Dec 13, 2013
Mortal Sins of Omission
Posted on Mar 18, 2011
By Nick Turse
Recently Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, used particularly bloodthirsty language to announce success there. “We’ve got our teeth in the enemy’s jugular now, and we’re not going to let go,” he said after a morning staff briefing in January. Petraeus has used this type of imagery before. In his latest guidance for counterinsurgency (known within the military as COIN) efforts in Afghanistan, issued last August, Petraeus wrote that what U.S. troops and their allies needed was to “get our teeth into the insurgents and don’t let go.” It seemed to me almost as if he was channeling retired major-general-turned-author Ira Hunt. (In the early 1970s, Hunt was quoted as favoring “pounding the shit” out of Vietnamese enemies he referred to as “bastards,” “sonofabitches” or “gooks.”)
Hyperbolic talk like this is, of course, the stock in trade of many military men. But there’s another side to David Petraeus. A soldier-scholar and Princeton Ph.D., “King David,” as he’s known to fans and detractors alike, literally wrote the book on COIN—having overseen the revision of FM 3-24, the military’s counterinsurgency field manual, in 2005-2006. Petraeus revived the strategy—long discredited and shunned in military circles—that went down in flames with the American defeat in Vietnam. Supposedly a kinder, gentler brand of warfare, counterinsurgency is geared toward winning the “hearts and minds” of the people, and Petraeus knew it well, since his 1987 doctoral dissertation was titled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.”
The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam: Unparalleled and Unequaled
By Ira A. Hunt
The University Press of Kentucky, 216 pages
The kinder, gentler side of Petraeus is heard from mostly in his COIN guidance to U.S. troops in Afghanistan: “[U]se only the firepower needed to win a fight … if we kill civilians or damage their property in the course of our operations, we will create more enemies than our operations eliminate. … Treat the Afghan people and their property with respect.” That is, of course, the essence of COIN: Use the rifle instead of the bomb, or better yet use the knife, protect the civilian population and their property, facilitate good governance and offer economic opportunity. Win hearts and minds. But although he’s been Mr. Nice Guy on paper, in the field Petraeus has decidedly been the guy looking to go for the throat. Again, he reminded me of Ira Hunt.
Since Petraeus took command in Afghanistan, airstrikes—which were curtailed by his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, before he was laid low by a Rolling Stone article—have gone through the roof, tripling in number last fall and then doubling the January 2010 rate in the new year. Kick-down-the-door night raids, which have alienated many and provoked repeated outcries from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, have tripled too. For the first time, big U.S. battle tanks—much like the ones the Soviets used in the 1980s—have been deployed to provide, said one officer, “awe, shock and firepower.” (Yes, you read it right: shock and awe.) U.S. forces are also meting out home destruction as never before in Afghanistan, reportedly blowing up hundreds of houses thought to be booby-trapped and even blasting villages off the map, as Afghan farmers abandon their homes, fields and crops and stream out of the countryside into Kabul’s expanding slums. It all made me wonder whether David Petraeus was taking a page from “The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam,” that is, whether he was reading from Ira Hunt’s playbook.
Ira “Jim” Hunt’s “The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam: Unparalleled and Unequaled” chronicles a unit that carried out a particularly heavy-handed version of counterinsurgency in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The shocking thing is, you wouldn’t know it from reading Hunt’s book.
One would expect a history of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam to address long-standing allegations that the division wiped out thousands of civilians using heavy firepower. One would assume it would mention the division commander’s oft-noted obsession with the notorious “body count.” One would imagine that the book would attempt to explain how the division reportedly killed almost 11,000 armed enemy fighters, in just one operation, but recovered fewer than 800 weapons. One would suppose that somewhere in its close to 200 pages the author would at least give the name of the infamous operation that so many prior books and articles have called into question. But nowhere does Hunt dare to mention “Speedy Express.” It’s almost as if he wants us to forget it ever existed. The reason might be that Ira Hunt was, in fact, the No. 2 commander of the 9th Division during the operation.
Over the course of his new book, Hunt—a West Point grad who also studied at the French engineering school at Grenoble and worked for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara before serving in Vietnam—offers, in painstaking detail, the official history of the efforts of the “Old Reliables” in Southeast Asia from May 1968 to July 1969, complete with numerous black-and-white photographs and 20 tables filled with statistics. In his introduction, he explains his motives for writing the book as twofold: first to “enlighten those who disparage the division’s combat record in eliminating the enemy and pacifying the Mekong Delta region” and also “to provide examples of the bravery and dedication of all the 9th Division soldiers” who fought in the sweltering far south of Vietnam against an enemy the Americans called the VC (shorthand for Viet Cong or Vietnamese communists).
In page after page, Hunt chronicles tactical innovations, lauds American combat triumphs and obsessively reiterates that the 9th Infantry Division’s methods—that is, his methods—were incredibly effective in “stunning and eliminating the enemy” and enabling troops to “scarf up groups of guerillas and VCIs” (Viet Cong Infrastructure—civilians who worked for the Vietnamese revolution). All of this, Hunt reminds us again and again, was done for the purpose of “accelerating pacification.”
In many ways, “The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam” rehashes much of the material included in “Sharpening the Combat Edge,” an official history written as part of an Army program to develop “future operational concepts” that he co-authored in 1974 with the late Julian Ewell, who commanded the 9th Division in 1968-1969. Unlike Hunt’s latest volume, that book at least contains an oblique reference to criticisms made about the unit. Ewell and Hunt defensively noted, “The 9th Infantry Division … [has] been criticized on the grounds that ‘their obsession with body count’ was either basically wrong or else led to undesirable practices.” In Hunt’s latest offering there is only a handful of mentions of “body count”—the main indicator of success in America’s war of attrition in Vietnam—and the lack of references to that core concept, like so much else missing from the book, is conspicuous by its absence.
In a military where “if it’s dead and Vietnamese it’s VC” became standard operating procedure, Ewell—who came to be called “the Butcher of the Mekong Delta”—and Hunt were especially known to be fixated on stacking up Vietnamese bodies without, contemporaries observed, much care as to whether they were armed guerrillas or innocent civilians. In his 2002 memoir, “Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts,” the late David Hackworth, who took command of one of the 9th Division’s infantry battalions in January 1969, wrote of the overwhelming pressure to produce high body counts. “[A] lot of innocent Vietnamese civilians got slaughtered because of the Ewell-Hunt drive to have the highest count in the land,” he wrote. He also noted that when Hunt submitted a recommendation for a citation, citing a huge kill ratio—the number of Vietnamese killed to the number of Americans lost—he left out the uncomfortable fact that “the 9th Division had the lowest weapons-captured-to-enemy-killed ratio in Vietnam.”
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