hugh_thompson-1969.jpg (13368 bytes)Hero of My Lai dies at 62

Hugh Thompson Jr., a former Army helicopter pilot honored for rescuing Vietnamese civilians from his fellow GIs during the 1968 My Lai massacre, died January 6 of cancer at the age of 62. Thompson’s role in stopping the massacre did not become widely known until the late 1980s.

Early in the morning of March 16, 1968, Warrant Officer Thompson, his door-gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta came upon U.S. ground troops killing Vietnamese civilians in and around the village of My Lai. Thompson landed his helicopter in the line of fire between American troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians, and his crew pointed their own heavy machine guns at the U.S. soldiers to prevent more killings. Colburn and Andreotta provided cover for Thompson as he went forward to confront a superior officer, Lt. Stephen Brooks, who was preparing to blow up a bunker full of Vietnamese civilians. Thompson coaxed the wounded civilians out and then ordered two other helicopters flying nearby to serve as medevacs for them.

While flying away from the village, Andreotta spotted movement in an irrigation ditch full of bodies. Thompson landed his helicopter again and they extracted a child from the ditch, whom they brought with the rest of the Vietnamese to a hospital.

That afternoon, very upset and angry after the mission, Thompson reported to his platoon leader, operations officer, and commander. He told the commander, “If this damn stuff is what’s happening here, you can take these wings right now ‘cause they’re only sewn on with thread.” The order to cease-fire at My Lai was subsequently given.

Thompson related his story at a conference on My Lai held at Tulane University in December, 1994: “We kept flying back and forth, reconning in front and in the rear, and it didn’t take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever. That’s what you look for [in battle], draft-age people. ... I think a count has been anywhere from two to four hundred, five hundred bodies — it was that many. I think that’s a small count, including the three villages that were hit.”

Thompson was kept in the dangerous helicopter missions, which some considered punishment for his intervention at My Lai and the subsequent media coverage. He was shot down a total of five times, breaking his backbone on the last attack, and suffered psychological scars from his service in Vietnam throughout the rest of his life.

Author Seymour Hersh won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for his expose of the massacre in 1969 while working as a freelance journalist. Official investigations started, and the massacre became one of the pivotal events as opposition to the war was growing in the United States. Thompson was called before the U.S. Senate, the Department of the Army Inspector General, and for every one of the court-martial investigations.

Chief My Lai prosecutor William Eckhardt remembered Thompson “standing in front of people, tears rolling down his cheeks, pounding on the table saying, ‘Notice, notice, notice’ ... then had the courage to testify time after time after time.”

Lt. William L. Calley, a platoon leader, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the killings, but served just three years under house arrest when then-President Richard Nixon reduced his sentence.

For years Thompson suffered snubs and worse from those who considered him unpatriotic. He recalled a congressman angrily saying that Thompson himself was the only serviceman who should be punished because of My Lai.

As the years passed, Thompson became an example for future generations of soldiers, said Col. Tom Kolditz, head of the U.S. Military Academy’s behavioral sciences and leadership department. Thompson went to West Point once a year to give a lecture on his experience, Kolditz said.

“There are so many people today walking around alive because of him, not only in Vietnam, but people who kept their units under control under other circumstances because they had heard his story. We may never know just how many lives he saved.”

In 1998, the Army honored the three men with the prestigious Soldier’s Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving conflict with an enemy. It was a posthumous award for Andreotta, who was killed in battle three weeks after My Lai.

“It was the ability to do the right thing even at the risk of their personal safety that guided these soldiers to do what they did,” Army Maj. Gen. Michael Ackerman said at the 1998 ceremony. The three “set the standard for all soldiers to follow.”

In 1999, Thompson and Colburn received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award. Later that year, both men served as co-chairs of STONEWALK, a group that pulled a 1-ton rock engraved “Unknown Civilians Killed in War,” from Boston to Arlington National Cemetery.

In a 2004 interview with 60 Minutes, Thompson was quoted, referring to the men involved in the massacre, “I mean, I wish I was a big enough man to say I forgive them, but I swear to God, I can’t.”

Mr. Thompson was removed from life support at the veteran’s hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana, after extensive cancer treatment. Lawrence Colburn came from Atlanta to be at his bedside.

Hugh Thompson was buried in Lafayette, Louisiana, with full military honors, including a 21-gun salute and a helicopter flyover.

