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Mortal Sins of Omission

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Posted on Mar 18, 2011

By Nick Turse

(Page 3)

While Hunt conspicuously leaves the name Speedy Express out of “The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam,” he does mention some of its results, referring to the division’s “inflicting over ten thousand casualties on the enemy over a five month period.”  That was the official story in 1969 and the one Hunt is still telling today. What Buckley and Shimkin found in the early 1970s was evidence of mass slaughter on a scale that dwarfed My Lai. From December 1968 through May 1969, the 9th Division carried out Operation Speedy Express with support from non-division assets ranging from helicopter gunships to B-52 bombers, yielding an enemy body count of 10,899 at a cost of only 267 American lives. Although guerrillas in the region were known to be well armed, Buckley and Shimkin discovered that the division had captured only 748 weapons.

Though the Newsweek team never knew about the division’s whistle-blower, whose allegations were buried via a high-level Pentagon cover-up orchestrated by Westmoreland, the reporters interviewed U.S. civilian and military officials at all levels, combed through civilian hospital records and traveled—on foot and in jeeps, boats and rafts—into hard-hit areas of the Mekong Delta to speak with Vietnamese survivors. What they learned echoed exactly what the whistle-blower had reported to the Army’s top generals. Huge numbers of airstrikes—by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft—had decimated the countryside, while withering artillery and mortar barrages were carried out around the clock. Their sources all assured them there was no shortage of arms among the enemy to account for the gross kills-to-weapons disparity. The only explanation for the lopsided ratio, they discovered, was that a large percentage of the dead were civilians.

“The horror was worse than My Lai,” one American official familiar with the 9th Infantry Division’s operations in the delta told Buckley. “But with the 9th, the civilian casualties came in dribbles and were pieced out over a long time. And most of them were inflicted from the air and at night. Also, they were sanctioned by the command’s insistence on high body counts.” Another offered a concrete estimate. He said that as many as 5,000 of those killed during the operation were civilians. 

 

book cover

 

The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam: Unparalleled and Unequaled

 

By Ira A. Hunt

 

The University Press of Kentucky, 216 pages

 

Buy the book

Ira Hunt neither cites nor even acknowledges Buckley’s June 19, 1972, Newsweek piece, “Pacification’s Deadly Price,” or the many important, well-respected Vietnam War histories that address Speedy Express, such as Andrew Krepinevich’s “The Army and Vietnam,” David Elliott’s “The Vietnamese War” and Marilyn Young’s “The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990”—not even “America in Vietnam,” a history by Guenter Lewy, an author who takes great pains to minimize U.S. atrocities and tell the rosiest possible story of the war, yet who allows that “the free use of air strikes, artillery and helicopter gunships in the densely populated Delta undoubtedly caused havoc.”

Perhaps even more troubling is Hunt’s decision to ignore the secret Army investigation, commissioned in response to Buckley and Shimkin’s investigation and buried for decades, which suggested the Newsweek article offered a low-end estimate of the carnage. The report reads:

[W]hile there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was in fact substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000).

An author needn’t respond to every criticism floating around or defend him- or herself from every detractor, but in the case of Ira Hunt and “The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam” the evidence of mass civilian slaughter and the author’s prime role in it demands more than disregard and dismissal. About the only part of the Speedy Express story that Hunt attempts to confront is the utter dearth of weapons, trotting out old canards used in the past to argue that the time and terrain inhibited the ability of troops to find weapons. What he fails to mention is that South Vietnamese forces, whose combat prowess has long been disparaged, managed to capture more than 11 times as many weapons as 9th Division troops at the very same time in the very same Mekong Delta.

Gen. William Westmoreland would kill a nascent investigation into the allegations of mass slaughter committed by Ewell and Hunt’s 9th Infantry Division in 1971. His successor in Vietnam, Creighton Abrams, would be apprised of the reports by the secretary of the Army and conceal them from Buckley. The secret Army report on Speedy Express that validated Newsweek’s findings would then be buried for decades. Hunt, who retired as a major general in 1978, mentions none of it and, with the passing of Westmoreland, Abrams and Ewell, remains the lone living top commander implicated in the slaughter and cover-up of Operation Speedy Express.

