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A My Lai a Month | The Nation

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A My Lai a Month

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Burying the Story

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Nick Turse
Nick Turse is the managing editor of Tomdispatch.com and an Investigative Fund Fellow at The Nation Institute. He is...

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In 1971, something caught the eye of Alex Shimkin, a Newsweek stringer fluent in Vietnamese, as he pored over documents issued by the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MACV, which coordinated all US military activities in South Vietnam: the radically skewed ratio of enemy dead to weapons captured during Speedy Express. At the urging of Kevin Buckley, Newsweek's Saigon bureau chief, and with no knowledge of the Concerned Sergeant's allegations, Shimkin began an exhaustive analysis of MACV documents that offered dates, locations and detailed statistics. From there, he and Buckley began to dig.

They interviewed US civilian and military officials at all levels, combed through civilian hospital records and traveled into areas of the Delta hardest hit by Speedy Express to talk to Vietnamese survivors. What they learned--much of it documented in unpublished interviews and notes that I recently obtained from Buckley--echoed exactly what the Concerned Sergeant confided to Westmoreland and the other top generals. Their sources all assured them there was no shortage of arms among the enemy to account for the gross kills-to-weapons disparity. The only explanation for the ratio, they discovered, was that a great many of the dead were civilians. Huge numbers of airstrikes had decimated the countryside. Withering artillery and mortar barrages were carried out around the clock. Many, if not most, kills were logged by helicopters and occurred at night.

"The horror was worse than My Lai," one American official familiar with the Ninth Infantry Division's operations in the Delta told Buckley. "But with the 9th, the civilian casualties came in dribbles and were pieced out over a long time. And most of them were inflicted from the air and at night. Also, they were sanctioned by the command's insistence on high body counts." Another quantified the matter, stating that as many as 5,000 of those killed during the operation were civilians.

Accounts from Vietnamese survivors in Kien Hoa and Dinh Tuong echoed the scenarios related by the Concerned Sergeant. Buckley and Shimkin spoke to a group of village elders who knew of thirty civilians who were killed when US troops used them as human mine detectors. An elderly Vietnamese man from Kien Hoa told them, "The Americans destroyed every house with artillery, airstrikes or by burning them down with cigarette lighters. About 100 people were killed by bombing." Another man, Mr. Hien, recalled, "The helicopters shot up the area even in daylight because people working in their fields and gardens would become afraid when the helicopters approached, and began to run away."

Another older man from Kien Hoa, Mr. Ba, recalled, "When the Americans came in early 1969 there was artillery fire on the village every night and several B-52 strikes which plowed up the earth." Not only did MACV records show bombings in the exact area of the village; the account was confirmed by interviews with a local Vietcong medic who later joined the US-allied South Vietnamese forces. He told them that "hundreds of artillery rounds landed in the village, causing many casualties." He continued, "I worked for a [National Liberation] Front doctor and he often operated on forty or more people a day. His hospital took care of at least a thousand people from four villages in early 1969."

Buckley and Shimkin found records showing that during Speedy Express, 76 percent of the 1,882 war-injured civilians treated in the Ben Tre provincial hospital in Kien Hoa--which served only one tiny area of the vast Delta--were wounded by US firepower. And even this large number was likely an undercount of casualties. "Many people who were wounded died on their way to hospitals," said one US official. "Many others were treated at home, or in hospitals run by the VC, or in small dispensaries operated by the [South Vietnamese Army]. The people who got to Ben Tre were lucky."

In November 1971 Buckley sent a letter to MACV that echoed the Concerned Sergeant's claims of mass carnage during Speedy Express. Citing the lopsided kills-to-weapons ratio, Buckley wrote, "Research in the area by Newsweek indicates that a considerable proportion of those people killed were non-combatant civilians." On December 2 MACV confirmed the ratio and many of Buckley's details: "A high percentage of casualties were inflicted at night"; "A high percentage of the casualties were inflicted by the Air Cavalry and Army Aviation [helicopter] units"; but with caveats and the insistence that MACV was unable to substantiate the "claim that a considerable proportion of the casualties were non-combatant civilians." Instead, MACV contended that many of the dead were unarmed guerrillas. In response to Buckley's request to interview MACV commander Creighton Abrams, MACV stated that Abrams, who had been briefed on the Concerned Sergeant's allegations the year before, had "no additional information." Most of Buckley's follow-up questions, sent in December, went unanswered.

