Crucial Vietnam orphanage massacre forgotten!



by Selvam Canagaratna

"It is curious to see America looking on herself, first, as a sort of natural peacemaker, then as a moral protagonist in this terrible time. No nation is less fitted for this role."

- W.E.B. Du Bois, American Sociologist (1919)

It is what’s known as an awkward coincidence. Retired Republican Senator Chuck Hagel must surely be rueing the moment he accepted Barack Obama’s invitation to be America’s Defense Secretary during the President’s second and final term in the Oval Office.

It so happened that Obama’s invitation to Hagel came about the time author Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam was published.

Writing days before the US Senate’s nomination hearings, Turse predicted: "You can be sure Hagel’s military service in Vietnam will be mentioned – and praised. You can also be sure of this: no senator will ask Chuck Hagel about his presence during the machine-gunning of an orphanage in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta or the lessons he might have drawn from that incident."

Turse certainly got that right. Washington feigned total ignorance of that gruesome murder in a Vietnamese village. In fact, Turse went further, suggesting no senator would question Hagel on the possible parallels between the CIA-run Phoenix Program, a joint US-Vietnamese venture focused on identifying and killing civilians associated with South Vietnam’s revolutionary shadow government, and the CIA’s current targeted-killing-by-drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands."

In nominating the retired Republican, Obama said: "In Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength – they see him as one of their own," adding that he was nominating the first Vietnam veteran to serve as secretary of defense – "the leader that our troops deserve."

Chuck Hagel and his younger brother, Tom, fought together in Vietnam in 1968. The two are believed to be the only brothers to have served in the same infantry squad in that war and even more remarkably, each ended up saving the other’s life. "With Chuck, our troops will always know, just as Sergeant Hagel was there for his own brother, Secretary Hagel will be there for you," the President said. 

The falling out the brothers had over the conflict was left unsaid, noted Turse. "After returning home, Tom began protesting the war, while Chuck defended it. Eventually, the Hagel brothers reconciled and even returned to Vietnam together in 1999.

Years before, however, the two sat down with journalist and historian Myra MacPherson and talked about the war. Although their interpretations of what they had been through differed, says Turse, adding: "It’s hard not to come away with the sense that both witnessed US atrocities, and that Chuck Hagel’s vision of the war is far more brutal than most Americans imagine. That his experience of Vietnam would include such incidents should hardly be surprising, especially given the fact that Hagel served in the 9th Infantry Division under one of the most notorious US. commanders, Julian Ewell, known more colourfully as ‘the Butcher of the Delta’.

Historian MacPherson recounts in her moving Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, that the Hagel brothers argued over whether American troops were "murdering" people. Chuck disagreed at first, pointing instead to the depredations of Vietnamese revolutionary forces. Tom reminded his brother of the CIA’s Phoenix Program which, with an estimated body count of more than 20,000 Vietnamese, too often turned murderous and was no less regularly used by corrupt Vietnamese government officials to settle personal grudges. "There was some of that," Chuck had finally conceded, she noted.

Tom had then raised an example that hit closer to home – the time, after an enemy attack, when a sergeant from their unit took out his frustrations on a nearby orphanage. "Remember the orphanage, Chuck," Tom reminded his brother. "That sergeant was so drunk and so pissed off that he crawled up on that track [armored personnel carrier] and opened up on that orphanage with a fifty-calibre machine gun."

When Chuck started to object, MacPherson writes, his brother was insistent. "Chuck, you were there! Down at the bottom of the sandhill." Skeptically, Chuck asked his brother if he was saying the sergeant had "slaughtered children in the orphanage." Tom granted that he didn’t know for sure, "because none of us went in to check." Chuck responded, "In any war you can take any isolated incident. . . "

But the war Tom Hagel detailed to MacPherson wasn’t one punctuated by a few ‘isolated incidents’. He would talk about officers ordering the mutilation of enemy dead and soldiers shooting up and burning down a village, about how helicopter gunships and napalm decimated large areas of the countryside, about the lethality of indiscriminate weapons fire and about coming upon the bodies of women and children when firefights were over. He also recounted, in detail, a July 1968 assault on a "hardcore" enemy village in which their unit took part. After the battle had ended, he said, a lieutenant shot and killed a civilian in cold blood. "We’re collecting all the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] bodies and this woman walks out of a hootch. He just shot her dead," Tom recalled.

It’s worth noting, writes Turse, that the Hagel brothers left Vietnam just as their commanding general, Julian Ewell, launched a six-month operation in the Mekong Delta code-named ‘Speedy Express’. One whistleblowing veteran who served in that operation told the Army’s top generals that Ewell’s use of heavy firepower on the countryside resulted in a ‘My Lai each month’ – a reference, of course, to the one massacre most Americans know about, in which US troops slaughtered more than 500 civilians, most of them women, children, and elderly men. That veteran’s shocking allegations were kept secret and a nascent inquiry into them was suppressed by the Pentagon.

A later Newsweek investigation would conclude that as many as 5,000 civilians were killed during ‘Speedy Express’. A secret internal military report, commissioned after Newsweek published its account, suggested that the magazine had offered a low-end estimate.

The document, kept secret and then buried for decades, concluded: "While 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)."

Chuck Hagel’s views on the Vietnam War underwent a fundamental shift following the release of audio tapes of President Lyndon Johnson admitting, in 1964, that the war was unwinnable. That "cold political calculation" caused Hagel to vow that he would "never, ever remain silent when that kind of thinking put more American lives at risk in any conflict."

But what about lives other than those of Americans? asks Turse. "What about children in shot-up orphanages or women who survive a murderous crossfire only to be gunned down in cold blood? Chuck Hagel may well be, as Mr. Obama contends, "the leader that our troops deserve". But don’t the American people deserve a little honesty from that leader about the war that shaped him?"

It would seem that on the matter of sensitivity to the plight of men and women living in America’s war zones, Chuck Hagel’s seeming unwillingness to face up to – no less tell the whole truth about the Vietnam War he saw – is a ‘blind spot’ he shares with official Washington and much of the country as well, concludes author Turse.

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