Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss won the Pulitzer
Prize for Investigative Journalism in recognition for their
newspaper reporting at the Toledo Blade that led to writing
Force: A True Story of Men and War. It is an honor well deserved.
Their book chronicles the painful story of a handful of American
soldiers who terrorized two provinces of South Vietnam during 1967
and got away with it.
Tiger Force is a compelling story about bravery,
cruelty, and artful dodging. In its carefully crafted pages, Sallah
and Weiss prove once again that there is absolutely nothing more
dangerous than a young soldier with a rifle or more elusive than a
general prevaricating over a deed that he believes should never have
been exposed to the light of day. This book could have been
written about events in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
The authors' narrative is remarkable on many
levels. Most notable to this reader is the sheer coincidence that I
was a bit player in the saga. In 1968–69, my company—the 282nd
Assault Helicopter Company, the fabled "Blackcats"—fought in some of
the fiercest battles in Quang Ngai Province. Song Ve Valley, the
scene of devastation in the book, was one of our gateways into the
mountains to the west. Two of our helicopters were shot down in
Quang Ngai Province with the loss of all on board during operations
in early '68 after Tiger Force had moved farther north to Thua Thien
Province for more of the same. The Blackcats were tasked with
replacing Tiger Force with Hac Bao, the elite "Black Panther" South
Vietnamese ranger company in every way as ruthless as its American
counterpart. The Black Panthers continued pacifying the restive
region in the inimitable manner of Tiger Force long after it was
Eight years later, I briefly participated in the
frustrating investigation that followed the demise of Tiger Force.
I was among more than 100 faceless Army investigators who fanned out
across the country to bring the alleged perpetrators to justice.
Ultimately it was all for naught. By then, the Vietnam War was over
and justice for the Vietnamese no longer a priority.
Almost thirty years later I worked for the late
Colonel David H. Hackworth, the decorated Army officer who conceived
Tiger Force and ordered it into action, a legacy that haunted him
until his death. He wrote about it often later in his life. While
these circumstances gave me certain unadorned insights, Sallah and
Weiss have clarified for me the conditions that allowed the awful
excesses of Tiger Force to happen.
The investigation first came to my attention on a
cold Missouri day in 1974 when U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer
Robert A. "Bob" Serafin opened his daily "distribution," a huge
packet of inquiries, orders, and regulations. A veteran of World War
II, Serafin was the Special Agent-in-Charge of the Saint Louis
Resident Agency of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation
Command—universally known as "C.I.D." In simplest terms he was a
detective. That morning he received a document with a bright blue
border on the cover warning that its contents were classified.
Serafin read it without comment. That afternoon he told our two-man
investigative team to find former Sergeant William Doyle, a central
figure in a cast of characters accused of despicable war crimes.
Although the report said Doyle was living
somewhere in rural Missouri, our office never did discover exactly
where. Even if we had exposed his whereabouts, Doyle would not have
had to talk to us, since C.I.D. is a military investigative agency
with no jurisdiction over civilians.
Doyle was accused of complicity in the murder of
a baby Vietnamese girl. In Tiger Force, the crime is attributed to
Private Sam Ybarra, a psychopath who used a knife to murder the
child. I recall that the incident report at the time said Ybarra
later decapitated her with an entrenching tool. Doyle not only knew
of the incident, he encouraged such excesses, the reports claimed.
According to both accounts, the child died so Ybarra could steal her
brass necklace to wear on his wrist. In the parlance of the time, she
had "souvenired" it to him. "Someday somebody will write a book,"
Serafin later observed.
