Vietnam War Articles
Operation Junction City
Battle of Ia Drang
The Green Beret Affair
Green Beret Affair: Introduction
America's Paradoxical Trinity

Bob Seals Articles
Special Forces Insignia
Fighting Blind
MacArthur and Baseball
U.S. Army Model 1913 Cavalry Saber
Into the Special Forces: Rudi Horvath
Ed Ramsey, 26th Cav Regt
Lodge Act Soldier: Henryk Szarek
Green Beret Affair: Introduction
Bob Seals Book Reviews
Who Will Go
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.[1] 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…"[2] 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.[3] 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."[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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 later.

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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."[10] The numbers were impressive; however, one analyst would claim "They assassinated a lot of the wrong damn people."[11] 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.[12] 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 period.[13]

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.[14]

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."[15]

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.[16]

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.[17]

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.[18] 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 double agent.

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.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21]

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.[22] 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 whereabouts.

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."[23] 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."[24] 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."[25] 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 in court.

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?"[26] 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.[27]

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.[28]

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."[29]

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.[30] 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?[31] 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 change.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography
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© 2023 Bob Seals

Published online: 11/24/2007.

Written by Bob Seals.

About the author:
Bob Seals is a Command Historian at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. A retired Special Forces officer, he proudly wore the crossed arrow insignia while on active duty. He is married to a retired Army Veterinary Corps officer and their son is a U.S. Military Academy graduate currently serving with the 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, in Texas.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of
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