Why this sordid history was left out of “The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam” isn’t hard to fathom—and the consequences of that absence could be grim and far-reaching. Beyond the fact that it distorts the historical record and contributes to a sanitized version of the war that is very popular in recent revisionist tracts, Ira Hunt may be teaching today’s commanders in Afghanistan lethal lessons through his sins of omission. 

Recently on “The Best Defense,” his blog at Foreign Policy’s website, former Washington Post combat correspondent and best-selling author Tom Ricks mentioned that “The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam” was on his reading list. This probably means that Hunt’s book is now on the radar of those carrying out the current war in Afghanistan. When they read it, they’ll find a lot of similarities between Ira Hunt’s version of events in the Mekong Delta and David Petraeus’ heavy-firepower campaign being carried out under the guise of a hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency effort. While the level of civilian deaths caused by U.S. forces in Afghanistan today may not compare with the many thousands slaughtered by the 9th Infantry Division during Operation Speedy Express (not to mention all those by U.S. and allied forces in the Mekong Delta before and after 1968-1969), night raids, home destruction and civilian casualties have caused immeasurable hardship in long-suffering Afghanistan. 

There is no such thing as population-friendly, high-kinetic COIN, no matter what Ira Hunt and David Petraeus may claim. There is nothing gentle about a pacification campaign. There is nothing kind about turning villages into battle zones and blowing up homes. Forcing farmers to become refugees and slum dwellers isn’t extending them a helping hand. You don’t win hearts and minds when you cost people their legs. Ask the people who lived through the American war in the Mekong Delta. They will tell you as much. Just don’t ask Ira Hunt. And don’t bother reading his book. Its sins of omission are mortal.


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UreKismet's avatar

By UreKismet, March 22, 2011 at 1:51 am Link to this comment

The ninny that wrote “Had we not invaded Iraq, Hussein would still be slaughtering his Shiite citizens and the Taliban still in power in Afghanistan” deserves to be shocked & awed himself.
Setting aside the fact that even the most over the top exaggerations of Saddam Hussein’s victims fall several orders of magnitude short of the 1 million dead & 4 million refugee Iraqis which amerika inflicted on that country, what goddamned business was it of a bunch of flabby braindead whitefellas on the other side of the world who was running Iraq?

Most Afghans were perfectly happy with the Taliban who had finally bought peace and security to their nation, but amerika needed a scapegoat for 911, and couldn’t attack Saudi Arabia where al Quaeda funding was sourced (don’t wanna get offside with mr Oil) & were told by their zionist bosses (where the 911 perps came from) that any attack on Egypt would cause israel problems so they bulldozed a mandate for an invasion of afghanistan through the UN by using a mixture of extortion (hence the interception of all UN delegates mail and phones) and abusing the goodwill of other nations who were sympathetic after 911.
If there is one thing worse than a neo-con warmonger it is a sad sack liberal warmonger.  At least the neo-con practices what he/she preaches - the liberal is just an out and out hypocrite.  Slug-faced, combed-over dems voted for those invasions just as eagerly as any slobbering, slack-jawed rethug, so don’t be trying to make amerika’s murdering and raping ways a partisan thing, you are all equally culpable.

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By msgmi, March 20, 2011 at 10:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Like Alexander the Great et al , glory has no bounds.

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mitchum22's avatar

By mitchum22, March 20, 2011 at 7:54 pm Link to this comment

What an appropriate cover photo for this flyspeck of a book: a soldier who looks like he’s about to take it up the ass.

Which is exactly where the US military took it—a force run by bitches who never fight anyone without a 1000-1 firepower advantage—from the NLF and North Vietnamese army.

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By gerard, March 20, 2011 at 7:43 pm Link to this comment

Are the high school and college drop-outs and numb skulls any better than the
Ivy League nitwits? 

The nitwits usually have more money to promote themselves into politics and
other positions of power.

