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Published: 10/21/2003


`Free-fire' situation set stage for abuses

By the time Tiger Force soldiers stopped firing their weapons, six people were dead, including two children.

They weren't carrying weapons, or dressed in enemy uniforms, but it didn't matter: They were living in a free-fire zone.

For Vietnamese civilians, it was a dangerous decision.

It meant they were in an area where the U.S. military could strike without warning.

No approval was necessary for soldiers to open fire or order air strikes on a specific region - or village - as long as two conditions were met: Troops had to be attacked, and their targets had to be military.

But Tiger Force didn't always follow the rules.

The slaughter of six people in the village near Chu Lai in 1967 was another reminder of the platoon's abuse of the new military policy.

Time and again, Tiger Force members turned free-fire zones into crime zones, killing unarmed men, women, and children .

Of the 30 war-crime cases investigated by the Army, 19 were reported in such zones, according to a Blade review of thousands of military records.

At least 12 times, its members entered villages and openly fired on civilians.

Beginning in the Song Ve Valley, the platoon embarked on search-and-destroy missions, following their commanders' orders: Shoot everything that moves. And they did.

Four years later, the systematic killings of civilians would become a central issue in the Army's investigation of Tiger Force.

Records show that platoon members were twisting the definition of free-fire zones - a pervasive problem among troops in Vietnam.

While the rules were clear, Tiger Force members took the phrase literally - freely firing on civilians, records show.

Several war-crimes experts say such interpretations were a clear violation of international law, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949. No provisions in the laws of war allowed unarmed civilians to be fired on, said military legal experts

“A free-fire zone doesn't mean a free-crime zone,” said Gary Solis, a former Marine prosecutor who authored the Vietnam war crimes book Son Thang. “Just because it's a free-fire zone, doesn't mean you can go in and shoot whoever you run into.” Records show the commanders themselves may have been part of the problem.

Under questioning during the Army investigation, at least eight officers with authority over Tiger Force - mostly captains and majors - swore that free-fire zones gave the men the right to “kill anything that moved.”

When villagers refused the Army's order to leave the Song Ve Valley, the entire basin was declared a free-fire zone. “We didn't think twice about it,” recalled former Pvt. Douglas Teeters in a recent interview. “If they were civilians, what can you do? They shouldn't have been out there.”

(Story was published on Oct. 21, 2003)