(The Nation, March 1, 2004)
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In July 2002 a retired US Army colonel who would be dead within months unburdened himself of twenty-two classified documents concerning war crimes in Vietnam. The colonel didn't care for journalists, but he was fond of his neighbor in Springfield, Virginia, a Washington-based science reporter for the Toledo Blade. Those twenty-two documents laid the groundwork for a remarkable four-part series published in the Blade this past October--a series that meticulously reconstructed the activities of an elite US Army reconnaissance platoon and its descent into barbarism at the height of the Vietnam War.
The time was May to November 1967; the place was a highly contested region of Quang Ngai province in South Vietnam--less than twenty miles from My Lai, which would be devastated by American soldiers a few months later. The unit was known as Tiger Force, and its mandate was to annihilate Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces, insure that civilians were safely herded into "strategic hamlets" and--as the unit's slogan declared--to "out-guerrilla the guerrillas." Enraged by prolonged exposure to sniper fire, booby traps and high casualties, Tiger Force unleashed a reign of terror that left possibly hundreds of civilians dead. Because of its dispassionate tone and sturdy documentation--and because it was sponsored by an independently owned, financially troubled news organization--the Blade series bears a striking resemblance to Seymour Hersh's My Lai exposé, which was originally syndicated by the Dispatch News Service in 1969 (and later expanded into a book, My Lai 4). According to the Blade, elderly farmers were gunned down in rice paddies, grenades were hurled into civilian bunkers and prisoners were scalped and beaten to death with shovels. Ears were severed from the corpses of dead Vietnamese, and, with the help of shoelaces, transformed into ghoulish necklaces. "There was a period," the Blade reported, quoting a platoon medic, "when just about everyone had a necklace of ears." In the early 1970s the Pentagon, following a four-year investigation, determined that eighteen members of Tiger Force had committed war crimes, but none of the soldiers were ever prosecuted.
Despite its explosive findings, the Blade series--which was assembled from candid interviews with Tiger Force veterans and Vietnamese civilians, along with documents from the National Archives--was not a front-page story in leading American newspapers, most of which printed truncated summaries published by the Associated Press and Scripps Howard. (Only the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Arizona Daily Star and a handful of others deemed the wire stories worthy of page 1.) National television greeted the series with silence. Hersh, writing in the November 10 New Yorker, lamented that this "extraordinary investigation...remains all but invisible." Prodded by Hersh, ABC jumped on the story with two fine segments by Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel, but for the most part the silence continued. The list of major news organizations that have yet to acknowledge the Blade series includes NBC, CBS, CNN, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and the Wall Street Journal.
Readers of the New York Times waited eight weeks to hear about the Blade investigation, at which point they encountered, on page A24, a meandering article by John Kifner--a piece that confirmed the essential facts of the Blade investigation but failed to convey the depth and emotional power of the series itself. "The Kifner piece," says Michael Sallah, who co-wrote the Blade series with Mitch Weiss, "was their way of kissing it off. I expected more original reporting from the Times." (Times public editor Daniel Okrent, noting that his newspaper had "diminished" and "devalued" the Blade series, sought an explanation from editor Bill Keller. "Keller told me," Okrent wrote on February 1, "that if his own staff had developed the Blade series, he would have put it on the front page.")
No mention of the Blade series appeared on the Times editorial page, a fact that was true for almost every other American newspaper as well. For passion, clarity and good sense, one had to turn to the editorial page of the Bangor, Maine, Daily News, a 65,000-circulation newspaper, which wrote, "The newly disclosed series of atrocities cries out for further investigation--not to punish the G.I.s but to fix blame and punish the superior officers who sent those soldiers on such bloody missions and have covered up the atrocities and their own complicity ever since." Declared an Austin American-Statesman editorial, "The army now must come clean about what happened and release all available reports, files and information." It says much about the timidity of our press that newspapers in Bangor and Austin--and not the New York Times, Washington Post or Los Angeles Times--had to take the lead in demanding further investigation into the behavior of soldiers who, by their own admission, committed horrific atrocities in Vietnam.
Why did major news organizations handle the Blade series with tongs, or not at all? As Daniel Okrent noted, major newspapers are rarely generous to their less distinguished rivals. But there seem to be other reasons as well. "There is a sense," the Blade's Sallah told NPR's On the Media, "that we should not be too openly critical and evoke these painful memories of Vietnam when we're already in a conflict." Indeed, with a few exceptions like Ted Koppel, US journalists have been noticeably reluctant to ponder the contemporary relevance of the Blade report. It was left to the foreign press to wonder if there is any symmetry between US intervention in Southeast Asia in 1967 and the Middle East in 2004: "Tiger Force continues to be an active part of the US military," affirmed the Toronto Star. "It is currently on duty in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq."