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Beyond the Swift Boat Controversy: Exposing Vietnam War Atrocities

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We speak with Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Mike Sallah who uncovered massacres committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam on the scale of My Lai that had gone unreported for 36 years and we hear from former Army journalist Dennis Stout who witnessed U.S. soldiers atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam including raping and killing Vietnamese girl and skinning an unarmed Vietnamese man as well as how he was threatened by senior military officers when he tried to come forward. [includes rush transcript]

The Republican National Convention is just days away and George Bush and John Kerry remain neck and neck in most major national polls. Advisers to Bush have made clear in recent days that at the convention, the president and other speakers will invoke the September 11th tragedy from the podium at Madison Square Garden in New York. They say that the administration wants to highlight its handling of 9-11 as a show of one of the administration’s strengths. But while 9-11 may be an issue the Republicans will be hammering away at, the Iraq war remains a difficult issue to celebrate. The occupation has turned into a state of significant crisis for the administration with more than 1,000 soldiers killed and the US fighting Shiite Muslims who it once claimed it was liberating.

But that doesn’t mean Republican operatives aren’t making war a central theme. Just not the Iraq war. Rather, the Vietnam war. In recent weeks a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have launched a series of high-profile television ads calling John Kerry’s record into question. The ads claim Kerry lied about his war record and that he is undeserving of the medals he won. Furthermore, they blast Kerry for his 1971 Senate testimony in which he alleged widespread atrocities being committed by US troops in Vietnam. Here is one of those ads.

  • Swiftboat Veterans For Truth Political Advertisement

That was one of the ads appearing on TV across the country, put out by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. We wanted to go back and play an excerpt from Kerry’s testimony in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

  • John Kerry speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971.

As the attacks against Kerry escalate, the Republicans have deployed Bob Dole as one of the lead people attacking Kerry for his remarks made more than 30 years ago. Here is Bob Dole, speaking last Sunday on CNN.

  • Former U.S. Senator Bob Dole speaking on CNN.

That was former US Senator Bob Dole. When John Kerry appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, here is what he had to say.

  • Sen. John Kerry speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press.
  • Michael Sallah, national affairs writer for Block News Alliance which consists of the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. He co-wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Buried Secrets, Buried Truths.”
  • Dennis Stout, former Vietnam Army journalist speaking at the Veterans for Peace National Convention, July 25, 2004. He describes atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam including raping and killing Vietnamese girl and skinning an unarmed Vietnamese man as well as how he was threatened by senior military officers when he tried to come forward.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We now turn to a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for The Toledo Blade, who was involved with a team of reporters investigating atrocities of an elite U.S. Army fighting unit in Vietnam that killed unarmed civilians and children during a seven-month rampage. Michael Sallah joins us on the line right now of The Toledo Blade, welcome to Democracy Now!.

MICHAEL SALLAH: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: And by the way, congratulations for your Pulitzer Prize.


AMY GOODMAN: First, your assessment of the whole controversy right now, and what exactly John Kerry is being attacked for?

MICHAEL SALLAH: Well, what you are seeing is first of all, the Vietnam War continues to divide Americans 30-some years later. When new revelations come out that contend to crystallize opinions as well. John Kerry served in Vietnam, and so the issue of Vietnam comes up again with all sorts of explosive concepts that people are kind of clinging to here, and one is that Kerry came back from Vietnam and instead of supporting the war, he condemned the war. I think that that’s what is dividing a lot of … obviously is being used for campaign purposes, but it also has a tendency again to divide Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, one of the things that he is being most attacked for, and I mean, it’s along two…in two areas, one is his own record, and the other is these allegations of atrocities. Can you talk about what you yourself found—your team of reporters—at The Toledo Blade after this…what…two-year investigation?