What grabbed Serafin's attention so long ago and
Sallah and Weiss's in this book was the part of the investigation of
Tiger Force initiated by then Private Gary Coy during an interview
with a C.I.D. investigator. Exhibit One of the "Coy Allegation" was
made on 3 February 1971; it is cited frequently in Tiger Force. In
the beginning of his narrative, Coy tells investigators what he
witnessed five years before, in an unnamed Song Ve Valley hamlet
that his company had just overrun:
passed between the huts, I overheard two men arguing inside one of
the huts. I stepped into the hut, I saw two or three bodies lying on
the ground, one of the bodies was that of a woman. I also heard a
baby crying …. The two men were arguing about taking the baby with
them or leaving it in the hut…. [Later,] I stepped back into the
hut. I didn't hear the baby crying, and then I noticed that the
baby's throat had been cut and there was a lot of blood on its
throat and front. I said, "What happened?" and one of the men that
had been arguing said, "Sam did it" (364).
Coy's revelation started an investigation that
lasted until 1975.
The investigative case folder is voluminous. Each
allegation is identified by the some 100 witnesses who made the
incriminating statements that are the centerpieces of each report.
The special agents who conducted the interviews and inquiries under
the direction of Special Agent Gustav Apsey attached "exhibits"
supporting their findings and conclusions. Collectively the agents'
accounts make up the complete investigation.
Sallah and Weiss present the witness accounts
in horrific detail, using their testimony to indict a small unit of
reputedly "elite" soldiers called "Tiger Force" that rampaged
through southern I Corps in northern South Vietnam during 1967.
Their specialty was supposed to be reconnaissance and intelligence
gathering, but in fact it was cold-blooded murder.
For seven months, the men of Tiger Force wantonly
slaughtered the Vietnamese peasants that populated the fertile
fields of Song Ve and Que Son Valleys south and west of Quang Ngai
City, the capital of the province of the same name. My company
participated in many of the resettlement efforts the Americans
somewhat cynically labeled "pacification" operations. Our job was to
fly the newly created "refugees" to their new homes in barren
relocation camps close to the seashore. Little more than disgusting
tent cities, they served best as incubators for future Viet Cong
For several weeks, we watched both American and
Vietnamese soldiers prodding reluctant peasants from Quang Ngai
Province at rifle point into our helicopters. One old woman forced
by space limitations to sit next to me on the gunner's seat urinated
with fright when we took off. Sitting with this terrified woman for
thirty minutes provided a unique opportunity to reflect on the
unfairness of life in a time of war. I have never forgotten it.
Twenty-nine years later, Sallah and Weiss have revealed the
unfortunate peasants' misery to the rest of the world.
When Special Agent Apsey—the unlikely hero of
the book—was orchestrating his huge investigation into allegations
of war crimes by Tiger Force soldiers, books and public
acknowledgement were far from his mind. Everything revealed in the
findings stained the honor of the U.S. Army. The brass wanted the
story to remain a tightly held secret, but, at least among the
soldiers who fought in I Corps between 1966 and 1968, Tiger Force
was no secret. In fact it was a legend. My own company often
encountered evidence of their handiwork during missions into Quang
Ngai and Quang Tin Provinces in 1968 and the Ashua Valley in
northern I Corps in early 1969. Hamlet after hamlet where they
operated lay in ruins, evidence of their grim efficiency. In war
what is considered good is often also vicious. By that yardstick,
the exploits of Tiger Force were outstanding. Plenty of sky soldiers
from the 101st Airborne later laid spurious claim to membership in
the supposedly elite ranks of Tiger Force. The unit had even earned
a motto: "Tiger Force knows all about bad and bad is what it is all
about." Too bad it was all too true.
The authors pick up the story in 1967, almost two
years after Hackworth formed the unit with men from the locked and
cocked 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry (Airborne) he commanded. His
idea was to create a small, mobile force that would "out guerrilla
the guerrillas" operating in the Annamese Cordillera of northern
South Vietnam. He had led a similar unit during the Korean War with
considerable success. By 1967, Hackworth was in the bowels of the
Pentagon writing papers about lessons learned
from Tiger Force for future counter-insurgency operations. Meanwhile
the lessons about counter-insurgency he had taught the original
Tiger Force soldiers were forgotten or ignored. Only his legacy
When Tiger Force was authorized in November 1965,
its mission was to "snoop and scoot"—fighting was a last resort.
Hackworth called his men "Recondos" and provided them a distinctive
pocket badge and a flash to sew on over their Screaming Eagle patch.
