|The "Green Beret
Affair": A Brief Introduction
by Bob Seals
By the year 1969 United States involvement in South Vietnam was in its fourth
year with no end in sight. Major U.S. ground combat forces, to include elite
paratroops and marines, had been first committed in country during the spring
of 1965. The fighting had increased in scale and intensity until by 1969 U.S.
military strength stood at 536,000 on the ground. The Navy's 7th Fleet in the
Tonkin Gulf, and Air Force strategic bombers flying from bases on Guam and
Thailand provided major sea and air support for US forces on the ground. The
South East Asia Treaty Organization nations of Australia, New Zealand, South
Korea, Thailand and the Philippines would provide yet another 62,000 allied
troops fighting against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communist forces.
The Vietnam War, and peace talks in Paris, continued to drag on in 1969 with
little end in sight.
The year of 1969 would also see one of the most interesting, controversial, and
little understood events of the Vietnam War, the "Green Beret Affair." This
affair, involving the identification and execution of a Communist Viet Cong
double or triple agent by U.S. Army Special Forces working with the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA), is an illustrative example of the morally ambiguous
nature of modern day unconventional warfare. Such issues are still being faced
by our Special Operations Forces in the current Global War on Terror (GWOT). I
will attempt in this article to examine the "Green Beret Affair" from 1969 and
outline how similar issues are faced daily by our forces around the globe.
In many respects the war in Southeast Asia was tailor made for the newest and
most controversial force in the U.S. Army, the Special Forces (SF). Special
Forces would be popularly know as the "Green Berets," much to the chagrin of
the troopers themselves, who were quick to point out to outsiders that they
were not a headgear but a highly trained and capable force of professionals.
The beret itself, jungle green in color, was not that important or functional
but was a highly emotional symbol, at least to the stiff necked conventional
Army, of the attitude of the man who wore it; unconventional, more concerned
with substance over form, and quite willing to defy conventions in order to
accomplish a mission. The troops themselves were fascinating, a unique
organization that attracted square pegs that often would not fit into the round
holes of the spit and polish Conventional Army. Ranks were full of colorful
nonconformists and extremely dedicated soldiers such as the Eastern European
Lodge Act enlistees who volunteered for service in the American army and SF in
the hopes of returning to their homeland with a victorious force. SF was
probably the closest organization to the French Foreign Legion that the
American Army had, and made many uncomfortable. Their willingness to defy
convention, and discipline at times, would prove troublesome to many in the
Army. Many generals could not hide their open disdain for Special Forces, with
one Army Chief of Staff in the 1960's describing SF troops as "refugees from
responsibility" and that they "tended to be nonconformists, couldn't quite get
along in a straight military system…" Note: this nonconformist trend has
continued to the present day, the author is proud to report.
Organized into small 12 man teams with specialists in weapons, engineering,
demolitions, medicine, communications, operations and intelligence, the Special
Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, SFODA, or A Team, was, and is, a compact,
highly trained small unit capable of building, healing and destroying. The
Special Forces Operational Detachment Bravo, SFODB, or B Team, provided command
and control for 6 A Teams and operated as the Company Headquarters. B
Detachments in Vietnam would additionally run special projects or missions,
often involving intelligence collection and reporting. SF soldiers were capable
of operating independently behind enemy lines with little outside support and
could train, organize and lead resistance forces against occupying powers.
Unconventional warfare (UW), as a mission, would be the "bread and butter" for
SF. Defined as a broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations,
unconventional warfare are normally of long duration, predominately conducted
through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces that are organized,
trained, equipped, supported and directed by an external source. UW includes
guerrilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities and
unconventional assisted recovery. The troops adopted the Trojan horse from
classical history as their distinctive unit insignia and the Latin phrase De
Oppresso Liber, "To Liberate from Oppression," as their SF motto.
President John F. Kennedy would visit the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg
for an orientation on Special Forces by then Brigadier General William P.
