Nick Turse. Kill anything that moves

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (Nick Turse)

– Highlight Loc. 40-56 |

The visceral horror of what happened at My Lai is undeniable. On the evening of March 15, 1968, members of the Americal Division’s Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, were briefed by their commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, on a planned operation the next day in an area they knew as “Pinkville.” As unit member Harry Stanley recalled, Medina “ordered us to ‘kill everything in the village.’” Infantryman Salvatore LaMartina remembered Medina’s words only slightly differently: they were to “kill everything that breathed.” What stuck in artillery forward observer James Flynn’s mind was a question one of the other soldiers asked: “Are we supposed to kill women and children?” And Medina’s reply: “Kill everything that moves.”3 The next morning, the troops clambered aboard helicopters and were airlifted into what they thought would be a “hot LZ”—a landing zone where they’d be under hostile fire. As it happened, though, instead of finding Vietnamese adversaries spoiling for a fight, the Americans entering My Lai encountered only civilians: women, children, and old men. Many were still cooking their breakfast rice. Nevertheless, Medina’s orders were followed to a T. Soldiers of Charlie Company killed. They killed everything. They killed everything that moved. Advancing in small squads, the men of the unit shot chickens as they scurried about, pigs as they bolted, and cows and water buffalo lowing among the thatch-roofed houses. They gunned down old men sitting in their homes and children as they ran for cover. They tossed grenades into homes without even bothering to look inside. An officer grabbed a woman by the hair and shot her point-blank with a pistol. A woman who came out of her home with a baby in her arms was shot down on the spot. As the tiny child hit the ground, another GI opened up on the infant with his M-16 automatic rifle. Over four hours, members of Charlie Company methodically slaughtered more than five hundred unarmed victims,

 

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– Highlight Loc. 101-9 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 10:52 AM

And then, in a stunning reversal, almost immediately after the exposure of the My Lai massacre, war crime allegations became old hat—so commonplace as to be barely worth mentioning or looking into. In leaflets, pamphlets, small-press books, and “underground” newspapers, the growing American antiwar movement repeatedly pointed out that U.S. troops were committing atrocities on a regular basis. But what had been previously brushed aside as propaganda and leftist kookery suddenly started to be disregarded as yawn-worthy common knowledge, with little but the My Lai massacre in between.15 Such impulses only grew stronger in the years of the “culture wars,” when the Republican Party and an emboldened right wing rose to power. Until Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the Vietnam War was generally seen as an American defeat, but even before taking office Reagan began rebranding the conflict as “a noble cause.” In the same spirit, scholars and veterans began, with significant success, to recast the war in rosier terms.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 135-41 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 10:57 AM

Soon, the United States was dispatching equipment and even military advisers to Vietnam. By 1953, it was shouldering nearly 80 percent of the bill for an ever more bitter war against the Viet Minh.19 The conflict progressed from guerrilla warfare to a conventional military campaign, and in 1954 a Gallic garrison at the well-fortified base of Dien Bien Phu was pounded into surrender by Viet Minh forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap. The French had had enough. At an international peace conference in Geneva, they agreed to a temporary separation of Vietnam into two placeholder regions, the north and the south, which were to be rejoined as one nation following a reunification election in 1956.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 181-88 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 11:00 AM

The plethora of designations and the often hazy distinctions between them underscore the fact that the Americans never really grasped who the enemy was. On one hand, they claimed the VC had little popular support and held sway over villages only through terror tactics. On the other, American soldiers who were supposedly engaged in countering communist aggression to protect the South Vietnamese readily killed civilians because they assumed that most villagers either were in league with the enemy or were guerrillas themselves once the sun went down. The United States never wanted to admit that the conflict might be a true “people’s war,” and that Vietnamese were bound to the revolution because they saw it as a fight for their families, their land, and their country. In the villages of South Vietnam, Vietnamese nationalists had long organized themselves to resist foreign domination, and it was no different when the Americans came. By then, the local population was often inextricably joined to the liberation struggle.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 223-37 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 11:57 AM

The most sophisticated analysis yet of wartime mortality in Vietnam, a 2008 study by researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, suggested that a reasonable estimate might be 3.8 million violent war deaths, combatant and civilian.37 Given the limitations of the study’s methodology, there are good reasons to believe that even this staggering figure may be an underestimate.38 Still, the findings lend credence to an official 1995 Vietnamese government estimate of more than 3 million deaths in total—including 2 million civilian deaths—for the years when the Americans were involved in the conflict.39 The sheer number of civilian war wounded, too, has long been a point of contention. The best numbers currently available, though, begin to give some sense of the suffering. A brief accounting shows 8,000 to 16,000 South Vietnamese paraplegics; 30,000 to 60,000 South Vietnamese left blind; and some 83,000 to 166,000 South Vietnamese amputees.40 As far as the total number of the civilian war wounded goes, Guenter Lewy approaches the question by using a ratio derived from South Vietnamese data on military casualties, which shows 2.65 soldiers seriously wounded for every one killed. Such a proportion is distinctly low when applied to the civilian population; still, even this multiplier, if applied to the Vietnamese government estimate of 2 million civilian dead, yields a figure of 5.3 million civilian wounded, for a total of 7.3 million Vietnamese civilian casualties overall.41

 

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– Highlight Loc. 410-24 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 01:29 PM

The boot camp experience was consciously organized to reduce recruits to a psychological state akin to early childhood. Their previous eighteen or so years of learning were to be stripped away through shock, separation, and physical and psychological stress, creating a tabula rasa on which a military imprint could be stamped. For eight weeks of up to seventeen-hour days, every detail of their lives was prescribed, every action relearned in a military manner, all stringently enforced by the omnipresent authority of the drill instructor.6 As historian Joanna Bourke puts it, a deft combination of “depersonalization, uniforms, lack of privacy, forced social relationships, tight schedules, lack of sleep, disorientation followed by rites of reorganization according to military codes, arbitrary rules and strict punishment” was brought to bear to accomplish the task.7 Frequent punishments, meted out for infractions as simple as not beginning and ending every sentence with “sir,” were crucial to the process. They consisted of both psychological debasement and physical suffering—everything from being forced to eat garbage to being exercised to the point of collapse. At the same time, everyday training itself could be an agonizing experience. Even the best athletes were often overtaxed by the grueling workouts. “Simple exhaustion,” as the historian Christian Appy points out, was a “key factor in explaining the willingness of recruits to follow orders” since they soon “learned that disobedience of any kind only brought more pain.”8 Recruits were also indoctrinated into a culture of violence and brutality, which emphasized above all a readiness to kill without compunction.9

 

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– Highlight Loc. 506-16 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 03:35 PM

Often, there was no relevant instruction in the laws of war as they related to the way Americans actually fought the conflict in Vietnam. One of the crimes detailed in the U.S. military’s formal investigation of the My Lai massacre, for example, was “the burning of dwellings.”32 But for years before and after the massacre, homes, hamlets, and whole villages were regularly torched by U.S. troops—most of the time on the orders of officers—for a variety of reasons. Sometimes Americans burned homes where they found hidden war matériel or enemy propaganda literature. At other times they burned houses or hamlets in reprisal for a nearby booby trap, or if they took sniper fire, or simply because they were angry, frustrated, and looking to strike back at any Vietnamese people they could find. Whole villages might also be set aflame as a matter of policy, to drive people from an area and thereby deny guerrillas access to food, support, and recruits. The idea was to separate the general population from the guerrillas in the most literal way possible. After being forcibly removed, villagers would often be sent to a government-run concentration area. Some of these were “New Life” hamlets—artificial villages surrounded by barbed wire and located far from the inhabitants’ own fields, homes, and ancestral burial grounds.

