Oh, What a Lovely War
The whiff of political assassination is in the air again, as President George Bush toys with the future of Saddam Hussein. It seems as good time as any for him--and other Americans inclined to embrace "simple" solutions for complex foreign affairs--to remember that old chestnut, "What goes around comes around."
Twenty-two years ago this June, a Green Beret intelligence unit in Viet Nam decided on a "simple" solution to the discovery of a suspected North Viet double agent in their ranks: after seeking approval from the CIA, they took him out in a boat, wrapped him in chains and tire rims, shot him in the head, and dumped him into the South China Sea.
In that single act, one among many during more than a decade in Viet Nam, their lives and careers were ruined.
It could have been me. The so-called Green Beret Murder Case broke into the news when I was running my own military intelligence operation out of the French colonial villa in Da Nang, a once-lovely port city on the South China Sea. Just when the Green Beret case surfaced, I received evidence that my own agent was working for the other side. I pondered what to do.
In the Green Beret case, the Army had announced only that it had arrested Col. Robert Rheault, commander of all Special Forces troops in Viet Nam, and seven of his men, on charges of first-degree murder of "a Vietnamese civilian male." The press soon reported that the victim had been working for the Green Berets in sensitive espionage operations in Cambodia when a captured photo showed him in the company of high-ranking North Viet officers. His name was Thai Khac Chuyen.
My own agent had just failed a polygraph examination dealing with his allegiances. When we asked him if he was "loyal to the government of South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu," his affirmative answer showed attempts at deception--lying.
The Green Beret case made me wonder what I should do if, in fact, my own spy was really working for the communists. Under the rules, the very existence of our operation was supposed to be kept secret from our South Vietnamese "allies"; turning him over for prosecution and trial was impossible. Would I take him out in a boat and shoot him in the head with a silencer-equipped pistol, as the Green Berets had just been charged with doing?
As anyone who spent time in-country knows, it was nearly impossible to establish the truth of these matters in Viet Nam, where a kind of frontier justice prevailed.
I had been in Viet Nam long enough, and I spoke the language well enough, to know something about the society and its history. I soon learned that the political loyalties of most Viets were splintered along family, clan, religious, and multiple ideological faults. It had been foolhardy to try and fit Viet Nam into our Cold War box. It was impossible to define any Viet, with certainty, as "procommunist," pro-Saigon," or "pro-U.S." (which, viewed from the perspective of Nguyen Van Thieu, might define such a person as a traitor), unless they were in uniform and armed. That, in a nutshell, was the whole problem of the war: defining who the enemy was.
Sad to say, and it has been said many times, the U.S. failed utterly at culling the communists from the crowd, but that didn't keep us from trying through such odious methods as the Phoenix Program. Meanwhile, with an initial guilt that soon gave way to desperation, the U.S. bombed and strafed rural villages (concluding that the murder of innocent civilians was worth the price of a few dead communists).
So it was that the arrest of Rheault and his men in July 1969, at the height of the war, sparked widespread curiosity and cynicism among us in the war zone. Why would the Army arrest such high-ranking Green Berets for executing one North Viet double agent? Wasn't that their job?
The Army's straight-faced explanation that the defendants had violated the Geneva Convention and killed someone they weren't sure was an enemy spy rang hollow. The idea that the Green Berets should have turned their suspected spy over to the South Viets for a trial was laughable. To U.S. intelligence in Viet Nam, the Saigon government was every bit as much the enemy as the Viet Cong--often they were the same thing.
Yet the Rheault case was troubling. The summary execution of the suspected spy seemed to symbolize the anarchy that had overtaken much of the conduct of the war. While one part of the war was being fought above-ground with uniforms and rules, the other was being carried out in the dark with terror and assassination. The killing of Thai Khac Chuyen and the later sight of his grieving widow and children begging for justice outside the United States Embassy rang the knell once again that it was time to leave.
To others, however, the Army's prosecution of the men seemed to symbolize the political limits Washington had put on winning the war. If only the Green Berets could be encouraged to execute more spies, the argument went, the U.S. might win.
Both sides, in their own way, were right. And wrong.
All this went through my mind as I pondered my own spy's fate in the late summer of 1969, as the Green Beret affair bloated into a spectacle in Saigon and the Army announced a date for the courts martial of the eight men. The Viet Cong, to whom assassination was old hat, were having a propaganda holiday with the case.
Would I kill my own spy, I wondered, if it turned out he was working on the other side, if the lives of all my other agents were thrown into jeopardy? My own commander, I was sure, would not want me to ask him what to do.
Luckily for me, the decision was aborted when further interrogations revealed that my agent had not "bounced" the polygraph because he was a communist, but because he was a member of a right-wing political movement conspiring against the Saigon government! Such were the perilous currents of Viet politics that a 22-year-old college dropout, as I was then, was supposed to fathom.
The CIA, as it turned out, had no appetite for a Green Beret court-martial that would have put a spotlight on the agency's own record of assassination in Viet Nam (or anyplace else). It finally persuaded President Nixon to quash the charges. Revelations about the "excesses" of the Phoenix Program and other seamy intelligence activities were left for another day's scandal.
Like most veterans, I came home and tried to forget about the war. The Green Beret case continued to haunt me, however, with its beguiling paradox of defining moral standards while in the service of illegal, government-sponsored, activities.
The Cold War romance of the time, fed by James Bond and other patriotic caricatures, held that assassination was a necessary and even glamorous concomitant to the West's twilight struggle for democracy. That began to crack with the Viet Nam war, and was obliterated by Watergate.
