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General News    H1'ed 3/13/13

Kill Anything That Moves

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War always exalts and elevates psychotic killers. And Vietnam became their playground. Sgt. Roy Bumgarner of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division and later the 173rd Airborne Brigade "reportedly amassed an astonishing personal body count of more than 1,500 enemy KIAs, sometimes logging more kills with his six-man 'wildcat' team than the rest of his 500-man battalion combined." Reports of Bumgarner's indiscriminate killing sprees, excessive even by the standards of Vietnam, filtered back to the high command. 

In March 1968 Pvt. Arthur Williams, a sniper on Bumgarner's scout team, informed military authorities that on "at least four occasions" he had seen Bumgarner kill unarmed Vietnamese civilians, Turse writes. Bumgarner, Turse reports, often planted Chinese communist grenades on the bodies of his victims -- including children -- so they could be called in as dead enemy troops. Charles Boss, who was on the sergeant's wildcat team, is quoted as telling an Army criminal investigator "only a couple of weeks ago I heard Bumgarner had killed a Vietnamese girl and two younger kids (boys), who didn't have any weapons." 

Bumgarner was eventually court-martialed after numerous eyewitness reports of his propensity for murder. He was convicted of unpremeditated murder, reduced in rank and fined. But he never did any prison time. He continued his career in the military, soon regaining his old rank. The military was not about to lose his services. He spent seven years in Vietnam. 

Turse also profiles Col. John Donaldson, a West Point graduate and former Olympian who organized "gook" hunts from helicopters. One officer is quoted in the book as saying that Donaldson and his chief intelligence officer "flew around in the colonel's chopper with a crate of grenades, 'frags' they were called, and popped them in the rice fields over the 'dinks' who would attempt to run for cover when the chopper swooped down to chase them." When enough reports of the colonel's killing made it up the chain of command, his fellow officers, including Colin Powell who had served with him for eight months in Vietnam, made sure the charges were ignored or dismissed. Two of the key witnesses willing to testify against him, apparently under pressure, changed their testimony. The colonel was never reprimanded.

The killing campaign of Gen. Julian Ewell, nicknamed the "Butcher of the Delta," reached staggering genocidal proportions in the Mekong Delta where he commanded the 9th Division. Ronald Bartek in the book remembered that the general "wanted to begin killing '4,000 of these little bastards,' and then by the end of the following month wanted to kill 6,000, and so on from there." Ewell launched an operation called "Speedy Express" that employed fleets of helicopter gunships, F-4 Phantoms, ships lobbing "Volkswagen-sized" shells, B-52 bombers, Swift Boats, snipers, teams of Navy SEALs and thousands of infantry troops. The provincial hospitals were soon flooded with civilian wounded. A veteran, disturbed by the massive loss of life, wrote a letter to Gen. William Westmoreland, the army's chief of staff. 

He explained Ewell's tactics: "If anybody ever got sniper fire from a tree line we'd use gunships and artillery on the villages and go in later." He listed the names of the officers pushing the soldiers to carry out the massacres. He pleaded with the military to put a halt to the carnage. He wrote that any civilian who ran from U.S. troops was instantly shot. He detailed in the letter how "a battalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day. With four battalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 to 1500 a month, easy. (One battalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!) If I am only 10% right, and believe me it's lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay each month for over a year." He signed the letter "Concerned Sergeant." 

The "Concerned Sergeant" was soon identified by the Criminal Investigation Command as George Lewis, a member of the 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, of Ewell's 9th Division. When nothing was done he wrote more letters to senior commanders. But his pleas were ignored. "No one," Turse writes, "from the 9th Infantry Division was ever court-martialed for killing civilians during Speedy Express." Ewell, in fact, was awarded a third star and promoted. He went on to help author a counterinsurgency manual for the Army. And, as Turse writes, "the rank-and-file troops who spoke out against murder were, for the most part, essentially powerless in the face of command-level cover-ups."

Those soldiers and Marines who did report the war crimes they witnessed could sometimes face a fate worse than being pressured, discredited or ignored. On Sept. 12, 1969, Turse writes, George Chunko sent a letter to his parents explaining how his unit had entered a home that had a young Vietnamese woman, four young children, an elderly man and a military-age male. It appeared the younger man was AWOL from the South Vietnamese army. The young man was stripped naked and tied to a tree. His wife fell to her knees and begged the soldiers for mercy. The prisoner, Chunko wrote, was "ridiculed, slapped around and [had] mud rubbed into this face." He was then executed. A day after he wrote the letter Chunko was killed. Chunko's parents "suspected that their son had been murdered to cover up the crime." 

Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert reported to his superiors "descriptions of torture at the 172nd Military Intelligence Detachment compound, as well as other horrific stories."  Maj. Carl Hensley was assigned to investigate. He soon found that the charges were accurate. But, according to his wife, Dolores, the more Hensley dug and the more he prodded the military to respond to the war crimes, the more despondent and depressed he became at home. "Carl withdrew into a shell," she is quoted as saying, "stopped eating, did not talk to the children and did not or would not talk to me." Hensley used a shotgun to commit suicide. The Army's official response to the Herbert charges was to produce "a fifty-three page catalog of alleged discrepancies in Herbert's public accounts of his time in the military" to discredit him. "The scores of atrocities that the army uncovered as a result of Herbert's charges," Turse writes, "would remain secret for decades."

The almost unfathomable scale of the slaughter, the contribution of our technical, industrial and scientific apparatus to create deadlier weapon systems, implicates huge sections of our society in war crimes. The military and weapons manufacturers openly spoke of the war as a "laboratory" for new forms of killing. Turse's book obliterates the image we have of ourselves as a good and virtuous nation. It mocks the popular belief that we have a right to impose our "virtues" on others by force. It exposes the soul of our military, which has achieved, through relentless propaganda and effective censorship, a level of public adulation that is terrifying. Turse reminds us who we are. And in an age of expanding wars in the Middle East, routine torture, murderous air and drone strikes and targeted assassinations, his book is not so much about the past as about the present. We have worked, consciously and unconsciously, to erase the terrible truth about Vietnam and ultimately about ourselves. This is a tragedy. For if we were able to remember who we were, if we knew what we were capable of doing to others, then we might be less prone to replicating the industrial slaughter of Vietnam in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. 

"After the war," Turse concludes, "most scholars wrote off the accounts of widespread war crimes that recur throughout Vietnamese revolutionary publications and American antiwar literature as merely so much propaganda. Few academic historians even thought to cite such sources, and almost none did so extensively. Meanwhile, My Lai came to stand for -- and thus blot out -- all other American atrocities. Vietnam War bookshelves are now filled with big-picture histories, sober studies of diplomacy and military tactics, and combat memoirs told from the soldiers' perspective. Buried in forgotten U.S. government archives, locked away in the memories of atrocity survivors, the real American war in Vietnam has all but vanished from public consciousness."

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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