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A Vietnam War That Never Ends

Vietnam still resonates in the American body politic after nearly 40 years.

The obit I wrote for today's paper, of Lt. Gen. Julian J. Ewell, is a case in point. Gen. Ewell was a top commander in Vietnam during the 1968-70 period and in the latter half of that period was in charge of the largest Army combat command in country. He was highly decorated in World War II, was a top guy at West Point, an aide at the White House and for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and was chief of staff at V Corps in Germany before going to Vietnam.

Faced with a guerrilla war and knowing he'd be going into an area where the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had a tight grip on power, Gen. Ewell devised a plan to attack with overwhelming force, to take back the night from the enemy and to firmly return the area to the control of the South Vietnamese government. He and his chief of staff, Ira Hunt, wrote a book on their tactics and strategy, which was published in 1974 and republished by the Army in 1995. "Constant pressure" and maximum force was his mantra, and the Army unleashed a campaign that in some terms was highly successful, but which had significant collateral damage, on civilians and the communities.

In pursuit of the demand for higher and higher "body counts" of enemies killed, Gen. Ewell's troops followed orders, and they doubled (or more) previously recorded body counts in the Mekong Delta. Thousands of infantrymen scoured the heavily populated Delta, supported by 50 artillery pieces, 50 helicopters and 3,381 tactical air strikes in one six-month period in late 1968 and early 1969, according to a 1972 Newsweek investigation. Some 10,899 people were killed, the U.S. military reported; but only 748 weapons were seized, leading many to conclude that those who were gunned down running from ground troops or helicopters were merely frightened, and unarmed, civilians.

But war is hell and nothing is black and white.

Vietcong hid among civilian populations and soldiers who were too trusting sometimes found themselves in booby traps. The late Col. David Hackworth, who served under them, wrote about this period, too, noting in a 2001 newspaper column that Gen. Ewell never ordered civilians to be killed. Hackworth's 1989 memoir, "About Face," had a tougher passage:

"Julian Ewell was a very effective division commander for the war in Vietnam because whatever else might be said about him (like my feeling that he had no heart, which to me was the bottom line of soldiering, competence notwithstanding), he brought home the bodies. Pressure from division was actually most phenomenal in this regard, all the battalion commanders had to carry a 3"-by-5" card with up-to-date, day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month body-count tally, just in case Gen. Ewell happened to show up and wanting to know. And woe to the commander who did not have a consistenly high count, even if the quest too often led to unnecessary American casualties or what could be called "passive atrocities." With the main motivator being body count, in my view the powers that be didn't give a damn whose body was counted, and a great many -- too many -- civilians in the Delta were part of the scores."

Someone who signed letters to the brass "A Concerned Sergeant" attempted to called attention to the "My Lai a month" that was occurring in the Delta within the year, and just as the My Lai massacre was becoming known to the American public.

The late Gen. William Westmoreland, who received at least one of those letters, had his staff look into the letter, but then pulled back from a full-out investigation, according to an article in The Nation magazine last December. (The author, military historian and investigative journalist Nick Turse, also read to me a quote from an Army Inspector General's report on Operation Speedy Express, a piece of information he alone uncovered and which was never before disclosed.) Deborah Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who worked with Turse reporting the story, wrote a book based on the secret Army archive of investigations into atrocities in Vietnam, "The War Behind Me," which came out in 2008 as well.

jjewellphoto.jpg

Back to Gen. Ewell: Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who served under him in the 9th Infantry Division in the Delta, and as a sergeant was awarded the Purple Heart by Ewell, said yesterday in an interview, "What I remember about him most as a guy out in the field, he was a very hands-on general. He'd fly out in these little bubble helicopters to a fire base, and would sit down and talk with us. Sometimes he'd bring some beer with him. He was very much tuned in to the soldiers. I always was impressed by that."

Was he obsessed with the body count, as others had told me, I asked Hagel. "That was the deal, body count," Hagel said. "You used that body count, commanding officers did, as the metric and measurement as how successful you were.... I think he probably was caught up in the mileu."

By Patricia Sullivan  |  August 5, 2009; 1:45 PM ET
Categories:  Military , Patricia Sullivan  
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