 

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Highlight Loc. 609-17 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 03:42 PM

The court-martial transcript paints a vivid picture. Lieutenant Bailey had the men shove the bodies back into the bunker.58 Lieutenant Steen saw what he thought was a child’s body being thrown in. Another marine remembered helping a fellow unit member stuff an older woman, still moaning, into the shelter with the corpses.59 On Bailey’s orders, marines then shoveled in dirt, brush, logs, and other debris to seal up the bunker.60 Later, Vietnamese who inspected the scene found seven mangled bodies in that shelter, and Tuyen’s body in the river.61 In all, according to Vietnamese survivors, twelve unarmed civilians were killed that night in Trieu Ai village.62

 

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– Highlight Loc. 640-49 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 03:44 PM

The killing of a dozen civilians that night in October 1967, several months before the My Lai massacre, is barely a footnote in the blood-soaked history of the Vietnam War. Yet in the story of Trieu Ai one can see virtually the entire war writ small. Here was the repeated aerial bombing and artillery fire, pounding the rural population on an almost daily basis and forcing them into underground bunkers. Here was the deliberate burning of peasant homes and the relocation of villagers to refugee camps, where their movements were strictly controlled by the government. And here, too, was the inevitable outcome of the troops’ training: all the endless chants of “kill, kill, kill,” the dehumanization of the “dinks, gooks, slopes, slants,” and the constant insistence that even women and small children were to be regarded as potential enemies. The key elements present at Trieu Ai recur over and over again in war crimes files and the recollections of veterans. Angry troops primed to lash out, often following losses within the unit; civilians trapped in their path; and officers in the field issuing ambiguous or illegal orders to young men conditioned to obey—that was the basic recipe for many of the mass killings carried out by army soldiers and marines over the years.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 672-78 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 06:31 PM

By the mid-1960s, the American military had turned war making into a thoroughly corporatized, quantitatively oriented system that the sociologist James William Gibson astutely calls “technowar.” The philosophy behind it was simple: by combining American technological and economic prowess with sophisticated managerial capacities, the Pentagon meant to guarantee ultimate success on the battlefield. The country’s unmatched military capability would allow it to impose its will anywhere in the world, with the war machine functioning as smoothly and predictably as an assembly line.1 This mind-set was embodied most fully in the person of Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 689-95 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 06:32 PM

In Vietnam, the statistically minded war managers focused, above all, on the notion of achieving a “crossover point”: the moment when American soldiers would be killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace. After that, the Pentagon expected, the communist-led forces would naturally give up the fight—that would be the only rational thing to do. What McNamara and the Pentagon brass failed to grasp was that Vietnamese nationalists, who had long battled foreign invaders in pursuit of independence, might not view warfare as a straightforward exercise in benefit maximization to be pursued in a “rational” manner and abandoned when the ledger sheet showed more debits than credits.5

 

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– Highlight Loc. 731-39 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 06:46 PM

Whether you achieved or exceeded what were essentially killing quotas had a significant impact on what your tour of duty in Vietnam would be like. Insufficient body counts translated into fewer comforts. They also meant less support in the form of airlifts—resulting in long, hot, dangerous hikes through treacherous terrain instead of helicopter rides to or from the base.17 Under pressure from commanders, low-level officers who hadn’t met body-count expectations would keep their troops in the field longer, courting exhaustion and shattered unit morale while exposing themselves and their men to a greater chance of death or injury. “I knew,” said an officer from the 9th Infantry Division, “if I went in without a body count or at least a prisoner I’d be on the shitlist, so I kept the patrol out.”18 While officers sought to please superiors and chased promotions, the “grunts” in the field also had a plethora of incentives to produce dead bodies.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 798-809 | Added on Saturday, July 20, 2013, 06:51 PM

Sometimes there were even too many civilian corpses, leading to a different sort of statistical manipulation: body-count deflation.36 After the My Lai massacre, the Americal Division claimed only 128 enemy dead, when in actuality more than 500 civilians had been slaughtered. At nearby My Khe, American troops massacred from 60 to 155 civilians, according to U.S. sources, but a body count of only 38 was reported to headquarters.37 Similarly, at the village of Truong Khanh (2), where 63 civilians were massacred, only 13 of those bodies were counted as enemy KIAs due to combat action by ground troops, with another 18 reported as having been killed by subsequent air strikes.38 And when marines massacred 16 unarmed women and children at Son Thang, they were reported as a body count of 6 enemy kills.39 Soldiers realized that small groups of civilians could be killed with impunity and logged as enemy dead, but larger numbers might raise red flags if there were no U.S. casualties or few weapons captured.40 To avoid uncomfortable questions about skewed kills-to-weapons ratios, many patrols planted grenades, rifles, or other arms on dead civilians as a matter of standard operating procedure.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 890-97 | Added on Sunday, July 21, 2013, 11:46 AM

Looking back, Westmoreland later claimed that “many Americans apparently failed to comprehend ‘search and destroy.’” It was, he insisted, anything but a “brutal” policy of “aimless searches in the jungle” and the “random destroying of villages.”68 His troops, however, provided a far more accurate description of the tactic than their base-bound commander. To infantrymen and field marines, the phrase “search and destroy” was shorthand for systematic destruction of hamlets and sometimes of everyone in them.69 “It was a search-and-destroy mission,” one officer with the 4th Infantry Division recalled, “which meant we searched all the hootches we found and then burned them down. Whether a single farmer’s hootch or a whole village—all were burnt.”70

 

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– Highlight Loc. 938-47 | Added on Sunday, July 21, 2013, 11:56 AM