Yarborough, wearing an unauthorized headgear, the Green Beret. Much to the
chagrin of the Army and Department of Defense, JFK would come away so impressed
with Special Forces that he would shortly authorize the wear of the
controversial beret and call it "a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a
mark of distinction in the fight for freedom."
Army Special Forces would forever be linked to JFK; members of SF served in the
honor guard at his funeral in November of 1963, with one of the soldiers
spontaneously placing his beret on the grave at the end of the ceremony as a
mark of respect. President Kennedy's legacy would be further remembered when
the Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, NC would be named the U.S.
Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. The Special Forces
in the Sixties would go through a period where they captured the public's
imagination, beginning with the best selling book The Green Berets by
Robin Moore in 1966. The paperback book became a best seller, followed by the
surprise hit song Ballad of the Green Berets, by Staff Sergeant Barry
Sadler, an SF soldier who had served in Vietnam and received the Purple Heart
for wounds, which would ultimately become the number 1 single record in the US
for 1966. GI Joes, bubble gum cards, comic books, and Mattel toys would all
celebrate Army Special Forces during the craze. Finally, the ultimate honor
would be accorded the force in 1968 when John Wayne would produce and star in
the action film The Green Berets, with David Janssen and Jim
Hutton. The strongly anti-communist, and pro-South Vietnam film, was a labor
of love by Mr. Wayne, a stanch supporter of the war, who was openly disgusted
by the anti-war protest movement in the United States at the time. All of this
would have a profound effect on many American youths coming of age, to include
the author, who can remember receiving a miniature Green Beret one year as a
Christmas present during that timeframe, a foretaste of things to come years
Army Special Forces was born in 1952, the brainchild of World War II Office of
Strategic Service (OSS), and Philippine Island Guerrilla veterans. These
veterans, such as Colonels Russ Volkman, Aaron Bank and Wendell Fertig, had
come out of the Second World War convinced of the effectiveness of
unconventional warfare in an era of "pushbutton" warfare and atomic weapons.
They had seen, first hand, the effectiveness of unconventional warfare against
heavy handed occupying powers such as Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. To use an
example from both major theatres of war, accepted figures are that ultimately
upwards to 200,000 were involved in the resistance in occupied France and some
250,000 fighting in the Philippines after Japanese occupation in 1942. It is
difficult to quantify exactly how effective the pro-Allied resistance movements
were in Europe and Asia but General Eisenhower is said to have said that the
forces of the resistance in Europe had done the work of some 15 divisions, and
had shortened the Second World War by two months. The Army was not
particularly keen upon the unconventional warfare concept in general but saw
the utility of using a group of misfits and foreigners in Europe against the
expected Soviet led blitzkrieg from the east. Thus, the 10th Special Forces
Group (Airborne) (10th SFGA) was formed in 1952 under the command of Colonel
Aaron Bank, an OSS/SOE veteran and shipped to West Germany. The expected
onslaught never occurred from the Soviets but SF trained hard throughout Europe
and soon proved its worth to the Big Army. Additional SF forces were formed, to
include the 77th SFGA at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and 1st SFGA in Japan.
New roles and missions, in addition to UW and the familiar one of training
potential guerrillas against expected communist invasions, emerged. One of
these new missions included assisting friendly governments in the Foreign
Internal Defense (FID) mode, mainly training allied armies to resist
insurgencies. The gauntlet had been flung by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev
in 1961 who would pledge support for "wars of national liberation" throughout
the world, a communist challenge to the free world that would not go
unanswered. SF would soon be one of the instruments of choice throughout the
1960's in resisting these "wars of national liberation."
