San Francisco; Taylor, Mich.
A response to Nick Turse’s “A My Lai a Month” [Dec. 1; “Letters,” Dec. 29]: The Mekong Delta is the most populous area of Vietnam. While serving as infantrymen with the Ninth Division, encountering civilians was a daily occurrence while “on the line” in the Delta. Treatment with respect, and at times kindness, was not uncommon. Our battalion, sometimes attached to Col. Ira Hunt’s brigade, operated in Kien Hoa and Dinh Tuong provinces. The idea of “body count” was common throughout the US forces during the Vietnam War, but there was no heavy emphasis on this from our commanders. Most “contact” took place along rivers and heavily wooded areas, where Vietcong secreted their activity.
There was a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Vietnam. We often went on night river ambush patrols to engage enemy activity. It wasn’t often we encountered night river traffic, which we would engage. It was believed that if one knew of such a curfew and lived where one would be killed by venturing out at night, one did not do so. The times we did intercept and engage sampans was very late at night, hardly the time one would be late from market. And even at that, there were times we held fire because of the obvious chance for civilian error.
No doubt civilians were at times caught in the crossfire of a fight, and if resistance was heavy, “support” was usually requested, and that is likely why every one of the many hundreds of homes we were in had a bunker. But the idea that there was a full-blown concerted effort in place to kill wantonly for “body count,” indiscriminately, is absolutely foreign to our experience, and probably most others. We are deeply offended by the allegation and its broad implication against the men we served with and the Ninth Infantry Division.
JOHN CARNEY, Sp4, C Co, 3/39th, 9th Inf Div., August 1968-February 1969
KENNETH BEHELER, Plt Sgt., C Co, 3/39th, 9th Inf Div., September 1968-July 1969
New York City
I thank John Carney and Kenneth Beheler for, however obliquely, acknowledging that civilian casualties resulted from the American war in Vietnam, the pervasiveness of the “idea of ‘body count'” and the frequent intrusions of US troops into the homes, and lives, of Vietnamese trying to survive in the ravaged Mekong Delta. Indeed, the fact that many of the hundreds of homes they searched had shelters attests to the frequency and intensity of the bombing and shelling in and around villages. Unfortunately, these bunkers could not always stand up under US bombs and shells. I’ve spoken to too many survivors from the Delta whose relatives were killed when their bunkers collapsed.
No one can deny the great deal of individual variability in the experience of US troops who served in Vietnam, especially those involved in an operation as large and long as Speedy Express. The fact that the allegations Carney and Beheler take issue with arose from fellow US veterans attests to that. But certainly many troops never committed or witnessed any atrocities.
I was especially struck by the writers’ recounting of night ambushes on the Delta’s waterways. In my web-only sidebar, “The Vietnam Exposé That Wasn’t,” I recounted Alex Shimkin’s discovery of the mass killing of civilians resulting from sampans that were likely out after curfew. Further, the main whistleblower in “A My Lai a Month” actually wrote about civilians killed “in the early morning when the Vietnamese might be going to work in the fields or to market.” He wrote, “I asked my platoon leader about this and he said it was OK to zap them if they move during curfew. But he couldn’t answer if they knew it was curfew.” I note that Carney and Beheler write only that “there were times we held fire” when civilians were spotted. There were, of course, those other times.