– compiled from The Associated Press, Wikipedia, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City website
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2006

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


War kills ten years later

BOSNIA – A hand grenade being used instead of a ball in a game of catch exploded early on Saturday, Nov. 7, killing three youths in the western Bosnian town of Novi Grad, police and news agencies said. Two youths aged 19 and 20, one of them from neighboring Croatia, were killed instantly while a 20-year-old woman died on her way to the hospital, police said. Her sister was slightly injured but two other youths suffered serious injuries.

The blast occurred at 2:00 a.m. at a place in the town center frequented by young people. Witnesses were quoted as saying the youths tossed the hand grenade to each other before it exploded in the hands of one of them. It was not clear why the grenade exploded. Police said an inquiry was under way and declined further comment.

Bosnia is awash with illegal weapons left over from the 1992-95 war, and tragic incidents are frequent despite several successful campaigns by international peacekeepers and police to get people to hand over illegal weapons.

– edited from Reuters
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2005

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Army unit waged reign of horror in Vietnam

The 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting was awarded to Michael D. Sallah, Mitch Weiss and Joe Mahr of The Blade, Toledo, Ohio, for their powerful series on atrocities by Tiger Force, an elite U.S. Army platoon, during the Vietnam War. This is the first part of a two-part series. Part two below.

tiger_force.jpg (3196 bytes)"Tiger Force," so-called because of its unique tiger-striped fatigues, was a small, mobile fighting unit in Vietnam. Part of the 101st Airborne Division, the elite 45-member platoon was specially trained to "search and destroy." In doing so, it lost any semblance of civilized behavior. Between May and November, 1967, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the central highlands of Vietnam, savagely killing hundreds of unarmed civilians — in some cases torturing and mutilating them — in an orgy of brutality and murder never before revealed to the American public. Prisoners were tortured and executed — their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. Elderly farmers were shot as they worked in the fields. Women and children in underground bunkers were intentionally blown up with grenades. Young girls were raped and murdered. Even infants were slaughtered. Two soldiers tried to stop the killings, but their pleas were ignored by commanders.

The previous, most notorious Vietnam war-crime case, the My Lai massacre, was a single event. The Tiger Force case is different. The atrocities took place over a period of seven months, leaving an untold number of dead civilians.

A review of thousands of classified Army documents, National Archives records, and radio logs revealed a fighting unit that carried out the longest-known series of atrocities in the Vietnam War — and commanders who looked the other way. Based on more than 100 interviews of former Tiger Force soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, the platoon is estimated to have killed several hundred unarmed civilians in clear violations of U.S. military law and the 1949 Geneva Conventions. One medic said he counted 120 unarmed villagers killed in one month. The cover-up began before the killing ended.

For decades, the case remained buried in government archives — not even known to America’s most recognized historians of the war. But in October, following an eight-month investigation, The Toledo Blade published a four-part series of articles exposing this gruesome episode in the history of America’s longest and most unpopular war. Blade staff traveled to two provinces in Vietnam and to half-a-dozen states for the story. And The New York Times, in a December 28 followup article, added further testimony that Tiger Force acted under orders from superior officers and that it’s conduct was common in Vietnam.

Campaign in Quang Ngai province

To the U.S. military, the Quang Ngai province in central Vietnam was an area that had to be controlled to stop the communist infiltration of South Vietnam. Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, created a special task force in 1967 to secure the province. In a conflict marked by fierce guerrilla warfare, the task force needed a special unit to move quickly through the jungles, find the enemy, and set up ambushes. That role fell to Tiger Force. To join the special platoon, soldiers had to volunteer, needed combat experience, and were subjected to a battery of questions — some about their willingness to kill.

By the time Tiger Force arrived in Quang Ngai province on May 3, 1967, the unit already had fought in fierce battles farther south. Less than a week after setting up camp in the province, Tiger Force members began to break the rules of war. It started with prisoners.

During a morning patrol on May 8, 1967, platoon members captured a suspected Viet Cong. Over the next two days, he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. At one point, his captors debated whether to blow him up with explosives, according to sworn witness statements. One former soldier, Spec. William Carpenter, said he tried to keep the prisoner alive, "but I knew his time was up." After the prisoner was told he was free and was ordered to run, he was shot by several unidentified soldiers.

The platoon’s treatment of the detainee — his beating and execution — became the unit’s standard operating procedure in the ensuing months. Time and again, Tiger Force soldiers talked about the executions of captured soldiers — so many that investigators were hard pressed to place a number on the toll.