For me, however, it was demolished by the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The classified study, leaked by Pentagon consultant Daniel Ellsberg, revealed that the main product of America's Cold War obsession with intrigue and deception in Viet Nam was self-hypnosis: The government had talked itself into believing it knew what the Viet Nam war was all about, and how to solve it--even as it discarded one losing strategy after another, lied to Congress, and ignored wiser heads.
The Pentagon Papers, along with the Nixon administration's invasion of Cambodia, finally spurred me to get off the sidelines and I began writing articles on U.S. intelligence operations in Viet Nam (despite the security pledges I had signed never to discuss such subjects). My first pieces were on the U.S. intelligence connection to the Cambodian coup plotters who ousted Prince Sihanouk.
I soon enrolled in a graduate school with the goal of trying to find the roots of our appalling ignorance and folly in Indochina. On a more personal level, I was searching to understand how I had ended up carrying out such fruitless and morally questionable activities myself. Not surprising, I found the answer in our corrosive addiction to secrecy and deception during the Cold War.
The case of the Green Berets was never far from my mind. In 1978 I saw a movie, Breaker Morant, that reignited my interest in the affair. It was a true tale of Australian commandos executed for carrying out an approved assassination while serving in the British Army during the South African Boer War. The story seemed to mirror the Green Beret case in its portrayal of a government frame-up. I took a stab at getting the Green Beret documents declassified, but the affair remained deeply buried in secret government archives.
A few years later I learned that the character of Kurtz played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now was modeled on Col. Rheault, the enigmatic former commander of the 5th Special Forces Group and chief defendant in the Green Beret case. Like Kurtz, Rheault was a product of Phillips Exeter Academy and West Point, fluent in French, with a Master's degree in international relations from the University of Paris. He was a paradigm of the Kennedy-era Green Berets, in fact, an upper-class, brilliant soldier as comfortable in a classroom as the straps of a parachute, a guy who could kill in five languages while discoursing on the virtues of Sun Tzu. With the advantage of a post-Viet Nam war, post-Watergate hindsight, I saw him as a metaphor for the kind of hubris that led us into the swamp of Viet Nam.
In the early 1980s, I took another stab at finding the former defendants, but they had scattered to the winds, and the word was that none of them would ever talk about the case, especially the stoic Rheault, whose career and marriage had been ruined by the affair.
Finally I heard he was running an Outward Bound program for troubled Viet Nam vets in Maine. I began writing letters, to which he politely, but firmly, responded with no interest in a book. He had no interest in digging up an episode that reflected so badly on the U.S. Army, he said, which he had loyally served for 26 years. He wanted to get on with his life, he said, and who could blame him?
I respected his reasoning, I told him, but I argued that in the era of Top Gun and Rambo, and an astonishing (to me) enthusiasm from liberals for the Contra War in Nicaragua, a generation that had hardly been born during the Viet Nam war needed to know what counterinsurgency war was really all about.
Finally, one day in 1989, the telephone rang at my desk at UPI, where I was the foreign news features editor. It was Rheault, calling to explain once again why he didn't want to cooperate with a book on the Green Beret affair. As we talked then and in subsequent conversations, however, it became apparent that he had shed his hawk's feathers long ago.
"The Cold War was a waste, a fraud, and a hoax," he now said. He explained that his suspicions had grown over many years of personal study, but it was capped by a trip to the Soviet Union in 1988, where he led a joint wilderness expedition of Viet Nam veterans and Soviet veterans of Afghanistan. During days of mountain climbing and nights around the fire, his conversations with the once-feared Russian enemies convinced him that the Soviet threat had been deliberately overblown by the Pentagon and the CIA. For their part, the Russians said the Red Army had drummed the threat of an American invasion into their heads, too.
Reluctantly, over several more conversations and correspondence, Rheault finally agreed not to stand in the way of a book on the incident that had caused him, and his beloved Special Forces, so much agony and pain. Now, with their former commander's green light, the other defendants who I had located also agreed to talk.
Finally, in 1990, a thick brown package containing nearly all the once-secret Army documents on the case arrived in my mailbox. Heavily blacked out, the documents only hinted at the government's treachery in the case. It would take scores more interviews and documents to establish that the CIA had indeed encouraged the Green Berets to execute Thai Khac Chuyen--it was "the most efficient solution," as one CIA agent admitted to an Army detective. Yet when the Army initiated the prosecution, of course, the CIA denied any responsibility for the killing. The Army command, eager to rein in the rambunctious Green Berets, went along with the lie.
The Green Beret case thus stands as a cautionary tale for those who would seek to get rid of Saddam Hussein by the "simple solution" of assassination. Most likely, a military unit would be picked to carry out the hit for the CIA. And when the inevitable flap comes, the military guys will be hung out to dry.
The overwhelmingly positive reaction to A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War, has been gratifying, especially since it was a labor of love for my country, as well as younger generations that may be called on to carry out spurious operations in some far-off country for ill-defined goals. Young Americans especially deserve to know what our diddling around in the murky politics of, say, Iraq, is all about. (Certainly, by now, the hapless Kurds do.)
For me, the circle has already been closed. A year ago, halfway through my research, I learned that it was the Army's inept handling of the Green Beret case that prompted Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers. What a great surprise! It was a perfectly ironic ending not only to the book, but to my long, personal odyssey in this affair: Except for Ellsberg's stunning act, I probably would not have become a journalist. And I would not, of course, twenty years later, have written this book.
Even more stunning, if not for the Pentagon Papers, Nixon might not have loosed "the plumbers" on Ellsberg and later, the Democrats at Watergate. The debacle that followed, of course, ruined the president, but it also opened the CIA's sewers for all the world to see.
All because of the Green Beret case.
There is an easy lesson in this for George Bush, the CIA, and of course, a future hit squad of Green Berets. Just remember. What goes around, comes around.