At every turn, the onus was put on Vietnamese civilians to actively demonstrate that they were indeed noncombatants—by carrying identification cards certifying their loyalty to the Saigon government; by staying out of off-limits areas (the borders of which they might not know); by adhering to dusk-to-dawn curfews; by using no lights at night (which might signal guerrillas), or sometimes by displaying lights at night (to demonstrate that they were not hiding); by not running or not walking in a certain way, or not standing still and thus looking unnatural; by somehow forcing armed guerrillas from their villages but also not carrying weapons, which would automatically brand a Vietnamese as VC. If villagers did not know about any one of these or many other regulations, if an ID card was lost when a house went up in flames, if they had to leave before dawn to get to a far-off market or to make it to a rice field, if they were forced by hunger to forage in an off-limits area, it was their fault. “The claim that civilians broke the rules,” the historian Christian Appy notes, “gave the American military a legal-sounding justification for both accidental and intentional slaughter.”81 Over and over again, the killings of civilians were excused by citing such capricious, even contradictory rules.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1015-20 | Added on Sunday, July 21, 2013, 12:11 PM

As ill-defined and porous as the rules of engagement were, they still at least nominally required troops to distinguish civilians from combatants. Another command concept, though, did away with that distinction altogether in much of the country: the notion of the “free-fire” or “free-strike” zone, a label given to areas where everyone was assumed to be the enemy. (Later, the name would be changed for public-relations reasons to “specified strike zone,” but the meaning remained the same.) In free-fire zones, an infantryman later recalled, “everyone, men, women, children, could be considered [a fair target]; you could not be held responsible for firing on innocent civilians since by definition there were none there.”94

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1065-72 | Added on Sunday, July 21, 2013, 12:19 PM

Indiscriminate as bombing and artillery fire often were in Vietnam, free-fire zones took away, by definition, any need for discrimination. While serving as an assistant to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Richard Holbrooke complained to both the ambassador and Westmoreland that free-fire zones were a real danger to the war effort. “There are people living down there,” he complained once as the three flew over a free-fire zone, only to be told, “Well, they’re Communist-controlled areas.”107 Any villages declared hostile by South Vietnamese province chiefs were regarded as VC base camps, and the U.S. military officially considered every man, woman, and child in them Viet Cong supporters if not outright Viet Cong—and thus reasonable targets. According to Pentagon figures, in January 1969 alone, air strikes were carried out on or near hamlets where 3.3 million Vietnamese lived.108

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1086-88 | Added on Sunday, July 21, 2013, 01:00 PM

Aside from augmenting the body-count statistics, free-fire zones were also integral to another policy objective: driving villagers out of territory controlled by the NLF and into areas controlled by the Saigon government. These efforts were commonly known as “pacification,” but their true aim was to depopulate the contested countryside.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1125-31 | Added on Sunday, July 21, 2013, 01:06 PM

In 1962, the New York Times described a scene in which U.S. advisers and allied Vietnamese troops relocated hundreds of villagers as part of Operation Sunrise. The operation’s cheerful title belied the fact that it involved burning the food, homes, and in some cases all the possessions of the villagers before sending them to inhospitable barracks that even the lead U.S. adviser conceded were “no happy hollow.”122 In 1969, an article in the Times would describe another village-clearing operation, this time with U.S. troops in the lead. The commanders had changed and the firepower had increased, but the procedures were much the same.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1182-86 | Added on Sunday, July 21, 2013, 10:35 PM

As the war dragged on, ever less money would be devoted to refugee aid and public health programs. In 1967, the support that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) gave to South Vietnam’s Ministry of Health topped out at $5.9 million. The agency’s total medical budget in Vietnam for the year added up to one-quarter of one percent of U.S. expenditures in the country. In effect, said one analyst, an entire year’s allocation equaled what was spent in less than a day on the war effort. Two years later, USAID support for the ministry had dropped to less than $1 million.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1338-50 | Added on Monday, July 22, 2013, 06:21 PM

That such military power might not prevail against poorly armed guerrillas in an agrarian country seemed inconceivable. Even as the conflict dragged on, year after year, the Pentagon’s war managers never gave up their conviction that American technological prowess would ensure victory. A full-scale invasion of North Vietnam was out of the question; that approach would have risked confrontation with China and required an enormous conscript army, a prospect that few in Washington thought they could sell to the American public. Using nuclear weapons was likewise dismissed as politically untenable. With those options closed off, the Pentagon instead decided to simply pursue technowar ever more intensely as its path to victory. The United States would not deploy its nuclear arsenal, but it would nonetheless assault Vietnam with the destructive power of hundreds of Hiroshimas. In other words, it would wage a war of overkill. A sound from the tree line? Hose it down with machine-gun fire. A sniper shot from the ville? Hit the hamlet with napalm. A hunch that an area might have enemy fighters in it? Plaster it with artillery fire. A Saigon-appointed Vietnamese official identifies a village as an enemy stronghold? Bomb it back to the stone age. American war managers were all but certain that no Third World people, even with Soviet and Chinese support, could stand up to the mightiest nation on Earth as it unleashed firepower well beyond levels that had brought great powers like Germany and Japan to their knees. (The amount of ammunition fired per soldier was twenty-six times greater in Vietnam than during World War II.) Overkill was supposed to solve all American problems, and the answer to any setbacks was just more overkill.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1365-77 | Added on Monday, July 22, 2013, 06:25 PM

In 1962, the first full year of the U.S. air war, 12,000 sorties—a sortie being defined as one mission by one plane—were launched against South Vietnamese targets. As American involvement escalated in 1965, airpower was unleashed on a devastating scale, and the U.S. military equaled that number of strike sorties in September alone.12 At the war’s height in 1969, 50 percent of American fighter-bombers and 25 to 50 percent of the Air Force Strategic Air Command’s massive B-52 Stratofortress bombers were committed to Southeast Asia.13 Between 1965 and 1972, U.S. and South Vietnamese aircraft flew 3.4 million combat sorties in Southeast Asia, with a plurality of these conducted in South Vietnam.14 U.S. aircraft laid waste to huge swaths of rural areas. American forces considered the spartan Vietnamese thatch-roofed huts, built of bamboo, mud, and leaves, to be “enemy structures” and regarded the earthen shelters beneath them as fortified “bunkers.” They were often officially classified as military targets and treated accordingly. In September 1965, in an agrarian countryside with only the most modest of buildings, nearly 10,000 enemy structures were blasted by U.S. and allied aircraft. By mid-1966, some 100,000 had reportedly been destroyed from the air.15 All types of buildings were fair game: homes, hospitals, temples, pagodas, and schools, in addition to actual enemy fortifications.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1461-71 | Added on Monday, July 22, 2013, 07:31 PM