After the departure of the French from the states of Indochina, Vietnam, Laos
and Cambodia, in the wake of the disastrous defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, a
power vacuum existed in Southeast Asia. All French troops and trainers left the
area leaving behind weak governments and armies attempting to combat unrest and
communist led insurgencies. A limited program of assistance was begun by
the US Government in support of these pro-western governments to include
economic and military assistance. Enter institutions such as the CIA and SF. In
1956 Army Special Forces Detachments would be stood up in Japan and soon began
training allied armies in Taiwan, Thailand and South Vietnam. In South Vietnam,
SF teams, working with the CIA, was soon training indigenous cadres in
unconventional warfare and long range Ranger type operations. It is interesting
to note that the first SF soldier, CPT Harry Cramer, was killed in 1957 near
Nha Trang, a foreshadowing of sacrifices to come.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Special Forces were joined at the hip
in Vietnam, both working and relying upon each other for better or worse. Both
institutions were probably more similar than each wanted to admit as they
represented the beau ideal of a Kennedy inspired muscular response to the
Communist led challenge of the "Wars of National Liberation." Roles and
missions for the CIA and SF would overlap and conflict at times, causing
friction inherent in war. Both were involved in various counterinsurgency
programs to include collecting intelligence on the communist enemy and training
and advising our South Vietnamese allies. For SF the war in Vietnam would
include various highly classified programs to include cross border operations
into Laos and Cambodia; in addition to gathering intelligence and running agent
networks in support of operations.
Since the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961, the CIA, or Agency, as many then and
now refer to it, had moved away from such large scale military and paramilitary
type operations to concentrate upon more traditional activities to include
intelligence collection and analysis. The agency had been deeply involved in
Southeast Asia just as long as Special Forces. Many of there intelligence
oriented programs, with an appropriate code name, in South Vietnam would
involve both the CIA and SF. The Phoenix program was one of these intelligence
programs. The Phoenix program was born of the desperate need to identify and
eliminate Communist Viet Cong infrastructure hidden deep within the South
Vietnamese civilian population. The communist insurgency in the south was
organized along classic Maoist cellular lines, with covert units responsible
for everything from logistics and procurement to guerrillas and secret police.
Phoenix, using Vietnamese agents "run," or controlled by Americans, quickly
achieved results but became know as an infamous terror and assassination
program. In each of the 44 provinces of South Vietnam CIA run interrogation
centers were established to process suspects. And process they did as the
numbers rolled in, 17,000 asking for amnesty, 28,000 captured, and 20,000
killed in action. Saigon and Washington were heartened by such numbers but
others were not so sanguine. A State Department official who was an advisor to
the South Vietnamese stated that "It was a unilateral American program, never
recognized by the South Vietnamese government. CIA representatives recruited,
organized, supplied and directly paid counter terror teams, whose function was
to use Viet Cong techniques of terror—assassination, abuses, kidnappings and
intimidation—against the Viet Cong leadership." The numbers were
impressive; however, one analyst would claim "They assassinated a lot of the
wrong damn people." Excesses were definitely committed and old scores
settled as less than trustworthy informants pursued individual vendettas. All
true, but one must remember that the individuals involved in intelligence and
unconventional warfare often deal with unsavory characters. Eventually William
Colby, CIA official in charge of all activities in Asia, himself an old OSS
veteran of World War II, had to issue a reminder to all that torture and
assassination were not part and parcel of the Phoenix program. Additionally he
informed all involved with the program that if individuals found the Phoenix
program so distasteful on moral grounds, due to the excesses committed by our
allies, they could be immediately reassigned with no harm to their subsequent
careers. Soldiers to include Special Forces would not be given such an
opportunity for reassignment. They would continue, then as now, to be bound by
the laws of war and military justice system, no matter how imperfect.
To the uninformed the concept of rules and regulations limiting warfare may
seem strange; after all, is it not true that "all's fair in love and war," to
use a somewhat hackney phrase. The laws of war, again, which all military
personnel are bound by, tolerate no such grey areas as the Phoenix program or
targeted assassinations, at least in theory. Attempts to modify or regulate
behavior in warfare are as old as war itself, with numerous examples going back
almost to the dawn of time. Alexander the Great, in 335 B.C., is said to have
informed his troops before assaulting a besieged town that "Do not destroy
today what will be yours tomorrow," a clear attempt to moderate the looting of
a city after it had fallen, acceptable behavior in warfare during the classical
Plato, in the Republic, writing on war, attempted to establish the principle of
burial for the dead and prohibition on despoiling the dead, after the heated
fury of battle had passed. Later, in the Middle Ages, additional rules limiting
warfare became established practice, at least in Europe, due to the efforts of
the Roman Catholic Church. Restrictions on targets began to be codified, to
include prohibiting the attacking of churches, religious buildings and priests
or nuns by armies. In modern language, these were protected places or forbidden
targets. Additionally the concept of non-combatants began to be understood with
the sick, old, women and children no longer considered worthy opponents. Other
influences toward moderating wartime behavior would include the formation of
the International Committee of the Red Cross in Switzerland in 1863 by Henri
Dunant, and international agreements in the 20th century designed to control
the impact of war both on participants and bystanders. The Hague Convention
Number 4 of 1907 and the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 would establish beyond
a doubt the law of war.
