A My Lai a Month: How the US Fought the Vietnam War

Nick Turse, A My Lai a Month: How the US Fought the Vietnam War. The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 21 November 2008. 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.

Excerpts from story:

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 monsoons, 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.”…

The Concerned Sergeant’s battalion commander, referred to in the letters, was the late David Hackworth, who took command of the Ninth Division’s 4/39th Infantry in January 1969. In a 2002 memoir, Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts, he echoed the sergeant’s allegations about the overwhelming pressure to produce high body counts. “A lot of innocent Vietnamese civilians got slaughtered because of the Ewell-Hunt [Ewell’s deputy Col. Ira ‘Jim Hunt] drive to have the highest count in the land,” he wrote. He also noted that when Hunt submitted a recommendation for a citation, citing a huge kill ratio, he left out the uncomfortable fact that “the 9th Division had the lowest weapons-captured-to-enemy-killed ratio in Vietnam.”…

An adviser in another Delta province, Jeffrey Record, also witnessed the carnage visited on civilians by the Phantom [helicopter] program during Speedy Express. In a 1971 Washington Monthly article, Record recalled watching as helicopter gunships strafed a herd of water buffalo and the six or seven children tending them. Seconds later, the tranquil paddy had been “transformed into a bloody ooze littered with bits of mangled flesh,” Record wrote. “The dead boys and the water buffalo were added to the official body count of the Viet Cong.”…

In the spring of 1970, as Ewell was readying to leave Vietnam to serve as the top US military adviser at the Paris peace talks, R. Kenley Webster, the Army’s acting general counsel, read the Concerned Sergeant’s letter at Army Secretary Stanley Resor’s request. According to a memo Webster wrote at the time, which was among the documents I uncovered in the National Archives, he was “impressed by its forcefulness” and “sincerity” and commissioned an anonymous internal report from a respected Vietnam veteran. That report endorsed the Concerned Sergeant’s contentions:

It is common knowledge that an officer’s career can be made or destroyed in Vietnam…. Under such circumstances–and especially if such incentives as stand-downs, R&R [rest and relaxation] allocations, and decorations are tied to body count figures–the pressure to kill indiscriminately, or at least report every Vietnamese casualty as an enemy casualty, would seem to be practically irresistible….

The lack of public exposure allowed the military to paper over the allegations. In August 1971, well over a year after the sergeant’s first letter to Westmoreland, an Army memo noted that the Criminal Investigation Division was finally attempting to identify and locate the letter writer–not to investigate his claims but “to prevent his complaints [from] reaching Mr. Dellums.” In September Westmoreland’s office directed CID to identify the Concerned Sergeant and to “assure him the Army is beginning investigation of his allegations”; within days, CID reported that the division had “tentatively identified” him and would seek an interview. But on the same day as that CID report, a Westmoreland aide wrote a memo stating that the general had sought the advice of Thaddeus Beal, an Army under secretary and civilian lawyer, who counseled that since the Concerned Sergeant’s letters were written anonymously, the Army could legitimately discount them. In the memo, the aide summarized Westmoreland’s thoughts by saying, “We have done as much as we can do on this case,” and “he again reiterated he was not so sure we should send anything out to the field on this matter of general war crimes allegations.” Shortly thereafter, at a late September meeting between CID officials and top Army personnel, the investigation that had barely been launched was officially killed….

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 air strikes 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….

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,” below, 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….

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….

Buckley and Shimkin’s investigation revealed that the grossly disproportionate kills-to-weapons-recovered ratio of 14.5 to 1 achieved by the Ninth Infantry Division during Speedy Express was not due to a lack of weapons among the guerrillas, but the fact that thousands of civilians were killed. They learned that most of these deaths were the day-to-day result of civilians, individually or in small clusters, being fired upon at night and from the air. They uncovered multiple mass killings as well. Shimkin’s notes show that he found evidence of one massacre by US forces in February 1969 that left forty to fifty Vietnamese, mostly women and children, injured or dead. Interviewing an injured survivor as well as a woman who had lost her mother in the bloodbath, Shimkin learned that US troops had ambushed a flotilla of civilian sampans near the border of the Delta provinces of Kien Phong and Dinh Tuong….

Buckley handed over the reins of the bureau and took a long vacation with the article still in limbo. When he returned to New York in the spring of 1972, he again pushed for its publication, finally asking for the right to freelance it. The Newsweek editors said no, fearing it would seem as if they were too fainthearted to publish it. “At last I got a reason out of the editor Kermit Lansner,” Buckley said a few years later in an interview with Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-Maker, from the Crimea to Vietnam. “He told me that it would be a gratuitous attack on the [Nixon] administration at this point to do another story on civilian deaths after the press had given the army and Washington such a hard time over My Lai.”