Revealing a 40-year-old horror

The Pulitzer-winning reporters who exposed the U.S. Tiger Force's atrocities in Vietnam discuss why the case was whitewashed -- and its scary parallels to Iraq.

Published May 24, 2006 12:23PM (EDT)

For seven months in 1967, an elite platoon known as Tiger Force went on a rampage, killing hundreds of Vietnamese men, women and children. The soldiers mutilated bodies, wore necklaces made of human ears and executed unarmed civilians at close range. It was the longest known series of continuous war crimes in the history of the Vietnam War. Tiger Force fought in the theater of operations where the My Lai massacre later happened, a fact that suggests atrocities in Vietnam occurred due to the failure -- or even the design -- of leadership as opposed to the isolated actions of a few rogue soldiers.

The Army began an investigation of Tiger Force in 1971. Despite overwhelming evidence of war crimes, no charges were ever filed against any Tiger Force soldiers or made public. The investigation was apparently killed at the highest levels of government in November 1975 -- the same month Donald Rumsfeld began his first term as defense secretary under President Gerald Ford and Dick Cheney began as White House chief of staff.

In October 2003, 36 years after the fact, the Blade newspaper of Toledo, Ohio, published the first exposé of the Tiger Force atrocities. The nine-month investigation was driven by reporters Mike Sallah and Mitch Weiss (who were joined in the last month by another Blade staffer, Joe Mahr). The Blade's series began with the receipt of several classified documents that came from the recently deceased Henry Tufts, former head of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division. Tufts had overseen the Tiger Force investigation and was never satisfied with the way it ended. When Tufts was forced into retirement at the conclusion of the investigation, he took the classified files with him. Upon his death in 2002, Tufts left these and other papers to his neighbor and friend, Michael Woods, who worked for the Blade's Washington bureau.

Published when the Iraq war was at the height of its popularity, the Blade's series drew a predictably intense polar reaction. While it did get exposure (Salon was one of the first to pick up the story), several major media outlets ignored or underplayed the story. Major metro dailies ran only short wire recaps of the series. Others, including the New York Times and the network news channels, ignored Tiger Force altogether -- until the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh chastised the national media for neglecting the story. The neglect, however, didn't prevent the exposé from winning the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

Now, Sallah and Weiss have written a book -- "Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War" -- that tells the long story of Tiger Force through the eyes of those who lived it. There's the horrifying story of Sam Ybarra, one of the most notorious Tigers, who killed a baby by cutting off its head. And then there are the heroes like Gerald Bruner and Dennis Stout who risked their own lives trying to keep other soldiers from committing atrocities. In the end, Sallah and Weiss give voice to dozens of Tigers, Vietnamese and their loved ones. The result is a compelling narrative that spans almost four decades and helps redefine the Vietnam War. Salon spoke to the authors by phone.

How do you explain the lingering grip Vietnam has on our national consciousness?

Mitch Weiss: There was a real divide in the country between those who went and those who didn't. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood and those were the guys who went. On the other hand, the people who protested the war or fled to Canada went to college and were well-to-do. I think a lot of it is because of the class warfare.

Mike Sallah: As president, Gerald Ford said it was time to mend the nation's wounds, but I'm not sure those wounds have ever healed.

Through the course of the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry took a lot of flak for serving in Vietnam then coming home and talking about the same kinds of atrocities you exposed in late 2003. It seems as if there's a knee-jerk response that still polarizes people when the subject of Vietnam and war crimes is mentioned.

Weiss: It's just amazing that we have a double standard for judging war crimes in this country. We go out of our way to condemn genocide around the world, but yet it's OK for President Bush to basically say we can torture prisoners.

Sallah: Somehow we're exempt from recognizing our own human rights abuses. We supposedly uphold the standards of what's right in the world; we should be the first to recognize when we're wrong.

After years of investigation and evidence, why were the Tiger Force atrocities buried back in 1975?

Sallah: The Tiger Force investigation was finished after the war had ended. It was the last thing our government -- particularly the Nixon and then the Ford administration -- wanted to become public. This was one last horrific reminder that would have kept us lingering on the war had they not buried it.

Weiss: You have to look at the political climate. Even as Saigon was falling, Gerald Ford made a speech about how we had to heal our national divisions and move beyond Vietnam. Ford was getting ready for an extremely tough campaign, the economy was heading south, and he had the baggage of pardoning Nixon. If you had court-martialed one of these guys against whom there was overwhelming evidence, it would have let the whole cat out of the bag and overshadowed what Ford wanted to do.

What was it like talking to Tiger Force vets all these years later?

