A personal expression of the value of truth vs the machismo of the military

Wikileaks has changed the world. But it has done so in a terribly depressing way.

Its revelations have uncovered a world in which the truth rides second to the bitter aftertaste it has left in the mouths of our leaders.

In a Panorama special in February 2010 much attention was given to the Assange sex scandal (or CIA honey-trap if you are a conspiracy theorist), his authoritarian management style over the organisation he founded and, most ridiculously,  the fact that Bradley Manning listened to Lady Gaga as he downloaded the Iraq War Files before, allegedly, passing them on to Wikileaks. The truth as shown in the actual content itself – the murder of innocents – was hardly explored at all.

Indeed, Hilary Clinton and President Obama have themselves spent more time lambasting whistle-blowers as traitors than they have addressing the content of the leaks itself, let alone its moral implications.

The fact that the US Government has a dedicated anti-Wikileaks office operating from the Pentagon suggests there are even more uncomfortable truths yet to be learned.

For his part, the young US Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning – in his early 20’s – faces 52 years of prison for leaking the Iraq war files and collateral damage video.

But this is nothing new – the US government has always struggled with the truth. Take Vietnam, for example.

Originally reported in Stars & Stripes with General Westmoreland’s proud declaration that “U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle,” it was Seymour Hersh who eventually broke the story of what really happened, some 18 months later. In November 1969’s expose the event become known as the My Lai massacre – the systematic rape and murder of hundreds of un-armed Vietnamese civilians, including many women, children and babies by US troops in March 1968.

But that is reporting, we say, not whistle-blowing. And here the story, rightly, earns Hersh a Pulitzer Prize. Yet Bradley Manning gets 52 years. I contest that the truth is the important factor here, unpalatable as it may be.

You might say, however, that that’s like comparing apples and oranges. True; the scale is different, but I ask this: when it comes to purposely killing civilians, what’s the watershed? What number is deemed acceptable?

For sure, My Lai has become the most infamous single incident of the entire Vietnam War…

Captain Medina called Charlie Company together one evening in March 1968 and told them that the next day they would be taking a village that was a Viet Cong stronghold. He ordered them to kill everybody in the village, My Lai.

Varnado Simpson was a rifleman in C Company. He was 19…he shot a woman. Years later, he remembered…

“I went to turn her over and there was a little baby with her that I had also killed. The baby’s face was half gone. My mind just went. The training came to me and I just started killing. Old men, women, children, water buffaloes, everything. We were told to leave nothing standing. We did what we were told, regardless of whether they were civilians. They was the enemy. Period. Kill. If you don’t follow a direct order you can be shot yourself. Now what am I supposed to do? I cut throats, cut off their hands, cut out their tongue, their hair, scalped them. I did it. A lot of people were doing it and I just followed.”

Simpson personally killed 25 people. Lt. Calley, the officer in charge on the day, shot over 100. Rape and killing went together…

“Do you realize what it was like killing 500 people in a matter of hours? It’s just like the gas chambers…” [1]

And if you think this a one-off, the falling of a few bad apples, then you’d be wrong. In fact, the unpalatable truth of My Lai perhaps offers us a reason why the longest-running US army war-crimes investigation into atrocities committed in Vietnam drew little attention and resulted in no arrests.

In this case – the investigations into the 327th Infantry ‘Tiger Force’ unit under Operation Wheeler – the atrocities took place over a period of many months, not a single day, as in My Lai. The numbers of innocent victims rose into the many hundreds and, what’s more, it seems that the killing was endorsed from the top-down.

But after My Lai, though, there just wasn’t the stomach for any more truth.

Contributing to this however would have been the wider cultural shift which turned American opinion against the war. The photography of Don McCullin, Eddie Adams, Larry Burrows, Nick Ut and North Wales’ Philip Jones Griffiths played out in Life and Time magazine or in The Observer and The Sunday Times. In 1974 Peter Davis’ Academy award-winning ground-breaking documentary ‘Hearts and Minds’ gave everyone an insight into the history of the war, its stumbling gung-ho passing from one administration to another as well as the tragic consequences for the ordinary people of Vietnam and, no less, the disenfranchised youth of America sent there. The truth was out and few could deny the war was wrong. There was no appetite for the Tiger Force story and the investigation amounted to nought.

Building on their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism, Sallah & Weiss argued in their 2006 book ‘Tiger Force: the shocking true story of American solder out of control in Vietnam’, something had gone wrong with US troop morality.

