Battlefield Ethics and the 1st Cavalry Division
Bravo Company was involved in a shooting incident in late
November, but first a little background information. A common complaint
among veterans of the 1st Cavalry Division is that their combat
experiences inVietnam were vastly different from that portrayed in most
movies, books and in the media. The general gist of these complaints is that
while the sensational and dishonorable events of the war received wide
coverage, suffering from benign neglect was the fact that the vast majority
of us served honorably and our conduct during combat operations was governed
by, among other things, the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and the
Rules of Engagement. Another neglected fact is that these provisions and
rules were strictly enforced by our commanders and as the following incident
clearly demonstrates, the commander of our brigade reacted promptly and
resolutely on what would probably be classified as a “minor” violation of
the Rules of Engagement involving Bravo Company.
Special Rules of Engagement (ROE) were developed for the specific purpose of avoiding civilian casualties. The basic nuts and bolts of these rules for infantry operations during the Vietnam War are as follows: In designated free fire zones - typically uninhabitated jungle and mountainous areas, you were authorized to shoot anything that moved. In populated areas you were authorized to shoot individuals who were either armed, dressed in military uniforms or wearing military equipment like helmets and web gear.
On leaving Dak To, our next mission was in the hills overlooking the Bong Son Plains and this area was also a designated free fire zone. Three days later and this would be around the end of November, we received the mission of taking care of some snipers who were shooting at our helicopters as they made their approach to land at LZ English. As this operation was in a populated zone, all the members of Bravo Company were briefed on the mission and on the applicable ROE for populated areas. We had just completed our air assault on a rice paddy close to LZ English when one of our troopers saw what appeared to be a Vietnamese man running away and fired, wounding the person. The wounded Vietnamese man turned out to be a young boy of about 14 years, with a flesh wound in the thigh and he had no weapon or other military equipment. While a medic applied a dressing to his wound, we immediately called for a medical evacuation helicoper which took him to the US Army field hospital where his wound was treated.
This was a regretable accident that should not have occurred. However, the wound was not serious, we did evacuate him, we did report the shooting to Battalion, and there were some extenuating circumstances that had a bearing on this accident. Taking into consideration that Bravo Company had just participated in one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, it was only natural that our troopers were tense and probably a little jittery. Furthermore, moving from a free fire zone to a populated area after a short helicopter ride involved a major reorientation and this was never an easy adjustment for combat troopers. I do not remember the details of our investigation but it is highly likely that the concerned individual received a verbal repremand.
Late in the afternoon, I received a radio call that our Brigade Commander wanted to see me immediately about this shooting accident and a helicopter was enroute to collect me. One of the golden rules in the infantry is that a commander is responsible for everything that his unit does or fails to do. I reported to our Brigade Commander, Colonel Donald “Snapper” Rattan, and he certainly lived up to his nickname when he chewed me out. He made it perfectly clear that he was furious that one of his units had violated the ROE, that he would not tolerate any violations of the ROE in his Brigade, that there were no excuses for this accident, and he interspersed this one way conversation with several “do I make myself perfectly clear Captain?”
Colonel Rattan’s verbal reprimand is very significant. First, his personal involvement demonstrates the importance he attached to a ROE violation. It was very unusual for a brigade commander to reprimand a company commander in this manner as the normal procedure was to use the chain of command; in essence, the brigade commander would instruct the concerned battalion commander to take care of the matter. Second, it is highly likely that Colonel Rattan selected this unusual course of action in order to send an explicit message to “all” the members of his command that he would not tolerate ROE violations, not even minor ones. Finally, it is important to note that this occurred in November 1967, four months before the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai by members of the 23d “Americal” Division during March 1968. (Prepared by Peter O’Sullivan, Commanding Officer of Bravo Company during this period)
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