Mortal Sins of Omission
Posted on Mar 18, 2011
By Nick Turse
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.
The 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam: Unparalleled and Unequaled
By Ira A. Hunt
The University Press of Kentucky, 216 pages
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:
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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