My Lai wasn’t a unique event. It wasn’t a case of a few ‘bad apples’. Their book uncovered the fruitless investigation into Tiger Force which detailed some seven months of atrocities.

They argue “The Army wanted Tiger Force to terrorize the Vietnamese.” [2], to fight without morals; to bring terror not just the NVA/Vietcong but to the people of Vietnam itself, in case they oppose the US intervention. And the order came from the top-down. Not explicitly, but implicitly enough.

Of course, the tactic was doomed. A fundamental of guerrilla warfare is winning the support of the local people. But when you’re forcibly relocating if not, as in this case, murdering those people then the enemy has already won: the oppressor who terrorises will never win the hearts and minds of the people it terrorises.

With the possible exception of Private Sam Ybarra who drank himself to death after the war had ended, probably haunted at how inhuman he had become, all those listed have having played a part in the carnage described in the Tiger Force book, have never paid for their crimes.

For the sake of garnering the widest possible readership of this case, I offer here a full list of atrocities detailed in the Tiger Force book as well as references to implicit authority given to the killings [3]…

Pg.43: armed man + unarmed woman and her baby killed whilst hiding in hut.

Pg. 63/64: unarmed NVA soldier, beaten unconscious then throat slit.

Pg. 65: soldier with explosives (poss. Chinese) captured and beaten over two days, then told to run while being shot in the back.

Pg. 77: two unarmed villagers approaching US troops waving leaflets ordering them out of the area are shot on their approach. No weapons or ammunition found.

Pg. 96: unarmed elderly man, clubbed with back of rifle to head despite clasping his hands as if praying for mercy or help. Following the elderly man’s moans while on the ground, he is shot in the head by Platoon Leader, James Hawkins.

Pg. 99: two unarmed elderly women openly approaching US position, shot at by Hawkins – one injured; objections by Lt. Donald Wood (d.1983) prevent further atrocity.

Pg. 100/101: Man in his 20’s shot in leg causing serious wound while approaching group of US soldiers during overnight stop – no notes as to whether he is armed or not, the nature of the encounter implies not. US Medic Bowman seeks to treat the victim and request medevac, but Sergeant H. Trout overrules and executes the injured man with three shots to the head and chest.

Pg. 108/109: two blind men aided by a sighted boy of about 12 years of age and who walked openly to US troops and were unarmed, ambushed by the troops with both men shot instantly. A debate ensued as to the fate of the boy but was interrupted by US air relief. The text implies that some favoured also executing the boy.

Pg. 110: Protesting the ransacking of his village, an old man dressed in the robes of a Buddhist worshipper raises vocal objections to the Tiger Force squad. The man is shot in the head and chest at point-blank range. With village witnesses having seen the killing, along with South Vietnamese translators, the US troops plant a grenade on the man to make him look like VC, even though he is clearly a holy man, probably the village elder.

Pg. 111: Two unarmed peasants are captured – one in some distress from an earlier shrapnel wound to the leg – confesses to a translator that he is VC, but the other is not and is just his 13-year old brother. Radio contact to HQ asking what is to be done with the prisoners to which the response is “What do you do with a horse with a broken leg?” Despite one soldier’s attempt to guard the prisoners to ensure they are not harmed, they are later summarily executed in the field where the squad has taken camp.

Pg.111: Private Sam Ybarra brags about torturing then cutting the throat of another prisoner caught on the same day as the 2 mentioned earlier on the same page.

Pg.111: Another solider had boasted over his ability to knock-out a prisoner with a single punch, but when the hit fails to cause unconsciousness in the prisoner, Sergeant Robin Varney kills him by pushing his head onto another soldier’s rifle bayonet.

Pg. 123: A group of mostly elderly villagers working in a rice paddy are observed and then ambushed, despite being unarmed and about half being women. Some of the US troops refused Lt. James Hawkins’ order to fire as it was clearly killing in cold blood. The actual number murdered is not recorded, but all were unarmed. A number appeared to be from the same family, and some were left dying in the mud.

Pg. 144: Unarmed man found hiding from US troops behind a tree, is captured and summarily executed on the explicit command of Sergeant H. Trout.

Pg. 150/151: 4 grenades dropped into improvised civilian shelter killing all villagers sheltered there including their children. No weapons were found.