Purposes of the law of war would be many but would mainly exist for three
purposes; one, to protect both combatants and noncombatants from unnecessary
suffering; two, to safeguard fundamental human rights of persons who fall into
the hands of the enemy, particularly prisoners of war, the wounded and sick,
and civilians not involved in the hostilities, and finally, to facilitate the
restoration of peace. However, the communist nations of our globe would claim
not to be bound by any such laws of war, and would infamously mistreat any
prisoners who fell into their hands as "war criminals."
American soldiers, to include the Special Forces, would continue to be bound by
such laws of war, even in the unconventional war going on in Vietnam. All U.S.
Army Special Forces, in 1969, operated under the control of 5th Special Forces
Group, headquartered at Nha Trang, on the southeast coast of South Vietnam.
Colonel Robert B. "Bob" Rheault took command of 5th SFGA in Vietnam in May of
1969. Colonel Rheault was a 1946 graduate of the US Military Academy, who had
missed the Second World War but would go on to win the Silver Star, our
nation's third highest combat decoration fighting in Korea. Rheault was a
unique officer in a unique force; additionally he was independently wealthy,
coming from an old Boston family. He spoke French without a flaw, would be
educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, West Point, and finally the University of
Paris for a masters degree in international relations. No stranger to Special
Forces, his initial tour was with the 10th SFGA in Germany during the late
1950's. Colonel Rheault would attend the SF Qualification course, the "Q"
course, in 1961, and would command the 1st SFGA on Okinawa before being
assigned to Vietnam to take command of the 5th SFGA. It would probably be no
exaggeration to say Rheult was one of the most respected and beloved officers
ever in SF, a "must promote" to General Officer rank if his command, and
career, had not been ended prematurely by the Green Beret affair.
In 1969, Special Forces Detachments or A Teams were placed throughout the
country in 80 or so isolated camps. The A Teams were the "point of the spear"
working, living, advising, fighting and dieing with the locals. SF was uniquely
positioned to gather and report intelligence. The Military Assistance Advisory
Command Intelligence Officer, or J-2, at one point during the war estimated
that some 50% or so of all intelligence gathered daily was from SF and its
sources. Some camps had such a level of knowledge that they were able to
successfully identify Viet Cong, by name, operating in their area, and then
quietly go about eliminating same. In order to accomplish its intelligence
gathering mission in Vietnam, a number of intelligence oriented special
missions would be established and given code names, similar to the Phoenix
program. One of these intelligence programs established by 5th SFGA in country
was Project GAMMA, a unilateral, covert intelligence collection operation
targeted against North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong base camps in Cambodia, to
include the weak Cambodian government's aiding and abetting of the communists.
In February of 1968 SF Detachment B-57 was transferred from Saigon to Nha Trang
and officially designated as Project GAMMA headquarters, with responsibility
for managing the entire program. The program itself had potential very serious
international repercussions due to the then secret B-52 strategic bombing
missions being flown at the time against those communist base camps across the
border in Cambodia. If the classified program was discovered, political
repercussions in the U.S. and elsewhere would be most serious, given the
poisonous political atmosphere of the day.
Personnel working on Project GAMMA were given cover as civil affairs, CA, and
psychological operations, PSYOPS, officers augmenting A Teams near the
Cambodian border. Five collection teams were authorized and soon had some 13
nets established with 98 codename agents providing intelligence of some manner.