But according to Neil Sheehan's interview with Colonel Farnham, who served as deputy to Vann, by then the third-most-powerful American serving in Vietnam, word of the forthcoming Newsweek story had spread. In late 1971 or early 1972 Vann met in Washington with Westmoreland and Army Vice Chief of Staff Bruce Palmer Jr. Before the meeting Vann told Farnham about the upcoming Newsweek article and said that he was ducking Buckley in order to avoid questions about Speedy Express. At the meeting, which Farnham attended, Vann told Westmoreland and Palmer that Ewell's Ninth Division had wantonly killed civilians in the Mekong Delta in order to boost the body count and further the general's career, singling out nighttime helicopter gunship missions as the worst of the division's tactics. According to Farnham, Vann said Speedy Express was, in effect, "many My Lais"--closely echoing the language of the Concerned Sergeant. Farnham said Westmoreland put on a "masterful job of acting," claiming repeatedly that he had never before heard such allegations. When Vann mentioned Buckley's upcoming exposé, Westmoreland directed his aide and Farnham to leave the room because he, Palmer and Vann needed to discuss "a very sensitive subject."

In the end, Buckley and Shimkin's nearly 5,000-word investigation, including a compelling sidebar of eyewitness testimony from Vietnamese survivors, was nixed by Newsweek's top editors, who expressed concern that such a piece would constitute a "gratuitous" attack on the Nixon administration [see "The Vietnam Exposé That Wasn't," at thenation.com, which discusses Buckley and Shimkin's investigation of atrocities, including one by a Navy SEAL team led by future Senator Bob Kerrey]. Buckley argued in a cable that the piece was more than an atrocity exposé. "It is to say," Buckley wrote in late January 1972, "that day in and day out that [the Ninth] Division killed non combatants with firepower that was anything but indiscriminate. The application of firepower was based on the judgment that anybody who ran was an enemy and indeed, that anyone who lived in the area could be killed." A truncated, 1,800-word piece finally ran in June 1972, but many key facts, eyewitness interviews, even mention of Julian Ewell's name, were left on the cutting-room floor. In its eviscerated form, the article resulted in only a ripple of interest.

Days before the story appeared, Vann died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam and, a few weeks later, Shimkin was killed when he mistakenly crossed North Vietnamese lines. The story of Speedy Express died, too.

Ewell retired from the Army in 1973 as a lieutenant general but was invited by the Army chief of staff to work with Ira Hunt in detailing their methods to aid in developing "future operational concepts." Until now, Ewell and Hunt had the final word on Operation Speedy Express, in their 1974 Army Vietnam Studies book Sharpening the Combat Edge. While the name of the operation is absent from the text, they lauded both the results and the brutal techniques decried by the Concerned Sergeant, including nighttime helicopter operations and the aggressive use of snipers. In the book's final pages, they made oblique reference to the allegations that erupted in 1970 only to be quashed by Westmoreland. "The 9th Infantry Division and II Field Force, Vietnam have been criticized on the grounds that 'their obsession with body count' was either basically wrong or else led to undesirable practices," they wrote, before quickly dispatching those claims. "The basic inference that they were 'obsessed with body count' is not true," they wrote, asserting instead that their methods ended up "'unbrutalizing' the war."

Ewell now lives in Virginia. During a 2006 visit I made to his home with Deborah Nelson, Ewell's wife told us he no longer grants interviews. Ira Hunt retired from active duty in 1978 as a major general. He too lives in Virginia.

George Lewis, the man tentatively identified by the Army as the Concerned Sergeant, hailed from Sharpsburg, Kentucky. He was awarded a Purple Heart as well as Army Commendation Medals with a "V" for valor for his service in Vietnam and was formally discharged in 1974. Lewis died in 2004, at age 56, before I was able to locate him.

To this day, Vietnamese civilians in the Mekong Delta recall the horrors of Operation Speedy Express and the countless civilians killed to drive up body count. Army records indicate that no Ninth Infantry Division troops, let alone commanders, were ever court-martialed for killing civilians during the operation.

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