Pg. 155/156: Vietnamese male shot trying to flee a search although no weapons are found. This is followed by the execution of an elderly man who is shot by .45 handgun into the mouth after being captured from his hiding place. Sergeant H. Trout ordered the killing which was to be executed by 19-year old rookie Private J. Cogan but as he failed to follow-through, another trooper had to finish the job.

Pg. 162: Two un-armed Vietnamese men captured while US troops camped in the field. The two are wrapped in detonating chord and watch as another chord is attached to a tree and detonated. The detainees are then beaten with fists, kicks and even shovels. A South Vietnamese interpreter questions the detainees about a NVA camp, but the prisoners  insist they know nothing. The beatings continue. One falls unconscious and is dying at their feet while the other is un-tied and told he may run away. This man is then shot dead in the back as he runs.

Pg. 167: A willing informant wants his family to be secured in a US relocation camp before he will talk, but the deal is refused. In front of his wife and children, the informant is then struck in the head by Sergeant William Doyle’s rifle butt. Despite the pleas of the man’s wife, Sergeant Doyle then shoots the informant in the arm. Another shot fails as Sergeant Doyle’s gun jams. Doyle orders other troops to shoot the man and three Tigers oblige with numerous rounds of fire. The dead man’s teenage brother is then thrown to the ground alongside his murdered kin, one of the Tiger’s holding a .45 to his head. Sergeant Gerald Bruner, however, intervenes by aiming his M16 in the face of the offending Tiger and threatens to fire if he shoots the teenager. The stand-off ends with no further shootings.

Pg. 197: Enemy engagement. As the fire fight comes to an end Private Sam Ybarra and others take out their knives to cut ears from their dead enemy counterparts for trophies.

Pg. 199: 7 Vietnamese villagers remain in their hamlet after leaflets dropped would have ordered their forced relocation from the area. Confirmation from a Team Leader over the radio implies the un-armed villagers are to be killed. All 7 non-combatants murdered.

Pg. 202: A woman holding her baby assails US troops while they burn her home. Her screaming pleas are ignored by anger Sergeant H. Trout who orders a Medic to give her a sedative. An elderly woman takes the baby from the woman’s arms and two US troops force Darvon pills into her mouth. But the woman remains conscious and stumbles about to the annoyance of Sergeant H. Trout who drags her into a hut for several minutes (implying rape) and then emerges with the order to “Grease her,”. The order is reluctantly carried out by Sergeant James Barnett who in his actions has not only murdered an innocent civilian but created an orphan too.

Pg. 208: Reaching a village, Captain Harold McGaha orders a M60 and M16 surprise assault on a hut. Villagers come running out only to get mowed down in a hail of bullets,. Sixteen are counted dead, including women and children, but no weapons are found.

Pg. 209: The command over the radio comes “You’re the 327th Infantry, we want 327 kills.” This was Operation Wheeler.

Pg. 212: verbatim – “The magic number of 327 kills was reached on November 19 when a Tiger shot a villager running from a hut, according to the records. No weapon was found.”

Pg. 213: Enemy engagement in village. Fire returned. On clearing the village, from one hut can be heard the cries of a child. Verbatim – “In the corner was the lifeless body of a young mother shredded with bullets. Next to her was an infant, still alive and crying. Shortly after Private Sam Ybarra ran into the hut, the crying stopped.

Although Tiger Force continues as a US Army unit today, operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am not suggesting for one moment that the volume of killing depicted above occurred or is occurring in either theatre today. But as I argued earlier volume is irrelevant to morality when it comes to the execution of civilians.

When thinking of the Collateral Murder video, Abu Ghraib or, closer to home, Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, these events give us no reason to believe that, when their forebears operated with virtual impunity, today’s generation of hotheads should be any different from their Vietnam-era equivalent.

This brings me to consider the kind of mindset it takes to commit such atrocity, whichever theatre we’re discussing and whatever the numbers.

Of course, war is a bloody business. But my own short time in the Parachute Regiment alerted me to a certain mentality among my fellow trainee soldiers. In fact, it was this realisation which gave me my first inklings that, contrary to my naivety thus far; perhaps military life was not for me. I noticed, however, that this personality type was actively encouraged in training.

Three things struck me. 1. That our superiors aimed to instill in us an almost maniacal elevation of machismo – of the self, the regiment and the nation; 2. We were to abide by an un-questioning subservience to rank on absolutely all issues, irrespective of logic, strategic gain and, indeed, morality; 3. There was a total absence of moral guidance or preparedness for the reality of war, – including its consequences not only to ourselves, our family and fellow soldiers, but also to our enemy, their families and the ordinary people caught in between.