In the first three weeks of May, platoon soldiers were under frequent sniper fire as they walked unfamiliar trails. Booby traps covered the rolling hills and beaches. On May 15, the unit was ambushed by a North Vietnamese battalion in what became known as the Mother's Day Massacre. From 11:00 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., the out-manned platoon became trapped in a valley under intense fire. By the time it ended, two Tiger Force soldiers were killed and 25 wounded.

Over the next few weeks, the platoon would change. One Tiger Force soldier, Sgt. Forrest Miller, told investigators the killing of prisoners became "an unwritten law." In June 1967, Pvt. Sam Ybarra slit the throat of a prisoner with a hunting knife before scalping him and placing the scalp on the end of a rifle, soldiers said in sworn statements. Ybarra refused to talk to Army investigators about the case. Another prisoner was ordered to dig bunkers, then beaten with a shovel before he was shot to death, records state. The killing prompted a medic Barry Bowman to talk to a chaplain: "It upset me so much to watch him die."

But platoon members weren’t just executing prisoners. They also began to target unarmed civilians. An elderly man in black robes, believed to be a Buddhist monk, was shot to death in June after he complained to soldiers about the treatment of villagers. A grenade was placed on his body to disguise him as an enemy soldier, platoon members told investigators. That same month, Ybarra shot and killed a 15-year-old boy near the village of Duc Pho, reports state. He later told soldiers he shot the youth because he wanted the teenager’s tennis shoes. The shoes didn’t fit, but Ybarra ended up carrying out what became a ritual among platoon members: he cut off the teenager’s ears and placed them in a ration bag, Specialist Carpenter told investigators.

Then a new field commander, Lt. James Hawkins, joined the unit, along with two dozen replacements. The newcomers arrived as the platoon was about to move into the Song Ve Valley, which became the center of operations for Tiger Force over the next two months.

Unlike most of the province, the valley was not a center of rebellion, according to villagers and historians. But no one in the farming community was left alone. The Army’s plan was to force the villagers to move to refugee centers to keep them from growing rice that could feed the enemy. But many villagers refused to go to the centers, which were more like prisons and lacked food and shelter. So, the soldiers began burning villages to force the people to leave.

At times, villagers would simply flee to another hamlet. Other times, they would hide. For the soldiers, the valley became a frustrating place. During the day, they would round up people to send to relocation camps. At night, platoon members huddled in camps on the valley floor, dodging grenades hurled from enemy soldiers in the mountains. The lines between civilians refusing to leave and the enemy became increasingly blurred.

On the night of July 23, 1967, a 68-year-old carpenter who had lived in the valley his entire life, Mr. Dao Hue, was walking to his village along the banks of the river. The platoon had set up camp in an abandoned village, where they began drinking beer delivered by helicopter. By dusk, several soldiers were drunk, reports state. When Mr. Dao crossed the river, he ran into Sgt. Leo Heaney, who grabbed the elderly Vietnamese man. "He was terrified and folded his hands and started what appeared to me as praying for mercy in a loud high-pitched tone," Mr. Heaney told Army investigators. He said he realized the man posed no threat.

Sergeant Heaney said he escorted Mr. Dao to the platoon leaders, Lt. Hawkins and Sgt. Harold Trout. Trembling, the man continued to babble loudly, witnesses said. Immediately, Lt. Hawkins began shaking the old man and cursing at him, witnesses recalled. Without warning, Sgt. Trout clubbed Mr. Dao with the barrel of his M-16 rifle. He fell to the ground, covered with blood.

In a sworn statement to investigators, Spec. Carpenter said he told Lt. Hawkins the man "was just a farmer, and was unarmed." But as medic Barry Bowman tried to treat the villager’s head wound, Lt. Hawkins lifted the man up from where he was kneeling and shot him in the face. "The old man fell backwards on the ground, and Hawkins shot him again," Spec. Carpenter said in a sworn statement. "I just knew he was dead as half of his head was blown off."

Lieutenant Hawkins denied the allegations when interviewed by Army investigators in 1973. But in a recent interview with The Toledo Blade, he admitted killing the elderly man, claiming his voice was loud enough to draw enemy attention. But four soldiers told investigators there were other ways to silence him. In fact, the shots gave their position away and led to a firefight.

