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The Scalping Party

The Tiger Force atrocity in Vietnam was the third major war crimes revelation in the last few years to encounter apathy in the media and indifference from Washington.
 
 
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In his dark masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985), novelist Cormac McCarthy tells the terrifying tale of a gang of Yanqui scalp-hunters who left an apocalyptic trail of carnage from Chihuahua to Southern California in the early 1850s.

Commissioned by Mexican authorities to hunt marauding Apaches, the company of ex-filibusters and convicts under the command of the psychopath John Glanton quickly became intoxicated with gore. They began to exterminate local farmers as well as Indians, and when there were no innocents left to rape and slaughter, they turned upon themselves with shark-like fury.

Many readers have recoiled from the gruesome extremism of McCarthy's imagery: the roasted skulls of tortured captives, necklaces of human ears, an unspeakable tree of dead infants. Others have balked at his unpatriotic emphasis on the genocidal origins of the American West and the book's obvious allusion to "search and destroy" missions à la Vietnam.

But Blood Meridian , like all of McCarthy's novels, is based on meticulous research. Glanton -- the white savage, the satanic face of Manifest Destiny -- really existed. He's simply the ancestor most Americans would prefer to forget. He's also the ghost we can't avoid.

Six weeks ago, a courageous hometown paper in rustbelt Ohio -- the Toledo Blade -- tore the wraps off an officially suppressed story of Vietnam-era exterminism that recapitulates Blood Meridian in the most ghastly and unbearable detail. The reincarnation of Glanton's scalping party was an elite 45-man unit of the 101 Airborne Division known as "Tiger Force." The Blade's intricate reconstruction of its murderous march through the Central Highlands of Vietnam in summer and fall 1967 needs to be read in full, horrifying detail. Blade reporters interviewed more than 100 American veterans and Vietnamese survivors.

Tiger Force atrocities began with the torture and execution of prisoners in the field, then escalated to the routine slaughter of unarmed farmers, elderly people, and even small children. As one former sergeant told the Blade, "It didn't matter if they were civilians. If they weren't supposed to be in an area, we shot them. If they didn't understand fear, I taught it to them."

Early on, Tiger Force began scalping its victims (the scalps were dangled from the ends of M-16s) and cutting off their ears as souvenirs. One member -- who would later behead an infant -- wore the ears as a ghoulish necklace (just like the character Toadvine in Blood Meridian , while another mailed them home to his wife. Others kicked out the teeth of dead villagers for their gold fillings.

A former Tiger Force sergeant told reporters "he killed so many civilians he lost count." The Blade estimates that innocent casualties were in "the hundreds." Another veteran, a medic with the unit, recalled 150 unarmed civilians murdered in a single month.

Superior officers, especially the Glanton-like battalion commander Gerald Morse (or "Ghost Rider" as he fancied himself), sponsored the carnage. Orders were given to "shoot everything that moves" and Morse established a body-count quota of 327 (the numerical designation of the battalion) that Tiger Force enthusiastically filled with dead peasants and teenage girls.

Soldiers in other units who complained about these exterminations were ignored or warned to keep silent, while Tiger Force slackers were quickly transferred out. As with Glanton's gang, or, for that matter, Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile extermination squads, in the western Ukraine in 1941, atrocity created its own insatiable momentum. Eventually, nothing was unthinkable in the Song Ve Valley.

"A 13-year-old girl's throat was slashed after she was sexually assaulted, and a young mother was shot to death after soldiers torched her hut. An unarmed teenager was shot in the back after a platoon sergeant ordered the youth to leave a village, and a baby was decapitated so that a soldier could remove a necklace."

Stories about the beheading of the baby spread so widely that the Army was finally forced to launch a secret inquiry in 1971. The investigation lasted for almost five years and probed 30 alleged Tiger Force war crimes. Evidence was found to support the prosecution of at least 18 members of the platoon. In the end, however, a half dozen of the most compromised veterans were allowed to resign from the Army, avoiding military indictment, and in 1975 the Pentagon quietly buried the entire investigation.