Napalm and white phosphorus bombs were not the only diabolically destructive munitions unleashed by American airplanes. Cluster munitions were simply slaughter spring-loaded into little metal cans. The BLU-3 bomblet, for instance, better known as a “pineapple,” was a small container filled with 250 steel pellets. One B-52 could drop 1,000 pineapples across a 400-yard area. As they burst open, 250,000 lethal ball bearings would tear through everything in the blast radius. For their victims, that could literally mean death by a thousand cuts.38 The “guava” cluster bomb, officially designated CBU-24, was even deadlier. Loaded with 640 to 670 separate BLU-26 bomblets, each packing 300 steel pellets, just one guava could send 200,000 steel fragments shooting in all directions as it hit the ground.39 A single B-52 bomber loaded with guava bomblets could saturate an area slightly smaller than a square mile with more than 7.5 million deadly steel pellets.40 From 1964 to 1971, the U.S. military ordered at least 37 million pineapples, and between 1966 and 1971 it bought approximately 285 million guava bomblets—nearly seven for each man, woman, and child in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia combined.41

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1523-35 | Added on Monday, July 22, 2013, 07:37 PM

Jimeson then offered the investigators a vivid account of the mission in question. On April 4, 1972, he had been a gunner/copilot in a two-man Cobra, part of a contingent of five UH-1 Hueys and four Cobra gunships assigned to support South Vietnamese military operations in Quang Nam Province. Eventually, they arrived at a village where, Jimeson said, the rules of engagement meant “anything that moves dies.” Jimeson was clearly uncomfortable with those rules; when the aircraft commander cleared him to fire on the Vietnamese below, he repeatedly “missed on purpose.” Pressure from his commander, however, eventually drove him to join in what he called a “blood bath.” Jimeson heard no ground fire but counted ten civilians killed during the mission. “I seen a lot of old ladies and kids,” he told the investigators. “I seen one old man—old. He had a white long beard. That was the only man I seen.”53 When the investigators talked to other members of the unit, the men were incredulous that anyone could possibly consider their actions to be a problem. Warrant Officer Thomas Equels, for example, emphasized to investigators that the pilots were following official orders—which called for them to destroy villages even in the absence of enemy fire. “We’ve blown up villages,” Equels explained, “but this is with clearance … and that’s the job to go out and destroy … villages.”54

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1607-15 | Added on Monday, July 22, 2013, 07:39 PM

In all, the United States expended close to 30 billion pounds of munitions in Southeast Asia over the course of the war.78 At the peak of its effort, in 1970, the U.S. was using up 128,400 tons of munitions per month. (By comparison, the revolutionary forces never fired more than 1,000 tons per month.)79 By the early 1970s, years before the war’s end, South Vietnam’s landscape was already pockmarked with an estimated 21 million craters, some of them twenty feet or more across.80 Analyzing the effects of the “tremendous firepower” of U.S. forces, two South Vietnamese generals wrote, “Many villages were completely obliterated … houses were reduced to rubble, innocent people were killed, untold numbers became displaced, riceland was abandoned, and as much as one half of the population of the countryside fled.”81

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1751-66 | Added on Monday, July 22, 2013, 11:40 PM

The attack on Saigon, it turned out, was part of a coordinated strategy. Revolutionary forces struck four other major cities, thirty-five of forty-four provincial capitals, sixty-four district seats, and fifty other locations throughout South Vietnam.113 Hoping to spark a popular uprising, guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars dug in wherever they could. This left the American forces with two options: fight at close quarters house by house to dislodge small bands of sappers and individual guerrillas or broadly target great swaths of cities and towns as they had long targeted the countryside. The United States chose the latter. “We had been trying for years to get them to come out in the open so we could slaughter them, and we slaughtered them.” That was how John Singlaub, the commander of a clandestine U.S. special operations force known as MACV-SOG, summed up the Tet counteroffensive. “I’ve never seen so many dead people stacked up.”114 The counteroffensive treated crowded cities as free-fire zones—with devastating results.115 As the journalist Neil Sheehan observed, “Saving of the soldiers’ lives was not the principal reason for the lack of restraint. It was more in the nature of a reflex to turn loose on the urban centers the ‘stomp-them-to-death’ firepower that had brutalized the Vietnamese countryside.”116 U.S. troops secured their own embassy floor by floor, but they employed more sweeping methods elsewhere. Bombs, shells, and rockets pounded entire residential neighborhoods, leaving nothing but smoldering rubble.117 In the streets, everyone was fair game.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1792-1810 | Added on Monday, July 22, 2013, 11:44 PM

At least 3,800 of Hue’s citizens were killed or reported missing as a result of the bombardment and battle, and 116,000 people were made homeless. More than three-quarters of the city’s homes were destroyed or seriously damaged.127 “Nothing I saw during the Korean War or in the Vietnam War so far has been as terrible, in terms of destruction and despair, as what I saw in Hue,” wrote the correspondent Robert Shaplen.128 Cheatham, the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, put it more simply: “We pretty much destroyed the place, I guess.”129 The brutality of the Tet counteroffensive became front-page news around the world when the national police chief, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, strode up to an unarmed, bound prisoner on a Saigon street, leveled his revolver, and put a bullet in the man’s brain. The scene was captured by the Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams and by an NBC television camera, and the shockingly close-range killing—the gun just a few inches from the prisoner’s temple, a grimace on his face at the moment of impact, blood spurting like a fountain in the video footage as the prisoner crumpled to the ground—became an indelible image of the war.130 Such summary executions were commonplace. A U.S. Army investigation, for example, looked into allegations that a South Vietnamese major, Nguyen Quang Ngoc, had murdered a prisoner in Nha Trang while U.S. Special Forces officers looked on. The execution, which took place around the same time as Loan’s killing of the prisoner in Saigon, was substantiated. What’s more, according to War Crimes Working Group documents, an American officer claimed that it was merely the tip of the iceberg. and that Ngoc and an American major, Wilbur Lee, had decided to kill seventeen or eighteen more prisoners to “improve the body count.”131 After Hue was retaken by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces, “black teams” of South Vietnamese assassins moved in, reportedly torturing and “disappearing” those accused of collaborating with the revolutionary forces, including women and children.132

 

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– Highlight Loc. 1903-9 | Added on Monday, July 22, 2013, 11:47 PM

Possibly as a result of this killing, or another in which a member of the battalion shot a farmer, Caputo received new instructions from higher headquarters: unarmed Vietnamese were not to be fired on, unless they were running. Running, however, was precisely what had led to the killing of the unarmed man near Hoi Vuc in the first place. Treating every running Vietnamese as a legitimate target was little short of an invitation to gun down any terrified peasant who panicked and fled in the face of heavily armed American troops. Momentarily bewildered, Caputo had the rules of engagement cleared up for him by a commander, who explained, “I talked to battalion and they said that as far as they’re concerned, if he’s dead and Vietnamese, he’s VC.”8

 

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– Highlight Loc. 2128-38 | Added on Monday, July 22, 2013, 11:57 PM