Weiss: The first time we contacted them, we always said, "Help us understand what it was like out there in the field." Some vets were surprised we knew about it, but they opened up. For a lot of them, this was the first time they had talked to anyone about what they saw or did. Most of them had kept this bottled inside, so talking to us was like a therapy session. I think a lot of the vets were just glad to get it out in the open since for years they thought they were the only ones carrying around this burden. The reality is that everyone in Tiger Force was carrying around the same burden.

Didn't one of the vets tell you after the series that he wanted to play Russian roulette with you?

Weiss: That was William Doyle. I talked to him about five or six times before the series ran and he was very candid. He was the guy who said, "If I would have known the war was going to end, I would have killed more." He basically said you did what you had to do to survive and killing was the way -- the only way -- to stay alive since you don't have to worry about people who are dead. Something in the series set Doyle off, so he wrote me a letter saying, "If you want to talk more, bring a bottle of whiskey and we'll play Russian roulette." I knew he was suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], so I got on the phone right away and said, "Bill, what are you drinking? I'll bring the bottle." That was my way of saying, "I know you didn't mean it and I understand why you feel the way you do." As it happened, we kept talking. I interviewed Doyle three or four more times for the book. He actually went into greater detail about his life because we'd developed that trust.

When we were reporting for the series, I tried not to think about how it affected me personally because there wasn't time. But afterward, every once in a while in the middle of the night I've wondered how I would have acted had I been 19 years old in that same horrible situation with bad leadership. I can't answer that question. Sometimes, even now, I get depressed just thinking about it.

You exposed the Tiger Force atrocities in a smaller, family-owned newspaper. Given the country's mood in 2003, when you did your series, do you question whether bigger news outlets would have done this story?

Weiss: I doubt it. If you look at newspapers at that time, America was gearing up for Iraq and nobody was asking questions about whether we should go to war or weapons of mass destruction. There was this rah-rah fervor that reminded me of the Spanish-American War in 1898 -- you know, "Remember the Maine!" -- when every news outlet got behind the war. If this had come up for other newspapers -- and I might be wrong -- I think they would have said it wasnt a story. Or they would have said, "Its not the right time."

Sallah: I couldn't say it any better. The Washington Post was beating the war drum back then. Now they've done an about-face and started questioning the war, but they need to go back and read their own stories and editorials from that period. It did take a midsize, family-owned paper in Middle America that was independent enough to do this story.

What does that say about the state of contemporary journalism?

Weiss: You don't want to get me started on that. With most of the news chains, they're looking at short, community-oriented stories that shy away from anything controversial. Its just part of corporate journalism. When I was growing up in the '70s and reading the great journalism of that time, I was inspired to believe that journalists can change the world. In this climate, I'm not sure we have many newspapers that would bring down the White House if they had the evidence. A lot of the time I see reporters who just back down and don't ask those extra tough questions -- they don't want to challenge authority. It's almost like they think they don't have the right. It just drives me crazy.

Sallah: I call it "crybaby journalism." Thats when you defer to the institutions, when you're afraid to take on the White House because you're afraid to be left out. It's when you're more of a cheerleader than a watchdog. I'm not saying watchdog journalism has gone away, but it just seems like the general thrust is not to be adversarial today.

What's the significance of the Tiger Force revelations as they pertain to the question of leadership? Your book makes some clear connections between how Tiger Force and My Lai happened.

Sallah: The command element clearly wanted the Tiger Force unit to be a kill squad. Leadership is what keeps your troops from going over the edge. But this was leadership that fanned the flames. There was no governor on the engine, if you will. It's an indictment of the leadership itself that they allowed this unit to go on and on when they clearly knew what Tiger Force was doing.

Weiss: There were two soldiers at the time who complained to their superiors. One soldier, Gerald Bruner, turned his gun on another soldier to keep him from killing a young kid. Bruner was told he was crazy for threatening another soldier and the complaints went nowhere.

Sallah: My Lai was 12 miles from where Tiger Force went on a rampage. If they had listened to the whistle-blowers and acted quickly to investigate these atrocities, they might have been able to avert the My Lai massacres. You had the same Army commanders in charge. They would have been made aware of it and told the rank in file, "You cannot do this."

When reading the book and thinking about the problem of leadership in Vietnam, it's pretty easy to think of the lessons for our own time, particularly with prisoner abuse.

Weiss: The parallels are that commanders knew there were soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners and they basically allowed it and encouraged it to happen. The one thing we always hoped is that somebody would have studied the Tiger Force case in order to help prevent these kinds of abuses from happening again. When you look at what's going on in Iraq right now, almost from the very beginning soldiers have been harassing civilians because they "dont know who the civilians are vs. the insurgents." It creates an abusive culture that feels normal.