In October of 1968 the top intelligence officer in Vietnam on General Abrams
staff estimated that Project GAMMA was providing 65 per cent of the information
known on North Vietnamese Army (NVA) strength and locations in Cambodia, and
some 75 per cent of the same information known on NVA within South Vietnam. The
Special Forces in Vietnam, and Detachment B-57 led by Major David Crew, had
developed into arguably the most productive intelligence collection project the
U.S. had throughout Southeast Asia. It has been said that the reason that
Project GAMMA was so successful was due to the fact that the South Vietnamese
had been not "read on" to the program. As a successful 1968 turned into 1969
for Project GAMMA, it was noticed by Detachment B-57 that many extremely
valuable intelligence nets and agents had began to disappear, and many feared
the worse, that the highly classified operation had been compromised by a
The S-3 or Operations Officer, Captain Budge Williams, for the project felt
that Project GAMMA was in danger of going under from an unseen and unknown
communist spy. Other intelligence and counter-intelligence officers, to include
Captain Leland Brumley, Major Thomas Middleton, and Chief Warrant Officer
Edward Boyle became convinced also there was a security leak somewhere in the
organization. All began investigations but made little headway until the spring
of 1969, but did discover the unpleasant truth that some of the South
Vietnamese SF working for US forces were involved in selling weapons and
medical supplies to the communists. Then, ironically enough, an SF
reconnaissance team, in a classified area across the border where US troops
officially did not operate, discovered documents and a roll of film in a
communist base camp. When the film was developed one of the Viet Cong pictures
on the roll was believed to be that of Project GAMMA Vietnamese agent Thai Khac
Chuyen. The leak has been discovered, or had it?
After conferring with the Agency, the SF soldiers involved in the investigate
were told that the best way of handling the problem would be to get rid of the
double agent, but the CIA could not authorize the execution, somewhat
disingenuously. The agent handler for Thai Khac Chuyen, Sergeant Alvin Smith,
identified him from the captured photo. It is interesting to note that Sergeant
Smith was not a Special Forces soldier but rather an intelligence specialist
who had been assigned to Project GAMMA and Special Forces. Sergeant Smith's
supervisor, Captain Robert Marasco, ordered that the agent in question be
brought in for questioning to include a polygraph test; which ominously the
agent had not been given when recruited for Project GAMMA. If standard
operating procedure had followed, the test would have already been conducted
during his recruitment. Other doubts existed about the Vietnamese agent to
include the fact that he was originally from North Vietnam, still had family
north of the border, his English language skills were uncommonly good, and he
had gone from job to job working for US forces fighting in South Vietnam, with
trouble always following his departure.
Eventually Mr. Chuyen would undergo some ten days of rigorous interrogation and
solitary confinement to include the use of polygraph tests and sodium
pentathol, commonly known as "truth serum." The bad news, at least for the
agent, was the fact that the polygraph tests would indicate that Mr. Chuyen was
not telling the truth when he denied having compromised any Project GAMMA
security details and working for the Viet Cong. Additionally the possibility
existed that Chuyen was also working for the South Vietnamese intelligence
service on the side, a triple agent. For the SF officers of B-57 and Project
GAMMA, the leak that everyone had been looking for had been found. It would be
distasteful but they knew what must be done; if Chuyen was turned over to the
South Vietnamese Army or National Police, there was the chance he might go free
due to the actions of another communist plant, and cause further damage and
loss of American lives.
Thus, in June of 1969 three of the B-57 officers would drug Thai Khac Chuyen,
put him on a boat and take him out into Nha Trang Bay, not far from
the 5th SFGA headquarters. He was shot twice in the head, weighed down with
chains and dumped into the dark shark-infested waters of the South China Sea.
Without a doubt a killing but one could make the argument the time tested
standard procedure for identifying and eliminating a known double agent during
wartime. An appropriate cover story was developed to explain the now obvious
absence of the agent, if questions were asked he was believed to have
disappeared after being sent on a mission behind enemy lines to test his
loyalty to the cause. The Group Commander, Colonel Rheault, knew of the
execution and approved the execution and cover story as above.