A few days after this incident, members of that same unit brutalized an elderly man to the point of collapse and then threw him off a cliff without even knowing whether he was dead or alive. A couple days after that, they used an unarmed man for target practice. In a sworn statement to army criminal investigators, unit member Andrew Akers said: “Frank [Pollard] put his weapon to his side like John Wayne and let it go at the man. [John] Perry was also firing his .45 caliber weapon at the man.” Jamie Henry also saw the man, telling army investigators, “He had been shot quite a few times and as I walked through they were shooting him with a .45 caliber pistol.” And less than two weeks later, members of Company B reportedly killed five unarmed women, whom Lieutenant Glenn Eisenhour reported to higher command as five enemy kills.56 Questioned later by army investigators, unit members rattled off a litany of other brutal acts committed by the company: an unarmed woman in her sixties executed on an officer’s orders; an unarmed elderly man killed in cold blood; a living woman who had an ear cut off while her baby was thrown to the ground and stomped on; a man purposely crushed to death by an armored vehicle; bunkers grenaded with civilians inside.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 2291-99 | Added on Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 12:03 AM

For Vietnamese villagers, perhaps the most unnerving thing about American and Korean patrols was the unpredictability of the soldiers’ behavior. In Nhon Hoa hamlet, a villager named Phan Van Nam explained to me that sometimes U.S. troops handed out candies. Sometimes they shot at people. Sometimes they passed through a village hardly touching a thing. Sometimes they burned all the homes. “We didn’t understand the reasons why they acted in the way they did,” he told me.92 Nam and other villagers described how on March 22, 1967, Nhon Hoa was visited by Korean troops and a couple of Americans. It was anyone’s guess what the outcome would be when they collected a group of villagers together—until the soldiers opened fire. Eighty-six of the eighty-eight people there were killed, including forty-five children, thirty women, and eleven elderly men. Only two old women survived. That same day, another eighteen people were killed at a separate site nearby.93

 

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– Highlight Loc. 2335-48 | Added on Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 12:15 AM

Of course, the practice of shooting children and other noncombatants just because they ran was by no means confined to Lanning’s company. After returning to the United States, David Bressem, who had been a helicopter copilot with B Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, told army investigators about seeing the results of one such incident near Duc Pho. One day in the summer of 1967, Bressem said, he noticed from his helicopter three or four bodies lying in a field, “among them a dead Vietnamese boy of about ten years, who still held the halter of a cow in his hands.” Radio conversations then informed him that there was “a body count of 33 people” in the field altogether, “of which a third were military age males, and the rest were women and children.” They had been spotted taking “evasive action”—that is, trying to run across the open stretch of land—and that had justified the deaths of all of them, male and female, young and old. This was not an isolated occurrence. In public testimony a year later, Bressem testified about one particularly egregious incident. We flew over a large rice paddy and there were some people working in the rice paddy, maybe a dozen or fifteen individuals, and we passed a couple of times low over their heads and they didn’t take any action, they were obviously nervous, but they didn’t try to hide or anything. So we then hovered a few feet off the ground among them with the two helicopters, turned on the police sirens and when they heard the police sirens, they started to disperse and we opened up on them and just shot them all down.107 Even flimsier pretexts for killing were often employed by other troops.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 2430-45 | Added on Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 12:18 AM

As the days went on, the situation in Charlie Company continued to degenerate. As one soldier put it, “First you’d stop the people, question them, and let them go. Second, you’d stop the people, beat up an old man, and let them go. Third, you’d stop the people, beat up an old man and then shoot him. Fourth, you go in and wipe out a village.”125 On March 14, 1968, after a booby trap killed one soldier and severely wounded two others, members of the unit went on a rampage through several hamlets. They beat up a villager on a bicycle, assaulted children, and set upon an unarmed woman. “They shot and wounded her,” one GI wrote in a letter home to his father later that day. “Then they kicked her to death and emptied their magazines in her head.”126 Two days later, the men of Charlie Company carried out the massacre at My Lai. While members of Charlie Company were herding terrified villagers into the infamous drainage ditch, the men of Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry, were sent to the nearby coastal hamlet of My Khe (4). Like the soldiers who entered My Lai, Company B encountered no enemy forces as they approached. In fact, peering through heavy brush and trees, the Americans saw only civilians—mostly women, children, and old men—going about their household chores. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Thomas Willingham had his two machine gunners pour preparatory fire into the enclave.127 When the machine guns stopped, the Americans entered the hamlet. As Willingham’s radioman, Mario Fernandez was in a position to see everything his commander did. According to army documents, Fernandez said that the point team—the first men into the hamlet—indiscriminately sprayed the area with rifle fire. Then the rest of the unit entered the village and Willingham gave orders to destroy it.128

 

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– Highlight Loc. 2501-13 | Added on Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 01:55 PM

According to the South Vietnamese government, Saigon officially had no refugees. In reality, the city was overflowing with them.6 By 1971, three-quarters of all urban residents in South Vietnam had, tellingly, been born elsewhere. And whereas city dwellers had once accounted for only 10 to 15 percent of South Vietnam’s population, that proportion swelled to 36 percent by 1968, and 43 percent by 1974.7

Some Americans were untroubled by the situation in Saigon. In a 1968 Foreign Affairs article, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington suggested that the United States “may well have stumbled upon the answer to ‘wars of national liberation’” through what he called “forced draft urbanization and modernization.”8 It was a concept he had worked out the year before in a secret study he wrote for the State Department.9 Huntington proposed that the “urban slum, which seems so horrible to middle-class Americans, often becomes for the poor peasant a gateway to a new and better way of life.” In the cities, he claimed, unemployment was low, and some peasants earned five times as much as they had in their villages.10 In other words, as Huntington saw it, bombing the Vietnamese out of the countryside and into the slums represented a marked step up for them.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 2680-93 | Added on Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 03:20 PM

Some compensation payments did get made. From mid-September 1968 through January 1969, 583 families in Hau Nghia Province received compensation from Saigon authorities or the U.S. military for deaths, injuries, or damages.54 But such payments hardly demonstrated any remorse or second thoughts by the Americans about their tactics. As specialist Michael Erard, who served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, explained, “We would pay them what they called a ‘solacium payment.’ Now the solacium payment was a condolence type payment … It in no way implied or implicated us as the perpetrators of this. So we would pay them a certain amount of money for people lost.”55 In 1968, the going rate for adult lives was thirty-three dollars, while children merited just half that.56 In one instance, after two members of Huynh Van Thanh’s family were crushed to death by cargo dropped from a U.S. helicopter, the American military paid him about sixty dollars and gave him some surplus food, a bottle of liquid soap, two coloring books, and a box of crayons.57 Other payments for U.S. misdeeds were made by the Saigon government. After the killing of twenty-three fishermen by American troops in Quang Nam Province in 1967, for example, South Vietnamese authorities gave each of the families who had lost a relative 110 kilograms of rice.58 Most often, however, victims and survivors received no aid at all.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 2744-51 | Added on Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 03:23 PM