MICHAEL SALLAH: Right. What we found, essentially was that there was a unit, very small, mobile platoon known as Tiger Force that was unleashed into the central highlands in Vietnam in 1967. They dangerously and very violently lost control. This wasn’t fog of war stuff. This was where they went into villages and premeditatedly executed—murdered men, women and children at random. They cut of off their ears. There was body mutilation. They cut off the head of an infant. They routinely saw women and children hide in bunkers and they threw in grenades. This went on and on unabated for seven months from May through November of 1967. The Army launched a four-and-a-half year investigation between '71 and ’75, substantiated, that is, they developed probable cause in about 20 war crimes involving 18 soldiers, multiple victims. Untold hundreds. Then, quickly and then very systematically shut the case down and concealed it. It was buried in the archives of the Army for the last 36 years until we were able to get rare classified documents about this case and we continued to press for more records, the Army said no, we were able to get them, regardless. And in addition, we interviewed more than 100 members off and on who rotated in and out of Tiger Force during that period. The atrocities are well documented. They're well known. They’re not in dispute.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Sallah, who is the National Affairs writer for Block News Alliance, which consists of The Toledo Blade, and The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. When we come back we will stay with Michael Sallah and we’ll also hear the testimony of Dennis Stout. He was an Army reporter. He spoke recently at the annual meeting of Veterans for Peace that took place just before the Democratic National Convention in Boston about what he witnessed in Vietnam. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: “Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, here on Democracy Now!, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. For 37 years, former Army journalist, Dennis Stout has waited for answers and justice after witnessing members of an elite platoon in Vietnam kill unarmed civilians. The Army conducted a major probe in the 1970s, but buried the results and did not charge anyone. After The Blade exposed the atrocities in October, the Army began reviewing its case again, even re-interviewing Mr. Stout and told U.S. Congress member Dennis Kucinich that answers would be available at the end of March. They’re still waiting and reading an article that appeared in The Toledo Blade by Joe Mahr who is the colleague of Michael Sallah. Together they won the Pulitzer Prize Can you take it from there? We are just about to hear Dennis Stout speaking at the national convention of Veterans for Peace describing what he saw. But speak about Dennis Stout’s significance and position in Vietnam.

MICHAEL SALLAH: Dennis was a military journalist at the time. He was sent briefly into the Song Ve Valley. Dennis witnessed Tiger Force carrying out several of its atrocities, including the execution of 35 villagers in a field—in a rice paddy, unarmed civilians, men, women and children. He tried to bring this to the attention of a chaplain as well as a commander in the battalion. His pleas were unheard. He was told simply to let it go, forget it. He was never in a position —- if he would have are written about it, it would are been censored, it would have been killed essentially. Dennis was one of the people that saw Tiger Force in action. Later after his discharge from the Army brought this out—-tried to bring it out, I should say, but at every turn it, seemed like he was met by resistance and eventually the Army investigated, very briefly, his complaints. They ended up interviewing and investigating the wrong company at the time. So, here he is 35 years later, still trying to get answers.

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t it true that when he read the piece, he phoned you. He said he tried repeatedly to get information, continually told there were no files, and then you told him how he could look—that the wrong words were being put together.

MICHAEL SALLAH: Dennis actually did. For years he had been trying to follow up on whatever happened to his complaints. They kept telling him that the files were missing, they were not around. In our search at the national archives, we were actually able to find 25 or 30 documents relative to his case. They did investigate it. They did look into war crimes. They did interview soldiers. Then they essentially shut it down and told Dennis that they had never actually even investigated it. As it turns out, when he got the records, he found out that actually they had investigated the wrong company. He had told them about war crimes involving one particular element of the battalion and they never went to the element and did their investigation. They went to another. He was confused and for many years left in the dark as to whatever happened.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s hear for a moment what former Army journalist, Dennis Stout, had to say. It was just a few days before the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Veterans for Peace was meeting there, too and he was talking with a group of veterans. This is former Army journalist, Dennis Stout.