Four days after the shooting of Mr. Dao, four Tiger Force soldiers were wounded in guerrilla grenade attacks. The platoon struck back. Over the next ten days, the soldiers led a rampage through the valley. The area was declared a free-fire zone — a designation that meant troops didn’t have to seek approval from commanders before attacking enemy soldiers. But Tiger Force soldiers took the words "free-fire" literally. They began to fire on men, women, and children, former platoon members said.

Villagers recently interviewed said they dug dozens of mass graves after the soldiers moved through the valley. Nguyen Dam, 66, recalled the grim task of burying neighbors and friends whose bodies were left in the fields. "We wouldn’t even have meals because of the smell," the rice farmer said. "I couldn't breathe the air sometimes. There were so many villagers who died, we couldn’t bury them one by one. We had to bury them all in one grave."

Days after the attack on the farmers, U.S. planes flew over the valley, dumping thousands of gallons of defoliants to ensure no one would grow rice there during the war. For Tiger Force, the Song Ve campaign was over.

Campaign in Quang Nam province

On August 10, 1967, Tiger Force platoon soldiers rode a truck convoy to Quang Nam province, 30 miles north. The land-scape there was covered by jungles laced with enemy tunnels. The mission was to control the province, but not in the usual way of winning territory. The platoon became engaged in a battle that became a mantra of the Vietnam war: body count. The success of a battle would be measured by the number of people killed, according to the sworn statements of 11 former officers. Body count was also a reason officers were promoted.

In what became one of the bloodiest periods of 1967, the Army launched a campaign on September 11 known as Operation Wheeler. Tiger Force and three other units were led by battalion commander Lt. Col. Gerald Morse, who had taken over the previous month. The 38-year-old officer was described as an aggressive, hands-on commander who rode in helicopters and kept in frequent radio contact with his units in the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry.

Within days, Colonel Morse changed the names of the battalions’ three companies from A, B, and C to Assassins, Barbarians, and Cutthroats. Colonel Morse went by the name "Ghost Rider."

Tiger Force soldiers soon learned this area was different from the Song Ve Valley. It was home not only to the Viet Cong, but also to a far more trained and disciplined adversary — the 2nd Division of the North Vietnamese Army. By early September, the enemy soldiers were setting ambushes for troops, including Tiger Force.

"We soon found ourselves face to face with the enemy," recalled former specialist Carpenter, who now lives in eastern Ohio. "It seemed like every day we were getting hit."

Within 18 days of arriving in the new operations area, five Tiger Force soldiers died and 12 were wounded in fighting that left the remaining platoon members bitter and angry. The platoon began attacking villages with a vengeance, according to former soldiers.

"Everybody was blood thirsty at the time, saying ‘We’re going to even the score,’" former medic Rion Causey said in a recent interview. "I’ve never seen anything like it," said Mr. Causey, 55, now a nuclear engineer in California. "We just came in and cleared out the civilian population." If the people didn’t leave, he said, "they would be killed."

To cover up the shootings, platoon leaders began counting dead civilians as enemy soldiers, according to five former soldiers. A review of Army logs supports their accounts. For ten days beginning Nov. 11, entries show that platoon members were claiming to be killing Viet Cong — a total of 49. But no weapons were found in 46 deaths, records show.

Sgt. James Barnett told investigators he once raised concerns to Lt. Hawkins that Tiger Force soldiers were killing people who weren’t carrying weapons. "Hawkins told me not to worry about it," he said.

Toward the end of Operation Wheeler, there was even greater motivation for killing. An order was given via radio one day that would be remembered by seven soldiers years later. A voice came over the airwaves with a goal for the battalion: We want a body count of 327. The number was significant because it was the same as the battalion’s infantry designation: the 327th. Three former soldiers swore under oath the order came from a man who identified himself as "Ghost Rider" — the radio name used by Lt. Col. Morse.

In a recent interview, Morse, who retired in 1979, denied giving such an order. But during questioning by Army investigators, former private John Colligan said the order indeed was given. In fact, he said the soldier who reached that goal "was to receive some type of reward."

Army radio logs show the goal was achieved: Tiger Force reported the 327th kill on November 19. Three former soldiers said in recent interviews the goal was achieved in part through the killing of villagers. Former private Joseph Evans, who refused to be interrogated during the Army’s investigation, said in a recent interview that many people who were running from soldiers were not a threat to troops. "They were just running because they were afraid. They were in fear. We killed a lot of people who shouldn’t have been killed."

Specialist Carpenter insists he did not join in the shooting. "It was wrong," he said in a recent interview. "There was no way I was going to shoot. Those people weren’t bothering anybody." He told Army investigators he was afraid to express his opinion.

