Saturday 22 December 2018

Book Review: Tiger Force, Sallah & Weiss


Many, many years after Seymour Hersh shocked America with the revelations of what President Nixon described as the 'isolated incident' of My Lai [1], Tiger Force presents another example of the fascinating but by now sadly familiar tale of war crimes by US soldiers in Vietnam, revealing such actions to be far from singular occurrences.

Tiger Force in fact tells four distinct stories, interwoven. The major story is a narrative of the actions of The titular Tiger Force, in two particularly nasty episodes in '67, with heavy use of firsthand accounts, focussing on numerous individual soldiers. These range from those like Lt. Hawkins, Sgt. Doyle and Pvt. Ybarra, who appear to revel in the violence, to men such as Medics Causey and Bowman, and Pvt. Bruner, who attempt to stem (and report) a rising tide of wanton butchery. 

Pvt. Sam Ybarra, infamous for his human-ear necklaces.

A very minor counterpoint, in terms of the space given over to it, is the view from the victims and relatives, the Vietnamese whose 'hearts and minds' the US allegedly hoped to win over [2]. How anyone in the American chain of command imagined forced resettlement and indiscriminate killing would achieve this beggars belief. 

In addition to these two contemporary threads there are two later developments, the CID* investigation under Guy Apsey and, much later, the final breaking of the story in the media, by the authors of this book, in a series of newspaper features.

Jungle conditions were made worse by such delights as punji sticks. [3]

Tigers on patrol in the jungle.

Compared with the WWII and Napoleonic history I usually read, this 'Nam material is delivered in a more pulpy thriller type manner, exciting to read but less scholarly, and quite basic, occasionally veering into repetitiveness. The latter perhaps a result of a series of articles being turned into a book? That said, it's a compelling easy read. 

Tiger Force were an almost secret semi-guerilla unit, designed to fight the Viet Cong on their own turf and in their own way, using methods ordinary US line units wouldn't employ. Unfortunately, but very predictably, things quickly got out of hand. Or, and worse still, a culture of racist imperialist violence was actively fostered, not always overtly or in such stark terms, but sometimes hidden under such elastic euphemisms as 'free-fire zones'

Medic, Rion Causey.

Sgt. Barnett.

What's perhaps most puzzling to someone like me is that anybody's surprised that war encourages such things: the grunts and the peasants are always on the sharp end. The former, young men, many from the lower sections of society, often from poor or rough backgrounds, get to vent their unresolved adolescent anger upon the hapless civilian innocents, both soldiers and civilians being caught in the crossfire of huge vague ideological currents that are stoked and fanned by older men, miles away from dirt and death on the ground. It's an obvious recipe for hell on earth.

Still, as Thomas Hardy famously said, peace makes dull reading. The horrors of war keep the pages turning. Despite My Lai, this is a story that needs constant retelling, every time it happens. But the prolonged atrocities of Tiger Force were swept under the carpet. The depressing thing one can't help but conclude is that we learn precious little from our mistakes, and therefore seem doomed to keep repeating them.

Tiger Force troops in more amiable mood. [4]

Tiger Force is a fascinating product of investigative journalism, based on true and disturbing events.  Books like this, whilst also giving the reader something very engaging to read, also offer us a sobering challenge for the future. Not an out and classic. But certainly worth reading.

* Obviously not our UK CID (Criminal Investigation Department), but the US Army's Criminal Investigation Division!


A shorter piece by Sallah on this topic can be read here.

[1] Read Hersh on this subject here.

[2] It was LBJ, president Johnson, who famously used the 'hearts and minds phrase'. There's also a 1975 documentary on Vietnam by that name, which is worth watching.

[3] This picture shows a member of a Tiger Force having a punji stick wound dressed in the field. Punji sticks are sharpened bamboo stakes which were often smeared with human faeces, designed to cause infections of the wounds they would cause if stepped upon.

[4] At the time Apsey started his investigations Tiger Force was a shadowy unit, with hardly any official trace to be found. That's no longer true. As well as the infamy of this sad story, it should also be remembered that the unit served with distinction in Vietnam. It wasn't all rampant butchery. Now there's a website devoted to the unit, past and present (visit it here). And yes, there is still a Tiger Force unit in existence as part of the 101st Airborne.

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