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.
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."
"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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