Thursday, November 29, 2012

And then he was acquitted...

Reading through the documents of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, I get the feeling that some of the officers serving on courts-martial during the Vietnam War really just didn't want to punish people for their alleged crimes, even when they were fairly well-documented.  With today's, case, though, they had an easy out - one of the NCOs making allegations against a Second Lieutenant of the 173rd Airborne Brigade indicated that he and other NCOs just didn't get along with their superior officer.  That admission let the members of the court ignore the LT's behavior.  This particular file contained a number of affidavits from witnesses, complainants, the 173rd Brigade Rules of Engagement, and a summary of the outcome.  Sadly, it does not include anything about the reasoning of the members of the court in their acquittal.

Here are the charges our LT faced in the spring of 1971 - the allegations stem from events occurring in November - December of 1970:

  1. Maltreatment of Vietnamese Civilians by making them walk point in violation of the Geneva Conventions from 22 November 1970 - 25 December 1970 (Merry Christmas, you get to walk point for us).
  2. Torture of Vietnamese civilians by using a radio telephone connected to their genitals.
  3. Indiscriminate use of firepower - generally CS or HE rounds from an M-79 or a LAW fired into rice paddies or a village near the Echo Recon Command Post.
  4. Destruction of private property (haystacks burned).
  5. Allowing a Vietnamese woman, who later turned out to be an enemy agent, to stay in his post (Stag 8) for twelve days.
These allegations stem from a letter that eight Sergeants and a Spec 4 signed and sent to the Battalion Commander of the 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry, detailing the behavior of their Platoon Leader.  At the very least, this is unlikely to be based on hearsay like so many of the cases that I've been reading.  All of these guys were in close contact with the LT and in a position to observe what he was doing.  Here's what this group of NCOs claimed was going on: the Platoon Leader randomly fired CS projectiles from his M-79 into rice paddies where farmers were working daily during the later afternoon for a period of five weeks.  Seven witnesses said that the LT fired CS rounds into the villages around Stag 8.  Two of the witnesses argued that he fired HE shells into rice paddies and villages, and five claimed that he ordered an M-8 gas launcher fired into a village to the west of their position, starting fires in the village. Seven of the witnesses said that he fired a LAW into the rice paddies nearby, but there was disagreement over whether there were any civilians present at the time.  It would seem that there were, since the Recon Platoon medic treated five civilians for shrapnel wounds shortly afterward.  The Lieutenant seems to have had a thing for firing big guns, since five witnesses said that he fired an 81 mm mortar from their position without using the sight or aiming stakes.

This 2LT seems to belong to an earlier phase of the war.  Despite ROE that prohibited unobserved fire without approval from the Battalion S-3, he overrode one of the NCO's objections that they didn't have clearance to fire their mortar during a mission to relieve Echo 8 during an attack, firing six rounds toward an inhabited village.  Despite this, officials in Tam Quan indicated that they had experienced no problems with American troops firing into villages, and indicated that this only happened at night when U.S. forces were under fire.  There is a clear discrepancy here, but it is quite possible that the incidents were either not reported to village or provincial officials, or that such reports were ignored.

He also seems to have made a habit of using random Vietnamese civilians to walk point on patrols.  Five witnesses indicated that this happened, while a sixth claimed that only detainees were used in this fashion.  On one occasion, the LT allegedly forced an old man to walk point, and upon returning to Stag 8, wired a TA-1 handset to him, shocking him with it.  One local Vietnamese witness disputed this testimony, saying that U.S. forces only took detainees with them, and never forced them to act as the point element.

Four of the NCOs claimed that the incident with the old man was not an isolated example of the LT using a TA-1 to torture Vietnamese civilians and detainees.  In one incident he wired a Vietnamese boy's thumbs to the device during interrogation, using it to shock him.  Some witnesses claimed that it was Vietnamese police that did the shocking, but that the Platoon Leader either showed them how, or helped connect the wires.  One SGT found the process so disturbing that he refused to watch.  A CID agent found TA-1 with wires connected to it at Stag 8.  The ends of the wires were formed into loops that could be easily attached to fingers or toes, which the CID agent tested, finding that it delivered a strong, but not debilitating shock (it appears that he used this thing on himself to test it).

