Gang Rapes and Beatings, Brothels Filled with Teenage Prostitutes -- The Depths of American Brutality in Vietnam
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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.”
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.
Everywhere, every kind of sex was for sale. “At the entrance to the MACV compound in Qui Nhon, a six-year-old girl is offering blow jobs,” wrote one journalist sizing up the sex-work scene. “One night early on in my stay,” he reported,
I found myself with a thirteen-year-old girl on my lap insisting “we go make lub now” in the bordello her mother had thrown up opposite an American construction site. The bordello is made of sheets of aluminum somehow extricated from a factory just before attaining canhood. You can read the walls of the structure from a distance. They say “Schlitz, Schlitz,” in rows and columns, over and over again.
The girl wants $1.25. With some difficulty I refuse.
Later in the war, even walking as far as the camp entrance would become unnecessary, as certain bases began allowing prostitutes directly into the barracks.
“Hootch maids,” who washed and ironed clothes and cleaned living quarters for U.S. servicemen, were also sometimes sexually exploited. As one maid put it, “American soldiers have much money and it seems that they are sexually hungry all the time. Our poor girls. With money and a little patience, the Americans can get them very easily.” And other women working on bases fell victim to sexual blackmail. One such case was revealed in an army investigation of Mickey Carcille, who ran a camp mess hall that employed Vietnamese women. By threatening to fire them if they did not comply, Carcille forced some of the women to pose for nude photographs and coerced others into having intercourse with him or performing other sex acts.
In addition to sexual exploitation, sexual violence was an every-day feature of the American War -- hardly surprising since, as Christian Appy observed, “the model of male sexuality offered as a military ideal in boot camp was directly linked to violence.” From their earliest days in the military, men were bombarded with the language of sexism and misogyny. Male recruits who showed weakness or fatigue were labeled ladies, girls, pussies, or cunts. In basic training, as army draftee Tim O’Brien later wrote in his autobiographical account of the Vietnam War, the message was: “Women are dinks. Women are villains. They are creatures akin to Communists and yellow-skinned people."
While it’s often assumed that all sexual assaults took place in the countryside, evidence suggests that men based in rear areas also had ample opportunity to abuse and rape women. For example, on December 27, 1969, Refugio Longoria and James Peterson, who served in the 580th Telephone Operations Company, and one other soldier picked up a nineteen-year-old Vietnamese hootch maid hitching a ride home after a day of work on the gigantic base at Long Binh. They drove her to a secluded spot behind the recreation center and forced her into the back of the truck -- holding her down, gagging, and blindfolding her. They then gang-raped her and dumped her on the side of the road. A doctor’s examination shortly afterward recorded that “her hymen was recently torn. There was fresh blood in her vagina.”
On March 19, 1970, a GI at the base at Chu Lai, in Quang Tin Province, drove a jeep in circles while Private First Class Ernest Stepp manhandled and slapped a Vietnamese woman who had rebuffed his sexual advances. According to army documents, with the help of a fellow soldier Stepp tore off the woman’s pants and assaulted her. The driver apparently slowed down the jeep to give the woman’s attackers more time to carry out the assault, and offered his own advice to her: “If you don’t fight so much it won’t be so bad for you.”
Again and again, allegations of crimes against women surfaced at U.S. bases and in other rear echelon areas. “Boy did I beat the shit out of a whore. It was really fun,” one GI mused about his trip to the beach resort at Vung Tau. The sheer physical size of American troops -- on average five inches taller and forty-three pounds heavier than Vietnamese soldiers, and even more imposing in comparison to Vietnamese women -- meant that their assaults often inflicted serious injuries. Sometimes, Vietnamese women were simply murdered by angry GIs. One sex worker at a base in Kontum, known as “Linda” to the soldiers there, was gunned down after she laughed at a customer who, according to legal documents, “thought she was going to go out with another G.I.” On March 27, 1970, in Vung Tau, several Vietnamese prostitutes became embroiled in an argument with a soldier over payment. He assaulted a number of them and stabbed one to death.
Most rapes and other crimes against Vietnamese women, however, did take place in the field -- in hamlets and villages populated mainly by women and children when the Americans arrived. Rape was a way of asserting dominance, and sometimes a weapon of war, employed in field interrogations of women captives to gain information about enemy troops. Aside from any such considerations, rural women were generally assumed by Americans to be secret saboteurs or the wives and girlfriends of Viet Cong guerrillas, and thus fair game.
