From the San Francisco Chronicle, May 14, 2006
Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War
By Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss
LITTLE, BROWN; 403 PAGES; $25.95
During the summer of 1967, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Gerald Morse radioed soldiers operating under his command in the central highlands of Vietnam and barked, "You're the 327th infantry. We want 327 kills." It was an unforgivable statement that would eventually lead to one of the most appalling killing sprees of the Vietnam War and the unwarranted deaths of hundreds of Vietnamese men, women and children.
The unit Morse was addressing, his "Tiger Force," was a group of 45 gung-ho soldiers that made up the reconnaissance platoon attached to the 327th Infantry, a battalion of 900 infantrymen that was just one of three in the 101st Airborne. The Tigers were the most bloodthirsty lot of them all.
Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss' unsettling "Tiger Force" explains how this motley group of young men from the far corners of the United States became unhinged murderers and why their war crimes went unreported for nearly four decades.
Sallah and Weiss, reporters for the Blade newspaper of Toledo, Ohio, were tipped to the story by a fellow reporter at their newspaper who was bequeathed boxes of secret documents from Henry Tufts, a former head of the Army's Criminal Investigations Command (known as CID), after his death in July 2002.
Their four-part series for the newspaper, outlining the heretofore unknown story, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. This book offers an even more exhaustive account of Tiger Force's killing rampage and the subsequent efforts by a series of Army investigators to hold the soldiers accountable for their actions.
Sallah and Weiss re-create the events, relying on interviews with 43 Tiger Force veterans. The reporters also went to Vietnam and tracked down now-elderly Vietnamese witnesses and descendants of the victims. Central to their account is the story of Pvt. Sam Ybarra, an American Indian who together with his childhood friend, Kenneth "Boots" Green, joined the Tigers. Initially, the two fought together in the fertile highlands that were one of the principal sources of rice for the North Vietnamese Army. The Army deemed it a strategic necessity for the United States to clear the area of farmers, many of them Buddhists with spiritual ties to the land. Some farmers agreed to be flown to relocation camps, which Ybarra compares to his fellow Indians being relocated. When some of the farmers refuse to leave, the area is deemed a "free-fire zone" -- a confusing designation that still stipulated that soldiers must request permission before shooting. That eventually leads to much unnecessary bloodshed. Typical of these stories is that of an unarmed North Vietnamese soldier taken prisoner whom Ybarra nonchalantly executes by cutting his throat.
The Tigers, forced to remain in the field far longer than others, grow frustrated. Ybarra is among the first Tigers taking trophies, slicing the ears off slain Vietnamese and fashioning them into necklaces. Others collect scalps or teeth. Then, after Green is shot in the head by a sniper, Ybarra snaps. In the most disturbing episode of the book (or frankly almost any book describing American soldiers at war), on the day the Tigers achieved their "magic number" of 327 kills, on Nov. 19, 1967, Ybarra beheads a crying baby.
Unlike numerous filmmakers, from Francis Ford Coppola to Oliver Stone to Stanley Kubrick, who have inadvertently sensationalized some of the same material, the authors do an outstanding job here of maintaining sober detachment as they depict increasingly brutal scenes of amorality. Occasionally, the authors try to rationalize what the soldiers were doing, at one point remarking that the soldiers' frustration, fury and cruelty were the consequence of battle fatigue. "The Tigers were in a rage mode and were shutting down," they write. "When this happens, the soldier undergoes a unique set of physiological changes that few people understand outside combat. The midbrain -- that part of the brain responsible for breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure -- takes over for the forebrain, the part that processes information. The survival instinct takes over." A deeper examination of why the Tigers behaved so terribly would have been welcome, though as reporters this is not the authors' primary responsibility, which is to break news and get the facts down. The second half of the book begins when CID Army officer Gus Asprey, a Vietnam vet born in Austria to a Nazi father, is handed a manila envelope, case "No. 221, the Coy Allegation." Within, a sergeant named Gary Coy describes a soldier named "Sam" severing the head of a baby while fighting in Vietnam. Here the book takes on the tenor of a first-rate legal thriller.
Asprey's investigation would, over the course of a harrowing three years, slowly uncover the Tigers' wrongdoings, all neatly summarized in a 55-page report. The Army was determined to bury the case. It was deemed too similar to the My Lai massacre and too close to Nixon's resignation to warrant pursuing. Within the month, Asprey was exiled to an office in Seoul, South Korea. It took until Tufts' death for the files and the story of Tiger Force to come out in the open.
Sallah and Weiss have done the American public a service by piecing together this story and managing to offer compassion to soldiers who thus far have been left hanging to bear total responsibility for the events. In an era when some pundits excoriate the press for irrelevance and bias, and budget-cutting publishers curtail time-consuming investigative reporting, this is one shining example of how journalism can fulfill its most noble aims: informing, and consequently, empowering the public.
What we -- and our government -- decide to do with that new knowledge is the next question that must be answered.
Edward Nawotka covers the South for Publishers Weekly. He lives in Austin, Texas.