The high school and college drop-outs and numbskulls vote to put the nit=wits in
office and then when they do mean, stupid things, the drop-outs and numbskulls
find a hundred reasons why they are only victims, not perpetrators—why there’s
“nothing they can do” and why it’s “all the fault of the Ivy League nitwits..”

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By frecklefever, March 20, 2011 at 3:05 pm Link to this comment

SORRY FOR TAKING UP SO MUCH SPACE…BUT I FORGOT TO THANK NICK FOR A GREAT
ARTICLE…AND ALSO FORGETTING TO INCLUDE OBAMA AS ANOTHER IVY LEAGUER THAT
CONTRIBUTED TO AMERICAS STAGGERINGLY INEPT FOREIGN POLICY RECORD…IVY LEAGUE
ECONOMICS AND FOREIGN POLICIES DESERVE A GRADE OF F…

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By Star Thrower, March 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“A surge is nothing more than a directive to apply a “no holds barred” tactic
which embraces the “kill anything that moves” strategy which has produced so
many burnt out and mentally disturbed U.S. soldiers. Consequently we should not
be surprised at the number of suicides over the recent years.”

From Harper’s Index, April 2011

Number of American soldiers who died in combat last year: 455
Minimum number who committed suicide: 407

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By JSand, March 20, 2011 at 9:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“WAR IS HELL”  True, but not for the MIC suppliers & contractors.  I don’t think Cheany is worried about war being hell.

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, March 20, 2011 at 2:57 am Link to this comment

NINTENDO NERDS

ML: Our U.S. Military indiscrimately kills innocent men women and children.

Yes, so what is different from any other combat activity that any ground or air forces have fought for centuries? Do you think the Revolutionary War was fought without civilian casualties? 

Collateral civilian deaths in war is an historical fact. Such casualties from WW2 are higher than combat casualties. The civilian to combatant fatality rate in World War II lies somewhere between 3:2 and 2:1.

THE POINT

The point is to not make war. Which is an easy notion to hold near-and-dear to one’s heart but difficult to interpret into foreign policy.

Sh*t happens and not necessarily because Uncle Sam provokes it - though he’s gone out of his way more than once to do so. And always, it seems, out of “national interest”. (What in heaven’s name was the “national interest” in invading Grenada?)

More so, it is entirely possible that violence is ingrained in America as a cultural attribute. It is difficult to imagine otherwise how the Army/Marines can recruit addle-headed teenagers to put their asses in the line of fire. Which seems dumber-than-dumb to a more adult individual who would more likely seek “due cause” before doing so.

Do these Nintendo Nerds think it’s like playing some video-game? If so, why do we never ever see the body-bags on such games?

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, March 20, 2011 at 1:52 am Link to this comment

JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM

The US is not “at war” anywhere on this planet. We are skirmishing in Afghanistan and providing “technical assistance” in Libya.

Launching Tomahawks and drones controlled by twenty-year olds from some bunker in Montana is NOT war. It is more like Ninentdo “Battle Stations”.

So let’s not stretch the word “war” beyond its breaking point. The UN vote did not declare war on Libya. It authorized a No Fly Zone along the Eastern Libyan coast. The first operations were to assure that the Libyan Air Force remains blinded and grounded.

Kadaffi had first announced a Cease Fire and his Air Force broke it immediately by flying over Benghazi. The guy’s a certified nutter.

Any further combat will be undertaken by Libyan ground forces (both mercenaries and rebels), since any international intervention by land combat forces is expressly forbidden by the UN motion voted on Friday.

Down boys ...

POST SCRIPTUM

Let’s not forget that Afghanistan is the only combat theatre in which US ground combat forces are engaged. This combat was not Obama’s but Bush’s legacy to the new Administration.

The corrupt present Afghan administration is lead by an Afghan exile (and his family) hand-picked by the Bush Cronies. Karzai had fled to the US when the Taliban came to power and was selected by Zalmay Khalilzad (a naturalized American of Afghan origin) who was working for the Rand Corpoation - which was close to the Bush Administration.