Homes, graves, and pagodas fell prey to the same sort of casual potshots and destructive impulses, fueled by a toxic mix of youth, testosterone, racism, anger, boredom, fear, alienation, anonymity, impunity, and excitement.77 To some extent, the senseless destruction was the natural result of handing out weapons that packed tremendous firepower and could be fired from a great distance to young soldiers who were already at a great psychic distance from the very alien and confusing society they found themselves in. The M-79 grenade launcher, for example, allowed a soldier to kill from 430 yards away. This meant a GI could, say, target a water buffalo for kicks from the other side of a rice paddy and revel in the carnage from afar. Later in the war, even the standard M-16 rifle could be outfitted with a semiautomatic grenade launcher, a modification that, as military psychiatrist William Gault put it, made “every soldier a miniature artilleryman.”78

 

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– Highlight Loc. 2786-95 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 12:38 AM

Among those whom Livingston counted in the 90 percent who regarded the Vietnamese as subhuman was his commander, General George S. Patton III. Son of the famed World War II general of the same name, the younger Patton was known for his bloodthirsty attitude and the macabre souvenirs that he kept, including a Vietnamese skull that sat on his desk. He even carried it around at his end-of-tour farewell party.90 Of course, Patton was just one of many Americans who collected and displayed Vietnamese body parts. Given how contemptuously living Vietnamese were often treated by U.S. forces, it is not surprising that Vietnamese corpses were also often handled with little respect. Some soldiers hacked the heads off Vietnamese to keep, trade, or exchange for prizes offered by commanders.91 Many more cut off the ears of their victims, in the hopes that disfiguring the dead would frighten the enemy. Some of these trophies were presented to superiors as gifts or as proof to confirm a body count; others were retained by the “grunts” and worn on necklaces or otherwise displayed.92

 

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– Highlight Loc. 2818-28 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 12:41 AM

In addition to collecting souvenirs and gruesome photos, American troops mistreated corpses to send a message.99 Troops in the field regularly carved their unit’s initials or numbers into corpses, adorned bodies with their unit’s patch, or left a “death card”—generally either an ace of spades or a custom-printed business card claiming credit for the kill.100 Company A, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade, for example, left their victims with a customized ace of spades sporting the unit’s formal designation, its nickname (“Gunfighters”), a skull and crossbones, and the phrase “dealers of death.”101 Helicopter pilots, such as Captain Lynn Carlson, occasionally dropped similar specially made calling cards from their gunships. One side of Carlson’s card read: “Congratulations. You have been killed through courtesy of the 361st. Yours truly, Pink Panther 20.” The other side proclaimed, “The Lord giveth and the 20mm [cannon] taketh away. Killing is our business and business is good.”102

 

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– Highlight Loc. 2910-17 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 12:44 AM

Rape was a way of asserting dominance, and sometimes a weapon of war, employed in field interrogations of women captives to gain information about enemy troops.131 Aside from any such considerations, rural women were generally assumed by Americans to be secret saboteurs or the wives and girlfriends of Viet Cong guerrillas, and thus fair game. The reports of sexual assault implicated units up and down the country. A veteran who served with 198th Light Infantry Brigade testified that he knew of ten to fifteen incidents, within a span of just six or seven months, in which soldiers from his unit raped young girls.132 A soldier who served with the 25th Infantry Division admitted that, in his unit, rape was virtually standard operating procedure.133

 

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– Highlight Loc. 2958-68 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 12:48 AM

At My Lai, a number of soldiers became “double veterans,” as the GIs referred to men who raped and then murdered women. As the writers Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim reported, “Many women [at My Lai] were raped and sodomized, mutilated, and had their vaginas ripped open with knives or bayonets. One woman was killed when the muzzle of a rifle barrel was inserted into her vagina and the trigger was pulled.”146 In one sexual assault, three men held a teenage girl to the ground and violated her. Afterward, the girl was shot in the head and killed.147 As the record of the war indicates in copious fashion, however, such crimes were hardly confined to My Lai. A marine who had served in Quang Tin Province, for example, testified that a nine-man squad entered a village ostensibly to capture “a Viet Cong whore.” The men located a woman, then serially raped her. The last one of them shot her through the head.148 Once some American soldiers had vulnerable women or girls at their mercy, there was no apparent limit to their brutality.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3058-67 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 12:56 AM

Those in the field weren’t the only ones who knew what was going on. Even top Washington officials couldn’t remain blind to it. The International Committee of the Red Cross repeatedly notified the U.S. government that it was violating the 1949 Geneva Conventions by ignoring its responsibility to ensure that prisoners handed over to South Vietnamese authorities received humane treatment. On August 10, 1965, Secretary of State Dean Rusk finally agreed that the United States would apply all provisions of the Geneva Conventions in Vietnam.169 A year later, however, W. Averell Harriman, the ambassador-at-large for Southeast Asian affairs and the diplomat in charge of all prisoner-of-war matters, sent a secret telegram to Deputy Ambassador to South Vietnam William Porter suggesting that compliance was still not forthcoming. Despite a public declaration from the United States military that it was “observing both the letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions in Vietnam,” Harriman expressed concern that the United States had been “violating [the] Convention and will continue to violate it.”170

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3181-85 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 01:46 AM

On a day-to-day basis, places like Phu Quoc, Con Son, and the provincial interrogation centers were run by South Vietnamese authorities, which allowed Americans to maintain a certain distance from the brutal abuse of prisoners there—even if that abuse was meted out with American acquiescence, if not outright approval, and included techniques that had been taught by American instructors. But throughout the war, American forces also took an active, personal role in torturing detainees.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3311-19 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 06:51 AM

From premeditated execution of prisoners, it was only a small step to systematic targeted killings—that is, assassinations of specific individuals without any attempt to capture them alive or any thought of a legal trial. The CIA organized, coordinated, and paid for several such projects. In the words of one CIA analyst, these efforts were designed to use “techniques of terror—assassination, abuses, kidnappings, and intimidation—against the Viet Cong leadership.” The principal “counterterror” effort of this kind was the Phoenix program, which employed elite U.S. troops as well as South Vietnamese and other hired guns to “neutralize” members of the “Viet Cong infrastructure,” as the Americans called civilians working for the NLF.228 The task sounded straightforward, but the results were muddled and murderous. In 1969, the program reported 19,534 enemy “neutralizations,” including 4,832 people killed. But only 150 of those “neutralized” were classified as senior NLF cadres.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3324-35 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 06:53 AM