A culture had developed in the unit that promoted the shooting of civilians, with team leaders enforcing a code of silence. Four former soldiers told investigators they didn’t report atrocities because they were warned to keep quiet by team leaders. Former private Ken Kerney recalled in a recent interview the briefing he received before joining Tiger Force. "The commanders told me that ‘What goes on here, stays here. You never tell anyone about what goes on here. If we find out you did, you won’t like it.’ They didn’t tell me what they would do, but I knew. So you’re afraid to say anything."

By the end of November, the long and bloody campaign was over. In a story in the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes, Tiger Force’s Sam Ybarra was praised for the 1,000th kill of Operation Wheeler. At a ceremony at the Phan Rang base on November 27, 1967, medals were pinned on the chests of Tiger Force soldiers, including Sgt. William Doyle, who ordered the execution of a farmer during the operation.

Tiger Force left the central highlands in the ensuing weeks, shortly before the lunar new year 1968, when North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive in the south. Communist North Vietnam suffered a heavy military defeat, but its attack on 100 villages and cities scored a huge political and psychological victory that dramatically contradicted U.S. claims of winning the war. The tragic toll in Vietnam continued for another seven years until the last American troops evacuated Saigon in 1975.

The Army investigation

The Army launched an investigation of Tiger Force in 1971 that lasted 4 years — the longest-known war-crime investigation of the Vietnam conflict. The Army interviewed 137 witnesses and tracked down former platoon members in more than 60 cities around the world.

One Tiger Force soldier, Sgt. Forrest Miller, told investigators the killing of prisoners was "an unwritten law." Twenty-seven soldiers said the severing of ears from dead Vietnamese became an accepted practice. One reason was to scare the Vietnamese. Platoon members strung the ears on shoe laces to wear around their necks, reports state. Former platoon medic Larry Cottingham told investigators: "There was a period when just about everyone had a necklace of ears." Records show soldiers began another gruesome practice — kicking out the teeth of dead civilians for their gold fillings.

In sworn statements, soldiers said Pvt. Sam Ybarra slit the throat of a prisoner with a hunting knife in June 1967, before scalping him and placing the scalp on the end of a rifle. Ybarra refused to talk to Army investigators about the case. Another prisoner was ordered to dig bunkers, then beaten with a shovel before he was shot to death, records state. The killing prompted medic Barry Bowman to talk to a chaplain: "It upset me so much to watch him die."

During the Army’s investigation, former lieutenant Donald Wood said he protested to the executive officer of his battalion about civilian mistreatment by Lt. Hawkins. But he said the officer told him to return to the platoon. He also complained to Lt. Stephen Naughton, a former Tiger Force platoon leader who had been promoted. Lieutenant Naughton, who was interviewed by Army investigators in 1974, said he received the complaint and passed it on to a colonel in the inspector general’s office at Fort Bragg, N.C. "He told me to forget about it, that I would just be stirring things up, and hung up on me," the lieutenant told investigators.

Army investigators concluded that 18 soldiers committed war crimes ranging from murder and assault to dereliction of duty. Former soldiers described 11 more crimes in recent interviews. But no one was ever charged. Six platoon soldiers suspected of war crimes — including an officer — were allowed to resign during the investigation, escaping military prosecution.

Top White House officials in the Nixon administration were repeatedly sent reports on the progress of the investigation. The findings were sent to the offices of the secretary of the Army and the secretary of defense, records show, but no action was taken. By the time the investigation was over, a justice system that promised to prosecute war criminals, instead protected them and allowed them to continue their military careers.

The only soldier disciplined in the case was Sgt. Gary Coy, the one who brought it to the Army’s attention. The reason: He told investigators he saw a Tiger Force soldier decapitate a baby in November 1967. He later admitted he didn’t actually see the atrocity, but only heard about it. Investigators later interviewed several witnesses who said Pvt. Ybarra bragged about severing the baby’s head to get a necklace. One former soldier, Harold Fischer, said in a recent interview that he witnessed Ybarra leaving a hut with a bloody necklace on his wrist and looked inside to find the decapitated baby.

To this day, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command refuses to release thousands of records that could explain what happened and why the case was dropped. What’s clear is that nearly four decades later, many Vietnamese villagers and former Tiger Force soldiers are deeply troubled by the brutal killings.

