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A Pulitzer for wartime truth-telling

The Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting that was awarded to the Toledo Blade this past Monday couldn’t have come at a more portentous moment. We are in the midst of a presidential campaign that will largely be decided on what we think about two wars, the one that took place in Vietnam more than a generation ago and the one that is being fought in Iraq today.

The Blade’s reporters found that an elite unit of American troops called the Tiger Force did terrible things in Vietnam in the late 1960s. They murdered innocent people in cold blood, some as they were begging for their lives. They tossed grenades into tunnels, where they knew elderly folks, women, and children were hiding. They cut off the ears of their victims and made necklaces of the grotesque souvenirs. In all, the Blade reported, the 45-member Tiger Force may have killed hundreds of unarmed civilians during a seven-month period in 1967.

"We were living day to day. We didn’t expect to live. Nobody out there with any brains expected to live," a former Tiger Force sergeant named William Doyle told the paper. "So you did any goddamn thing you felt like doing — especially to stay alive. The way to live is to kill because you don’t have to worry about anybody who’s dead."

The series, "Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths," concerns some of the most emotionally charged territory in American life, even today, some 37 years after those events took place. Vietnam was at the heart of a right-wing attempt to smear Senator John Kerry after he’d wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination. Critics dug up testimony Kerry had given before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 about atrocities he’d heard his fellow veterans attest to — rapes, mutilations, torture, random killings, and the like (see "Sex, Lies, and Republicans," News and Features, February 20) — and held it up as evidence that Kerry was somehow unpatriotic. The Blade has shown that such horrors may have been commonplace — and that Kerry’s testimony spoke to something very dark and very true about the Vietnam War.

Now, nearly a year after President Bush declared the war in Iraq more or less over, the quagmire is getting deeper and more frightening. Last week, four American security workers were killed and subjected to atrocities — their bodies burned, mutilated, and publicly displayed — in the restive town of Fallujah (see "Don’t Quote Me," page 16). A Shiite cleric who commands his own militia, Moqtada Sadr, has all but declared war on the United States. Thousands of American troops find themselves far from home, wanting nothing more than to survive a war fought over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist and to win the hearts and minds of a population that appears to resent us at best, and to hate us at worst.

Seen in that light, the story of what Tiger Force did in 1967 is not just a vital part of the historical record — it is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a war is waged for all the wrong reasons.

The Toledo Blade’s series "Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths" can be found online at www.toledoblade.com/tigerforce.

Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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