OK, for sure the context and depth at which this occurred, I’m certain, is almost incomparable when considering Vietnam and today, but I am equally certain these themes repeat throughout the training in all modern warfare.

Put frankly, basic training included no sphere of tuition in dealing with civilians, despite this having been the remit of all modern warfare for the UK in my time – from Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan*; the goal was to win ‘hearts and minds’ even if basis training taught otherwise.  The reality is that military service requires one to de-humanise an enemy.

But in wars where enemy combatants are difficult to distinguish from their civilian counterparts or where one is considered an invading force, then the distinction between combatant and civilian becomes blurred. Morality fades. Indeed, this point is corroborated by the Tiger Force book where troops are taught that both VC soldiers and civilians were to be considered ‘gooks’; one and the same and with it sub-human.

This outlook will always be a problem where the defence of the nation depends on what stand-up comedian Bill Hicks called ‘hired killers’. Those words may shock, but a war without moral authority can easily become a war without moral conduct and, in essence, what is a paid solider of a nation state?

Putting aside Dresden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima for one moment, WW2 was overwhelmingly a call to arms against an invading fascist Nazi Party and its allies. Vietnam and Afghanistan, however, were and are different kinds of war. They are wars in attrition of influence: political ideology or theological ideology vs the dominant economic ideology. These conflicts lack that same moral fibre which made WW2 easily to package in history as a ‘righteous war’. The Holocaust alone argues that case.

It is my opinion that we can only change the way we see and use the military when it becomes, firstly, disconnected from the machismo of the nation state. That is, an army for true defence under the world flag of the United Nations. An army of true defence used to maintain security against real ‘rogue states’ whoever they may be**; but also to keep international order and to assist with international emergencies such as Sudan or the Boxing Day Tsunami etc. And, of course, I don’t mean the UN as we know it today – an impotent force – but a revitalised, re-institutionalised and reinvigorated organisation operating for the good of the majority world, by the world and throughout the world.

It is that idea which leads me to surmise a second suggestion and this is an attempt to humanise the military by removing the machismo of violence by promoting instead the quality of saving lives , thus giving us the means to act in confidence with an innate moral authority. Take the Fire Brigade, for example. Here are some of the most daily heroic individuals in society. They rarely receive the accolade of the military we currently see in the British media. And yet they also have a macho image (not completely, of course – but on the whole) – not for taking lives, but for saving them with both physical and moral strength. And that machismo is de-sexualised. It is normal to have women serve in the Fire service at the frontline, saving lives. And I contest that that is the model that should shape a new world army under the United Nations. Fantasy, I’m sure – but tragic problems require radical solutions, else the problems perpetuate as we have endured through millennia.

We live in a time when the media parades all servicemen as heroes. I don’t share that enthusiasm – heroic conduct is not something to be attributed en masse, it needs to be individually earned else the word becomes meaningless.

And what of the likes of Bradley Manning? I wouldn’t call him a hero either. Naïve, idealistic and well-intentioned, yes – but not a hero. Though I support his case as a whistle-blower and actively have written to the authorities on it.

What about those US soldiers who found it in themselves to write to congress and Nixon on My Lai only later to be publicised Seymour Hersh; or Peter Davis for his remarkable film which really teaches us about wars for ‘Hearts and Minds’ – are they heroes? And finally what about the un-recognised war crimes investigator who worked tirelessly on the Tiger Force atrocities, Warrant Officer Gustav Aspey and those whom he interviewed and came forth with their terrible secrets, only to have the investigation frankly shelved? Haven’t they demonstrated great moral courage for revealing the truth as it is?

The truth in itself is the truth itself. The media and, most importantly, our leaders should be held to account for it.


* with the notable exception of the Falklands War, which was a war out of time.
** and I’m not sure there are any today – I mean ones who pose an actual threat of invasion. I’ve put aside Al Qaeda here in fear of starting a whole separate article.


[1] ‘The American War: Vietnam 1960-1975’ by J. Neale (Bookmarks, 2001)

[2] ‘Tiger Force: the shocking true story of American soldiers out of control in Vietnam’ by M. Sallah & M. Weiss (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006)

[3] ibid.

{please buy the book if you want to find out more}

solider had boasted about be able to knock-out a prisoner out with a single punch