It was then that control of the affair began to be lost, never to be regained.
Sergeant Smith, Mr. Chuyen's handler, began to be concerned for his security
and safety, and sought sanctuary with the CIA office in Nha Trang. It would not
take long for that to get out, even in a war zone, and soon all eight officers
and noncommissioned officers involved in the execution, to include Colonel
Rheault, were arrested on charges of premeditated murder, an offense punishable
under the UCMJ, and confined in the infamous in country military facility known
as the Long Binh Jail, or "LBJ" for obvious reasons. To make matters worse,
if that was possible at the time, was the fact that Colonel Rheault had given a
four star general, General Abrams, the cover story when asked about the agent's
Unfortunately, at least for 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam, the commander
of all U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam that crucial year of 1969 was General
Creighton W. Abrams. General Abrams, for better or worse, was perhaps one of
the most forceful and dynamic leaders in the post-World War II Army. A graduate
of the United States Military Academy, USMA, at West Point in 1936, Abrams has
served in the old horse cavalry before the war, transitioning to tanks and
armored forces during the war. Fighting in Europe, he soon proved himself to be
one of the most capable young officers in the Army, serving in both the 1st and
4th Armored Divisions. Abrams became one of General George S. Patton, Junior's
favorite officers. Patton reportedly said to a reporter during the war that
"I'm supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have a peer—Abe
Abrams." High praise indeed. During the Battle of the Bulge, Abrams
successfully led the tank and infantry task force that relieved the besieged
101st Airborne Division at Bastogne in Belgium. General Abrams came out of the
war one of the most decorated officers, and was clearly a rising star in the
Army's stable of combat hardened commanders. General Abrams would die in 1974
while serving as the Army Chief of Staff. The Army's high regard for him would
be shown in the following decade by naming the newest and most modern tank, the
M-1 tank, the Abrams.
But along with all that capability, General Abrams was a man with strong
opinions. His top intelligence officer in Vietnam, a classmate from USMA, has
written that "This commonsensical, well-read, sophisticated man harbored some
of the longest lasting, strangest, and most unusual prejudices. For one, he
hated halfbacks, football halfbacks…Abrams held another unusual, and more
serious, bias: he disliked paratroopers." General Abrams had played sixth
string football at the academy, fighting in the trenches of the line. This
experience seems to have developed in him quite the distaste for "glamorous"
half-backs, which at some point was transferred to airborne forces, to include
Special Forces. In a profile piece on General Abrams in the New York Times from
1969, the writer claimed that the post-World War II Army was run by the
"Airborne Club," which included the Special Forces, and that Abrams "as a
square-shooting, traditional soldier, he was shocked when some of the ‘dirty
tricks' customary in Green Beret activity became known to him forcefully," and
believed that "battles should be fought with feet planted firmly on the ground
and that making a fetish out of jumping out of airplanes is puerile." It is
probably not surprising that General Abrams never volunteered for or served a
tour of duty with any airborne unit. I believe this is most unfortunate given
the fact that he would have perhaps developed a better understanding of
Airborne or Special Forces purposes and functions. Thus, when the Green Beret
Affair would surface the Special Forces would most definitely not have a friend
The article 32 investigation held by the U.S. Army in Vietnam, before General
Courts Martial against all eight, quickly became engulfed in a firestorm of
publicity. Most of the American public, and the Special Forces, believed that
Colonel Rheault and all involved had been made scapegoats for a matter that
reflected poorly upon the Army. One former member of Special Forces in Vietnam
commented to the author that "We were thunderstruck, and thought what did he
[Colonel Rheault] do wrong?" National newspapers and television picked up
the story, most likely due to the involvement of the Special Forces, and the
affair became another lighting rod for pro and anti-war feeling. The hearing in
Vietnam became somewhat of a circus after one of the Army defense lawyers for
the 8 soldiers, Judge Advocate General Captain John Stevens Berry, called
General Abrams and CIA officials to the witness stand. Both declined to get
involved in the proceedings and testify. Finally in September of 1969 the
Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor announced to all that all charges would be
dropped against the 8 soldiers charged since the CIA, in the interests of
national security, had refused to make its personnel available as witnesses,
therefore making any manner of a fair trial possible. Colonel Rheault requested
immediate retirement from the Army and all others charged in the affair had
their careers effectively ended, also leaving the service afterwards.