The weirdest part of this case is the Vietnamese woman.  Several witnesses claimed she was brought to Stag 8 by an ARVN soldier to work as a prostitute, staying for twelve days.  She was young, pretty, wore western clothing, and spoke good English, which would seem to be an advantage for a prostitute dealing with American troops.  During the twelve days she stayed at Stag 8, she lived with one of the NCOs, cooked for several of the troops, and claimed that she had been married to a U.S. Army Captain.  Three of the Sergeants claimed that she didn't act like a prostitute, asking about the fortifications, patrols, and stand-to activities at Stag 8.  The 4th Battalion CO testified that the only civilians allowed overnight in the Battalion's positions were families of Popular Force units, while the 173d Airborne Brigade SOP allowed only civilians with legitimate business inside their positions.

In addition to these items, the Platoon Leader was accused of dereliction of duty for destroying the bunkers at Stag 8 and wounding at least one soldier through indiscriminate use of an M-79 near friendly forces.  Two of the Recon Platoon NCOs testified that the LT had hurt pacification efforts through his methods.  Before he took over as squad leader, local Vietnamese civilians had cooperated and been friendly with the men assigned to Stag 8.  The Lieutenant's indiscriminate shooting, torture techniques, and forcing civilians to walk point, ruined the positive relationships they had built up.

Only one of the NCOs seemed to have a personal disagreement with the Platoon Leader.  Three of the NCOs that signed the letter to their Battalion Commander seemed to view him as a good officer.  One of them even said that both he and the LT had wanted to fight the war "the old way", apparently meaning the use of free fire zones and indiscriminate indirect fire that occurred under the leadership of General William Westmoreland.  This seems to validate the feeling by some that the Lieutenant's tenure had hurt relations with the local population, which had previously shown platoon members the locations of booby-traps.

Some interesting bits from the testimony in the CID file: 

  1. The SGT that prepared the letter that he and the other NCOs of Recon Platoon signed indicated that the Headquarters Company CO had requested the document, which implies that they had already presented their concerns to him.
  2. The same SGT said that the LT in question could be a good officer, but that pacification had diminished under his leadership due to the indiscriminate fire.
  3. The incidents in the allegation started when the LT took command of Recon Platoon on 22 November 1970.  It seems weird that a 2LT would immediately start behaving this way, but the only convenient way to access Stag 8 was by helicopter, so he was basically unsupervised.
  4. Even the SGT that clashed the most with the new Platoon Leader thought he was a good person, but not a good officer.  The 2LT seems to have suffered from an affliction commonly reported by NCOs serving with brand new officers - that he thought he new anything and was inherently superior to others.  The NCOs that reported the issues believed that indiscriminately firing CS and HE rounds at civilians and torturing them with the TA-1 was wrong.  They assumed that he would merely be relieved of command, not formally charged with any crimes.  This SGT thought it was his duty to do something to stop the Lieutenant's activities.
  5. The CID agents felt it important to ask one of the NCOs about issues of race.  It isn't clear whether the SGT was African American, or whether the 2LT was, but he responded that he got along fine with people of any race.  I may have missed this in the biographical data about the Recon Platoon Leader, but I'm not sure what this means, in any case.
  6. One SGT testified that he signed the letter to get rid of the 2LT as Platoon Leader since almost all of the NCOs disagreed with him.  He just wanted a new Platoon Leader.  I can't help but wonder if this sentiment affected the outcome of the court-martial.
  7. A different SGT portrayed the LT as ineffective in combat, not even issuing orders when the Platoon was engaged in the field, or to relieve nearby troops who were under attack.
  8. The Platoon SGT, who recently joined the Recon Platoon indicated that he thought that the problem was that it just wasn't his kind of war anymore due to new restrictions on firing and use of fire support.

No comments:

Post a Comment