Their job was to scout for the elusive North Vietnamese Army (NVA)
elements and their local Viet Cong counterparts garrisoning the
rugged mountain peaks the French called the Chaine Annamitique.
should know, I formed the first battalion LRRP (Long Range
Reconnaissance Patrol) unit in Vietnam, the acclaimed 327th Tiger
Force, modeling it after my Korean-era Raider unit," Hackworth wrote
in his (30 June 1998) syndicated column, "Defending America."
It was deadly, dangerous work, Hackworth
frequently observed. He trained his Recondos to creep into the
enemy's lair, learn his habits, and get away unobserved. Stealth was
the keyword. Combat was never a welcome option in a place where the
Americans were outnumbered twenty or thirty to one. A patrol's
discovery usually assured its demise.
By 1967, Tiger Force had undergone a
metamorphosis. The enemy that had haunted the Chaine Annamitique in
1965 was largely beaten down, preferring to hide unless temporary
overwhelming force gave it the opportunity to attack. Helpless
against massive U.S. firepower, the NVA and local Viet Cong no
longer brazenly walked through the southern I Corps's pastoral
lowlands. All that stood between them and absolute destruction were
the peasants who provisioned them. The authors describe in detail
how the American colonels and generals determined these peasants had
Among the Tiger Force soldiers who replaced the
original handpicked teams, the emphasis had shifted from stealth to
mindless barbarity. In well-reasoned terms, Tiger Force shows
that this special unit, elite only in the minds of its brutal
soldiers, was in reality a useful murdering machine. By 1967, body
counts were all that mattered. Years later, when the generals who
allowed the massacre realized what they had wrought, they swept the
deeds of their favorite sons under the rug, where it stayed
until Sallah and Weiss rooted it out.
Tiger Force's crimes are incomprehensible in
ordinary times—cutting off ears for necklaces, taking scalps,
decorating jeeps and barracks with grinning skulls, among other
barbarities. But in war, particularly in Vietnam, nothing was
ordinary. In the dark world where Tiger Force operated, atrocities
sometimes seemed perfectly fitting and its soldiers became some of
the most decorated infantrymen in Vietnam. Sallah and Weiss insist
on knowing why: "In Tiger Force there was no end, no commanders to
slam on the brakes," they declare. "The Army wanted Tiger Force to
terrorize the Vietnamese. The Army created a Frankenstein and then
turned it loose" (278).
The authors do a good job describing war as a
filthy, dirty, demeaning business. Those who wonder how the Global
War on Terror can be filled with so many horrors should read this
book. It shows that warfare devoid of adequate command and control
quickly devolves from "necessary" killing to senseless butchery. With
little hand wringing or moralizing, Sallah and Weiss explain how the
line dividing the two becomes blurred.
Harder to understand is why the Army brass never
took any action to punish the offenders. The authors demonstrate
that Gustav Apsey was a relentless pursuer of the guilty and a
tireless champion of justice. They reach the same plane of
thoroughness in their own investigation. In chronological order they
detail each atrocity until the reader is overwhelmed by the
immensity of the crimes.
Like every writer who has tried to explain war
and warriors, they reach a place where nothing makes any sense. In
the end, their story, like the original investigation, raises many
questions without providing absolute answers: were the murderers
victims themselves? Can morality be measured in war? Can officers
who make policy be expected to ensure it is implemented? Can
soldiers fighting for their lives summon compassion and restraint?
Is the reader supposed to feel sorry for men like Ybarra and
Doyle, who had walked tough roads before they ever arrived in
Vietnam? Perhaps there are no answers except the obvious one: war is
inevitably bad for all living things.
Sallah and Weiss indict the officers and top
civilian leaders in the Defense Department who refused to answer
their questions. Despite such obstruction, however, they make a
strong case in the court of reasonable thinking for unimaginable
murder by American soldiers. In doing so, they make sure their
readers have enough evidence to decide what the investigation of
Tiger Force means in the context of the war in Vietnam.
St. Charles, MO