Ex-G.I.'s tell of Vietnam brutality
Monday, December 29, 2003
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, U.S. 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.
They threw hand grenades into dugout shelters, often killing entire
"Can you imagine Dodge City without a sheriff?" Kerney asked.
"It's just nuts," he said. "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."
The two are among a handful of soldiers at the heart of a series of
investigative articles by The Blade, based in Toledo, Ohio, that has
once again raised questions about the conduct of U.S. troops in
The report, published in October and entitled "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 it described the killing of hundreds of unarmed
"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, "the longest-known
war-crime investigation of the Vietnam conflict." 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 to do 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 U.S. 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."
In a later e-mail message, he elaborated: "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
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
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
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
"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
"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
David 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. It was out of hand very early. There were
hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers
of bodies you counted."
Lieutenant 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," Curry said. "The case is more than 30 years old.
Criminal Investigation Command conducted a lengthy investigation
when the allegations surfaced four years after they reportedly
The New York Times
USA & eternal war