Hunting the Longshadows

Exposed: U.S. Nerve Gas Crimes in Vietnam War

Revolutionary Worker #962, June 21, 1998

Since the publication of this article, controversy has intensified over this account. CNN has retracted the story and fired several of the people responsible for it. The RW will discuss these developments more fully in a future issue.
"Earlier this year, the United States nearly went to war with Iraq over its chemical and biological weapons. Now, CNN and Time, after an eight month investigation, report that the United States used lethal nerve gas during the Vietnam War."
Jeff Greenfield, Newsstand: CNN & Time

"'Newsstand: CNN & Time' has contacted over 200 people, from corporals to generals, including dozens who fought or flew on the Tailwind Mission. According to military officials with knowledge of the operation, Tailwind held two of the U.S. military's top secrets... The first confirmed use of deadly nerve gas in combat by the U.S. military. The second secret:...hunting and killing American defectors was a high priority..."
Peter Arnett, Newsstand: CNN & Time

On June 7, the TV news program show Newsstand ran an extended report documenting a U.S. military operation called Tailwind into Laos during the Vietnam war. The report documented that the U.S. military used sarin nerve gas on the targeted village--including Indochinese civilians, American military deserters, and fighters of the Vietnamese and Laotian liberation armies. The report claimed that this was not the only time nerve gas was used--but that there were at least 20 other instances during the Vietnam War.

Retired Adm. Thomas Moorer confirmed for CNN that this operation had high-level approval. Moorer was Chief of Naval Operations during the Vietnam War and became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff afterwards.

Speaking to CNN producer April Oliver, Moorer confirmed that the U.S. military had a secret weapon, the CBU-15 cluster bomb, that was designed to deliver lethal nerve gas, and he confirmed that it had been used repeatedly during the Vietnam War. Off camera, Moorer told CNN that the raid had been proposed by the CIA and approved at the White House level by Richard Nixon's national security team, which was then headed by Henry Kissinger. Moorer also confirmed off camera that the target of the Tailwind raid had been U.S. military defectors. Melvin Laird, who was Secretary of Defense during several Vietnam War years, told CNN: "I do not dispute what Admiral Moorer has to say on this matter."

This is an important (and shocking) exposure. The U.S. justifies its ongoing threats against Iraq by accusing the Iraqi government of stockpiling chemical and biological weapons. Top U.S. government officials argue that Iraq has a special "proclivity" for using "weapons of mass destruction." Their evidence? That in 1988 Sadaam Hussein's military used nerve gas on Kurdish villages within Iraq. U.S. officials argue that they have a moral right to attack a state that "even used nerve gas against its own people."

Now the CNN/Time report lays bare the U.S. hypocrisy: the U.S. itself used nerve gas in a special raid aimed at "its own people" 28 years ago. Who in the world has shown more "proclivity" to build and use weapons of mass destruction than the U.S.? The U.S. built the world's first nuclear weapons and then used them twice on the civilians of Japanese cities. The U.S. unleashed its "weapons of mass destruction" (including daisy cutter bombs, napalm, defoliants, etc.) in Vietnam. And now it is revealed that the U.S. also used nerve gas, repeatedly, against the people of Indochina in the '60s and '70s.

Here is the story documented by the CNN/Time report.

"Hatchet Team" Invasion of Laos

"Our motto in the Special Forces was `Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out.'"

Lt. Robert van Buskirk, platoon leader
on the Tailwind raid

In early September 1970, a U.S. reconnaissance team was dropped in to observe a tiny village near the Laotian town of Chavan, about 60 miles from the Vietnamese border. The team was part of the SOG--"Studies and Operations Group," a secret branch of the U.S. Army's Special Forces "Green Berets" trained in special weapons for covert operations.

Jay Graves, leader of the recon team, told CNN, "We went in, snooped and pooped, moved around." What they found were men in the camp that appeared to be European-Americans--"round eyes" in the racist lingo of the U.S. Army. The team reported their findings and were told to wait for a killing team to arrive.

