Tiger Force

Tiger Force by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss is a fascinating look at men and war. The story is about an elite U.S. Army unit that went terribly wrong. It is like a train wreck that you don’t want to see, but you look anyway.

Early in the Vietnam War, the Army created an elite fighting unit that became known as the “Tiger Force.” This unit would operate under minimal supervision with extended periods in the field. But, something went terribly awry. As a result of high casualties in May 1967, the unit needed to bring in replacements that were not as well trained as their predecessors – these men were highly impressionable. In addition, some of the veterans in the unit were unstable. The raw recruits and embittered veterans were a deadly combination – in a matter of seven months, hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were killed without provocation.

The book generally covers the actions of the unit during the seven-month rampage and the subsequent war crimes investigation by the Army Criminal Investigation Command. The investigation spanned three years and after which time, its report was filed away and forgotten. The story was discovered by the authors and published in a series of articles in the Toledo Blade in October 2003.

This book was hard for me to read because I was raised to think that the men of our country’s armed forces were beyond reproach. Sure, I knew of isolated events like My Lai, but all in all, I thought we were the good guys. This book shatters that belief. The authors succinctly describe how a group of men, without proper supervision, quickly ran amok. They prove that most men can succumb to murder under the worst circumstances.

I like how the authors blame the men who committed the atrocities, but also blame their commanders for either looking the other way or implicitly allowing the atrocities to occur. The authors prove that the higher up commanders, although not charged, had to have known that the Tiger Force men were out of control. For example, several officers were approached by men from the unit who complained that men in the unit were killing civilians indiscriminately, but nothing was done about it.

It is heartbreaking to read about the madness that reigned during the seven months of murder. I am angered that these men were allowed to go on a killing and mutilation rampage under the supervision of their commanding officer, a lieutenant, and non-commissioned officers – they even participated in this debauchery.

The authors do an outstanding job describing the hurdles and problems that the lead investigator, Gustav Apsey, had with trying to track down the men of the unit years after the atrocities occurred (the investigation began almost five years after the last murders). As the authors explain, Apsey was the perfect man for the job – a workaholic who kept digging for the truth. It is disheartening to read that all of his work was for naught as the case was later covered-up by the Army because of a fear of bad publicity and a desire to put the war in the past.

The only fault I find with the book is the lack of information on the unit after the murders. I want to know if the unit continued to murder at a slower rate or was it disbanded because the higher command was uncomfortable with the unit’s criminal deeds.

In conclusion, I highly recommend reading this book if you want to read about one of the most diabolical secrets of the Vietnam War.

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