It didn’t take long for word to spread that Phoenix was a corrupt, informant-driven enterprise in which a significant number of noncombatants, some completely innocent, were captured, interrogated, or assassinated—that is, kidnapped, tortured, and killed—merely to meet quotas, win bounties, or settle grudges.230 The Distinguished Service Cross recipient Vincent Okamoto, who worked in the Phoenix program, categorized it as “uncontrolled violence” that sometimes degenerated into nothing more than “wholesale killing.”231 Even William Colby, the program’s director, conceded that there were some “illegal killings,” while Pentagon documents, distributed at the highest levels of the government, admitted that some Saigon officials were “using the program against personal enemies.”232 In testimony before the House Operations Subcommittee in 1971, Colby, who was by then the U.S. pacification chief in Vietnam, disclosed that the Phoenix program had by then killed at least 20,587 people.233 Before the same subcommittee and in other public testimony, the military intelligence veteran K. Barton Osborn described the blank check given to Phoenix operatives to torture and murder with impunity.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3354-59 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 07:00 AM

Take Sergeant Roy Bumgarner of the army’s 1st Cavalry Division and then 173rd Airborne Brigade in Binh Dinh Province, a soldier who reportedly amassed an astonishing personal body count of more than 1,500 enemy KIAs, sometimes logging more kills with his six-man “wildcat” team than the rest of his 500-man battalion combined.1 In March 1968, Private Arthur Williams, a sniper on Bumgarner’s scout team, told military authorities that on “at least four occasions” he had witnessed Bumgarner kill unarmed Vietnamese civilians—men doing nothing more than working in rice paddies or walking near their villages.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3486-93 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 07:05 AM

He arrived in Vietnam in September 1968 and took command of the Americal Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade the following month, eager to make his mark. It was soon an open secret among the troops that Donaldson and other commanders were killing civilians. One officer remembered that Donaldson and the chief intelligence officer “had the reputation of being gook hunters. The way I heard it the pair flew around in the colonel’s chopper with a crate of grenades, ‘frags’ they were called, and popped them in the rice fields over the ‘dinks’ who would attempt to run for cover when the chopper swooped down to chase them.”24 Another Americal officer recalled that Donaldson was “obsessed with having a good kill ratio and a good body count.… He was just a dink hunter.”

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3596-3605 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 07:15 AM

But all of this was merely a prelude to Ewell’s arrival. Taking charge of the 9th Division in February 1968, right after the Tet Offensive, Ewell—together with his equally ambitious chief of staff, Colonel Ira Hunt—soon set about reshaping it into a force ready and willing to wage an unrestrained war on the delta’s villages and deliver staggering body counts at all costs.56 He restructured the “Old Reliables” to increase the number of infantrymen in the field, the number of helicopter gunships in the air, and the number of night operations for both.57 According to Ronald Bartek, a fellow West Pointer who attended a briefing by Ewell, the general had a formula in mind for the conflict: “He wanted to begin killing ‘4,000 of these little bastards a month,’ and then by the end of the following month wanted to kill 6,000,” and so on from there.58 Ewell’s outbursts at subordinates quickly became legendary, and no one could be in his presence for long without being exposed to his body-count fixation.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3644-59 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 07:19 AM

As the planning for Speedy Express progressed, politics intervened to give Ewell a mandate for even more military resources and an even freer hand in employing them. With the U.S. presidential election looming in the fall of 1968, Lyndon Johnson decided to jump-start stagnant peace talks with the North Vietnamese and the NLF in Paris. This immediately gave added importance to Speedy Express, as the Pentagon sought to bring the rice-rich region and its huge population under Saigon’s control before any peace could break out. With the military eager for rapid results, Ewell became the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time for the Vietnamese of the Mekong Delta. The United States brought to bear every option in its arsenal: helicopter gunships firing off hundreds of rounds per minute, B-52s shaking the earth with their massive bomb loads, F-4 Phantoms dropping canisters of napalm by the ton, massive navy ships stationed off the coast that could hurl Volkswagen-sized shells at targets miles inland, Swift Boats patrolling the delta’s waterways with machine guns, elite teams of Navy SEALs, large numbers of snipers, and, of course, regular infantry by the thousands. “All of these efforts jelled in the winter and spring of 1968–1969, greatly increasing the combat power and flexibility of the division,” Ewell and Hunt later wrote in their history of the 9th Division’s operations in the delta.76 The statistics bear this out. During the first month of Speedy Express, the 9th Infantry Division logged a 24:1 kill ratio. It would jump to an astounding 68:1 in March and an eye-popping 134:1 in April.77 For the first quarter of 1969, the 9th Division had double the kill ratio of the next most prolific U.S. division. By April 1969, the Pentagon noted that of eight U.S. divisions then being tracked for statistical analysis, the 9th Infantry Division accounted for fully one-third of the enemy KIAs.78

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3754-63 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 07:24 AM

In May 1970, a few weeks before Ewell went off to Paris for the peace talks, a Vietnam veteran sat down to write a letter to General Westmoreland, now the army’s chief of staff. The My Lai scandal had become front-page news in the United States just the previous fall, and the veteran had followed coverage of the massacre and allegations of other war crimes swirling around in the press. But he was writing to offer eyewitness testimony about an atrocity far larger and more damning than the death of five hundred civilians in a single village: the mass killing of civilians in the Mekong Delta during Speedy Express, month after month, hamlet after hamlet. The veteran detailed tactics, named names, and begged for the military to take action on its own. “I don’t want to tell any Congressman for fear I will hurt the Army,” he explained. The missive was anonymous; the veteran signed it, simply, “Concerned Sergeant.” The Concerned Sergeant letter was remarkable for the way it detailed a pattern of criminality far larger than any single incident. Referencing the murder of a detainee that had recently made headlines, he told Westmoreland: “My information about killing is worse than shooting prisoners one time, it is about nobody giving a damn about the Vietnamese.”

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3860-66 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 07:32 AM

Bumgarner’s shootings of civilians, Donaldson’s “gook-hunting” missions, and Ewell’s blood-soaked Speedy Express were emblematic of the entire American enterprise in Vietnam. If one man and his tiny team could claim more KIAs than an entire battalion without raising red flags among superiors; if a brigade commander could up the body count by picking off civilians from his helicopter with impunity; if a top general could institutionalize atrocities through the profligate use of heavy firepower in areas packed with civilians—then what could be expected down the line, especially among heavily armed young infantrymen operating in the field for weeks, angry, tired, and scared, often unable to locate the enemy and yet relentlessly pressed for kills?

