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Published: 10/19/2003


COMMENTARY

Massacre story needs to be told

BY RON ROYHAB
EXECUTIVE EDITOR

Mike Ware of Haskins, Ohio, a veteran of the Army's 101st Airborne Division who served in Vietnam during America's most controversial and divisive war, reacted to an ad in The Blade last week that promoted the series of articles that started on today's front page.

This series reveals for the first time anywhere that members of a platoon of American soldiers from the 101st known as Tiger Force slaughtered an untold number of Vietnamese civilians over a seven-month period in 1967.

After a 4 1/2 -year Army investigation concluded that at least 18 Tiger Force soldiers committed war crimes, the matter was dropped by the Army. The official files were buried in the Army's archives since 1975, and to this day military officials continue to withhold them from the public.

Mr. Ware called The Blade to ask about our series. “Why do you have to do this?”

That's a fair question, and one that other readers may be asking.

Why would we write about war crimes committed by American soldiers during an unpopular war 36 years ago? Why would we spend eight months researching records, interviewing more than 100 people, and travel to two provinces in Vietnam, and to California, Arizona, Washington state, Indiana, Washington, and several cities in Ohio and Michigan for this story?

This was a serious topic of discussion among Blade editors and the newspaper's publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block. One reason is that the public has a right to know that American soldiers committed atrocities and that our government kept them from the public. We would have been party to a cover-up if we had knowledge of these war crimes and did not publish the story.

Wrongdoing on this grand a scale is always significant. It is important to know what happened and why it happened because that's how a democracy functions. The people need to know what is being done in their name and who is responsible.

In this case, we still don't know who made the final decision not to prosecute. The Nixon White House received case updates of the Tiger Force investigation in 1972 and 1973 at the request of presidential counsel John Dean. Reports also went to Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and Secretary of the Army Howard “Bo” Callaway.

The decision not to prosecute was made more than a year after Gerald Ford became president in August, 1974, but it is not known how far up in the Ford administration the decision went.

Assistants to Mr. Ford and Mr. Schlesinger said neither would comment. Mr. Callaway said he has no recollection of the Tiger Force investigation, but that if it were brought to his attention he would not have “swept it under the rug.”

Former Warrant Officer Gustav Apsey, the lead investigator of the Tiger Force case, said he was disappointed that nothing resulted from the cases that had merit and is upset that some of these soldiers not only stayed in the military but were promoted.

There is never a good time to write and read about war. The Blade's investigation of these atrocities has nothing to do with today's conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are publishing this series now because we recently discovered evidence of the atrocities, and the truth has never before been told.

Tiger Force was created in the fall of 1965 as a special highly trained reconnaissance unit to find the enemy and report enemy positions to U.S. air and ground forces. Its members wore special tiger-striped uniforms, they could grow beards, and could carry their own side arms. The unit's slogan was “out guerrilla the guerrillas.”

After listening to details of the Tiger Force case, William Eckhardt, lead prosecutor in the My Lai court-martial and now a law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, said, “What I see is a loss of control and obviously ill discipline, far beyond what you would want in Vietnam.”

Mr. Eckhardt said The Blade's investigation is important, but the public also needs to know that most soldiers don't act this way.

“I think whatever public institutions do, good or bad, is subject to public scrutiny,” he said. “This is something that should be open to scrutiny as troubling as it is.”

The Army, citing privacy concerns for former soldiers, says it will not release records of the Tiger Force investigation or records that could explain why the case was dropped in 1975.

However, Joe Burlas, a retired major and now a spokesman for the Army, said The Blade series is “an important story. It's part of the history of the Army. There's a lot of things different about the Army today than in 1975. My hat's off to you for keeping up with that story.”

In an interview, retired Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, who commanded the Army's 1st battalion 7th Calvary at the 1965 battle of Ia Drang, said war crimes by U.S. soldiers were not commonplace in Vietnam.

“That never happened in my outfit. It's morally wrong in the first place. In the second place, it's against the Geneva Convention. But basically, it's morally wrong to abuse or to kill innocent people.”

One of the people who witnessed the atrocities 36 years ago, former Tiger Force medic Rion Causey, told The Blade recently it was time that the Tiger Force story was told.

“I tried to tell people about this 30 years ago. It was hard for them to believe. I'm grateful in many ways this is coming out. It needed to come out. It needed to. I lived with this a long time.”

Mr. Apsey, who led the Tiger Force investigation, said he is now relieved that the case is being disclosed to the public after 36 years.

“You know, I'm going to bed peaceful as hell. Justice has been done.”

This country has a long and proud tradition of behaving honorably on foreign soil. It is because of that tradition, and because of the finest traditions of American journalism, that we are compelled to publish this report about American soldiers failing to live up to the proper standards, and our government's failure to hold them accountable.

Some of the stories over the four days will not be pleasant reading. But we think you should have the opportunity to read them all.

(Story was published on Oct. 19, 2003)