Sunday, September 14, 2008

Michael Sallah on "Tiger Force" and the Horror of the Vietnam War

(Originally Published in the Denver Post in August 2006)

The Atrocities of War, as Explored by Two Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalists

By Dylan Foley

In 1967, Tiger Force, an elite commando unit from the Army’s 101st Airborne Divisionwent on a seven-month rampage through the Central Highlands of Vietnam, burning down peasant villages and killing men, women and children. A report issued by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division in 1974 implicated individual soldiers in the atrocities. The report accused the unit’s commanders of turning a blind eye to rampant atrocities that killed hundreds of civilians. In 1975, the Defense Department under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld covered up the report.

In 2002, reporters Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss of the Toledo Blade, received a box of still-classified Army documents revealing the Tiger Force atrocities. In a series that ran in the Blade, Sallah and Weiss interviewed dozens of former Tiger Force soldiers and Vietnamese survivors for a three-part series that won them the 2004 Pulitzer Prize.

In their riveting new book, “Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War”(Little, Brown, $26), Sallah and Weiss detail a 40-man unit descending into the heart of darkness. Led by an incompetent captain and egged on by their commanders, the commandos destroy ed villages, shot anything that moved and made necklaces out of human ears. The book details the hellish atrocities, but then moves on the fascinating detective story of one Army criminal investigator, Warrant Officer Gus Aspey, who was determined to bring the killers to justice. Finally, the book is a powerful exploration of why fighting men unravel in combat.

In a recent interview in New York City, Sallah sat down to discuss one of the darkest chapters in America’s war in Vietnam. The war crimes investigation, he said, started with the murder of a baby.

“The investigation started in 1971,” said 50-year-old Sallah. “Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) agents were investigating another company. They ran across a sergeant named Gary Coy. He mentioned the story of a baby’s head being cut off by a soldier named Sam in the Central Highlands. They realized the soldier was in Tiger Force.”

Using numerous interviews and quoting government reports, the two reporters write a vivid story of a unit operating without supervision, where the killing of civilians became routine, and men who initially refused to kill civilians were pulled into heinous atrocities. In late 1960s, it was a time of “free fire zones,” where civilians were fair game and the Army inflated body counts.

The Tiger Force was an experimental unit used to beat the Viet Cong at their own game. “Tiger Force was a ‘recondo’ unit, both reconnaissance and co mmando unit,” said Sallah. “They were set up in 1965 to ‘out-guerilla the guerillas.’ This was the kind of war where soldiers were fighting in underground tunnels and dealing with ambushes and booby traps. Tiger force members wore their own tiger-strip fatigues, grew beards and carried their own side arms. The Army would screen the enlistees: ‘What is your willingness to kill? Can you kill close up? Can you slit a person’s throat without flinching?’ They wanted bad@sses.”

As evidence mounts that U.S. Marines angered over the death of a comrade shot and killed 24 men, women and children in Haditha, Iraq, last November, the Tiger Force story gains a grim relevance. Why do atrocities occur in war? How can they be stopped, or at least how can the killers be brought to justice?

Tiger Force’s murderous rampage started in April 1967. “They got a new commander named Captain James Hawkins, a yahoo who was not a very good soldier,” said Sallah. “Tiger Force was sent to the Central Highlands to clean out the farmers of the Song Ve Valley. The Tigers were used as terrorists to get the civilians out. The Army commanders said, ‘Send the Tigers in. They are the mop up. They are the fist.’ They were the commanders’ kill squad.”

Almost as soon as they are sent into the Song Ve Valley, Hawkins murdered an elderly farmer. He orders 10 more farmers mowed down. Squad leaders William Doyle and=2 0James Barnett forced reluctant soldiers to kill civilians. The most vicious killer, Sam Ybarra, who kills the infant, took scalps and ears of civilians he has murdered.

“All of these guys dehumanized the enemy, that the Vietnamese were less than human,” said Sallah. “You could kill any of them. It didn’t matter if they were older or younger, or farmers in the field begging for their lives. Tiger Force soldiers would watch women and children run into bomb shelters. They would unclip their grenades and throw them in, turning the shelters into mass graves.”

There was, however, the heroism of the men who refused to kill civilians. “Some of the men who refused to cross the line, who risked their lives to save prisoners and civilians, were Donald Wood, Gerald Bruner and Manny Sanchez,” said Sallah. “Look at their backgrounds--they were deeply religious. They refused to go along with the plan. At one point Bruner lifted up his rifle to another soldier. He said, ‘If you grease that kid, I am going to grease you.’”

Sallah and Weiss dug up extensive evidence that military brass knew what was going on.

“Men in the unit went above their officers and told the commanders,” said Sallah. “They did nothing. The unit commander, Lt. Col. Gerald Morse, had access to the battle records. He knew that Tiger Force was supposedly killing Viet Cong but no weapons were seized. In one 11-day person, 50 ‘ V.C.’ were killed, but not one weapon was seized. The commanders should have known. The battalion surgeon said, ‘We knew all these body mutilations and war crimes were going on in the field, but we didn’t want to know much more.’”

Instead of stopping the massacres, Morse pushed his men for higher body counts. “Morse had the radio code name ‘Ghost Rider,’” said Sallah. “Soldiers heard a man named Ghost Rider say over the radio, “You’re the 327th Infantry. I want 327 kills.’”

It was the Austrian-born Army investigator Gus Aspey who brought the Tiger Force atrocities to light through a four-year investigation that sent 100 investigators to 63 U.S. military bases around the world. “The investigation was hell for him,” said Sallah. “He was undermined at the bottom and the top in the CID. He was unrelenting. He was a pitbull.”

Despite the extensive evidence of atrocities, no charges were filed. The final Tiger Force report was buried for three decades and a shocked Aspey was banished to a CID office in Seoul, Korea. “It was November 1975, the same month that Donald Rumsfeld took over as President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Defense,” said Sallah. “Dick Cheney was Ford’s chief of staff. The war was over. Rumsfeld wanted to get beyond Vietnam. We had lost. You didn’t want something like this coming out. It was another My Lai.”

After covering the Tiger Force story, Sallah blames the commanders for the ongoing killings. “The story of Tiger Force is a breakdown in leadership,’ said Sallah. “I don’t blame the men. I blame the leadership that could of stopped the atrocities.”

Sallah raised the bleak specter that the U.S. military hasn’t learned any lessons from Vietnam. “[Tiger Force] is a classic case study on how soldiers break down during counterinsurgency guerilla warfare,” said Sallah. “The Tiger Force story could help with the safeguards and training that all soldiers need in battle. We can learn from this today, but the Army doesn’t recognize these things. You are going to find things like Tiger Force happening in Iraq.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in New York City

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