Experts: Earlier Tiger Force probe could have averted My Lai carnage


MY LAI, Vietnam - Just before dawn, the ritual begins.

People gather around stone statues, some whispering prayers, others crying.

Every year, hundreds of Vietnamese travel to the memorial that marks the day the soldiers swept into the tiny village before sunrise expecting to meet enemy soldiers.

Instead, the soldiers found a thriving hamlet.

In just 41/2 hours, the U.S. Army's 11th Brigade went on a rampage that shook the American military to its core.

A memorial in My Lai marks the 1968 massacre of civilians by U.S. troops.
A memorial in My Lai marks the 1968 massacre of civilians by U.S. troops.

When it was over, about 500 people lay dead - unarmed men, women, and children - some herded into a ditch and sprayed with bullets, their bloodied bodies stacked on top of one another.

Much has been written about the slaughter on March 16, 1968, that helped turn the American public against the war. The assaults spawned books and magazine articles - with stark images of women and babies in a mass grave.

Thirty-five years later, the My Lai massacre shares powerful parallels with the Tiger Force war-crime case.

Both Army units patrolled the same province. Both set up their camps in the same military base. Both carried out the same missions: search and destroy - just 10 miles apart.

But there was a key difference. Tiger Force arrived in the province six months before the 11th Brigade.

Shortly after their arrival, the Tigers began mutilating bodies, killing civilians, and executing prisoners, the soldiers later told investigators.

The atrocities, brought to the Army's attention in 1967, now raise a critical question: If the Army had reacted to those complaints, could safeguards have been in place to avert the rampage at My Lai?

Military experts say the massacre was merely the culmination of the Army's failure to take steps to stop the violence that had been growing against the people of Quang Ngai province.

“There's no doubt that My Lai could have been prevented had the Army cracked down on atrocities,” said Michael Belknap, a law professor and Vietnam veteran who authored the 2003 book, The Vietnam War On Trial.

“Remember, they heard rumors. They suspected some troops were out of control,” he said.

Months before the arrival of Lt. William Calley's 11th Brigade unit in Quang Ngai province, Tiger Force already was establishing itself there as a rogue unit.

A review of thousands of Army records, including affidavits, battle reports, and logs, shows:

Two soldiers, Lt. Donald Wood and Sgt. Gerald Bruner, told investigators in 1974 they complained to commanders in August, 1967, that Tiger Force platoon leaders were killing unarmed civilians. But the attacks continued.

Tiger Force Sgt. Leo Heaney and two other soldiers were ordered to sign affidavits in May, 1967, that they were not mutilating bodies after a severed ear was discovered in an Army helicopter. But the platoon continued the practice of cutting off the ears of enemy soldiers and civilians.

One battalion officer, Dr. Bradford Mutchler, told investigators in 1975 that commanders were aware of rumors of Tiger Force war crimes in 1967 but did not investigate in fear of what might be uncovered.

Beyond the records, other signs existed that could have alerted the Army to Tiger Force's practices.

In 1966, journalist Ward Just wrote in the book, To What End, that one Tiger Force soldier was sending the ears of his dead enemies through the mail to his wife in the United States.

Jonathan Schell wrote articles for the New Yorker magazine in 1967, saying that soldiers from the 101st Airborne admitted to war crimes in the province but refused to provide details. The articles didn't mention Tiger Force, which was part of the 101st Airborne.

Several military historians said they had long suspected a dangerous pattern of abuse against civilians in the province - eventually culminating with the massacre at My Lai.

But they said the alleged practices had always been vague and unsubstantiated until now.

“It's something we knew was going on, but no one ever came forward with the details,” said Dr. David Anderson, editor of the 1998 book, Facing My Lai.

The lead Army prosecutor in the My Lai case said he tried to get information about prior war crimes in the province.

“We had long suspected that things were getting out of hand there, but it was tough getting the South Vietnamese to cooperate,” said William Eckhardt, a law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

Prosecutors wanted the information to help bolster their case that My Lai was the consequence of an out-of-control Army in the province, he said.

Experts say the Army could have reacted to complaints about Tiger Force by alerting commanders - and investigating the accusations immediately.

“That would have sent a clear message that this was not going to be tolerated,” said Dr. Anderson, a Vietnam veteran.

More intensive training on war crimes and treatment of civilians could have been implemented in Quang Ngai province.

Dr. Anderson and others say the troops' exposure to international laws in 1967 was minimal: Soldiers were given a brief lecture and a pocket card with nine rules on the proper way to treat civilians.

Until the My Lai massacre, investigating war crimes in Vietnam was not a priority among commanders, records show.

In fact, the attack was covered up until an outraged veteran, Ron Ridenhour, wrote letters to congressional and military officials a year later.

After an Army probe, Calley and others eventually were charged with war crimes, including murder. Of those tried, only Calley was convicted. He was sentenced to life in prison, but his term eventually was reduced to 10 years.

After several appeals, he was paroled in 1975 after serving 31/2 years under house arrest.

His assault more than three decades ago is still considered one of the worst U.S. war atrocities of the last century.

Mr. Belknap, an Army lieutenant during the Vietnam War, said My Lai continues to be studied by military historians, but perhaps a greater understanding can be gained by looking at the events that led to the massacre.

“What [the Army] never learned - until it was too late - is that you can't just kill unarmed civilians.”

(Story was published on Oct. 19, 2003)