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When ‘High Body Count’ Was an American War Policy

Trump asked, ‘what kind of people would kill so many to strengthen their position?’ Enter the wayback machine, 1968.
Vietnam Landscape

This article first appeared in the November/December 2019 TAC print edition.

In September, a Taliban suicide car bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, killed an American and a Romanian soldier and at least 10 Afghan civilians in a bustling area near the U.S. embassy.

Shortly afterward, President Trump took to Twitter, disclosing that he had scrapped peace talks he had secretly scheduled at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, with leaders of the Afghan militant group.

“Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations,” Trump revealed. “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?” 

It was an odd argument to make given that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the next day that the United States and its allies had  killed 1,000 Taliban fighters in the previous 10 days. But the president’s question gave me pause for another reason. It was a question I had grappled with in a different context—about different peace talks during a different war. And I already knew the answer. 

In the fall of 1968, with the Vietnam War raging and a U.S. presidential election looming, President Lyndon Johnson decided to jumpstart stagnant peace talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris. As a result, a large-scale U.S. military effort in the deep south of South Vietnam, the rickety ally the United States had been propping up since the 1950s, took on extreme importance as the Pentagon sought to bring the rice-rich region and its huge population under South Vietnamese control before a peace deal was hammered out. With the military eager for rapid results, a general particularly obsessed with the prime military metric of the war, “body count,” was given carte blanche.

General Julian Ewell became the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time for the Vietnamese of the Mekong Delta. Under Operation Speedy Express, the United States brought to bear nearly every option in its arsenal: helicopter gunships firing off hundreds of rounds per minute, the earth-shaking payloads of B-52 bombers, F-4 Phantoms dropping canisters of napalm by the ton, massive ships stationed off the coast that could hurl Volkswagen-sized shells at targets miles inland, Swift Boats patrolling the delta’s waterways with machine guns, elite teams of Navy SEALs, and, of course, regular infantry by the thousands. During the first month of Speedy Express, December 1968, Ewell’s 9th Infantry Division logged a 24:1 kill ratio—24 enemy dead for every American. By April 1969, the month before the operation ended, it had jumped to 134:1. Vietnamese were dying in droves, but it soon became clear that surprisingly few were the armed guerrillas known as the Viet Cong (from Vietnamese communists, or VC to the Americans).

Much of the killing was done using helicopters, including new Cobra gunships, whose wholesale slaughter of civilians was vividly described by senior U.S. adviser Louis Janowski as “nonselective terrorism.” As one 9th Infantry Division veteran observed, “A Cobra gunship spitting out six hundred rounds a minute doesn’t discern between chickens, kids, and VC.”

The first month of Speedy Express also marked the introduction of “night search” hunter-killer missions. In these operations, spotters using primitive night-vision devices identified targets with a burst of tracer fire, which signaled accompanying helicopter gunships to rake the area with machine guns. When top adviser John Paul Vann flew on some of these sorties, he found that troops targeted any and all people and homes they saw. No attempt was made, Vann said, to determine whether the people or structures were civilian, and large numbers of innocents were killed and wounded as a result. Ewell admitted as much in a postwar interview, noting that, at night, “anybody that was out there was fair game.” When “peasants” were killed during the nighttime curfew, he said, that was just “tough luck.”

A whistleblower from the 9th Division eventually wrote to high-ranking generals, including William Westmoreland, who had been the top commander in Vietnam before being promoted to Army chief of staff. The missives, which referenced the 1968 My Lai Massacre—the killing of about 500 Vietnamese civilians by American troops operating far north of the Delta—said what had gone on in Vietnam’s deep south was far worse than any one mass killing. 

“Sir, the 9th Division did nothing to prevent the killing, and by pushing the body [count] so hard, we were ‘told’ to kill many times more Vietnamese than at My Lay [sic], and very few per cents of them did we know were enemy,” he wrote:

In case you don’t think I mean lots of Vietnamese got killed this way, I can give you some idea how many. A battalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day. With 4 battalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 to 1500 a month, easy. (One battalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!) If I am only 10% right, and believe me its lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120–150 murders, or a My Lay each month for over a year.