The reports of sexual assault implicated units up and down the country. A veteran who served with 198th Light Infantry Brigade testified that he knew of ten to fifteen incidents, within a span of just six or seven months, in which soldiers from his unit raped young girls. A soldier who served with the 25th Infantry Division admitted that, in his unit, rape was virtually standard operating procedure. One member of the Americal Division remembered fellow soldiers on patrol through a village suddenly singling out a girl to be raped. “All three grunts grabbed the gook chick and began dragging her into the hootch. I didn’t know what to do,” he recalled. “As a result of this one experience I learned to recognize the sounds of rape at a great distance . . . Over the next two months I would hear this sound on the average of once every third day.”
In November 1966, soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division brazenly kidnapped a young Vietnamese woman named Phan Thi Mao to use as a sexual slave. One unit member testified that, prior to the mission, his patrol leader had explicitly stated, “We would get the woman for the purpose of boom boom, or sexual intercourse, and at the end of five days we would kill her.” The sergeant was true to his word. The woman was kidnapped, raped by four of the patrol members in turn, and murdered the following day.
Gang rapes were a horrifyingly common occurrence. One army report detailed the allegations of a Vietnamese woman who said that she was detained by troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade and then raped by approximately ten soldiers. In another incident, eleven members of one squad from the 23rd Infantry Division raped a Vietnamese girl. As word spread, another squad traveled to the scene to join in. In a third incident, an Americal GI recalled seeing a Vietnamese woman who was hardly able to walk after she had been gang-raped by thirteen soldiers.139 And on Christmas Day 1969, an army criminal investigation revealed, four warrant officers in a helicopter noticed several Vietnamese women in a rice paddy, landed, kidnapped one of them, and committed “lewd and lascivious acts” against her. The traumatic nature of such sexual assaults remains vivid even when they are couched in the formal, bureaucratic language of mili tary records. Court-martial documents indicate, for instance, that after he led his patrol into one village, marine lance corporal Hugh Quigley personally detained a young Vietnamese woman -- because “her age, between 20 and 25, suggested that she was a Vietcong.” The documents tell the story.
After burning one hut and the killing of various animals, the accused with members of the patrol entered a hut where the alleged victim was. The accused, seeing the victim, grabbed for her breast and at the same time attempted to unbutton her blouse. As the victim held her child between the accused and herself, she pulled away. At this time, the accused pulled out his knife and threatened to cut the victim’s throat. The baby was taken from the victim and then the accused took the victim by the shoulders, laid her on the floor and then pulled her blouse above her breast and lowered her pants below her knees. The accused then knelt by the head of the victim, took his penis out of his pants and made the victim commit forced oral copulation on him. After a few minutes of this act the accused then proceeded to have non-consensual intercourse with her . . . The same witnesses who saw the accused commit these alleged acts will testify that the victim was scared and trembling.
Quigley was found guilty of having committed forcible sodomy and rape.
Some commanders, like an army colonel who investigated allegations of rape in an infantry battalion, nevertheless sought to cast Vietnamese women as willing participants. Writing about the heavily populated coastal regions of I and II Corps, he conjectured that in those areas “the number of young women far exceeds the number of military age males,” so the local women undoubtedly welcomed the attentions of American troops as a means to “satisfy needs long denied.” Assuming that all Vietnamese women longed for intercourse with armed foreigners marching through their villages, the colonel blithely concluded, “The circumstances are such that rape in contacts between soldiers . . . and village women is unlikely.”
The colonel’s theory about universally willing partners becomes even more preposterous when we consider the shockingly violent and sadistic nature of some of the sexual assaults. One marine remembered finding a Vietnamese woman who had been shot and wounded. Severely injured, she begged for water. Instead, her clothes were ripped off. She was stabbed in both breasts, then forced into a spread-eagle position, after which the handle of an entrenching tool -- essentially a short-handled shovel -- was thrust into her vagina. Other women were violated with objects ranging from soda bottles to rifles.
Excerpted from KILL ANYTHING THAT MOVES: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Nick Turse. All rights reserved.