Do Good Guys commit Atrocities?

Dennis Stout,  a member of theAmerican  First Brigade of the 101st Airborne during the Vietnam War, was asked on the Ken Burns Television series if he had seen any atrocities on the part of American soldiers. He admitted he had. Stout was from Phoenix Arizona and had served 9 months in combat from 1966 to September 1967, but he had been there for a year. He spent most of his time with a small handpicked group of soldiers called Tiger Force. They spent weeks at a time in the jungle. They were “intended to out guerilla the guerillas.”

Tiger Force fought in 6 different provinces of Vietnam, repeatedly suffering heavy losses. As Rion Causey told it, “If you suffer losses and you lost your best friend it’s the officers who say no you can’t do that. If you do it then there’s consequences. But if the officers include a platoon leader and the Battalion commander are telling you that this is what you are supposed to do then it gets completely out of hand.”

Some at McV, an important base camp for American and South Vietnamese forces, realized that such a freewheeling outfit would be difficult to control. “But General Westmoreland and commanders in the field admired Tiger Force for its reliable ferocity.”

In the summer of 1967 Tiger Force was sent to the Song Ve Valley. The entire population had already been herded from their homes and crowded into a refugee camp. Some had come back to resume their farming life that they had traditionally done. “The valley had been officially declared a ‘Free-fire zone’ and Tiger Force’s officers took that literally. “There are no friendlies,” one lieutenant told us, “shoot anything that moves.” With a license like that from officers it is hardly surprising that atrocities occurred. How could they not?

“Over several months they killed scores of unarmed civilians. Among them were two blind brothers, an elderly Buddhist monk, women, children, and old people hiding in underground shelters, and 3 farmers trying to plant rice. All were reported as enemy killed in action.” These were atrocities, pure and simple.

Tiger Force was not the only platoon Dennis Stout witnesses that crossed the line. He also discovered a case where a Vietnamese girl was kept for 2 days and raped, and then on the 3rd day killed. She was raped by everyone in the platoon except for a medic, Dennis Stout, and possibly one other member. Every other member of that platoon raped her. According to the U.S. Army website a platoon contains between 16 and 40 soldiers. That is a lot of rapes even on the low end of the scale.

Stout complained to the Battalion Sergeant Major about the rape (he should really say rapes), but he explained that these things happened in wars all the time. He was told not to mention it and that it was a common occurrence. Stout also complained to the Chaplain who made an independent investigation. He found that this was true. The two of them then went to see the Sergeant Major who told the Chaplain to stick to religion and told Stout that he did not have to return for the next engagement.

Years later another soldier came forward with allegations of war crimes. An Army investigation found probable cause to try 18 members of Tiger Force for murder or assault. They found that soldiers had cut the throat of a woman and killed her. They also cut off the ears and killed 10 farmers before they stopped shooting. They also scalped a soldier. “But no charges were ever brought. The official records were buried in the archives.”

James Willbanks of the U.S. Army opined that all of them should have been charged with murder. “They should have all gone to jail. They were all guilty of murder. At the same time, I felt that incident was an aberration, not the norm, tarred all veterans, and there are 100s of thousands of veterans who went and did their duty as honorable as they possibly could and they are tarred with the same brush.”

Some people learned some important things about war. As one Vietnam veteran, Karl Marlantes, said,


One of the things I learned in the war is that we are not the top species on the planet because we are nice. We are a very aggressive species. It is in us. And people talk a lot about the military turns kids into killing machines and stuff. I have always argued it is just finishing school. What we do in civilisation is that we learn to inhibit and rope in these aggressive tendencies. And we have to recognize them. I worry about a whole country that doesn’t recognize it, because I think of how many times we get ourselves in scrapes as a nation because we are always the good guys. Sometimes I think that if we thought we weren’t always the good guys we might actually get in less wars.


Sometimes we have to take a hard look at ourselves. We owe it to ourselves; we owe to those who come after us.


Leave a Reply