Quang Ngai and Quang Nam are provinces in central Vietnam, between the mountains and the sea. Ken Kerney, William Doyle and Rion Causey tell horrific stories about what they saw and did there as soldiers in 1967.
That spring and fall, American troops conducted operations there to engage the enemy and drive peasants out of villages and into heavily guarded "strategic hamlets." The goal was to deny the Viet Cong support, shelter and food.
The fighting was intense and the results, the former soldiers say, were especially brutal. Villages were bombed, burned and destroyed. As the ground troops swept through, in many cases they gunned down men, women and children, sometimes mutilating bodies -- cutting off ears to wear on necklaces.
PHOTO: NY TIMES
They threw hand grenades into dugout shelters, often killing entire families.
"Can you imagine Dodge City without a sheriff?" Kerney asked. "It's just nuts. You never had a safe zone. It's shoot too quick or get shot. You're scared all the time, you're humping all the time. You're scared. These things happen."
Doyle said he lost count of the people he killed: "You had to have a strong will to survive. I wanted to live at all costs. That was my primary thing, and I developed it to an instinct."
PHOTO: NY TIMES
The two are among a handful of soldiers at the heart of a series of investigative articles by The Toledo Blade that has once again raised questions about the conduct of American troops in Vietnam.
The report, published in October and titled "Rogue G.I.'s Unleashed Wave of Terror in Central Highlands," said that in 1967, an elite unit, a reconnaissance platoon in the 101st Airborne Division, went on a rampage that the newspaper described as "the longest series of atrocities in the Vietnam War."
"For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians -- in some cases torturing and mutilating them -- in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public," the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians.
"Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers," The Blade said. "Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed -- their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings."
In 1971, the newspaper said, the Army began a criminal investigation that lasted four and a half years. Ultimately, the investigators forwarded conclusions that 18 men might face charges, but no courts-martial were brought.
In recent telephone interviews with The New York Times, three of the former soldiers quoted by the Blade confirmed that the articles had accurately described their unit's actions.
But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a "rogue" unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing.
"The story that I'm not sure is getting out," said Causey, then a medic with the unit, "is that while they're saying this was a ruthless band ravaging the countryside, we were under orders to do it."
Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops.
The tactics -- particularly in "free-fire zones," where anyone was regarded as fair game -- arose from the frustrating nature of the guerrilla war and, above all, from the military's reliance on the body count as a measure of success and a reason officers were promoted, according to many accounts.
Nicholas Turse, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities.
"I stumbled across the incidents the Blade reported," Turse said by telephone. "I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds."
Yet there were few prosecutions.
Besides the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians in 1968, only 36 cases involving possible war crimes from Vietnam went to Army court-martial proceedings, with 20 convictions, according to the Army judge advocate general's office.
Guenter Lewy, who cited the Army figures in his 1978 book, America in Vietnam, wrote that if a soldier killed a civilian, the incident was unlikely to be reported as a war crime: "It was far more likely that the platoon leader, under pressure for body count and not anxious to demonstrate the absence of good fire discipline in his unit, would report the incident as `1 VC suspect shot while evading.'"
Causey, now a nuclear engineer in California, said: "It wasn't like it was hidden. This was open and public behavior. A lot of guys in the 101st were cutting ears. It was a unique time period."
Kerney, now a firefighter in California, agreed that the responsibility went higher.
"I'm talking about the guys with the eagles," he said, referring to the rank insignia of a full colonel. "It was always about the body count. They were saying, `You guys have the green light to do what's right.'"
While Causey and Kerney became deeply troubled after they returned from Vietnam, Doyle, a sergeant who was a section leader in the unit, seemed unrepentant in a long, profanity-laced telephone conversation.
"I've seen atrocities in Vietnam that make Tiger Force look like Sunday school," said Doyle, who joined the Army at 17 when a judge gave him, a young street gang leader, a chance to escape punishment.
"If you're walking down a jungle trail, those that hesitate die," said Doyle, who lives in Missouri. "Everybody I killed, I killed to survive. They make Tiger Force out to be an atrocity. Well, that's almost a compliment. Because nobody will understand the evil I've seen."
The American public was shocked in November 1969 when the reporter Seymour M. Hersh broke the news of the My Lai massacre. Years later, it was revealed that a Navy Seal team led by Bob Kerrey, who would go on to become a US senator and is now president of New School University in New York, had killed 21 women, children and old men during a raid on the village Thanh Phong in 1969.
"My Lai was a shock to everyone except people in Vietnam," recalled Kevin Buckley, who covered the war for Newsweek from 1968 to 1972 and reported on an operation called Speedy Express, in which nearly 11,000 were killed but only 748 weapons were recovered.
At his court-martial in the My Lai massacre, Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr., the only person convicted in the case, said: "I felt then -- and I still do -- that I acted as directed, I carried out my orders, and I did not feel wrong in doing so." He was paroled in 1975 after serving three and a half years under house arrest.
In spring 1971, embittered veterans demonstrated against the war in Washington, many throwing away their medals.
One of their leaders, John Kerry, then a recently discharged Navy officer, now a senator and presidential candidate, delivered an impassioned speech to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971.
American troops in Vietnam, he said, had "raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."
Kerry's account came from his own experience, as well as from a three-day conference of the fledgling Vietnam Veterans Against the War. At the conference, he said, "over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."
A transcript of that meeting makes for hair-raising reading. The returned troops told of the slaughter of civilians; "reconnaissance by fire," or soldiers shooting blindly; "harassment and interdiction fire," with artillery being used to shell villages; captives thrown from helicopters; severed ears drying in the sun or being swapped for beers; and "Zippo inspections" of cigarette lighters in preparation for burning villages.
David H. Hackworth, a retired colonel and much-decorated veteran of the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam who later became a journalist and author, said that he created the Tiger Force unit in 1965 to fight guerrillas using guerrilla tactics. Hackworth was not in command of the unit during the period covered by the Blade articles because he had rotated out of Vietnam.
"Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go," Hackworth said in a recent telephone interview. "It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted."
Lieutentant Colonel Kevin Curry, an Army spokesman, said the Army had compared the Blade articles with the written record of the earlier investigation and did not intend to reopen the case.
"Absent any new or compelling evidence, there are no plans to reopen the case," Colonel Curry said. "The case is more than 30 years old. Criminal Investigation Command has conducted a lengthy investigation when the allegations surfaced four years after they reportedly occurred."
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