Had we not invaded Iraq, Hussein would still be slaughtering his Shiite citizens and the Taliban still in power in Afghanistan.

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By frecklefever, March 19, 2011 at 7:43 pm Link to this comment

PETRAEUS IS AN IVY LEAGUER AS WAS THE LITTLE BUSH AND JOHNSONS ADVISERS…THEIR
BATTING AVERAGE IS PATHETIC…GETTING A PHD ON THE VIETNAM WAR THEN USING THOSE
TACTICS THAT FAILED MIGHT INDICATE A SLOWNESS..BEING IN AN ARMY STOCKADE IN 1970
WAS UPLIFTING BECAUSE THE AWOLS EACH HAD THEIR OWN UNIQUE WAY OF OPPOSING THE
VIETNAM WAR…THEIR INTUITION WAS MORE INTUNE WITH REALITY..THEN THE TOME READERS
AND THEIR EXAGGERATED POSTURING…THINKING IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN
SCHOLARSHIP..CHRIST AND BUDDHA ARE GOOD EXAMPLES OF THAT ASSERTION..

Report this

By frecklefever, March 19, 2011 at 7:14 pm Link to this comment

BEING IN AN ARMY STOCKADE IN 1970……WITH AWOLS FROM ALL CLASSES AND RACES WAS
AN UPLIFTING EXPERIENCE BECAUSE EACH IN THEIR OWN UNIQE WAY OPPOSED THAT GREAT
AMERICAN TRAGEDY THAT WAS THE VIET NAM WAR..PETRAEUS GETTING A PHD ON THE
VIETNAM WAR DOESN’T SEEM TO HAVE LEARNED MUCH FROM IT…USING THE SAME TACTICS
THAT DIDN’T SUCCEED VIETNAM MIGHT INDICATE HE IS SLOW…IVY LEAGUERS WERE JOHNSONS
ADVISERS ON VIETNAM..AND WASN’T LITTLE BUSH A IVY LEAGUE CHEERLEADER..THE AWOLS
HAD MORE OF A GRIP ON THE REAL WORLD..THEN THE TOME READERS AND THEIR
EXAGGERATED PRETENSES…THINKING IS SUPERIOR TO READING…I THINK CHRIST AND BUDDHA
PROVED THAT..

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By M L, March 19, 2011 at 4:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Our U.S. Military indiscrimately kills innocent men women and children. They bombed Iraq destroying not only their infrastructure but their libraries, museums and artifacts simply destroying the history of the Arab people. Military men,  like Petraeus, have no empathy for the people they kill or respect for their history. Paetraeus uses macho words so people will think he is tough, stong and courages but we all know he is simply a man with a “small penis complex” I say put Paetraeus on the “front line” to assess his courage. Military “talk” is cheap and cowardly”

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By gerard, March 19, 2011 at 1:06 pm Link to this comment

War is Hell.  Everybody knows this, instinctively if not “in the flesh,” so to speak. 
Will this book help stop war?  If not, why not?  What will stop war?  Answer: 
People (meaning you and me and Joe Sick Pack and Jane Lame Brain by the tens of
thousands.

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By Aarky, March 18, 2011 at 9:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The one comment that Petraeous doesn’t use is, “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel”. So he and all the many Generals use the phrase, “We have reached a tipping point”. This is a very fine and properly scathing review of the bloodthirsty actions of one Army division In Viet Nam. There have been some studys done of the Phoenix Program from Viet Nam and I would suggest this is the model that has been adapted to Afghanistan. It was designed to capture or kill the top cadre of the Viet Cong. There are estimates that 50,000 people were killed. The people were seized and a lie detector was used to try to determine guilt or innocence. Any suspects were killed. The nighttime raids on the Afghans are quite similar to the techniques in Viet Nam. As a Federal cop, I took a Lie detector test administered by a private detective in San Diego. As I was leaving his office, I noticed a plaque on the wall, “Best Wishes to (???Can’t remember the name) Deputy Director, Phoenix Program” and a date. I’m damned glad I passed the test.