DENNIS STOUT: The eight war crimes that I reported to the civil investigation division, which are the detectives of the Army. They investigate cases, and then move them on to the Army prosecutor for either a recommendation of prosecution or not. I first tried to report these in 1967 while I was a member of the—an infantry unit, and after one of the crimes, the rape and murder of a girl of about 17, I walked across country about two-and-a-half or three clicks by myself to get to a base camp to report these. I went to my Sergeant Major and tried to report them, and he said, “Well, you better keep quiet, or you will get a lot of good people in trouble.” I went to my Captain and told him about them, and he said, “You better shut up about this kind of a thing.” I went to the Chaplain, thinking he would care, and he once a month got to fly to Saigon gone for a Chaplain Conference. I thought he could get word out and get investigators to come in and check this out. Instead of doing that, he reported me to the Sergeant Major as a troublemaker. So, I was called into a meeting several hours later with the sergeant major, my captain, Captain James and another captain that was just introduced to me as only a captain from general staff. And the exact words I was told was, “Stout, if you didn’t have such a good combat record, you would be dead already, but if you say another word about this, you’re not coming back alive from the next operation. Do you understand that?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Dismissed.” I turned around to leave, and the other captain from general staff said, “Oh, and by the way, we’re taking away your medals.” I said, “big deal.” Left the tent. So, I should describe the nature of our unit. There were two only airborne units in country, the 173rd and the 101st. We were a light brigade, which means there were only three battalions. And they’re only three battalions, I believe, of the 173rd. Our unit was General Westmoreland’s old unit. He had moved up to be commander of all U.S. Troops in Vietnam. Commander of MAC-V, it was called. He would send the people he knew from West Point down to serve with our unit, and any officer that was airborne-qualified and infantry-qualified to get their next promotion had to serve with a combat infantry unit. Since there were only three battalions, there was only one opening for a general, three openings for battalion commanders and captains and majors down the line. All of the officers were West Point. So, and we got new officers all the time, because they had had to rotate them through quickly to get as it was put by the former…one of the former colonels, Colonel Hackworth, he said recently in a newspaper interview, that body count was the way you get your ticket punched. You had to get a level of body count to get your next level of promotion. So we got a new general every 30 days. We got new light colonels every 45 days. Bird colonels every 45 days and new light colonels either every 30 days or 45 days. Our lieutenants served four months with us before they went on to something else. If they lived. They died quite frequently. Our captains served four to six months before they moved on. We were constantly getting rotating new officers, who had to get their body count, and if possible, a little bit of publicity to help move them to their next rank. So —- well, then, I was kept quiet through the period. I served out my time at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, training troops. When I got out of the Army in February of 1969, the My Lai story broke shortly after that. My Lai had occurred in the same valley where we had done this stuff—-further toward the mouth of the valley—committed these crimes. I went public immediately with the eight war crimes that I could most closely document. I witnessed a lot more than this but these are the ones where I had ID cards of the people killed. See, the South Vietnamese government would issue these laminated ID cards to people that were considered loyal citizens. Of course, we didn’t give that any standing. But I had ID cards of some of the people killed, location on the ground—and sometimes within 50 meters, and the names and unit numbers of the people who committed the crimes. And those are the only eight that I reported to the CID. I wanted to stick to what I could absolutely prove. I felt. The crimes were: the rape and murder of a young girl that I spoke of earlier, where she was seized at a road guard operation raped and beaten for two nights and then taken out and shot. They took her right outside of our little perimeter and told her to run so they could shoot her. She wouldn’t run because she knew what they were going to do. So, they backed away from her and threw a grenade that rolled up at her feet. When she saw the grenade, she used one hand to cover her eyes and the other hand to cover her chest. When the grenade went off it tore off one leg and shredded the other one, but she was still alive, so the guys walked up and shot her twice to finish her off. Also, at that same road guard place, one guy decided he wanted to skin someone. He caught be a old man and tied him to a tree and began skinning him at the top of his left shoulder and down his chest. So he got three inches down when the guy passed out. So then he revived him by slapping him and throwing water on him. When he came to, he tried to skin him again and only got about another an inch or so, and the guy passed out again and so shot him. After he shot him, he said, “Well, he’s no fun anymore.” So, one of my sergeants, Sergeant David Kalu, we had captured a guy asleep in his hammock with his rifle leaning against the tree and two bundles of pungee sticks rolled up under the hammock. After we captured him, he tied him to a tree and then tied cords around his upper arms and around his thighs and then took an axe and started to chop him apart from the bottom up. And eventually he chopped of his arms and legs and head and piled them up on the trail as a message to any gooks that came down the trail. At one point I captured an old woman that could barely walk, couldn’t see very well, we’d chopped her garden up, all her melon and squash and things. And we saw movement out in the garden while we were having lunch and she was out there picking up the pieces and stacking them back together. The guys were going to shoot her but I decided to just go up and…capture her I guess. So I walked up…she saw me coming and tried to run, but all she could do is barely shuffle — not even as fast as I could walk. So I went up and tapped her on the shoulder and motioned for her to come with me. I took her over to where the guys were and they were teasing me about what are you going to do with her now? And so I got on the radio and called the S-2 which is the intelligence portion of the battalion because we had happened to be battalion on line at that time moving through the valley; which is a rare formation to use, so the S-2 wasn’t far away. So he asked me what the problem was and I said I had a special situation. So about 15 minutes later a Specialist 4th from the S-2 showed up and he said, “Where’s your special situation?” And I showed him the old woman and he said, “You called me up here for that?” And he went over and grabbed her by the back of her dress right behind her neck and took her over to the side and pulled out his .45 and shot her in the back of the head. Then he came over and grabbed the radio and said, “This is S-2 Bravo Oscar 1 VC KIA out.” He hung up the thing and said “That’s how you handle a special situations.”

