Matt's Reviews > Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War

Tiger Force by Michael Sallah
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's review
Jan 10, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: vietnam-war
Read in January, 2010

There is a quote, attributed to Ernest Hemingway, that war, no matter how necessary or justified, is always a crime. While the sentiment (war is terrible) is understandable, the statement is not strictly true. In the law, murder is an unjustified killing. In war, the killing of combatants is sanctioned by governments; accordingly, it is not murder.

Of course, that doesn't mean it's a free-for-all. To the contrary, there have always been rules of warfare (ignore those legal isolationists who argue that the Nuremberg Tribunals were sui generis). From the Book of Deuteronomy ("thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them") to the Lieber Code promulgated during the American Civil War to the Hague Conventions to the Geneva Conventions, there has always been a line that soldiers cannot cross. That line, though, can get a little blurry. How much difference, for instance, is there between a soldier shooting a woman and her baby (a crime) and a pilot dropping a bomb packed with Uranium-235 on a city full of women and babies (a triumph)? I guess that's a discussion for a different book.

Tiger Force is the story of a bunch of men who definitely crossed the line. Written by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss, it started as a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of reporting in the Toledo Blade. The Blade articles uncovered an investigation by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division into members of the so-called "Tiger Force" (1st Battalion (Airborne), 327th Infantry Regiment). During a period of several months in 1967, the Tiger Force murdered, tortured and mutilated (scalpings, ear necklaces, etc.) countless Vietnamese civilians. These were old men; women; children; infants (one man reportedly cut the head off a baby).

Winning hearts and minds, indeed.

I believe the incidents described occurred. Moreover, I would not tender any defense to the actions of these soldiers (there are certain philosophical schools to which I do not belong, among them: in order to make omlettes (war) you have to crack a few eggs (innocent civilians); and "America: right or wrong".

That being said, I was very disappointed with this book.

The problem begins an ends with its genesis as long-form newspaper reporting. Even when you get more than a column in a newspaper or magazine, a long-form writer still has serious space concerns. This necessitates certain elisions and requires the sacrifice of depth for scope. In the case of Tiger Force, the book-length expansion does not strengthen the weaknesses inherent in any newspaper article.

I knew the book was going to be problematic right from the start. For some reason, Tiger Force never takes the time to properly and accurately describe the titular band of brothers. What is Tiger Force? The authors say that it was platoon founded by Colonel David Hackworth (a war hero and author) especially to fight guerrillas. But how did Hackworth do this? By act of Congress, creating a new unit? By going through some chain of command? The authors state that there was special training and a rigorous application process, but later say that these were shelved and anyone could join. What was that special training? Even later in the book, the authors state that Tiger Force was actually an unofficial force, more akin to a gang I was in while attending fifth grade called The Best Best Friends.

Not to get all Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on you, but who are these guys? Not only did the authors fail to provide the actual status of Tiger Force (official or non-official), they also failed to delineate their duties. Were they special forces? Were they recon? (it seems they were, so it might have been helpful to explain what a recon platoon does).

From this trembly set-up, the book plunges into the vortex of madness described on the book flap. Except it doesn't. The story that is told is lifeless and meandering. A string of killings is described, but the brutality of these actions is nonexistent. I attribute this to a couple things. First, the authors, while probably exceptional journalists, are not exceptional writers. Their spare "prose" is just-the-facts and, frankly, plodding for a book this length. Also, there is a dirth of tactile details. In a newspaper article, its fine to report that a troop of soldiers went to this village and killed two people. In a book, however, a lot more is necessary. I need to know more than simply what happened; I need to know what it felt like to be there. This lack of detail made it hard to engage this book. However, I also have the nagging suspicion that it is a function of the reporting, and of the witnesses telling their stories. That is, there is a certain fuzziness in the retelling of these killings that smacks of men trying to forget, and of men trying to shift blame.

Another problem in Tiger Force is the lack of definable characters. Despite a modest effort, the men in this book all meld together. They're names, and nothing more. I kept having to flip back to the dramatis personae in front to remind myself who was good (Lieutenant Wood) and who was bad (Lieutenant Hawkins). The only instantly identifiable person in the book is Sam Ybarra, and this comes from the fact that he embodies the unfortunate archetype of the mentally tortured, alcoholic Indian point-man. (I can imagine Adam Beach playing this role, in the eventual movie).

The authors are reporters, not soldiers, and it shows. Obviously, their profession doesn't disqualify them from writing a military history. (In fact, the journalist Rick Atkinson has absolutely nailed the first two volumes of his "Liberation Trilogy" about the American Army in World War II).

The problem, though, is that these guys didn't do the lifting required to intelligently write about such matters. Not to belabor the point, but this isn't a newspaper story any more: It's a book. That's why the pages are stuck between two hard covers with a ludicrously high suggested retail price. The authors display an obvious discomfort in writing about the Army, which probably dovetails with my earlier criticism on their failure to define Tiger Force. For instance, they refer at one point to a "carbine .15 rifle." What's that? Is it a carbine or a rifle? (Or is it a typo, because this book was slapped together to capitalize on the Pulitzer Prize?). Later, they make reference to a .15 carbine. Again, what is this? I'm not a gun afficionado by any means, so I need a little help here. It appears to be a .15 caliber weapon, but what kind? A Colt Automatic Rifle? A paint gun? This might be a small point, but throughout the book there are gaps like this; points where the reader can only pause and scratch his or her head in vain supposition.

The book ends with a tired whimper. This isn't all the fault of the authors. At this point, the realities of the world step in to ensure there is no justice. The perpetrators go unpunished. They either die of natural causes or leave the Army. The Pentagon seals the records. The dead remain dead.

The story in Tiger Force is no great shocking revelation. The only thing that's shocking is that no one is ever, ever responsible. Trace the line from Sand Creek to the Phillipine Insurrection to No Gun Ri to My Lai to Haditha. It comprises a gallery of the dead who have no killers. Most of these places, these hamlets and villages left in smoke and ash, are forgotten by Americans. They are not, however, forgotten by the people who live in those places. And that's worth bearing in mind when we think about our spot in history.

So, in that sense, I praise the existence of Tiger Force. Unlike the Army's CID, it uncovers evidence; it lays out the argument; it renders judgment and assigns guilt.

It just didn't work as a book.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Hans S. I've read many of your reviews and they are always interesting and informative. I agree with many things you write here, I don't think the book is perfect in any way.

However I think often investigative journalism doesn't aim for to be 'perfect', it aims to uncover and to bring light on something that has been uncovered. I gave this book five stars because I felt the story is a big one that had to be told. I'm sure that if there is a second book on the subject (which there will be I hope) there will be more emphasis on stylistic and other matters. As it is I am quite happy with this book as a very valuable introduction into this very tragic and alarming history.

Jamie Dyal "A string of killings is described, but the brutality of these actions is nonexistent." Dead on, this was my biggest problem. We're told of atrocities that occurred, but little of the atrociousness is conveyed. If this felt like stylistic commentary on the anonymity of the soldiers and the people they killed, it might sit better with me. But it doesn't.

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