An Air Force supply unit flew in to secretly unload materials for the raid. Jim Cathey, a member of the supply unit, told CNN he watched the target village through binoculars and personally spotted 10 to 15 "long shadows" (men who were clearly taller than the other inhabitants in the village).

At the time, Cathey was not told why this village was going to be attacked, but he now tells CNN: "I believe that there were American defectors in that group of people in that village. Because there was no sign of any kind of restraint. In retrospect, I believe that mission was to wipe out those longshadows."

The so-called "hatchet team" of the SOG was flown in from the Vietnamese base Dak To on September 11, 1970. It consisted of 16 U.S. "Green Berets" and about 140 "Montagnard" mercenaries, on 14 helicopters. (Montagnards were a tribal highland people used by the U.S. to fight against the Indochinese liberation forces.)

The SOG "hatchet team" landed miles from the target village. They were quickly detected and attacked by the liberation forces. According to a recent UPI report, it took the killers three days of firefights to make it to the edge of the target village.

On that third night, Air Force A-1s dropped poison gas on the village. This had been part of the plan all along. SOG officer Lt. Robert Van Buskirk told CNN that an Air Force colonel personally briefed him before the raid about the use of nerve gas--warning him to make sure that his men used gas masks. The SOG commandos were issued atropine, a nerve gas antidote.

The next morning, the "hatchet force" attacked the village. Van Buskirk recalls that they were ordered to massacre everyone: "My orders were, if it's alive, if it breathes oxygen, if it urinates, if it defecates, kill it."

The SOG forces fanned through the village tossing grenades into every hut, spraying everything that moved with machine gun fire.

Van Buskirk says he spotted two white men as he ran into the village. He says they looked like former GIs in their early 20s who had grown their hair out. One of them shouted "Fuck you" as the U.S. forces ran into the village. The two then ducked into a tunnel--the kind built by the liberation forces as underground networks of bunkers. Van Buskirk says he threw a white phosphorus grenade after them into the tunnel.

"It was pretty well understood that if you came across a defector, and could prove it to yourself beyond a reasonable doubt, do it. Under any circumstance, kill them," Van Buskirk says. "It wasn't about bringing them back, it was to kill them."

The commander of the Tailwind raid, Captain McCarley, says his forces counted "upwards of 100" dead in the village. Most of the dead were civilians. The raiders also counted "beaucoup round-eyes" among the dead--Van Buskirk remembers "a dozen, 15, maybe 20." The dead U.S. deserters were not identified. Their bodies were not removed from the village. And the existence of this assassination raid was kept a secret for 28 years.

After the camp was overrun, the liberation forces successfully counterattacked. All 16 Americans were wounded and almost half of their Montagnard mercenaries were killed. The SOG team ran out of ammunition.

To cover for their "extraction," the raiders called in two A-1 Skyraider planes to drop CBU-15s again. The SOG team veterans actually saw the gas used on liberation fighters on the nearby ridge. They saw the canisters explode, and watched a wet fog envelop the liberation fighters. According to these eyewitnesses, the gas caused convulsing, vomiting and death.

"All I see is bodies," Van Buskirk recalls, "They are not fighting any more. They are just lying, some on their sides, some on their backs. They are no longer combatants." Even from a distance, several of the U.S. and mercenary forces experienced symptoms of nerve gas exposure--especially the Montagnards whose U.S. masters had issued gas masks that were too big.

This detailed evidence from surviving attackers confirms that this gas was, in fact, nerve gas.

War Crime

This raid was a war crime on many levels.

It involved the deliberate, ordered massacre of civilians--similar to many similar U.S. massacres in villages like My Lai.

It involved the use of sarin nerve gas, in violation of the new Geneva Protocol on chemical weapons that President Nixon had just signed.

It was a secret attack on a neutral country, Laos--part of a much larger "secret war" of bombing, mercenary armies and covert raids conducted by the Special Forces and CIA.

Most importantly, this raid was a criminal use of reactionary violence against a just cause--the national liberation struggle of Vietnam and the neighboring Indochinese people. It was part of a brutal, colonial war against people fighting for independence.