AMY GOODMAN: Dennis Stout a former Army photographer and journalist describing what he witnessed in Vietnam. Michael Sallah, can you put this into the context of your overall investigation? And would you say that this kind of witness is what is most driving the anger of those who are attacking John Kerry?

MICHAEL SALLAH: Well, I think that what you’re seeing with what Kerry tried to say and it ties directly into what Dennis Stout says and we uncovered in the Tiger Force case is this was a war that was out of control, it was counter-insurgency, it was guerrilla warfare and civilians were in the middle. Some were friendly, some weren’t. Our troops didn’t discriminate at the time. We were routinely just systematically killing them, because you didn’t have to worry about who was dead. I think what Kerry was trying to express not only at the winter Soldier Hearings but the Senate Foreign Relations hearing in April of '71, he wasn't…atrocities was not the focus of his speech. What he was trying to say is this war is getting out of hand. It’s crazy and frustrating. This is what we’re doing. It was symptomatic of a war that was gone totally out of control. We were in effect losing at that time. I think that that’s what he was trying to say at that time. Atrocities are symptomatic of a frustrating guerrilla warfare. I think what you’re hearing Dennis Stout talk about was merely this is what he was seeing on a day-to-day basis. Those types of guys like Dennis Stout—we had two in the unit of Tiger Force who risked their lives to stop the atrocities. They were just as frustrated as any other soldier, but they also knew right from wrong, what you could do and what you could not do. They risked their lives to stop it. One soldier put his gun up to another and said, “If you kill that little boy, I’m going to kill you.” The soldier, Gerald Brunier, he was a sergeant from Michigan, he was transferred out of the unit and dubbed a troublemaker. I think that that is what was happening, and that’s what Kerry was trying to talk about. It wasn’t unpatriotic, what he was trying to say. What he was trying to say is the war is out of control, it’s out of hand. That’s what he was trying to pinpoint during those hearings.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Sallah of The Toledo Blade, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. One of the pieces in The Toledo Blade recently, saying that The Blade's October series, “Very Secret, Brutal Truths.” They documented the missions of enemy ambushes and booby traps. Some soldiers turned their weapons on unarmed men, women and children in two provinces in May of 1967, the longest known series of atrocities in Vietnam with the death toll estimated in the hundreds. A week after the series ran the army opened an active review of the case. Since then, the Army's Public Affairs Office has rarely responded to requests from The Blade seeking updates on the status of the case, including one request May 3. Reached yesterday, Lieutenant Colonel, Pamela Hart–this was in May–said she was too busy responding to prisoner abuse on U.S. soldiers in Iraq to check on the status of the Tiger Force case. Your comments, Michael Sallah.