Ernest Moreland, a former platoon member, said, "The things you saw. The things you did. You think back and say, ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ At the time, it seemed right. But now, you know what you did was wrong. The killing gets to you. The nightmares get to you. You just can’t escape it. You can’t escape the past."

"It was out of control," said Rion Causey. "I still wonder how some people can sleep 30 years later." He subsequently added, "The story that I’m not sure is getting out is that while they’re saying this was a ruthless band ravaging the countryside, we were under orders to do it."

Ken Kerney, now a firefighter in California, agreed that the responsibility went higher. "I’m talking about the guys with the eagles," he said, referring to the insignia of a full colonel. "It was always about the body count."

"Remember, out in the jungle there were no police officers. No judges. No law and order," Mr. Kerney said. "Whenever somebody felt like doing something, they did it. There was no one to stop them."

Nicholas Turse, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University who has been studying government archives, said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities. "I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported," he said by telephone. "I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn’t stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That’s the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds."

"I’ve seen atrocities in Vietnam that make Tiger Force look like Sunday school," said William Doyle, who joined the Army at 17 when a judge gave him — a young street gang leader — a chance to escape punishment. The former Tiger Force sergeant, now living in Missouri, said he killed so many civilians he lost count.

"We were living day to day. We didn’t expect to live. Nobody out there with any brains expected to live," he said. "So you did any goddamn thing you felt like doing — especially to stay alive. The way to live is to kill because you don’t have to worry about anybody who’s dead. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t kill more," Doyle added. "If I had known that it was going to end as quick as it did, the way it did, I would have killed a lot more."

– compiled from The Toledo Blade and The New York Times
PeaceMeal, May/June & July/August 2004

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


History of abuse

Tri-City (Washington) Herald, May 26, 2004

To the editor:

I personally do not condone prisoner abuse, but that type of thing has been going on in every war since the beginning of time, on all sides. Getting information, in any way you can, to save our American soldiers’ lives is what it is all about. ...

In Vietnam, the American intelligence community would take prisoners up in Huey helicopters for interrogation. They would line the prisoners up in order of importance, the most important last, and start their interrogation. If the prisoner didn't answer the interrogators' question, they would throw the prisoner out of the Huey, at a 1,000-foot altitude.

Needless to say, when the interrogators got to the last two or three prisoners, they were talking up a storm. Was that OK to save American soldiers lives? ...

We American people are so controlled by our government and news media, we don't really know what the truth is. Remember that there's always three sides to every story: our side, their side, and then the truth.

Jack Culmer, Vietnam war veteran
West Richland, Washington


Lest we forget [Vietnam]

On April 30th twenty-five years ago, one last helicopter lifted off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in its walled compound in Saigon. The United States was finally abandoning its 25-year quest to prevent the control of Vietnam by a popular communist government.

The armed conflict in what was formerly known as French Indochina began after World War II as an attempt by France to preserve part of its colonial empire. United States involvement began in 1950 when our government started bankrolling the French campaign.

After the French bailed out in 1954, Vietnam was partitioned and an election scheduled to reunite the country under a popularly elected government. Expecting a loss, however, the South Vietnamese regime refused to hold the election; and we stepped in militarily to prop them up — first by supplying military advisers to the army of South Vietnam and then, following the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, taking over the hostilities ourselves.

Without any declaration of war, we began to carpet bomb the jungle from high-flying B-52s and to defoliate it with toxic Agent Orange. During the course of the war, we dropped 7-million tons of bombs on Vietnam, 3 times what we used in all of World War II.

Each year we became mired deeper and deeper in a disastrous no-win situation. By 1968 we had more than half a million troops in Vietnam; and in 1969 President Nixon secretly expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia.

It was the first war in history covered by television. We watched the daily video clips from the battle front while eating dinner and listened to the grotesque statistic of our "winning" the war — the daily body count. In the bloody sport of war, we tallied the score each day: X of them killed vs. Y of us killed.

By those statistics, we were eminently successful. Although we brought home some 58,000 of our own troops in bodybags and untold thousands more with bodies and minds devastated, we succeeded in killing somewhere between two million and three million of "them."

But the numbers didn't add up the way our commanders portrayed them. The "light at the end of the tunnel," they said, was always in sight; but as their outlook grew more and more unrealistic, the daily press briefings in Saigon came to be known as "the five o'clock follies."