According to the Blade, "It is not known how far up in the Ford administration the decision [to bury the cases] went," but it is worth recalling whom the leading actors were at the time: the Secretary of Defense, then as now, was Donald Rumsfeld, and the White House chief of staff was Dick Cheney.

Recently in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh, who was instrumental in exposing the My Lai massacre, decried the failure of the corporate media, especially the four major television networks, to report the Blade's findings or launch their own investigations into the official cover-up. (Since then, ABC news and Ted Koppel's Nightline have both covered the subject.) He also reminds us that the Army concealed the details of another large massacre of civilians at the village of My Khe 4, near My Lai on the very day in 1968 when the more infamous massacre took place.

Moreover, the Tiger Force story is the third major war crimes revelation in the last few years to encounter apathy in the media and/or indifference and contempt in Washington.

In 1999, a team of investigative reporters from the Associated Press broke the story of a horrific massacre of hundreds of unarmed Korean civilians by U.S. troops in July 1950. It occurred at a stone bridge near the village of No Gun Ri and the unit involved was Custer's old outfit, the 7th Calvary regiment.

As one veteran told the AP, "There was lieutenant screaming like a madman, fire on everything, kill 'em all. .... Kids, there was kids out there, it didn't matter what it was, eight to eighty, blind, crippled or crazy, they shot them all." Another ex-soldier was haunted by the memory of a terrified child: "She came running toward us. You should have seen guys trying to kill that little girl. With machine guns."

A reluctant Pentagon Inquiry into this Korean version of the Wounded Knee Massacre acknowledged that there was a civilian toll but cited very low figures for the dead and then dismissed it as "an unfortunate tragedy inherent in war," despite overwhelming evidence of a deliberate U.S. policy of bombing and strafing refugee columns. The Bridge at No Gun Ri (2001), by the three Pulitzer Prize-winning AP journalists, currently languishes at near 600,000 on the Amazon sales index.

Likewise there has been little enduring outrage that a confessed war criminal, Bob Kerrey, reigns as president of New York City's once liberal New School University. In 2001, the former Navy SEAL and ex-Senator from Nebraska was forced to concede, after years of lies, that the heroic engagement for which he received a Bronze Star in 1969 involved the massacre of a score of unarmed civilians, mainly women and children. "To describe it as an atrocity," he admitted, "is pretty close to being right."

The blue-collar ex-SEAL team member who revealed the truth about the killings at Than Phong under Kerrey's command was publicly excoriated as a drunk and traitor, while powerful Democrats -- led by Senators Max Cleland and John Kerry, both Vietnam veterans -- circled the wagons to protect Kerrey from further investigation or possible prosecution. They argued that it was wrong to "blame the warrior instead of the war" and called for a "healing process."

Indeed covering up American atrocities has proved a thoroughly bipartisan business. The Democrats, after all, are currently considering the bomber of Belgrade, General Wesley Clark, as their potential knight on a white horse. The Bush administration, meanwhile, blackmails governments everywhere with threats of aid cuts and trade sanctions unless they exempt U.S. troops from the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court.

The United States, of course, has good reason to claim immunity from the very Nuremburg principles it helped establish in 1946-47. American Special Forces troops, for example, were most probably complicit in the massacres of hundreds of Taliban prisoners by Northern Alliance warlords several years ago. Moreover, "collateral damage" to civilians is part and parcel of the new white man's burden of "democratizing" the Middle East and making the world safe for Bechtel and Halliburton.

The Glantons thus still have their place in the scheme of Manifest Destiny, and the scalping parties that once howled in the wilderness of the Gila now threaten to range far and wide along the banks of the Euphrates and in the shadow of the Hindu Kush.

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear , and most recently, Dead Cities: and Other Tales .