Although they had no knowledge of the whistleblower’s allegations, in 1971 Newsweek magazine’s Kevin Buckley and Alex Shimkin scrutinized Speedy Express and found evidence of widespread killing of civilians. “The horror was worse than My Lai,” one American official told Buckley. “But, with the 9th, the civilian casualties came in dribbles and were pieced out over a long time. And most of them were inflicted from the air and at night. Also, they were sanctioned by the command’s insistence on high body counts.”

In the course of their investigation, Buckley and Shimkin found that the 9th Infantry Division had reported killing 10,899 enemy troops but recovered only 748 weapons. By comparison, South Vietnamese forces fighting alongside the 9th—long disparaged for their lack of combat prowess—had captured more than 10 times as many weapons. For some weeks in March and April 1969, the 9th Division’s kills-to-weapons ratios were laughable. During the week of April 19, for instance, 699 guerrillas were added to the division’s body count (at the cost of a single American life) but only nine weapons were captured.

An American official with long experience in the Mekong Delta told Buckley that as many as 5,000 of the people killed by Speedy Express were noncombatants. The detailed investigation Buckley and Shimkin conducted arrived at a similar estimate.

A Pentagon-level cover-up and Newsweek’s desire not to upset the Nixon administration in the wake of the My Lai revelations kept the full results of Buckley and Shimkin’s meticulous investigation hidden. The publication of an extremely truncated version of their article allowed the Pentagon to weather the coverage without being forced to convene a large-scale official inquiry of the sort that followed public disclosure of the My Lai Massacre. Behind the scenes, and unbeknownst to Buckley and Shimkin, the military launched its own investigation, and an inspector general’s report was startling:

While there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was in fact substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000).

Not only did the military’s own report suggest the Newsweek figure of 5,000 civilian deaths was a low-end estimate, which meant that noncombatants were likely the majority of those killed by U.S. forces during Speedy Express, it validated Buckley’s contention that civilian deaths were “a constant, accepted and indeed inevitable result” of the operation.

In the last months of Speedy Express, Ewell was awarded a third star and promoted to head II Field Force, the largest U.S. corps command in the world at the time. Perhaps it was fitting that after carrying out an operation designed as a “land rush” to better America’s standing at the negotiating table, Ewell was tapped as the top U.S. military adviser for the Paris peace negotiations, which wouldn’t produce a treaty until 1973.

At the time of the September car bomb attack in Kabul, the United States was on the “threshold” of an agreement with the Taliban aimed at ending the nearly two-decade-long war, according to Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s top diplomat for the peace talks. Now the future of those negotiations is uncertain, although troop withdrawals are apparently continuing. (“But we’re reducing in Afghanistan,” Trump said at a late September press conference.)

That still leaves President Trump’s question: “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?” Le Minh To, a Catholic priest from the Mo Cay district of the Mekong Delta’s Kien Hoa Province who spoke with Buckley and Shimkin in 1971, knew the answer. He said that Mo Cay was one of “the most unfortunate of the areas which suffered from the American military activities.” It was obvious, he told the reporters, that the U.S. military had “considered all Vietnamese in the area either VC or VC supporters” and that most of those killed were “innocent civilians,” according to unpublished interview transcripts Buckley shared with me. 

I heard the same when I traveled to the Mekong Delta decades later to speak with survivors of what the Vietnamese call the “American War.” They knew exactly what kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position.

The attacks were incessant, Nguyen Van Tu told me, recalling a night when bombs took the lives of five civilians—including two women and two children—in his hamlet. He estimated around 35 people there were killed during the war by the United States or its allies. “It never stopped,” he told me, as ceaselessly chirping chicks darted across our feet in his rustic home. “The attacks were constant. Unrelenting. There was so much death. So many people were killed by shelling, artillery, and bombardment.”

Nick Turse is a fellow at the Type Media Center and author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.