.S. troops faced fierce opposition from North Vietnamese forces. In response to ambushes that killed five Tiger Force members, U.S. troops went on a rampage, murdering unarmed civilians. "Everybody was bloodthirsty at the time, saying 'We're going to get them back...We're going to even the score,'" recalled medic Rion Causey.
To cover up the killings, platoon leaders began to count dead civilians as soldiers. Army records show that this vicious killing spree included the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl--and the decapitation of a baby so that a Tiger Force soldier could take the baby's necklace.
When women and children crawled into underground bunkers to hide, troops threw grenades into the holes. "We kept hearing human sounds which came from the direction of the bunkers," platoon member Charles Fulton told investigators. "They were the sounds of people that had been hurt and were trying to get someone's attention to get help."
In a few cases, soldiers stood up to the senseless killing. Sgt. Gerald Bruner turned his gun on a fellow platoon member in order to stop him from shooting a Vietnamese teenager. Afterward, Bruner's commander yelled at him and told him to see a psychiatrist.
But for the most part, soldiers who considered reporting the atrocities didn't--because their team leaders warned them not to. "The commanders told me that 'What goes on here, stays here. You never tell anyone about what goes on here. If we find out you did, you won't like it,'" said former private Ken Kerney. "They didn't tell me what they would do, but I knew. So you're afraid to say anything."
In fact, murder and mayhem was encouraged from the top. Col. Morse demanded that troops meet a body count number--327, to match the battalion's infantry designation, the 327th. When the campaign was over in November, Sam Ybarra--the soldier who killed the teenager for his shoes--was congratulated in Stars and Stripes newspaper for the 1,000th kill in Operation Wheeler.
Although the atrocities committed by Tiger Force had been reported as early as 1967, the Army didn't conduct an official investigation until 1971. During the four-and-a-half-year inquiry, the Army substantiated 20 war crimes by 18 Tiger Force soldiers. But no charges were ever filed.
At least six suspects were allowed to leave the Army during the investigation, and therefore avoided being court-martialed. Witnesses also left. Former Tiger Force members told the Blade that Army investigators encouraged them not to say anything. And when lead investigator Gustav Apsey presented his final report in 1975, it was so incomplete and inaccurate that it failed to make a clear case on key crimes.
In other cases, the soldiers got a break from a higher-up. Under military law, it is up to the soldiers' commanding general to decide whether to prosecute--so none were prosecuted. In fact, three war crimes suspects were later promoted.
And the cover-up didn't stop there. In 1973, summaries of the Tiger Force investigation were sent to the Nixon White House and the offices of the Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and Secretary of the Army Howard "Bo" Callaway.
"If they had investigated this, said the Army can't tolerate this and made it known at the time, there's a very real case to be made that maybe we would have never had a My Lai," says Sallah. "When you look at where these war crimes occurred, they were only 10 or 12 miles away in some case from where My Lai happened."
A week after the Blade's exposé last month, the Army was forced to agree to reopen the Tiger Force case. But the real question has to be asked--how many more U.S. war crimes are left to be uncovered?
Trained to be murderers
"THE KILLING haunts me every minute of my life,'' former Tiger Force member Douglas Teeters told the Toledo Blade. "To survive, you had to say, 'The killing don't mean nothing.' That's how you got through it, man. But eventually, it all catches up with you."
Today, Teeters is on medication, suffering from post-traumatic distress disorder, like another 500,000 Vietnam veterans. He lives with the nightmares of what he saw and did.
The soldiers in Tiger Force weren't born killers. They had to be trained to be killing machines. "Basic training is meant to teach you to disregard all the norms of civilization and religion, and do violence against others for no reason except on the order of higher authority," Barry Romo, a former infantry lieutenant and member of Vietnam Veterans against the War, told Socialist Worker.
Racism is also a key component. In Iraq, American occupiers have been granted a license to kill. So far, not a single solder has been disciplined for shooting civilians, including those who shot down 14 peaceful protesters in Fallujah in April.
Massacres like that will only happen more often, as Iraqi opposition to the U.S.'s brutal occupation grows. It's no wonder that last month, the military's newspaper Stars and Stripes, reported that morale is low among a third of U.S. troops who went to Iraq thinking they were "liberators."
"I pity the troops going back after spending two weeks on leave--with no end in sight," said Romo. "There will be combined feelings of sorrow, apprehension at dying, people being pissed off at the brass and not being able to take it out on them, but taking it out on Iraqis, and being put in situations where they shoot first and ask questions later."
You can read the Toledo Blade's four-part investigative series "Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths" at www.toledoblade.com.