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By TDoff, March 18, 2011 at 5:37 pm Link to this comment

Seems to me that an officer in battle has two priorities, Win the conflict, Protect his men. Depending on the officer and the immediate situation, either of these priorities can take precedence over the other. In any situation, either of these priorities should take precedence over any other consideration. War is not a humane enterprise.

If one is given an order, an added priority to Protect the indigenous population, that will be, and should be, the far lesser priority than protecting our own troops, especially in a conflict in which the enemy is part of, and indistinguishable from the indigenous population. So many of the indigenous folk, both enemy and non-enemy, if any, will die. Killing non-enemies is not a good way to win Hearts and Minds. But, again, war is not a humane enterprise.

Which is why we should not engage in other folk’s civil wars or revolutions, or start other folk’s civil wars by ‘Nation Building’.

Nowhere in the bible does it say that ‘god’ made US ‘god’, despite what the CrazyChristianConservative EvangelicalFundamentalist WhackoBornAgainBoobs say.

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By Mike Strong, March 18, 2011 at 5:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Another missing-info book is the above-mentioned “Petreaus” COIN Field Manual. Missing are genuine solutions. When it first came out, and in each update, I looked in particular for even one way in which counter-insurgency efforts in history worked. There should have been detailed and well evidenced and researched lessons/analyses.

I found none. I did find some of the old mis-information about both Algeria and Malaysia with claims that these worked because, followed by not much in the way of “because.” Then, of course a few smart-sounding pithy sound bytes to make Petraeus seem a sharp and forward thinking commentator.

Just remember, even if we are there a 100 years, sooner or later we go “home” to somewhere else. They are home. They live there. They will be there. Unless we massacre all of them (like so many biblical accounts of what the “good guys” did).

And as far as all our efforts, struggles and so-called heroic exploits (at slaughter) the fact remains we lost. Or, as General Giap told Harry Summers after Summers made the statement to Giap that US forces never lost a battle (implying that the military left alone, no politics, no “backstabbing” [shades of Nazis and “Jew backstabbers”], would have won) and Giap said, “that is irrelevant.”

Irrelevant. Indeed. No wonder they won with someone like General Giap. He counted.

We were irrelevant.

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By Big B, March 18, 2011 at 3:44 pm Link to this comment

I am afraid to say that I will probably read it. The methodology used to fight the war, and its subsequent conclusion have turned us into the nation we are today.

Every time I read another account of Vietnam I am reminded of my mother, sitting at the dinner table in 1968, watching the news on a black and white zenith television (with a coat hanger for an antenna) and muttering about that “son-of-a-bitch Johnson!” Although I was only 6, I have been a peace-nik ever since.

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By RiverRat2U, March 18, 2011 at 3:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a son of the South it is easy to empathize with civilians caught up war . I grew up with the Southern perception of Shermans burned earth policy through Georgia. Even after a hundred years of revisionist history he and his troops were still hated. One can expect the same in Viet Nam, Iraq and Afgan.  The wounds heal slowly.

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By Jim Yell, March 18, 2011 at 11:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Remember the flap over calling him General Betray-us? I think it is obvious that was very close to who he is. The word used to be a Military Martinet. It works for me.

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By Steve E, March 18, 2011 at 5:46 am Link to this comment

Terrific work Mr. Turse, I’m sure Hunt and other ambitious blood thirsty military
honchos will gloss over your great piece and remark, “your either with us or
against us”. This mentality if you can call it that, can be applied to most any
corporate mindset. One that comes to mind at the domestic level is the on-going
rape of our financial system with so many casualties around the world. Petraeus is
a corporate stooge and has applied the so called “surge” tactics made famous in
Iraq. A surge is nothing more than a directive to apply a “no holds barred” tactic
which embraces the “kill anything that moves” strategy which has produced so
many burnt out and mentally disturbed U.S. soldiers. Consequently we should not
be surprised at the number of suicides over the recent years. I applaud your
article for getting the facts straight and comparing the insanity used to spread
“democracy” in Vietnam and spreading “democracy” by U.S. forces in other
countries. The body count goes on and on perpetually.

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