When we abandoned Vietnam 25 years ago, we left behind a landscape and a people scarred. We brought our own scarred veterans home to a country fiercely divided by the longest war in U.S. history. The war even produced fatalities at home - four unarmed student protestors mowed down by the National Guard at Kent State University.

If Vietnam teaches us anything, it should teach us that might does not make right. But that is a lesson we still have not learned, as evidenced by our bombing of Kosovo last year in violation of international law. And what has our recent campaign of death and destruction accomplished? More violence breaking out of control.

April begins with the first — April Fools' Day. Perhaps we should also begin to observe April last — the anniversary of our departure from Vietnam - as April Follies Day to remind us of the utter folly of war.

- Jim Stoffels, chairman and editor
PeaceMeal, March/April 2000


The rod and the big stick [Kosovo]

"Spare the rod and spoil the child." - Ralph Venning, 1649
"Speak softly and carry a big stick." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1901

In my home as a child, there was a smooth rod about -inch thick. It was the tool of punishment for misbehavior.

When children grow up and misbehave, we have other "big sticks" for punishment. Military force was the one we used in Kosovo.

The atrocities in the former Yugoslavia provoked marked ambivalence around the world. What was a proper response to the brutal ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Serbian military forces under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic? Was NATO's bombing the answer? Not only military strategists and politicians, but even peace activists and religious leaders were divided on the question.

The NATO bombing strategy was predicated on the wishful thinking that Slobodan Milosevic would sign the Rambouillet agreement after a few days. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright first announced, "I don't see this as a long-term operation," only to say ten days later that "We never expected this to be over quickly." Two-and-a-half months of nonstop bombing - in violation of international law - were required to achieve the desired objective.

It was like saying that one good swat would make a misbehaving child straighten up and, when it didn't, proceeding to beat the child to death.

Our air strikes went astray a dozen times with bombs plowing into buses, convoys of refugees, passenger trains, private homes, the Chinese Embassy, two hospitals, and a retirement home. The so-called "collateral damage" included more than 1,000 noncombatants killed — men, women, and children — and hundreds of others maimed. NATO cluster bombs — antipersonnel weapons that explode above the ground and spread a hail of razor-sharp needles and/or shrapnel — killed 79 refugees in the village of Prizren.

It was not just "collateral damage" we saw, but the deliberate targeting of civilian property, including residential neighborhoods, auto factories, broadcasting stations, and water and electric power plants. By defining civilian assets as militarily useful, NATO rationalized a methodical destruction of the civilian infrastructure.

The bombing campaign that was originally justified by its humanitarian goals itself became a crime against humanity. Our administration's blame-Milosevic-for-everything rhetoric was rejected by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who asserted that both Serbia and NATO should be subject to investigation for war crimes. Two wrongs don't make a right; and Robinson forcefully denounced "collateral damage" as an Orwellian euphemism.

We have made war both a science and a game. We teach it to students in college and to children playing video games. And our world reflects the violence we teach.

If we want a more peaceful world, we have to teach peacemaking skills, including effective parenting skills. As parents, we have to learn that controlling behavior through punishment does nothing to teach children the only real discipline there is, namely, self-discipline.

In my home as a parent, I used a hand applied to the seat of the problem as a method of punishment, but only with my first two children and not with my last two. In between, I learned something about alternative methods of effective parenting; and I learned how much damage corporal punishment does inside where we can't see it. I would never spank a child again.

In our adult relationships, do we similarly respond to conflicts with anger and other violence? Or do we know and practice the skills of nonviolent conflict resolution, like "talking it out"? — something even kindergarteners can learn. Do we have the inner strength to turn the other cheek when attacked? — something that a commitment to nonviolence requires.

The 850,000 Kosovo refugees displaced since the NATO bombing began on March 24, 1999, traded one hell for another. Tens of thousands now make their home in squalid refugee camps where babies are born in the mud. Those who didn't make it to the camps are in even direr straits. Groups of refugees hiding in Kosovo's high mountain passes have so little food they are eating leaves. Some took shelter in a filthy chicken coop until poisonous centipedes began biting the children.

The attention paid to humanitarian aid to the refugees was totally inadequate — trivial compared to the billions spent to bomb Yugoslavia. And now as repatriation is about to begin, the refugees will be returning to homes and stores looted, scarred, and charred, roads and bridges destroyed, and fields fallow. They will face serious shortages of food, clean water, and electricity - not to mention the deadly hazards of buried landmines.