The affair continued to have unfortunate repercussions for Special Forces and
the Army. General Abrams, after having Colonel Rheault arrested on murder
charges, had one of his headquarters staff officers, Colonel Alexander
Lemberes, assigned to take over command of the 5th Special Forces Group in
Vietnam. The obvious problem with the assignment was that this officer was
neither a qualified parachutist nor Special Forces officer; a bit like having a
United Methodist preacher assigned to a Roman Catholic Church, rather
nonsensical at best. When Colonel Lemberes attempted to wear an unearned Green
Beret in his new command, the 5th SFGA Command Sergeant Major told him in no
uncertain terms to take the beret off. Eventually the Army Chief of Staff,
General Westmoreland, no stranger to the airborne, would step in and assign a
qualified officer to command Special Forces in Vietnam. By the end of 1969 the
Green Beret affair would be over, but questions raised and issues involved
would come back again years later.
The 1969 Green Beret Affair brought up issues that continue to resonate in our
Global War on Terror with SF continuing to operate in that shadowy world of
unconventional warfare. Occasionally these issues surface and come to the
attention of the press and American public as per the 3rd SFGA Special Forces
Detachment that faced recent charges of premeditated murder for shooting an
"enemy combatant." Last year on 13 October 2006 at the small village of Ster
Kalay near the Pakistan border, members of Special Forces Operational
Detachment Alpha 372 of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, positively
identified and killed Nawab Buntangyar, an Afghan national on the approved
Operation Enduring Freedom target list. Spotted outside a residential compound,
dressed in civilian clothes, not wearing a uniform, or carrying a weapon,
Buntangyar was shot in the head while speaking the local police from 100 yards
away by a concealed SF sniper. The enemy target had been involved in suicide
and roadside bombing attacks; thus, the "take down" of the target, an enemy
combatant, was considered "a textbook example of a classified mission completed
in accordance with the American rules of engagement."
But for reasons that still remain vague, murder charges were preferred against
the SF Detachment Commander, a Captain, and the Operations Sergeant, a Master
Sergeant. Once again, just as in 1969, an Article 32 hearing was held, as per
the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), before a General Court-Martial.
Both soldiers were charged with violating Article 118 of the UCMJ, premeditated
murder. Once again, SF soldiers became the objects of national press attention
to include two ends of the ideological spectrum, the New York Times and Fox
Network and Bill O'Rilley. However, after the hearing the two star general in
charge of all SF at Fort Bragg dismissed the charges, an outcome just as in
1969. An isolated incident perhaps but an illustrative example of the rules
of engagement that our soldiers operate under on a daily basis, where a split
second decision made on the battlefield to shoot or not shoot, can be reviewed
later in the cool comfort of the court room. This is a level of oversight that
will continue, even in the shadowy world of SF and unconventional warfare. Army
Special Forces will continue to work with the CIA, FBI, and other agencies;
commonly referred to in today's lexicon as Other Government Agencies, or OGAs.
One could say some of the OGAs at times may not be bound by laws and rules but
our Armed Forces are, make no doubt. Rules of engagement, carefully drawn up by
military lawyers, will continue to govern what our troops can or cannot do,
with legal review from higher always a possibility.
In the end what would the "Green Beret Affair" signify? Was it, as one author
has suggested, a sort of a "Caine Mutiny of the Vietnam War," raising complex
issues of morality, murder and professional jealousy? Was the execution of
an identified double, or perhaps triple, agent murder, or simply standard
operating procedure old as warfare itself? Did General Abrams and the Army leap
upon the case in order to make a point and discredit and discipline an unruly
child, Special Forces?
