Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tiger Force

Now here's a book that could have been called "American Carnage," but unlike the exciting heavy metal tour I previously covered, this book will simultaneously disgust and anger you while reading it. Not because it's a bad book. It's almost impossible to put down, but learning what some American soldiers and officers did will stir up emotions. If you want to know why the United States lost the Vietnam War, read Tiger Force by Michael Sullah and Mitch Weiss.

How could an Army unit rampage through the jungles and rice paddies of South Vietnam for seven months, kill unarmed civilians they encountered, commit ghastly atrocities, and get away with it? That is the question at the heart of the book.

The title refers to a unit within the 101st Airborne Division created by Major David Hackworth as a force to operate deep in enemy territory as a reconnaissance and commando group, to "outguerrilla the guerrillas." Working in small teams, the Tigers were an aggressive force, inflicting and sustaining heavy casualties. Experienced combat soldiers were recruited, specifically soldiers who displayed little or no qualms about killing. They were designed to operate with fewer restrictions and command than regular army units, cut through the red tape, and take action. They were praised by the likes of General Westmoreland and heavily distinguished.

Things turned ugly in the summer of 1967. After a battle known as the Mother's Day Massacre in which many Tigers were killed, the unit was replenished with less experienced soldiers, and the Tigers were deployed to the central highlands of South Vietnam for a clearing operation. The area was considered strategically valuable, and the Buddhist farmers were suspected of aiding the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, so they were ordered to relocation camps. Those who refused were forcibly removed by gunpoint, and their homes and crops were destroyed. Angered by their friends' deaths, frightened of an enemy they couldn't find, exhausted by marching through the jungle for weeks' without rest, the Tigers gradually lost control until they regularly shot any Vietnamese they encountered and leveled every hut with gunfire. Other war crimes included torture, humiliation, rape, and murder. No one was safe.

How did this happen? Failure of command. Rather than prevent this behavior, battalion officers looked the other way and even encouraged it in some cases. Officers such as unit leader Hawkins, who got the team drunk in the jungle, led them on patrol, and executed prisoners. Veterans who set bad examples for rookies. Officers who kept the Tigers in the field far past their physical, mental, and emotional breaking points, treating them as flags on a map rather than as men. Generals such as Westmoreland who thought the best way to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people was to force them to leave the farms of their ancestors, draft their sons into an obviously corrupt regime that never cared about them, and burn their homes. Those who taught the men that all Vietnamese were subhuman and Communist, unworthy of living, and all alike.

Soldiers who complained were either transferred or too intimidated to speak up. Sergeant Sanchez resisted the others and tried to balance the rookies, but he was wounded and evacuated. Sergeant Bruner pulled a gun on Tigers who killed a farmer and wanted to shoot his family, and he defended them until a helicopter took them but ultimately was the one to be disciplined. Those who refused to join in at first succumbed to fear and felt trapped, eventually joining in the killings. The mental poisoning of these men is truly frightening. The Tigers operated on their baser instincts of fear and anger, just plowing through anything in their path. The worst ones took savage glee in what they did, laughing as they burned homes, bragging about how many "VC" they had killed, collecting trophies of body parts, and fashioning them into necklaces.

The one to stand out the most is Sam Ybarra, a half Native American who spent his life on an Arizona reservation before enlisting with a childhood friend. He's one of the most disturbing people I've ever read about. Ybarra always seemed to be filled with rage, angry at the world and Vietnamese people, and I can't even bring myself to describe the things he did. There was "One Punch" Varney who, after failing knock out an old man with one blow, punched him into a bayonet held up to his neck. Others include Barnett who, in an early episode, knocked an old woman off her bicycle as she was on her way to a camp and had been cleared by another soldier. Then, he stole her money. It only got worse.

Accusations appeared in 1972, and the book devotes time to the investigation of Gustav Apsey, who spent three years building a case against the Tigers. He found official reports, interviewed subjects, and even got several Tigers to make statements under oath about what they saw and did. Some were remorseful; others rationalized. All were traumatized. Many had sunk into addiction and were suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. There lives were shattered because of what they did.

But no hearings were launched. No one was called before a court martial. Why? In the wake of the My Lai Massacre, the Watergate Scandal, and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, the Pentagon wanted to avoid anymore bad publicity and covered it up. It was about saving political face.

Everything about this unit's actions is sickening and disgraceful. From the soldiers who committed atrocities to the officers who encouraged them to the general who looked the other way, it's disgraceful. By letting the perpetrators get away with their crimes, the Pentagon sent a message that war crimes are excusable. There wasn't just one scapegoat; the entire system is at fault. Reading this account was like watching a nightmare spiral out of control.

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