Sallah: The leaders have to play a strong role in controlling the troops and keeping them from crossing the line, but they clearly failed in Vietnam and they clearly failed in Iraq. Youre getting atrocities in Iraq right now. For instance, the Pentagon is investigating an incident from last November where some Marines were accused of killing 15 civilians after a roadside bomb went off. The soldiers allegedly got frustrated then went into a home and mowed down unarmed men, women and children. These things are going to happen in war, but you have to have a strong command structure to keep abuse from becoming systemic.

Bush and Rumsfeld came out after Abu Ghraib and made some comments, but at the end of the day they only really went after the grunts. The same thing happened with My Lai where everybody just said, "Well, it's Lt. Calley -- he was an aberrant soldier." In fact, it went up higher, but the only person convicted of killing 500 Vietnamese villagers was one lieutenant. That's the kind of military justice that occurs all too often. To this day the military won't release the records of the Tiger Force case; we got them, but we didn't get them from the military. Airing this stuff could help them become more accountable by creating some kind of institutional memory that helps establish safeguards. Without this, they're doomed to repeat the same mistakes. The longer the current war goes on, you're going to have another whacked-out, crazy platoon that goes over the edge and you're going to have the military bury the case. Then, 20 years from now, another paper in Middle America is going to find the case and report it. And it's the same story over and over.

Would you explain how Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney might have been involved in the Tiger Force coverup?

Sallah: War crimes were a paramount concern to our government at the very top levels because they didn't want any more My Lais. The Tiger Force investigation started in 1971 and grew very large. So, starting at the end of 1973 during Nixon's presidency, there was a policy instituted where the Army's Criminal Investigation Division would send regular summaries of the Tiger Force investigation to both the Pentagon and the White House. In fact, Nixon made John Dean the liaison between the White House and Army CID.

Weiss: After Nixon's resignation, the reports continued. Once Gerald Ford took over in August 1974, Donald Rumsfeld became the White House chief of staff. Then, in November 1975 -- the same month the Tiger Force investigation stopped -- Rumsfeld began his first term as secretary of defense. At the same time, Dick Cheney took over for Rumsfeld by becoming Ford's chief of staff. Prior to that, Cheney had a role as a White House staffer. I'm not sure about Cheney's connection, but it's hard for me to believe he didn't know.

After you broke the story of Tiger Force in fall 2003, the government supposedly reopened the investigation to determine what should be done about the crimes and why the investigation was mishandled in the first place. What's the status of that two-and-a-half years later?

Sallah: The last thing we heard was that the Army appointed a special judge advocate general to review the case and make recommendations. He made a recommendation that they bring back James Hawkins, who was an officer in Tiger Force, and that Hawkins be charged. The recommendation was disregarded and the status is unclear. It's not that there's a lack of evidence.

Realistically, is the investigation over?

Weiss: Realistically, it's dead -- this is the Bush White House. Could you imagine this administration recalling a soldier 40 years after a crime? It's one thing when we deal with Cold War cases or civil rights killings from 50 years ago. We're willing to do that, but I cannot imagine the Bush White House saying, "Gee, there's overwhelming evidence. Let's do it," and charging these old soldiers. It would be political suicide for the president who's already in the midst of an unpopular war -- the same president who has said we have to support our troops at all costs.

After three years in Iraq, how much more willing do you think people are to hear the lessons of the Tiger Force story?

Weiss: The climate has changed. In October 2003, we still had pictures of Bush on that aircraft carrier with the "Mission Accomplished" sign. While we were starting to get some insurgency, there really wasn't much. So, when we published the newspaper series, some people called us unpatriotic -- we heard, "Why are you bringing this up?" you know. I think now people will be a little more open because what we're saying rings true and they'll see the striking parallels with what's going on in Iraq.

My brother fought in the infantry in Vietnam. I love him more than anything. When he went, he was this happy-go-lucky guy but he came back and was a different person for years. After he read the series, he told me it was the right thing to do. He told me that no one in his unit committed these kinds of war crimes but, if they had, he would have been the first to try to stop it. My brother thought it was important to tell the story so it doesnt happen again.

Sallah: One thing our book does that the newspaper series couldn't do is that it tells the story through the eyes of the soldiers. We were limited in the series to showing that soldiers crossed the line and committed atrocities; the book shows the human tragedy that happened on both sides. Without excusing the atrocities, the book takes a sympathetic look at the Tiger Force soldiers and the impossible position they were put in.

Weiss: It was just a dark story. You look at what happened to the Vietnamese villagers and it's just a tragedy. On the other hand, you look at what happened to the soldiers with the guilt and the PTSD; very few Tiger Force soldiers lived what you would consider a normal life. Your heart goes out to them but, at the same time, you cant excuse what they did. There were clearly no winners anywhere in this story.

By Bill Frogameni

Bill Frogameni lives and writes in northwest Ohio.

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