Gang Rapes and Beatings, Brothels Filled with Teenage Prostitutes -- The Depths of American Brutality in Vietnam
The following is an excerpt from Nick Turse's new book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (Metropolitan Books, 2013).
In 1971, Major Gordon Livingston, a West Point graduate who served as regimental surgeon with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, testified before members of Congress about the ease with which Americans killed Vietnamese. “Above 90 percent of the Americans with whom I had contact in Vietnam,” said Dr. Livingston, treated the Vietnamese as subhuman and with “nearly universal contempt.” To illustrate his point, Livingston told his listeners about a helicopter pilot who swooped down on two Vietnamese women riding bicycles and killed them with the helicopter skids. The pilot was temporarily grounded as the incident was being investigated, and Livingston spoke to him in his medical capacity. He found that the man felt no remorse about the killings and only regretted not receiving his pay during the investigation. According to Livingston, a board of inquiry eventually cleared the pilot of any wrongdoing and allowed him to resume flying.
Among those whom Livingston counted in the 90 percent who regarded the Vietnamese as subhuman was his commander, General George S. Patton III. Son of the famed World War II general of the same name, the younger Patton was known for his bloodthirsty attitude and the macabre souvenirs that he kept, including a Vietnamese skull that sat on his desk. He even carried it around at his end-of- tour farewell party. Of course, Patton was just one of many Americans who collected and displayed Vietnamese body parts. Given how contemptuously living Vietnamese were often treated by U.S. forces, it is not surprising that Vietnamese corpses were also often handled with little respect.
Some soldiers hacked the heads off Vietnamese to keep, trade, or exchange for prizes offered by commanders. Many more cut off the ears of their victims, in the hopes that disfiguring the dead would frighten the enemy. Some of these trophies were presented to superiors as gifts or as proof to confirm a body count; others were retained by the “grunts” and worn on necklaces or otherwise displayed. While ears were the most common souvenirs of this type, scalps, penises, noses, breasts, teeth, and fingers were also favored.
“There was people in all the platoons with ears on cords,” Jimmie Busby, a member of the 75th Rangers during 1970–71, told an army criminal investigator. Some would wear them, while others would sell the grisly trophies to air force personnel. “It was more or less an everyday occurrence that you might see someone with one.” Another member of the same unit, Tony Foster, told a CID agent: “I noticed numerous military personnel wearing or carrying various parts of the human anatomy. In detail I saw approximately 3–4 forefingers being carried in matchboxes; approximately 15–20 ears on rawhide-type cords being worn around different individuals’ necks; and one penis which had been pickled and was being carried wrapped in gauze.”
Many soldiers mistreated corpses in other ways—dressing them up, clowning around with them, or mutilating them, often taking photos of their handiwork and filling scrapbooks with the results. The correspondent Michael Herr recalled:
There were hundreds of these albums in Vietnam, thousands, and they all seemed to contain the same pictures . . . the severed head shot, the head often resting on the chest of the dead man or being held up by a smiling Marine, or a lot of heads, arranged in a row, with a burning cigarette in each of the mouths, the eyes open . . . the VC suspect being dragged over the dust by a half-track or being hung by his heels in some jungle clearing; the very young dead . . . a picture of a Marine holding an ear or maybe two ears or, in the case of a guy I knew near Pleiku, a whole necklace made of ears . . . the dead Viet Cong girl with her pajamas stripped off and her legs raised stiffly in the air. . . . Half the combat troops in Vietnam had these things in their packs, snapshots were the least of what they took after a fight, at least the pictures didn’t rot.
Norman Ryman, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was one of these souvenir-collecting soldiers. After U.S. authorities discovered three human ears—along with an atrocity album—in a package he sent back to the United States, he explained that he was responsible for only two of the body parts. The other, he said, had been purchased from a soldier in the 101st Airborne Division, who “had a large jar of ears that he was selling.”