Three decades after testifying to Congress about Vietnam war crimes, Sen. John Kerry voiced support yesterday for an investigation of the longest-known series of atrocities by a U.S. fighting unit in Vietnam and what led the Army to conceal the case for decades.
“I think the truth ought to [come] out,” the Democratic Party presidential front-runner said after a speech at the University of Toledo.
Senator Kerry (D., Mass.), a decorated Vietnam War veteran, became the second Democratic candidate to push for answers in the wake of The Blade s October series “Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths.”
In its investigation, the newspaper documented how a special Army platoon called Tiger Force brutalized civilians and enemy prisoners during a sweep of 40 villages in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1967 - with an estimated death toll in the hundreds.
Since publication of the series, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has asked acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee to investigate what happened to the case.
That has prompted Army investigators this week to begin interviewing former soldiers about the war crimes they saw committed by fellow members of Tiger Force, a special platoon of the 101st Airborne Division created to “out-guerrilla” the communist guerrilla fighters.
Senator Kerry said he would not yet support a congressional hearing on the case - contrary to fellow presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich. But he would not rule one out, either, if the Army does not do a good job probing the case.
“Obviously if I m president of the United States ... I can promise you that we ll get to the bottom of it,” Senator Kerry said. “Hopefully these guys [in the Army] will be able to do that now. If they don t, maybe we need to do something further.”
Senator Kerry is no stranger to the issue of war crimes. After the former Navy lieutenant returned from Vietnam, he became a lead spokesman for a veterans group opposed to the war and testified at an April, 1971, Senate hearing about brutalities relayed to him by other Vietnam veterans - garnering national attention.
By then, the Army already had spent two months investigating the allegations against Tiger Force. The case would continue to be investigated through 1975, with Army investigators substantiating that 18 former soldiers had committed 20 war crimes ranging from dereliction of duty to murder.
The murder suspects included the platoon s lieutenant, who told The Blade last year that he was summoned to the Pentagon in November, 1975, and told the case had been closed with no charges.
It remains unclear just who made the decision to kill the case.
Top Pentagon generals of that era have said they do not remember the case. So has Mr. Rumsfeld, who took over as secretary of defense the same month that the platoon lieutenant was summoned to the Pentagon. Mr. Rumsfeld served for more than a year in that cabinet post under President Gerald Ford. He was reappointed to it in 2001 by President Bush.
The Blade s eight-month investigation last year revealed that Tiger Force had violently lost control between May and November, 1967, killing at least 81 unarmed men, women, and children - ranging from enemy prisoners to elderly farmers.
The platoon is estimated to have killed hundreds of unarmed villagers, according to interviews with more than 100 former soldiers and Vietnamese villagers, and a review of thousands of classified Army documents, National Archives records, and radio logs.
Of the 43 soldiers interviewed by The Blade, 10 admitted to killing civilians, with several saying they regretted what were clear violations of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and U.S. military law.
After the series, the Army began reviewing the case file.
Still, the Army s investigative pace has frustrated Representative Kucinich (D., Cleveland), who has repeatedly pushed for more action.
Yesterday, Mr. Kucinich released a statement welcoming Senator Kerry in the battle for answers.
“Senator Kerry, when he was Lieutenant Kerry and testified before the Senate in 1971, spoke of atrocities like those that eyewitnesses have said Tiger Force committed during the Vietnam War,” Mr. Kucinich said.
“He would agree with me that the Army must get to the bottom of these crimes and take action, as I called upon the Army to do in December and again in January.”
In 1971, then-Lieutenant Kerry repeatedly derided military policies such as “free-fire” zones, in which soldiers were told that anyone in such an area was assumed to be the enemy and free to be killed - despite such directives being against the Geneva Conventions. Many of the Tiger Force atrocities occurred in such zones.
And during the Senate hearing and media interviews in 1971, Mr. Kerry spoke of atrocities - from rapes to beheadings - that other soldiers had relayed to him during a three-day meeting of veterans in Detroit earlier that year.
After his speech yesterday in Toledo, Senator Kerry told The Blade the Tiger Force case is an important chapter in the history of the Vietnam War, which must be understood along with such things as the CIA-run Phoenix Program that pursued torture and assassinations of Viet Cong civilian leaders.
“Those are facts that have to be dealt with as you think about wars of the future, potentially, or what happens as a consequence of war,” he said. “It s very important that people understand the ways in which things get out of hand.”