U.S. reaps what the Army sows
Recent headlines from Iraq are ugly: Marines charged with murdering Haditha civilians. A crippled man killed by Americans, who then planted a rifle and shovel near the body as if he had been burying roadside bombs. And a particularly gruesome charge that U.S. soldiers raped and killed an Iraqi woman, killed her family, and burned the bodies to cover the crime.
If these atrocities are carefully investigated, the likely deficiency may be sufficient command leadership and discipline. A recent book (May 2006) speaks to the issue of leader accountability with stunning eloquence. Tiger Force is a documented account of 120 U.S. soldiers who, between May and November of 1967, rotated through an Army special operations platoon. This platoon, Tiger Force, wreaked its vengeance in the vicinity of Duc Pho and Chu Lai in South Vietnam.
Operating largely on their own and only passingly accountable to a chain of command that rarely ventured into the jungles and paddies, these soldiers ruthlessly murdered hundreds of unarmed men, women and children. One soldier cut off a baby's head with a knife. Victims' ears were regularly sliced off, collected and fashioned into necklaces which some soldiers proudly wore. Other victims were scalped. Some were tortured. Teeth were kicked out to retrieve the gold from fillings. Virtually all of the civilian deaths were reported as "Viet Cong," even though, oddly, no weapons were ever found and none were ever reported. No officer in command ever questioned this glaring disparity.
That part of Tiger Force is grim enough. What the Army then did with the evidence is shocking, and what was covered up in 1974-75 may have sowed the headlines we are reaping in 2006. One of the most thorough Criminal Investigation Division (CID, the Army's internal FBI) investigations ever conducted, meticulously gathered the facts surrounding the war crimes committed by Tiger Force. The evidence was voluminous, certain and had been obtained at the risk of a few investigators' lives.
In 1974-75, Richard Cheney was a special assistant to President Ford. Ford's chief of staff was Donald Rumsfeld. The secretary of defense from 1973-75 was James Schlesinger. The case was made to disappear by these men who served presidents Nixon and Ford - probably out of considerations of politics. There were never any charges filed against the soldiers or the officers who ordered and participated in the routine killing of civilians.
The only reason the case file ever became public was that the CID officer who directed the investigation, and who later commanded the Criminal Investigation Division, kept a copy of the investigation file, and prior to his death in 2002 made provision for the file to be delivered to a reporter with the Toledo Blade.
Thirty years later, Mr. Rumsfeld refuses to discuss the Tiger Force case. Mr. Cheney declines to discuss much of anything. Mr. Schlesinger conducted one of the see-no-evil investigations at Abu Ghraib. The senior leadership of the Army and the nation prefers to characterize war crimes as the work of a few "bad apples." My Lai was pinned to Lt. William Calley, who suited the bad apple role.
Tiger Force was far larger, killed three times as many people, but involved too many "bad apples" and too much gore to maintain the right story line.
The common thread which runs from Tiger Force through My Lai, to Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib, to a hundred episodes of sadistic brutality inflicted by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, is the remarkable fact that the official responsibility for all these tragedies never runs higher than the lowest-level trigger-pullers or body-stackers.
But suppose in 1975 that Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney had made a different decision. Suppose the CID Tiger Force investigation had been permitted to charge the perpetrators and their superior officers with war crimes. Suppose a court-martial inquiry had asked why no battalion commanders bothered to check out the reports of Tiger Force ear collections? What if a colonel or two had been found guilty of failing to adequately control the troops under their command? For starters, those cases and leadership lessons would have been part of today's core curriculum in ROTC and at West Point.
This administration never holds anyone in senior positions accountable for derelict performance. However, unless there is full accountability for the war crimes of Iraq - wherever the evidence leads - there is a high probability that the lessons today's lieutenants and captains need to learn about the law of war and command leadership will never be sufficiently absorbed to make the crucial difference when those men and women become colonels and generals.
David R. Irvine is a lawyer in Salt Lake City and a retired Army Reserve brigadier general. He was commissioned as a strategic intelligence officer in 1967, and taught prisoner of war interrogation and military law for the Sixth Army Intelligence School for 18 years.