A My Lai a Month
Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. Research assistance was provided by George Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting, Sousan Hammad and Sophie Ragsdale.
By the mid-1960s, the Mekong Delta, with its verdant paddies and canal-side hamlets, was the rice bowl of South Vietnam and home to nearly 6 million Vietnamese. It was also one of the most important revolutionary strongholds during the Vietnam War. Despite its military significance, State Department officials were "deeply concerned" about introducing a large number of US troops into the densely populated area, fearing that it would be impossible to limit civilian carnage.
Yet in late 1968, as peace talks in Paris got under way in earnest, US officials launched a "land rush" to pacify huge swaths of the Delta and bring the population under the control of the South Vietnamese government in Saigon. To this end, from December 1968 through May 1969, a large-scale operation was carried out by the Ninth Infantry Division, with support from nondivision assets ranging from helicopter gunships to B-52 bombers. The offensive, known as Operation Speedy Express, claimed an enemy body count of 10,899 at a cost of only 267 American lives. Although guerrillas were known to be well armed, the division captured only 748 weapons.
In late 1969 Seymour Hersh broke the story of the 1968 My Lai massacre, during which US troops slaughtered more than 500 civilians in Quang Ngai Province, far north of the Delta. Some months later, in May 1970, a self-described "grunt" who participated in Speedy Express wrote a confidential letter to William Westmoreland, then Army chief of staff, saying that the Ninth Division's atrocities amounted to "a My Lay each month for over a year." In his 1976 memoir A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland insisted, "The Army investigated every case [of possible war crimes], no matter who made the allegation," and claimed that "none of the crimes even remotely approached the magnitude and horror of My Lai." Yet he personally took action to quash an investigation into the large-scale atrocities described in the soldier's letter.
I uncovered that letter and two others, each unsigned or signed only "Concerned Sergeant," in the National Archives in 2002, in a collection of files about the sergeant's case that had been declassified but forgotten, launching what became a years-long investigation. Records show that his allegations--of helicopter gunships mowing down noncombatants, of airstrikes on villages, of farmers gunned down in their fields while commanders pressed relentlessly for high body counts--were a source of high-level concern. A review of the letter by a Pentagon expert found his claims to be extremely plausible, and military officials tentatively identified the letter writer as George Lewis, a Purple Heart recipient who served with the Ninth Division in the Delta from June 1968 through May 1969. Yet there is no record that investigators ever contacted him. Now, through my own investigation--using material from four major collections of archival and personal papers, including confidential letters, accounts of secret Pentagon briefings, unpublished interviews with Vietnamese survivors and military officials conducted in the 1970s by Newsweek reporters, as well as fresh interviews with Ninth Division officers and enlisted personnel--I have been able to corroborate the sergeant's horrific claims. The investigation paints a disturbing picture of civilian slaughter on a scale that indeed dwarfs My Lai, and of a cover-up at the Army's highest levels. The killings were no accident or aberration. They were instead the result of command policies that turned wide swaths of the Mekong Delta into "free-fire zones" in a relentless effort to achieve a high body count. While the carnage in the Delta did not begin or end with Speedy Express, the operation provides a harsh new snapshot of the abject slaughter that typified US actions during the Vietnam War.
The Concerned Sergeant
An inkling that something terrible had taken place in the Mekong Delta appeared in a most unlikely source--a formerly confidential September 1969 Senior Officer Debriefing Report by none other than the commander of the Ninth Division, then Maj. Gen. Julian Ewell, who came to be known inside the military as "the Butcher of the Delta" because of his single-minded fixation on body count. In the report, copies of which were sent to Westmoreland's office and to other high-ranking officials, Ewell candidly noted that while the Ninth Division stressed the "discriminate and selective use of firepower," in some areas of the Delta "where this emphasis wasn't applied or wasn't feasible, the countryside looked like the Verdun battlefields," the site of a notoriously bloody World War I battle.
That December, a document produced by the National Liberation Front sharpened the picture. It reported that between December 1, 1968, and April 1, 1969, primarily in the Delta provinces of Kien Hoa and Dinh Tuong, the "9th Division launched an 'express raid'" and "mopped up many areas, slaughtering 3,000 people, mostly old folks, women and children, and destroying thousands of houses, hundreds of hectares of fields and orchards." But like most NLF reports of civilian atrocities, this one was almost certainly dismissed as propaganda by US officials. A United Press International report that same month, in which US advisers charged the division with having driven up the body count by killing civilians with helicopter gunships and artillery, was also largely ignored.
Then, in May 1970, the Concerned Sergeant's ten-page letter arrived in Westmoreland's office, charging that he had "information about things as bad as My Lay" and laying out, in detail, the human cost of Operation Speedy Express.
In that first letter, the sergeant wrote not of a handful of massacres but of official command policies that had led to the killings of thousands of innocents:
Sir, the 9th Division did nothing to prevent the killing, and by pushing the body the count so hard, we were "told" to kill many times more Vietnamese than at My Lay, and very few per cents of them did we know were enemy....
In case you don't think I mean lots of Vietnamese got killed this way, I can give you some idea how many. A batalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day. With 4 batalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 to 1500 a month, easy. (One batalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!) If I am only 10% right, and believe me its lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay each month for over a year....
The snipers would get 5 or 10 a day, and I think all 4 batalions had sniper teams. Thats 20 a day or at least 600 each month. Again, if I am 10% right then the snipers [alone] were a My Lay every other month.
In this letter, and two more sent the following year to other high-ranking generals, the sergeant reported that artilery, airstrikes and helicopter gunships had wreaked havoc on populated areas. All it would take, he said, were a few shots from a village or a nearby tree line and troops would "always call for artilery or gunships or airstrikes." "Lots of times," he wrote, "it would get called for even if we didn't get shot at. And then when [we would] get in the village there would be women and kids crying and sometimes hurt or dead." The attacks were excused, he said, because the areas were deemed free-fire zones.
The sergeant wrote that the unit's policy was to shoot not only guerrilla fighters (whom US troops called Vietcong or VC) but anyone who ran. This was the "Number one killer" of unarmed civilians, he wrote, explaining that helicopters "would hover over a guy in the fields till he got scared and run and they'd zap him" and that the Ninth Division's snipers gunned down farmers from long range to increase the body count. He reported that it was common to detain unarmed civilians and force them to walk in front of a unit's point man in order to trip enemy booby traps. "None [of] us wanted to get blown away," he wrote, "but it wasn't right to use...civilians to set the mines off." He also explained the pitifully low weapons ratio:
compare them [body count records] with the number of weapons we got. Not the cashays [caches], or the weapons we found after a big fight with the hard cores, but a dead VC with a weapon. The General just had to know about the wrong killings over the weapons. If we reported weapons we had to turn them in, so we would say that the weapons was destroyed by bullets or dropped in a canal or pad[d]y. In the dry season, before the moonsons, there was places where lots of the canals was dry and all the pad[dies] were. The General must have known this was made up.
According to the Concerned Sergeant, these killings all took place for one reason: "the General in charge and all the commanders, riding us all the time to get a big body count." He noted, "Nobody ever gave direct orders to 'shoot civilians' that I know of, but the results didn't show any different than if...they had ordered it. The Vietnamese were dead, victims of the body count pressure and nobody cared enough to try to stop it."