Gang Rapes and Beatings, Brothels Filled with Teenage Prostitutes -- The Depths of American Brutality in Vietnam
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In addition to collecting souvenirs and gruesome photos, American troops mistreated corpses to send a message. Troops in the field regularly carved their unit’s initials or numbers into corpses, adorned bodies with their unit’s patch, or left a “death card”— generally either an ace of spades or a custom-printed business card claiming credit for the kill. Company A, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade, for example, left their victims with a customized ace of spades sporting the unit’s formal designation, its nickname (“Gunfighters”), a skull and crossbones, and the phrase “dealers of death.” Helicopter pilots, such as Captain Lynn Carlson, occasionally dropped similar specially made calling cards from their gunships. One side of Carlson’s card read: “Congratulations. You have been killed through courtesy of the 361st. Yours truly, Pink Panther 20.” The other side proclaimed, “The Lord giveth and the 20mm [cannon] taketh away. Killing is our business and business is good.”
In a rather medieval display, some American troops hacked the heads off the dead and mounted them on pikes or poles to frighten guerrillas or local Vietnamese villagers. Others, in a more modern variant of the same practice, lashed corpses to U.S. vehicles and drove through towns and villages to send a similar message. And while South Vietnamese troops were often singled out in the press for making public displays of dead guerrillas, U.S. troops did much the same, sometimes even more spectacularly. Alexander Haig— who went on to serve as a division brigade commander, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, and then President Nixon’s chief of staff— recalled that in 1966, when he was the operations officer with the 1st Infantry Division, one tactic under discussion involved throwing bodies out of aircraft.
“I was there when some staffers recommended dropping dead North Vietnamese soldiers from helicopters . . . simply for the psychology of it,” Haig remembered decades later. “I said ‘If that happens I’m resigning right here and now.’ And it didn’t happen.” The historical record, though, contradicts Haig’s last sentence. In November 1966, the New York Times reported that, following a particularly successful battle, an “elated” Lieutenant Colonel Jack Whitted of the 1st Infantry Division had the corpses of dead revolutionary troops loaded into a helicopter. “We’re giving the bodies back to Victor Charles!” he shouted. “We’ll dump the bodies in the next clearing.” The corpses were then hurled out.
The disdainful attitude that led American troops to gleefully cut off ears and run down pedestrians by the roadside was even stronger when it came to a group that, for the young soldiers, was doubly “other”: Vietnamese women. As a result, sexual violence and sexual exploitation became an omnipresent part of the American War. With their husbands or fathers away at war or dead because of it, without other employment prospects and desperate to provide for their families, many women found that catering to the desires of U.S. soldiers was their only option.
By 1966, as the feminist scholar Susan Brownmiller observed, the 1st Cavalry Division, the 1st Infantry Division, and the 4th Infantry Division had all already “established official military brothels within the perimeter of their basecamps.” At the 1st Infantry Division base at Lai Khe, refugee women—recruited by the South Vietnamese province chief and channeled into their jobs by the mayor of the town—worked in sixty curtained cubicles kept under military police guard. Jim Soular of the 1st Cavalry Division recalled the setup at his unit’s compound, known as Sin City.
You had to go through a checkpoint gate, but once you were in there you could do anything. There were all kinds of prostitutes and booze. The [U.S.] army was definitely in control of this thing. The bars had little rooms in the back where you could go with the prostitutes. I know they were checked by the doctors once a week for venereal diseases.
At Dong Tam, the 9th Infantry Division camp, the sign on a large building next to the headquarters read “Steam Bath and Massage.” The troops knew it by a different name: “Steam ’n Cream.” The building boasted approximately 140 cubicles filled with Vietnamese women and girls. At another U.S. compound, the prices of sex acts were announced at an official briefing, and, for a time, “little tickets had been printed up . . . blue ones for blow jobs, and white ones for inter-course,” recalled one patron to an army investigator. GIs paid a dollar or so for the former and around two for the latter.