Letter from the US: The Scalping Party

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Mike Davis tells the story of a US army responsible for sickening war crimes in Vietnam.

In his dark masterpiece Blood Meridian novelist Cormac McCarthy tells the terrifying tale of a gang of Yankee scalp-hunters who left an apocalyptic trail of carnage from Chihuahua to southern California in the early 1850s.

Commissioned by Mexican authorities to hunt marauding Apaches, the company of ex-filibusters and convicts under the command of the psychopath John Glanton quickly became intoxicated with gore. They exterminated local farmers as well as Indians, and when there were no innocents left to rape and slaughter, they turned upon themselves with shark-like fury.

Many readers have recoiled from the gruesome extremism of McCarthy's imagery: the roasted skulls of tortured captives, necklaces of human ears, an unspeakable tree of dead infants. Others have baulked at his unpatriotic emphasis on the genocidal origins of the American West and the book's obvious allusion to 'search and destroy' missions a la Vietnam.

But Blood Meridian, like all of McCarthy's novels, is based on meticulous research. Glanton - the white savage, the satanic face of Manifest Destiny - really existed. He's simply the ancestor most Americans would prefer to forget. He's also the ghost we can't avoid. In October, a courageous hometown paper in rustbelt Ohio, the Toledo Blade, tore the wraps off an officially suppressed story of Vietnam-era exterminism that recapitulates Blood Meridian in the most ghastly and unbearable detail.

The reincarnation of Glanton's scalping party was an elite 45-man unit of the 101 Airborne Division known as 'Tiger Force'. The Blade's intricate reconstruction of its murderous march through the central highlands of Vietnam in summer and autumn 1967 needs to be read in full, horrifying detail at http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=SRTIGERFORCE. Reporters interviewed more than 100 American veterans and Vietnamese survivors.

Tiger Force atrocities began with the torture and execution of prisoners in the field, and then escalated to the routine slaughter of unarmed farmers, elderly people, even small children. As one former sergeant told the Blade, 'It didn't matter if they were civilians. If they weren't supposed to be in an area, we shot them. If they didn't understand fear, I taught it to them.'

Early on Tiger Force began scalping its victims (the scalps were dangled from the ends of M-16s) and cutting off their ears as souvenirs. One member - who would later behead an infant - wore the ears as a ghoulish necklace (just like the character Toadvine in Blood Meridian), while another mailed them home to his wife. Others kicked out the teeth of dead villagers for their gold fillings.

A former Tiger Force sergeant told reporters that 'he killed so many civilians he lost count'. The Blade estimates that innocent casualties were in 'the hundreds'. Another veteran, a medic with the unit, recalled 150 unarmed civilians murdered in a single month.

Superior officers, especially the Glanton-like battalion commander Gerald Morse (or 'Ghost Rider', as he fancied himself), sponsored the carnage. Orders were given to 'shoot everything that moves' and Morse established a body-count quota of 327 (the numerical designation of the battalion) that Tiger Force enthusiastically filled with dead peasants and teenage girls.

Soldiers in other units who complained about these exterminations were ignored or warned to keep silent, while Tiger Force slackers were quickly transferred out. As with Glanton's gang, atrocity created its own insatiable momentum. Eventually nothing was unthinkable in the Song Ve Valley.

'A 13 year old girl's throat was slashed after she was sexually assaulted, and a young mother was shot to death after soldiers torched her hut. An unarmed teenager was shot in the back after a platoon sergeant ordered the youth to leave a village, and a baby was decapitated so that a soldier could remove a necklace.'

Stories about the beheading of the baby spread so widely that the army was finally forced to launch a secret inquiry in 1971. The investigation lasted for almost five years and probed 30 alleged Tiger Force war crimes. Evidence was found to support the prosecution of at least 18 members of the platoon.

In the end, however, half a dozen of the most compromised veterans were allowed to resign from the army, avoiding military indictment, and in 1975 the Pentagon quietly buried the entire investigation.

According to the Blade, 'It is not known how far up in the Ford administration the decision to bury the case went,' but it is worth recalling who the leading actors were at the time: the secretary of defence, then as now, was Donald Rumsfeld and the White House chief of staff was Dick Cheney.

It is no secret that the Bush administration is blackmailing governments everywhere with threats of aid cuts and trade sanctions unless they exempt US troops from the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court. The US, of course, has good reason to claim immunity from the very Nuremberg principles it helped establish in 1946-47. American Special Forces troops, for example, were most probably complicit in the massacres of hundreds of Taliban prisoners by Northern Alliance warlords several years ago. Moreover, 'collateral damage' to civilians is part and parcel of the new white man's burden of 'democratising' the Middle East and making the world safe for Bechtel and Halliburton.

The Glantons thus still have their place in the scheme of Manifest Destiny, and the scalping parties that once howled in the wilderness of the Gila now threaten to range far and wide along the banks of the Euphrates and in the shadow of the Hindu Kush.


Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear and Dead Cities