We seem to have the conflict in Kosovo under control — at least for the present. But we haven't taught the warring factions anything about dealing with their conflicts nonviolently — something they will need to live in peace. And at what cost has our control of the situation been bought?

What we have done reminds me of the infamous line uttered by one of our armed forces in Vietnam:

"To save the village, we had to destroy it."

- Jim Stoffels, chairman and editor
PeaceMeal, May/June 1999


"Contact 2"

The United States of America has made contact with an extraterrestrial power. Our government leaders have arrogantly precipitated a military confrontation; and the extraterrestrial power has unleashed an all-out attack on the United States. Our relatively impotent armed forces — those surviving — have retreated in panic along highways clogged with battle debris. From the air, the adversary has penetrated our heartland and demolished our civilian infrastructure.

The adversary has retreated and laid siege to our country. An invisible but impenetrable curtain has been placed around our continental and coastal borders to prevent any outside aid from reaching us. We are isolated and alone.

Ninety-five percent of our electrical capacity has been knocked out. Hospitals are cold and dark. Water and sewage treatment plants are inoperable. Black streams of raw sewage pour into our rivers — rivers from which those living downstream draw their drinking water.

Intestinal disease from contaminated water quickly reaches epidemic proportions. The young and the old drop like flies.

Without electricity, the wheels of agriculture and industry grind slowly, if at all. Shortages of food and medicine mount. We sell our life's possessions for the little available.

Now, seven years later, the siege continues. Five percent of our population — one out of every twenty persons — has died of starvation and disease. Sixty percent of the dead are our children under the age of five. The stress is causing marriages and families — our very society — to disintegrate. "The land of the free and the home of the brave" is dying. There is no mercy in sight.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Seven years ago, the leader of a small country in the Middle East arrogantly precipitated a military confrontation with Earth's lone superpower. The superpower unleashed an all-out attack. The relatively impotent armed forces of the small nation — those surviving — retreated in panic along highways clogged with battle debris. It was "a turkey shoot."

From the air, the superpower penetrated the heartland of the small nation and demolished its civilian infrastructure, then retreated and laid siege to the country. An invisible but impenetrable curtain was placed around its borders to prevent any outside aid from reaching it.

The small nation was isolated and alone. Ninety-five percent of its electrical capacity was knocked out. Hospitals were (and are) cold and dark. Water and sewage treatment plants are inoperable. Black streams of raw sewage pour into the river from which those living downstream draw their drinking water.

Intestinal disease from contaminated water quickly reached epidemic proportions. The young and the old dropped like flies. By the first summer after the battle, 17,000 were dying each month.

Without electricity, the wheels of agriculture and industry ground slowly, if at all. Shortages of food and medicine mounted. People sold their life's possessions for the little available.

Now, seven years later, the siege continues. Five percent of the little nation's population — one out of every twenty persons — has died. Sixty percent of the dead are children under the age of five. The stress is causing marriages and families to disintegrate. The very society of the little nation is dying. There is no mercy in sight.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Some of us call ourselves "Christians." Some even claim that Earth's lone superpower is "a Christian nation." What a terrible indictment of Christianity!

Christ said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you ..." (Luke 6:27)

The only way to eliminate our enemies for good is to "kill them with kindness."

I wonder what waves of hatred and terrorist vengeance we will reap from the anguished parents of the 600,000 dead children of Iraq.

- Jim Stoffels, chairman and editor
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 1998


Kids cannon fodder for grownups' wars

On any given day, an estimated 200,000 children are on active duty in armed conflict around the world. The root of the problem of child soldiers is poverty, according to a recently completed United Nations study of the causes and consequences of children's participation in warfare.

Many military leaders find children a valuable commodity because they are easily recruited (usually by force) and indoctrinated, present a small target, and lack adult judgment, rendering them "ferocious fighters."

Some children in underdeveloped countries do volunteer for military service because it affords them more opportunity than they could otherwise find. In many countries, however, the military scours the poorest sections of the cities and literally snatches children off the streets.

Children are often subjected to brutal hazing rituals involving extreme physical and psychological violence. Sometimes they are given alcohol or drugs before going into combat and are given the most dangerous assignments. Child soldiers experience severe psychological trauma and often find re-entry into civilian life very difficult. Many subsequently turn to criminal activity.

The minimum age for military recruitment established by international law is currently 15 years. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended raising the minimum age for recruitment and for participation in hostilities to 18 years. This was one of the most contentious issues during the drafting of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

- National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 1996