October 19, 2003, the Ohio-based newspaper the Toledo Blade
launched a four-day
series of investigative reports exposing a string of atrocities
by an elite, volunteer, 45-man "Tiger Force" unit of the
U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division over the course of seven months
in 1967. The Blade goes on to state that in 1971 the Army began
a 4.5 year investigation of the alleged torture of prisoners, rapes
of civilian women, the mutilation of bodies and killing of anywhere
from nine to well over one hundred unarmed civilians, among other
acts. The articles further report that the Army's inquiry concluded
that 18 U.S. soldiers committed war crimes ranging from murder and
assault to dereliction of duty. However, not one of the soldiers,
even of those still on active duty at the time of the investigation,
was ever court martialed in connection with the heinous crimes. Moreover,
six suspected war criminals were allowed to resign from military service
during the criminal investigations specifically to avoid prosecution.
The Toledo Blade articles represent some of the best reporting
on a Vietnam War crime by any newspaper, during or since the end of
the conflict. Unfortunately, the articles tell a story that was all
too common. As a historian writing his dissertation on U.S. war crimes
and atrocities during the Vietnam War, I have been immersed in just
the sort of archival materials the Toledo Blade used in its
pieces, but not simply for one incident but hundreds if not thousands
of analogous events. I can safely, and sadly, say that the "Tiger
Force" atrocities are merely the tip of the iceberg in regard
to U.S.-perpetrated war crimes in Vietnam. However, much of the mainstream
historical literature dealing with Vietnam War atrocities (and accompanying
cover-ups and/or sham investigations), has been marginalized to a
great extent aside from obligatory remarks concerning the My Lai
massacre, which is, itself, often treated as an isolated event. Unfortunately,
the otherwise excellent reporting of the Toledo Blade draws
upon and feeds off this exceptionalist argument to a certain extent.
As such, the true scope of U.S.-perpetrated atrocities is never fully
addressed in the articles. The men of the "Tiger Force"
are labeled as "Rogue GIs" and the authors simply mention
the that Army "conducted 242 war-crimes investigations in Vietnam,
[that] a third were substantiated, leading to 21 convictions... according
to a review of records at the National Archives" – facts of dubious
value that obscure the scope and number of war crimes perpetrated
in Vietnam and feed the exceptionalist argument.
Even an accompanying Blade piece on "Other Vietnam Atrocities,"
tends to decontextualize the "Tiger Force" incidents,
treating them as fairly extraordinary events by listing only three
other relatively well known atrocity incidents: former Senator, presidential
candidate and Navy SEAL Bob Kerrey's raid on the hamlet of Thang Phong;
the massacre at Son Thang sometimes referred to as the "Marine
Corps' My Lai"; and the war crimes allegations of Lt. Col. Anthony
Herbert most famously chronicled in his memoir Soldier.
This short list, however, doesn't even hint at the scope and number
of similar criminal acts.
For example, the Toledo Blade reports
that its "review of thousands of classified Army documents, National
Archives records, and radio logs reveals [the "Tiger Force"]
... carried out the longest series of atrocities in the Vietnam War
[from May and November, 1967]...". Unfortunately, this seven
month atrocity-spree is not nearly the longest on record. Nor is it
even the longest string of atrocities by one unit within its service
branch. According to formerly classified Army documents, an investigation
disclosed that from at least March 1968 through October 1969, "Vietnamese
[civilian] detainees were subjected to maltreatment" by no less
than twenty-three separate interrogators of the 172d Military Intelligence
(MI) Detachment. The inquiry found that, in addition to using "electrical
shock by means of a field telephone," an all too commonly used
method of torture by Americans during the war, MI personnel also struck
detainees with their fists, sticks and boards and employed a form
of water torture which impaired prisoners' ability to breath.
Similar to the "Tiger Force" atrocities chronicled by the
Blade, documents indicate that no disciplinary actions were
taken against any of the individuals implicated in the long-running
series of atrocities, including 172d MI personnel Norman Bowers, Franciszek
Pyclik and Eberhard Gasper who were all on active duty at the time
that the allegations were investigated by Army officials. In fact,
in 1972, Bowers' commanding general pronounced that "no disciplinary
or administrative action" would be taken against the suspected
war criminal and in a formerly classified memorandum to the U.S. Army
Chief of Staff, prepared by Colonel Murray Williams on behalf of Brigadier
General R.G. Gard in January 1973, it was noted that the "...determination
by commanders to take no action against three personnel on active
duty who were suspected of committing an offense" had not been
publicly acknowledged. Their crimes and identities kept a secret,
Bowers, Pyclik and Gasper apparently escaped any prosecution, let
alone punishment, for their alleged actions.
Similarly, the Toledo Blade pays particular attention to Sam
Ybarra, a "notorious suspect," who was named in seven of
the thirty "Tiger Force" war crimes allegations investigated
by the Army including the rape and fatal stabbing of a 13-year-old
girl and the brutal
killing of a 15-year-old boy. Yet, Ybarra's notorious reputation
may well pale in comparison to that of Sergeant Roy E. "the Bummer"
Bumgarner, a soldier who served with the 1st Cavalry Division and
later the 173d Airborne Brigade. According to a former commander,
"the Bummer" was rumored to have "personally killed
over 1,500 people" during a forty-two week stretch in Vietnam.