Specifically, this was a criminal assassination raid aimed at young U.S. GIs who were conscious enough and brave enough to desert the U.S. military and join up with the forces fighting for liberation.

The existence of such men is something rarely discussed in the U.S. In his interview with CNN, Admiral Moorer estimates that scores of U.S. soldiers "defected" during the war. The Pentagon immediately issued a denial, telling CNN that "during the war there were only two known military defectors."

In the late 1960s, the radicals within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) often passed around stories of such GIs--like the famous "salt and pepper team"--who had gone over to fight for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Such fighters were seen as heroes and revolutionary role models for the young comrades of those times. The fact that the U.S. military wanted to assassinate these fighters and deny their existence shows how powerful such "revolutionary defeatism" was--how threatening to the oppressors and inspiring to the people.

Van Buskirk and McCarley received honors for this raid. Van Buskirk says he personally briefed General Creighton Abrams, top U.S. commander in Vietnam, about the raid. Both Van Buskirk and McCarley were awarded the Silver Star.

Implausible Denial

Cover-up was built into this "covert op" from the beginning. Officially, the SOG did not exist. The CBU-15s officially did not exist. The Pentagon did not officially acknowledge that there were "defectors" in significant numbers.

Officially, the U.S. respected the Geneva Conventions, never used nerve gas and had a strict no-first-use policy. The soldiers of Tailwind were never told that their mission involved sarin nerve gas--the poisons were referred to as "sleeping gas."

Van Buskirk reports that a superior officer asked him to remove the description of his phosphorus grenade attack on U.S. deserters from his final report--eliminating a written record of Americans killing Americans.

In 1998, the Pentagon predictably stonewalled the investigation into Tailwind. They simply ignored CNN's "freedom of information act" requests for documents. The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Henry Shelton, declined to discuss the matter with CNN, and so did the current Secretary of Defense, William Cohen.

After the June 7 report aired, there came open denials: The Pentagon announced it has no information about the use of nerve gas or a raid to kill American deserters. Army and Air Force historians told CNN that "nonlethal tear gas" was probably used in Tailwind. They said Pentagon records listed the raid as a diversion from a CIA operation--not as a mission to kill American military defectors.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen finally told CNN, "I am not aware of any information that we have that would validate those charges." He said he was ordering the Army, Air Force and Joint Chiefs of Staff to investigate. After a similar investigation, the CIA recently announced that its agents had not brought cocaine into South Central Los Angeles in the early 1980s.

Interestingly enough, Admiral Moorer backed off some statements he had originally made to CNN. Only hours after the CNN/Time report aired, Moorer had an interview with Reuters, and said that he had never directly seen reports on Operation Tailwind. He now claimed to have been only repeating "rumors" when he talked to CNN. Even in this Reuters interview, new information came out: Moorer revealed that sarin had been stockpiled in the South East Asian "theater of operations" and been available for use.

Denials of the U.S. war machine have no credibility. Their lies about Vietnam alone could fill books.

  • President Johnson justified the 1965 invasion of Vietnam by saying North Vietnamese ships had attacked the U.S. Navy in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was a complete fabrication.
  • The CIA denied they were running heroin from the "Gold Triangle" of Laos and Thailand--while evidence shows this is how they financed their secret wars.
  • The Pentagon denied that the Agent Orange defoliant caused illness in veterans--though it did.
  • After the war, hostility toward Vietnam was justified by accusing Vietnam of continuing to hold captive MIAs. This was a complete fabrication.
  • The whole war in Vietnam came wrapped in lies--designed to conceal the injustice of the U.S. cause and the brutality of their crimes.

    It is worth noting that during the war itself, the Vietnamese liberation forces released detailed and accurate reports on what the U.S. was doing. Such information was reported by the "underground" radical press in the U.S.--including the fact that the U.S. was using nerve gas. Such evidence was simply and routinely suppressed in the mainstream U.S. media.

    For more information on the resistance of GIs during the war in Vietnam see the article "When John Wayne Went Out of Focus: GI Rebellion and Military disintegration in Vietnam" by Nick Jackson, Revolution magazine, Spring 1988.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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