It is a story stunning for its brutality, its horrifying violence, its disregard for human life, even in a war zone. And American soldiers, overpowered by fear, anger, bad leadership, and the absence of any sense of morality, did it.
Yes, war is hell, but that's no justification for the murder of innocents. Or lobbing hand grenades into bunkers where women and children huddled in utter terror.
Neither can the horrors of war explain away the systematic slaughter of unknown numbers of unarmed Vietnamese killed because there might be an enemy or two among them. Or cutting off the ears of dead Vietnamese villagers and wearing them as necklaces like some macabre badge of honor.
These and other terrifying atrocities tell the story of at least 18 members of Tiger Force, a 45-man platoon of American soldiers, whose war crimes are only now coming to light, 36 years after they happened, in The Blade's four-part series, Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths.
Predictably, there are Blade readers, including some veterans, who wonder what purpose is served by revisiting an unpopular war that ended three decades ago. America, after all, has moved past Vietnam. Shouldn't all this have been dealt with back then, they may ask.
Yes, it most definitely should have.
But as this newspaper's extensive eight-month investigation reveals, not only did the U.S. Army never prosecute any members of Tiger Force for war crimes, it kept the atrocities from the American public.
Had the Army aggressively investigated the conduct of Tiger Force, My Lai would never have happened. Keep in mind an important distinction between My Lai and the sins of Tiger Force. At My Lai, Lt. William Calley and his troops snapped under the pressure of war, and hundreds of Vietnamese civilians died.
But Tiger Force took its training and its mission to illegal and immoral extremes over an extended period of time.
So intense was the mindset of violence that some Tiger Force soldiers who opposed what they were seeing kept quiet rather than risk being shot by one of their volatile comrades, or as one of them described it, getting a “to whom it may concern” bullet.
But not all stayed silent. Sgt. Gerald Bruner, who died six years ago in Michigan, and Lt. Donald Wood, an Ohioan from Findlay, who died 20 years ago, both reported atrocities they had witnessed to the Army, but to no avail.
Almost as reprehensible as the acts themselves was the Army's determination to keep them hidden from the public, a decision that apparently reached as far as the Nixon White House and Chief Counsel John Dean.
The innocent victims of Tiger Force deserve to have their story told, no matter how long after the fact. It took 39 years to gain a conviction of the last of the four individuals responsible for the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four young girls. No statute of limitations exonerates murder, no forgiveness is extended for crimes that are an affront to humanity.
Accordingly, it is essential that even now, almost two generations later, the Department of Defense reopen a case that never should have been closed with such callous indifference to the horrors perpetrated by men wearing the uniform of the United States Army.
That means bringing murder charges against the individuals still living who either led the killings or ordered them. The investigation of Tiger Force, closed so long ago without prosecution, proves the United States does not always have morality on its side. Continued U.S. resistance to the International Criminal Court in The Hague on the grounds that American soldiers might be tried there for war crimes is the wrong stance for a government that cannot claim the moral high ground.
The atrocities that occurred in Vietnam's Quang Ngai and Quang Nam provinces between May and November, 1967, violate in frightening ways the standards of wartime conduct of the Geneva Conventions. If we do not shine our flashlight into the dark corners of this renegade military unit's deepest secrets, we would abandon our responsibility to the American public.
This country needs to know what a rogue unit known as Tiger Force did in the name of the United States of America. For us - unlike the Army - perpetuating the silence was not an option.
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