My Lai happened, but even the communists will admit that it was an anomaly. For the most part, American forces followed the Geneva Convention with regard to non-combatants and treatment of POWs. Killing a civilian--even by accident--could result in a court martial, loss of PX privileges, or both. Killing a POW was worse.
When I arrived in Vietnam in September of 1969, eight Green Berets, including the 5th SF commander, languished in the Long Binh Jail (LBJ) for having a spy killed. It turned out that the guy was a double agent. That is how serious the command was about adhering to the rules of war. Under the rules, you can kill a spy, but not a double spy. General Abrahms got them on a technicality, but they got off on another: they never found the body.
The most celebrated war story involving treatment of enemy POWs has been repeated so often that it is widely believed, has found its way into several books, and I recently saw a version of it in a Vietnam war movie. A version of it is mandatory in every GI bull session. It never happened, but the story goes something like this:
We captured four VC and took them up to five-thousand feet in a Huey. We asked the first one to talk. When he refused, we tossed him out. The second one refused, and we tossed him out. The third refused, and we tossed him out. The last one talked like a jay bird (No offense, Jay Bird).
The story has a number of variations, but the theme is the same: killing some to get others to talk.
Now, here's the problem with this story. The military has a special unit trained in POW interrogations. They are the infamous oxymoron brigade called Military Intelligence. They know how to get POWs to share their valuable information. The MI handbook says, "Please don't kill or torture POWs. Dead ones tell us nothing, and torture only works on the ones who would talk anyway."
There is an art to this interrogation thing, and POWs are a valuable military asset. Capturing POWs is a big feather in any outfit's cap. They are more highly prized than KIAs. My unit gave one week R&Rs for the capture of POWs, nothing for dead guys. Whoever captured these POWs in the story was bound to ask, "Hey, what happened to the other three POWs we gave you? We only got credit for one." To which the tosser would have to say, "Uh, three accidently fell out on the way in. Sorry!"
Riding in a chopper with a POW and no doors is no picnic. POWs are notoriously depressed and suicidal. Even a bound one can kick or throw himself into you, sending you on a short but exciting trip. I once rode in a Huey with six of them; and rest assured, it was one of the few times I wore my seat belt. You would have had to put a gun to my head to get me to wrestle one to the open doorway--even a hog-tied one.
Which brings up another flaw. What do you suppose our enemy would think when they stumble across one of their comrades, hog tied and resting comfortably in a man-sized depression in the earth? They may decide to treat our POWs likewise. This is one reason the MI handbook says, "Treat enemy POWs as you would want the enemy to treat our POWs." Word has a way of getting around, especially when you leave the evidence in the enemy's back yard!
Military people know why we have to safeguard POWs. Everyone knows it is a crime to do otherwise. I find it impossible to contemplate such an act involving more than two or three criminal idiots. The above mentioned act would require at least five men to control four POWs. One for each bound guy and two (minimum) for the one at the door. In addition, the chopper crew would have to be in on this deal. Most aircraft commanders want to know who is getting off between stops and why.
Not to beat a dead horse, but if I were the fourth POW, and saw the enemy commit a war crime trying to get me to talk, I would know that they would leave no witness regardless of what I told them. If I were to say anything, I'd say, "Those first three guys you tossed were on the division planning staff. I'm the cook. What do you want to know?"
The truth of the matter is, some will talk and surrender in body and spirit on being captured. A gun to the head and a question is all that is needed. The other type won't talk no matter what you do. You will wear out before they will. Most of the men I served with were of the latter; I was of the former. If I were ever captured, I knew I'd talk like a jay bird (No offense, Jay Bird).
My biggest fear was of being captured and tortured. Nails dragged across a chalkboard is all it would take to loosen my tongue. For this reason, I asked every man I ever went into combat with to do me in if I had to be left behind or it looked like we were going to be overrun.
I remember one such conversation as though it happened yesterday. It was my last night in Vietnam. I had survived nineteen months and could taste freedom. For recon men, the last thirty days was spent with the camp security forces. It was easy duty, mostly night duty, sleeping in the bunker line, periodically checking the wire and making sure the security forces were awake at their posts.
My last night was anything but easy duty. The NVA had just captured the nearby outpost of Dac To and the battery of 105mm howitzers thereon. Intelligence reports said to expect a ground assault in an effort to capture our camp to use as a fortified position in which to level Kontum with their new guns. Whether out of fear or paranoia, I took these reports seriously. The guys who ran recon did not. I wanted everyone on the bunker line for my last night. Most simply brushed me off or said, "Wake me after the third wave. Have a nice trip back to the world."
I did talk one into joining me. Dave McClary was my best friend. We were close, very close. We talked of everything and planned to link up after the war, get motorcycles, and do the Easy Rider scene. He humored me, but was mostly there to spend that last night with me. We stayed awake all night. Mortar flares lit up the night with just a few minutes between rounds. Each time a new round went off, we'd get our heads in the bunker aperture and scan the wire for sappers.
At four in the morning, I became extremely paranoid. The night gets very quiet during the jungle shift change: night critters doze off, but the day critters haven't awakened. All I could hear was three million NVA soldiers advancing to the wood line. Dave couldn't hear them. I said, "Dave, we've never talked about this, but I think we should. I can't be taken alive, Dave. I mean it. I'll talk. I am asking you as a friend, shoot me if it looks like we'll be overrun."
Dave calmly said, "Sure, no problem."
"Dave, I'm serious."
"I am, too. What are friends for?"
"I mean it, Dave. I can't take pain. If they get me, I'll talk like a jay bird (No offense, Jay Bird). I'll tell them the first lady's bra size. I'll tell "Who's on First." I'll tell them about your tiny dick."
Dave turned in the flickering light from a drifting flare and said, "Sonny, when the first guy crosses the wire, I'll stop whatever I'm doing and put a round right here." He tapped my forehead with a stiff index finger as the flare went out and cast us in total darkness. "Are you happy now?"
We remained silent until another flare went up. We resumed our posts. I said, "Dave, let me clarify something here. I sorta meant after they overrun us."
"Yeah, well I was sorta thinking about doing it when they toot on their bugles."
After a long silence, and during the next dark phase, I meekly said, "Dave, I won't tell them about your dick."
"I sure wish I could believe that, Sonny."
Fortunately, the human wave assault never materialized. Dave helped me through the night, but that's what friends are for.
In closing, I want to re-emphasize that atrocities were committed on both civilians and military POWs by both sides. The overwhelming majority of American servicemen would not be a party to it. I never saw an atrocity committed by an American. In my opinion, we behaved admirably under the circumstances. Our former enemy seems to think that, as an enemy, we weren't half bad. They are a little miffed by our overuse of firepower, but that's another matter.
As for addressing this baby killer issue, I'll simply give you the standard SF answer when confronted with this outrageous charge: "We never kill more than we can eat!"