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Mortal Sins of Omission
Posted on Mar 18, 2011
By Nick Turse
In May 1970, a whistle-blower from within the division wrote a letter to Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland (who had previously been the top American commander in Vietnam) charging that he had “information about things as bad as My Lay.” He reported, however, not one massacre like My Lai, where U.S. troops slew more than 500 civilians, or even a handful of mass killings, but, instead, official command policies that had led to the slaughter of thousands of innocents:
In that letter and two more sent the following year to other high-ranking generals, the whistle-blower reported that artillery, airstrikes and helicopter gunships had wreaked havoc on populated areas. He also singled out Ira Hunt as one of the prime reasons for civilian casualties. “Hunt, who was our Brigade Commander for awhile and then was an assistant general ... used to holler and curse over the radio and talk about the goddamn gooks, and tell the gunships to shoot the sonofabitches, this is a free fire zone,” he wrote. He said that Hunt “didn’t care about the Vietnamese or us, he just wanted the most of everything, including body count” and that “Hunt was ... always cussing and screaming over the radio from his C and See [Command and Control helicopter] to the GIs or the gunships to shoot some Vietnamese he saw running when he didn’t know if they had a weapon or was women or what.”
The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam: Unparalleled and Unequaled
By Ira A. Hunt
The University Press of Kentucky, 216 pages
Maj. William Taylor Jr., an officer in the 9th Division headquarters under Ewell, had a similar recollection of Hunt from his days in the Mekong Delta. Now a retired colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Taylor told me, during a 2008 interview, about flying over rice paddies with Hunt. “He said something to the pilot, and all of a sudden the door gunner was firing a .60-caliber machine gun out the door, and I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ He said, ‘See those black pajamas down there in the rice paddies? They’re Viet Cong. We just killed two of them.’ ” Immediately afterward, Hunt spoke again to the pilot. “He was talking body count,” Taylor said. Later he questioned Hunt about how he could identify guerrillas from the helicopter, without seeing weapons or receiving ground fire. “He said, ‘Because they’re wearing black pajamas.’ I said, ‘Well, sir, I thought workers in the fields wore black pajamas.’ He said, ‘No, not around here. Black pajamas are Viet Cong.’ ”
In multiple interviews, retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, who commanded the 9th Division’s five artillery battalions during his 1968-69 tour, talked to me about Ewell’s heavy emphasis on body count. When asked if Hunt also pressed for the same, Gard responded, “Big time.” “Jim Hunt dubbed himself ‘Rice Paddy Daddy,’ ” Gard recalled, referring to Hunt’s radio call sign. “He went berserk.”
I’ve recounted these allegations against Hunt and the 9th Division in print and questioned him about them in person—and I’m hardly alone. Hunt, who denied the allegations against him when I questioned him in 2006, addresses none of these long-public accusations against him or Ewell or even mentions his division’s whistle-blower and instead opts for a startlingly disingenuous, stunningly contemptuous and thoroughly dismissive nod to such criticisms. More than 140 pages into “The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam,” Hunt offers a single paragraph that begins:
Hunt’s reference to the loss of “tranquility” makes it sound as though the worst of the war in the Mekong Delta was the jarring sound of artillery being fired or the scream of jet aircraft streaking across the sky. It was anything but. Those artillery shells and the bombs those planes dropped landed somewhere. Too often they killed civilians.
The use of the phrase collateral damage, perhaps the phoniest euphemism in military-speak, indicates an author unwilling to confront hard truths as they really are. Moreover, with no citation we’re left to guess who this lone correspondent was. It could well have been the Associated Press reporter whose April 1969 article not only quoted Hunt as defending the body count, but also a senior officer who admitted to civilian carnage. (“ ‘Have we killed innocent civilians?’ [the senior officer] asked rhetorically during an interview. ‘Hell yes,’ he replied, ‘but so do the South Vietnamese.”
It could have been a reporter from the Saigon daily Tin Sang or its publisher, South Vietnamese legislator Ngo Cong Duc, who criticized “indiscriminate” U.S. airstrikes in the Mekong Delta and the “careless and insensitive behavior” of 9th Infantry Division troops.
It could also have been the combat correspondent from United Press International who, in December 1969, reported on U.S. advisers’ dismay over what the indiscriminate killing of civilians, in order to achieve a high body count, did to pacification efforts. “We have made progress but you can’t exactly expect people who have had parts of their family blown away by the U.S. 9th Infantry Division to be wholeheartedly on our side,” said one American official. (Other advisers made similar complaints about operations in the delta in print and through official channels, a fact that Hunt also ignores.)
Most likely, however, the correspondent in question is Kevin Buckley, who served in Vietnam as a reporter and then Saigon bureau chief for Newsweek magazine from 1968 to 1972. What Buckley—working alongside Newsweek stringer Alex Shimkin, who first discovered the story—did was not “bemoan the loss of tranquility” in Delta hamlets, but meticulously document how Operation Speedy Express killed thousands of innocent civilians and wounded countless others.
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