Even if the number was exaggerated, clues on how Bumgarner may have
obtained high "body counts" came to light in the course
of an Army criminal investigation of an incident that took place on
February 25, 1969. According to investigation documents, Bumgarner
and a subordinate rounded up three civilians found working in a rice
paddy, marched them to a secluded area and murdered them. "The
Bummer" then arranged the bodies on the ground with their heads
together and a grenade was exploded next to them in an attempt to
cover-up their crime. Assorted weapons were then planted near the
mutilated corpses to make them appear to have been enemy troops.
During an Army criminal investigation of the incident, men in Bumgarner's
unit told investigators that they had heard rumors of the sergeant
carrying out similar acts in the past. Said one soldier in a sworn
statement to Army investigators:
"I've heard of Bumgarner doing it before planting weapons
on bodies when there is doubt as to their military status. I've heard
quite a few rumors about Bumgarner killing unarmed people. Only a
couple weeks ago I heard that Bumgarner had killed a Vietnamese girl
and two younger kids (boys), who didn't have any weapons."
Unlike Sam Ybarra, who had been discharged from the military by the
time the allegations against him came to light and then refused to
cooperate with investigators, "the Bummer" was charged with
premeditated murder and tried by general court martial. He was convicted
only of manslaughter and his punishment consisted merely of a demotion
in rank and a fine of $97 a month for six months. Moreover, after
six months, Bumgarner promptly re-enlisted in the Army. His first
and only choice of assignments Vietnam. Records indicate he got
Military records demonstrate that the "Tiger Force" atrocities
are only the tip of a vast submerged history of atrocities in Vietnam.
In fact, while most atrocities were likely never chronicled or reported,
the archival record is still rife with incidents analogous to those
profiled in the Blade articles, including the following atrocities
chronicled in formerly classified Army documents:
A November 1966 incident in which an officer in the Army's Fourth
Infantry Division, severed an ear from a Vietnamese corpse and affixed
it to the radio antenna of a jeep as an ornament. The officer was
given a non-judicial punishment and a letter of reprimand.
An August 1967 atrocity in which a 13-year-old Vietnamese child was
raped by American MI interrogator of the Army's 196th Infantry Brigade.
The soldier was convicted only of indecent acts with a child and assault.
He served seven months and sixteen days for his crime.
A September 1967 incident in which an American sergeant killed two
Vietnamese children executing one at point blank range with a bullet
to the head. Tried by general court martial in 1970, the sergeant
pleaded guilty to, and was found guilty of, unpremeditated murder.
He was, however, sentenced to no punishment.
An atrocity that took place on February 4, 1968, just over a month
before the My Lai massacre, in the same province by a man from the
same division (Americal). The soldier admitted to his commanding officer
and other men of his unit that he gunned down three civilians as they
worked in a field. A CID investigation substantiated his confession
and charges of premeditated murder were preferred against him. The
soldier requested a discharge, which was granted by the commanding
general of the Americal Division, in lieu of court martial proceedings.
A series of atrocities similar to, and occurring the same year as,
the "Tiger Force" war crimes in which one unit allegedly
engaged in an orgy of murder, rape and mutilation, over the course
of several months.
While not yielding the high-end body count estimate of the "Tiger
Force" series of atrocities, the above incidents begin to demonstrate
the ubiquity of the commission of atrocities on the part of American
forces during the Vietnam War. Certainly, war crimes, such as murder,
rape and mutilation were not an everyday affair for American combat
soldiers in Vietnam, however, such acts were also by no means as exceptional
as often portrayed in recent historical literature or as tacitly alluded
to in the Blade articles.
The excellent investigative reporting of the Toledo Blade is
to be commended for shedding light on war crimes committed by American
soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division in 1967. However, it is equally
important to understand that the "Tiger Force" atrocities
were not the mere result of "Rogue GIs" but instead stem
from what historian Christian Appy has termed the American "doctrine
of atrocity" during the Vietnam War a strategy built upon
official U.S. dictums relating to the body count, free-fire zones,
search and destroy tactics and the strategy of attrition as well as
unofficial tenets such as "kill anything that moves," intoned
during the "Tiger Force" atrocities and in countless other
atrocity tales, or the "mere gook rule" which held that
"If its dead and Vietnamese, it's VC." Further, it must
also be recognized that the "Tiger Force" atrocities, the
My Lai massacre, the Herbert allegations and the few other better-known
war crimes were not isolated or tangentially-related incidents, but
instead are only the most spectacular or best publicized of what was
an on-going string of atrocities, large and small, that spanned the
entire duration of the war.
headline of one Blade article proclaims, "Earlier Tiger
Force probe could have averted My Lai carnage," referring to
the fact that the 101st Airborne Division's "Tiger Force"
troops operated in the same province (Quang Ngai), with the same mission
(search and destroy) months before the Americal Division's men committed
their war crimes. But atrocities were not a localized problem or one
that only emerged in 1967. Instead, the pervasive disregard for the
laws of war had begun prior to U.S. buildup in 1965 and had roots
in earlier conflicts. Only by recognizing these facts can we hope
to begin to understand the "Tiger Force" atrocities and
the history of American war crimes in Vietnam, writ large.
Turse is a Columbia University graduate student completing a dissertation
on American war crimes during the Vietnam War.