The affair was ultimately a tragedy. Committed and capable officers found
themselves on two sides of a chasm in warfare; on one side World War II era
officers to whom events were black and white, right and wrong. The other side
was a younger generation, less respectful of rules and regulations, perhaps,
but completely committed to winning. Both main players in the affair, Colonel
Rheault and General Abrams, were graduates of the Military Academy at West
Point, separated in time by 10 years. That is were the similarities end. The
affair became a clash of philosophies, world views and personalities.
Ultimately we will never know whether or not the executed agent, Thai Khac
Chuyen, was truly working for the Communist Viet Cong, the American Special
Forces, the South Vietnamese government, or a combination of all three.
Evidence suggests that he was guilty of at least attempting to conceal the
truth, a dangerous game, and one that led to his execution in the summer of
1969. He became just another causality in unconventional warfare. As we have
seen above, the 1969 Vietnam "Green Beret Affair," is not unique as our forces
continue to face similar moral and legal issues daily in the current Global War
on Terror. However, as seen above, all Americans can take comfort in the fact
that even our "best and brightest" remain subject to the law of war and
military justice. That is one certainty in an uncertain war that will not
Show Footnotes and
. R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History:
from 3500 B.C. to the present. (New York: Harper & Row,
Publishers, 1986) 1209-1212.
. Stanley Sandler, To Free From Oppression: A Concise History of U.S. Army
Special Forces, Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, and the John F.
Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. (Fort Bragg, NC: US Army
Special Operations Command, 1994) 56-65.
. Charles S. Simpson III, Inside the Green Berets: The Story of the U.S.
Army Special Forces. (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1983) 28-40.
. Simpson, 34.
. Sandler, 70.
. Hans Halberstadt, The Green Berets: Unconventional Warriors. (Novato,
CA: Presido Press, 1988) 12-13.
. Russell Miller, The Resistance, World War II, Time Life Books.
(Alexandria: Time Life Books, 1979) 186, and Rafael Steinberg, Return To The
Philippines, World War II, Time Life Books. (Alexandria: Time Life Books, 1980)
. Miller, 186-187.
. R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History:
from 3500 B.C. to the present. (New York: Harper & Row,
Publishers, 1986) 1201.
. John Ranelagh, The Agency: The Rise & Decline of the CIA. (Great
Britain: Cambridge Publishing Limited, 1987) 440.
. Ranelagh, 439.
. Ibid, 440.
. Military Law, Student Text 27-1, (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and
General Staff College, 1989) 4-3.
. Military Law, 4-4.
. Ibid, 4-2.
. Jeff Stein, Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the
Course of the Vietnam War. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992) 60-62.
. Shelby L. Stanton, Green Berets at War: U.S. Army Special Forces in
Southeast Asia 1956-1975. (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1985) 211.
. Stanton, 211-212.
. Stein, 53-57.
. Ibid, 66-74.
. Stanton, 212-213.
. Ibid, 213.
. Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam At War: The History 1946-1975. (Novato,
CA: Presidio Press, 1988) 517-518.
. Davidson, 525.
. Kevin P. Buckley, "General Abrams Deserves A Better War," (New York
Times, October 5, 1969).
. Peter Alliman, former U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) SF
Sergeant, interview by author, November 13, 2007.
. John Stevens Berry, Those Gallant Men: On Trial in Vietnam. (Novato,
CA: Presidio Press, 1984) 151-163.
. Stanton, 214.
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Afghan Village," (New York Times, September 18, 2007).
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Copyright © 2007 Bob Seals.
Written by Bob Seals. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bob Seals at:
About the author:
Bob Seals is a retired Special Forces officer employed by General Dynamics Information Technology in the Mission Command Exercise Division of the U.S. Army Special Operations Mission Command Training Center on Fort Bragg, the center of the special operations universe. He lives in North Carolina on a small horse farm with his wife, a retired Army Veterinary Corps officer, and son, who both ride polocrosse and hunt. His duties on the farm include Stable Sergeant, groom and horse holder. He is a graduate of the Norwich U Masters of Military History program.
Published online: 11/24/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.