By Danny Morrison
`The Blade' is a relatively small family newspaper in the Ohio city of Toledo with a reputation for investigative journalism. A few months ago it published a series of articles, `Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths', after being tipped off about some classified documents. Two journalists spent eight months piecing together the story of Tiger Force, a platoon of the US military operating in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1967. (This is distinct from the My Lai massacre of 500 defenceless civilians in March 1968.)
This is what they unearthed through talking to Vietnamese survivors and former soldiers. That for seven months the platoon of 45 paratroops slaughtered unarmed farmers and their wives and children, and tortured and mutilated victims. One sergeant, William Doyle, who killed so many civilians he lost count, took the scalp off a young nurse to decorate his rifle. Private Sam Ybarra slit the throat of a prisoner with a hunting knife before scalping him. He later shot dead a 15-year-old boy because he wanted the teenager's tennis shoes. When these didn't fit he cut off the teenager's ears and placed them in a ration bag. Other soldiers wore severed ears around their necks as souvenirs.
A baby was decapitated for the necklace he wore. A 13-year-old girl's throat was slashed after she was sexually assaulted. Twenty-two paratroopers raped then executed a Vietnamese peasant. A medic pumped swamp water into the heart of a prisoner before he was fatally shot. When villagers fled from the approaching soldiers and hid in underground bunkers the paras dropped grenades down the shafts where they were hiding. Setting up camp nearby, the soldiers heard their dying cries coming from the underground shelters throughout the night.
One soldier, Gerald Bruner, turned on his own men and ordered them to stop shooting civilians or he would open fire. For this, he was berated by a commanding officer and told to see a psychiatrist.
` The Blade' discovered that the Army secretly investigated Tiger Force for four-and-a-half years after a soldier, Sergeant Gary Coy, brought the massacres to its attention. Updates were sent to the White House and the Secretary of Defense. A decision was taken not to prosecute. Some of the soldiers involved in the killings were later promoted. The only soldier disciplined in the case was the one who complained, Gary Coy. `The Blade' also discovered that archives on war crime cases between 1965 and 1971 were destroyed, that crucial records documenting some of the worst atrocities of Tiger Platoon are missing and that the Army will not release records of its investigations from 1972-74 that could explain why the case was dropped in 1975.
After enquiring into the death of Sammy Devenney at the hands of the RUC in Derry in 1969 an English Chief Constable, Sir Arthur Young, regretted that he could not identify those responsible because of what he described as ``a conspiracy of silence'' among the police. British soldiers lied about the events surrounding the civil rights march in Derry in January 1972 when they shot dead thirteen civilians and are still lying to the Saville Inquiry over thirty years later. Whilst the British government set up the new inquiry to establish `the truth' the British Ministry of Defence, even after the inquiry was announced, destroyed vital evidence, such as weapons that were used by the Paras.
The Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester, John Stalker, never got finishing his inquiries into the series of `Shoot-to-Kill' incidents. RUC suspects lied to him, he was waylaid, conspired against, found himself the subject of trumped-up charges back in Manchester and was suspended and removed from his investigation. The report finished by his successor, Colin Samson, was never published.
Brian Nelson, the British agent within the UDA/UFF responsible for streamlining the state-sponsored assassination campaign against nationalists and republicans, was offered a generous plea-bargain negotiated by the British Attorney-General with the Lord Chief Justice in the North that effectively suppressed the truth about Britain's `dirty war'.
Sir John Stevens, after carrying out numerous inquiries into state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries published only a fraction of his report. The British authorities, whose agents are suspected of aiding the UVF in the Dublin and Monaghan car bombs of 1974, refused to fully cooperate with Judge Barron's inquiry into those massacres.
The British government - to date - refuses to publish the Cory Report and its recommendations that public inquiries be carried out into four high-profile cases of suspect state collusion in killings.
IN a fortnight, over the `Bloody Sunday' weekend, there is to be a panel discussion on the subject of Truth Commissions, organised by the Pat Finucane Centre. I have agreed to be one of the speakers. I imagine many nationalists when they hear the term Truth Commission probably think it an excellent proposal, on a par with the one held in South Africa, when former apartheid officials and ANC activists could speak in public about what they did and why they did it, so that `the truth' of the conflict could at last be aired and the relatives of victims would have some closure with some understanding of why their loved ones died. I am not convinced of the merits. Nor do I believe that there is equivalence between the actions of people fighting for their freedom (though some of their individual acts might be morally repugnant) and those fighting to suppress them and deny them their rights.
Were it not for dogged journalists on a small newspaper in Ohio the truth of what happened in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1967 would be buried forever. The issue isn't whether some US soldiers are going to be held to account (because they're not): the issue is that those who were ultimately responsible - those in government - will not allow an investigation that might pinpoint their moral culpability, if they have not already covered their tracks.
Even had we a Truth Commission here, I believe that once again the British government would evade the truth. We would never get passed the private or the sergeant, the colonel or the general to establish the fact of state terrorism, sanctioned from the top. The hearings would be dragged out for years upon years. Documents will have been shredded or gone missing, witnesses have died off, memories `faded'.
We should be wary of clamouring for a Truth Commission. In the end it might just suit the British government as a way of avoiding Public Inquiries that might, just might unearth some buried secrets and brutal truths.