MICHAEL SALLAH: I think that’s probably true. I think they were under siege at that time by requests in the media to respond to this. On the other hand, they don’t want to bring this up. This is a case from 30-some years ago that clearly the army substantiated war crimes and buried them. That’s the last thing they want to deal with now. Particularly the fact the same month the Tiger Force case was killed, November of 1975, Donald Rumsfeld took over in his first incarnation as Secretary of Defense. These are things that are potentially embarrassing to the army. They don’t want them out now. They realize the shortfalls and what they found in this particular case, and they’re basically doing damage control at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting looking at the connections. You have the same people now involved with investigations, Major General Donald Ryder, the army’s top Law Enforcement Officer, would decide to recommend prosecutions of anyone in the case, including the 18 former soldiers who originally have been found by army investigators to have committed crimes. There’s no statute of limitations on murder and retired soldiers still could be prosecuted. General Ryder also is a key player in the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, having issued a classified report in November that warned of problems in the Iraqi prison system. Michael Sallah.

MICHAEL SALLAH: It is interesting that you do have–he will oversee, as they do oversee–the criminal investigation command of the U.S. Army, he will have the final say or at least the initial say, in what happens with both the Tiger Force case and Abu Ghraib. I think that also, you can say the same for Donald Rumsfeld. He was Secretary of Defense in the Tiger Force investigation. At least at end, and he’s the current Secretary of Defense here in his second run in that office. Also, Dick Cheney was Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff during the time that the Tiger Force case was under investigation and is obviously now the Vice President, so not only in the army level but also at the levels of the Pentagon and the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, bringing this all up to date in the context of what is happening to John Kerry now, The Boston Globe has an editorial called “Big Lies for Bush”. It says, “Imagine if supporters of Bill Clinton tried in 1996 to besmirch the military record of Bob Dole. Dole was given a purple heart for a leg scratch apparently caused when one of his own men threw a hand grenade and it rolled near him. While he has other serious injuries the truth according to many accounts is that Dole fought with exceptional bravery, and deserves the nation’s gratitude. No one in 1996 questioned that record. Any such attack on behalf of Clinton, an admitted Vietnam draft dodger, would have been preposterous. Yet amazingly, something quite similar is happening today as supporters of Bush attack the Vietnam record of Senator John Kerry.” And it concludes by saying that both parties does it, but Republicans are developing a shocking expertise. The smearing of John McCain in South Carolina in 2000, the reprehensible attack to oust Senator Max Cleland of Georgia in 2002 and this utterly cynical campaign by George Bush’s false squad deserve condemnation. Your final thought, Michael Sallah.

MICHAEL SALLAH: I think they raise a good point. I think in John Kerry’s case, it’s easy sometimes to criticize a Vietnam War vet as opposed to a World War II vet in the case of Bob Dole. I think that John Kerry came back from this war, and then there is a thing such as freedom of speech in this country. I understand he’s being criticized for speaking out against the war. The truth is he did serve in the war. I think the documentation is holding up on the vast majority of his medals and his exploits. So, I think you’re left with the question of “Did he have the right to condemn a war that was still underway?” I think that if you look at vets today, they’re fairly split on that. I think there’s a lot of Vietnam vets that supported John Kerry at that time, and they felt that he not only had a right but an obligation to say what he was saying. Nobody can sit and really defend, I think, our actions in Vietnam today. I think we’re looking back in history and realizing a lot of mistakes were made. But it’s hard for a lot of the veterans to criticize Kerry.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you think any criminal prosecutions will come out of your investigation?

MICHAEL SALLAH: I know that a J.A.G. — a J.A.G. that had reviewed the case as part of the army’s active review is recommending the Platoon Commander, Lieutenant James Hawkins, to be brought become and charged, but I don’t believe that the army is going to act on that recommendation. I don’t believe anything will happen. I think more importantly, it’s more important for the army to go to confession at this point and what happened? Why was it killed? Who killed it? So these things don’t happen again, because — you can do it then, you can do it now.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Sallah, I want to thank you for joining us. The Toledo Blade reporter won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation into the Tiger Force in Vietnam. This is Democracy Now!

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