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3969-76 | Added on Friday, August 02, 2013, 07:40 AM

On November 13, Hersh’s article ran in thirty-five newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Milwaukee Journal. Within a couple of weeks, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Life had both published grisly photographs of the massacre taken by Ron Haeberle, including a heap of civilian bodies with children clearly among them. Adding fuel to the fire, Charlie Company’s Paul Meadlo appeared in a CBS television interview with Mike Wallace, confessing his crimes.26 He admitted that the troops had rounded up and shot hundreds of men, women, and children. “And babies?” Wallace asked repeatedly. “And babies,” Meadlo replied.27

 

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– Highlight Loc. 3988-98 | Added on Saturday, August 03, 2013, 05:18 AM

Peers, however, went beyond this limited mandate, and his panel’s final report was far more frank than the army wished. As background to its investigation of the cover-up, the panel forthrightly stated that American soldiers had engaged in “widespread killing of Vietnamese inhabitants” in the area, and that these inhabitants were “comprised almost exclusively of old men, women, and children.”31 The language of the inquiry’s report left little doubt about what had occurred. It concluded that “the crimes visited on the inhabitants … included individual and group acts of murder, rape, sodomy, maiming, and assault on noncombatants,” spoke of a “massacre” and “an almost total disregard for the lives and property of the civilian population,” and concluded that the number of Vietnamese killed “may exceed 400.”32 Moving on to the massacre’s cover-up, the report then detailed a pattern of “deliberate suppression or withholding of information … at every command level from company to division.”33

 

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– Highlight Loc. 4020-27 | Added on Saturday, August 03, 2013, 05:20 AM

The heat generated by the coverage of the massacre got Nixon asking questions about other potential My Lais on the horizon. By the beginning of 1970, Westmoreland had assembled an unofficial task force from members of his staff to monitor allegations of war crimes and serve as an early-warning system for the Pentagon and the president. Over the next few years, the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group continuously kept an eye on the army’s atrocity investigations and provided regular reports to the military brass and the White House. The group did not work to bring accused war criminals to justice or to prevent war crimes from occurring in the first place. Nor did it make public the constant stream of allegations flowing in from soldiers and veterans. As far as the War Crimes Working Group was concerned, these allegations were purely an image management problem, to be parried or buried as quickly as possible. Over time, the group became a key part of the Pentagon’s system for hiding the true nature of the war from the American public.38

 

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– Highlight Loc. 4176-86 | Added on Saturday, August 03, 2013, 05:28 AM

As the year went on, the emphasis on command policies became more and more a part of the public discourse. In March, the New York Times Book Review splashed across its front page a seminal essay by Neil Sheehan, an army veteran who had spent three years as a combat correspondent in Southeast Asia. The essay’s title alone was explosive: “Should We Have War Crimes Trials?”61 Sheehan’s answer was an unqualified yes. After cataloging thirty-three books detailing various aspects of the U.S. way of war in Southeast Asia, Sheehan wrote: “If you credit as factual only a fraction of the information assembled here about what happened in Vietnam, and if you apply the laws of war to American conduct there, then the leaders of the United States for the past six years at least … may well be guilty of war crimes.” For the army’s high command, Sheehan’s essay represented everything they feared. In a report put together shortly after the piece was published, one of the cadre of officers working out of Westmoreland’s office fretted about the effort to “propel the war crimes issue to the forefront of national attention and political debate.”62

 

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– Highlight Loc. 4192-99 | Added on Saturday, August 03, 2013, 05:30 AM

While the Pentagon Papers didn’t deal with atrocities per se, the study contained candid analyses and secret documents outlining official lies that had kept the American public in the dark about the war through four presidential administrations. Chief among the revelations was the fact that, despite high-minded public rhetoric, U.S. war managers had little if any concern for the Vietnamese people, regarding South Vietnam as nothing more than a strategic site in the Cold War power struggle. Sheehan’s first articles about the secret study ran in the New York Times in June 1971, and the airing of decades’ worth of deceptions—along with the government’s strenuous efforts to prevent newspapers from publishing more of the material—added to the growing public perception that the Pentagon could not be trusted.64 More and more, the tide of public opinion was turning against the ongoing conflict.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 4316-25 | Added on Saturday, August 03, 2013, 05:35 AM

At the same time, Nixon was steadily rebranding the conflict. A policy of “Vietnamization”—handing the ground war over to South Vietnamese forces and drawing down U.S. troops—had begun in the waning days of the Johnson administration, and by mid-1971 it increasingly pushed the war off the newspaper front pages. Fewer American combat troops and fewer American deaths, plus a war fatigue that struck newsrooms and living rooms alike, increasingly reduced the ongoing conflict to a secondary issue. “Once we’ve broken the war in Vietnam,” Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, told the president, “no one will give a damn about war crimes.”92 What’s more, the exposure of My Lai paradoxically worked against bringing other war crimes to public attention. Atypically large as far as massacres by ground troops were concerned, My Lai dwarfed other mass killings, making many of the atrocity allegations that surfaced later seem small and less newsworthy by comparison. It was almost as if America’s leading media outlets had gone straight from ignoring atrocities to treating them as old news, with just a brief flurry of interest in between.

 

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– Highlight Loc. 4356-67 | Added on Monday, August 05, 2013, 05:33 AM

In the course of their investigation, Buckley and Shimkin found that the 9th Infantry Division had reported killing 10,899 enemy troops during Speedy Express, even though it recovered only 748 weapons.94 By comparison, South Vietnamese forces fighting alongside the 9th Division—long disparaged for their lack of combat prowess—had captured more than ten times as many weapons.95 For some weeks in March and April 1969, the 9th Division’s kills-to-weapons ratios were simply ridiculous. During the week of April 19, for instance, 699 guerrillas had been added to the division’s body count (at the cost of a single American life), but only nine weapons were captured.96 Over the second half of 1971, the two reporters mined almost every source available to them to learn more about the operation. They spoke to American military officers, 9th Infantry Division veterans, and American advisers who had worked in the delta. They traveled—on foot, by jeep, in boats, and even by raft—into the areas hit hardest by Speedy Express to interview South Vietnamese officials and the villagers filtering back to their ruined hamlets. They surveyed vast areas of destruction—gunfire-pocked buildings, house-less bunkers, cratered rice fields, endless groves of decapitated coconut trees. All the evidence pointed to utterly unrestrained violence on a grand scale.

 

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Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (Nick Turse)

 

– Highlight Loc. 4463-71 | Added on Monday, August 05, 2013, 05:43 AM

The inspector general’s report called Buckley’s article “irresponsible” and attempted, at every turn, to minimize American culpability. Nevertheless, its conclusions were stunning. Not only did the report paint the Newsweek figure of 5,000 noncombatant deaths as a low-end estimate, which meant that noncombatants were likely the majority of those killed by U.S. forces during Speedy Express, but it also validated Buckley’s contention that civilian deaths were “a constant, accepted and indeed inevitable result” of Ewell’s operation. Moreover, the secret report acknowledged that commanders had initiated the atrocities with eyes wide open: “The U.S. command, in its extensive experience with large scale combat operations in Southeast Asia, appreciated the inevitability of significant civilian casualties in the conduct of large operations in densely populated areas such as the Delta.”113 The inspector general’s findings were the ultimate smoking gun. But they, too, were expertly suppressed.

 

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