The Overall U.S. Assault as the Primary Bloodbath
In a very real sense the overall U.S. effort in South Vietnam may be regarded as a deliberately imposed bloodbath. Military escalation was undertaken to offset the well understood lack of any significant social and political base for the elite military faction supported by the United States.
Despite occasional expressions of interest in the welfare and free choice of the South Vietnamese, the documents made available as part of the Pentagon Papers show that U.S. planners consistently regarded the impact of their decisions on the Vietnamese at most as a peripheral issue, more commonly as totally inconsequential.
Nonintervention and an NLF takeover were unacceptable for reasons that had nothing to do with Vietnamese interests, they were based on an assumed adverse effect on our material and strategic interests.
"Operation Speedy Express"
Operation Speedy Express was only one of a great many major pacification efforts carried out by the U.S. command. It is unusual, apparently, only in that it was studied and reported by a competent and experienced correspondent, Kevin P. Buckley of Newsweek. He examined the military and hospital records of the Operation and interviewed South Vietnamese inhabitants and pacification officials of the Mekong Delta province of Kien Hoa, the site of Speedy Express. In the latter part of 1968 the American command launched an "accelerated pacification program" to wrest territory from the NLF and place it back under the "control" of Saigon. "Operation Speedy Express" was the code name for a six-month campaign by the U.S. Ninth Infantry Division under that program. The campaign was carried out in a heavily populated Delta province that had traditionally supported the NLF. Buckley reported :
All the evidence I gathered pointed to a clear conclusion: a staggering number of noncombatant civilians - perhaps as many as 5,000 according to one official - were killed by U.S. fire power to "pacify" Kien Hoa. The death toll there made the My Lai massacre look trifling by comparison... The Ninth Division put all it had into the operation. Eight thousand infantrymen scoured the heavily populated countryside, but contact with the elusive enemy was rare. Thus, in its pursuit of pacification, the division relied heavily on its 50 artillery pieces, 50 helicopters (many armed with rockets and mini-guns) and the deadly support lent by the Air Force. There were 3,381 tactical air strikes by tighter bombers during "Speedy Express"... "Death is our business and business is good," was the slogan painted on one helicopter unit's quarters during the operation. And so it was. Cumulative statistics for "Speedy Express" show that 10,899 "enemy" were killed. In the month of March alone, "over 3,000 enemy troops were killed... which is the largest monthly total for any American division in the Vietnam war," said the division's official magazine. when asked to account for the enormous body counts, a division senior ofticer explained that helicopter crews often caught unarmed "enemy" in open fields. But Vietnamese repeatedly told me that those "enemy" were farmers gunned down while they worked in their rice tields... There is overwhelming evidence that virtually all the Viet Cong were well armed. Simple civilians were, of course, not armed. And the enormous discrepancy between the body count [i.e 11,000] and the number of captured weapons [i.e 748] is hard to explain - except by the conclusion that many victims were unarmed innocent civilians... The people who still live in pacified Kien Hoa all have vivid recollections of the devastation that American firepower brought to their lives in early 1969. Virtually every person to whom I spoke had suftered in some way. "There were 5,000 people in our village before 1969, but there were none in 1970," one village elder told me. "The Americans destroyed every house with artillery, air strikes, or by burning them down with cigarette lighters. About 100 people were killed by bombing, others were wounded and others became refugees. Many were children killed by concussion from the bombs which their small bodies could not withstand, even if they were hiding underground." Other officials, including the village police chief, corroborated the man's testimony. I could not, of course, reach every village. But in each of the many places where I went, the testimony was the same: 100 killed here, 200 killed there. One old man summed up all the stories: "The Americans killed some VC but only a small number. But of civilians, there were a large number killed"
Although Buckley states that pacification chief John Paul Vann found that Speedy Express had alienated the population (a profound discovery), he reports that the Army command considered its work well done. After all, "the 'land rush' succeeded. Government troops moved into the ravaged countryside in the wake of the bombardments, set up outposts and established Saigon's dominance of Kien Hoa." The commander of the unit responsible for this achievement was promoted with an accolade from General Abrams, who felt that "the performance of this division has been magnificent." On another occasion, when awarding him the Legion of Merit, Abrams referred to George Patton III, the man most noted for converting "pacification" into plain killing, as "one of my finest young commanders."