Post-Paris Peace Accords (1973–1974)
Operation Speedy Express was a controversial United States military operation of the Vietnam War conducted in the Mekong Delta provinces Kiến Hòa and Vĩnh Bình. The operation, led by Julian J. Ewell, was part of a US military "pacification" efforts against the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (Viet Cong). The US military sought to interdict lines of NLF communication and deny them the use of base areas by using brutal repression and counterinsurgency tactics. The broader context of the campaign was the effort to combat communism, under the Cold War-era Domino Theory.
The combined ground and air operation resulted in thousands of deaths. The U.S. military claimed that 10,889 of these deaths were NLF soldiers, but this claim was undermined both by on-the-ground reports and by the much smaller number of weapons seized than enemy soldiers reported killed. The US Army Inspector General estimated that there were 5,000 to 7,000 civilian casualties from the operation.
In 1969 the 1st Brigade, 9th U.S. Infantry Division operated in Định Tường Province, using night ambush tactics; the 2nd Brigade continued its mission with the Mobile Riverine Force. Although engagements in the Operation Speedy Express were typically small, the 9th Infantry Division fought several sizeable engagements. The objective was summarized by a U.S. Army publication to take the "war to the enemy in the Delta and sever his supply lines from Cambodia".
The U.S. military used 8,000 infantrymen, 50 artillery pieces, 50 helicopters and extensive aerial bombardment. The United States Air Force used fighter bombers to carry out 3,381 tactical air strikes.
The U.S. military claimed 10,899 enemy dead, with only 242 soldiers killed in this operation from the period of December 1968 to 31 May 1969 (a kill ratio of 45:1), but only 748 weapons were recovered (a ratio of enemy killed to weapons seized of 14.6:1). The U.S. Army after-action report attributed this to the fact the high percentage of kills made during night hours (estimated at 40%), and by air cavalry and other aerial units, as well as asserting that "many of the guerilla units were not armed with weapons". The commander of the 9th Division, Major General Julian Ewell, was allegedly known to be obsessed with body counts and favorable kill ratios and said "the hearts and minds approach can be overdone....in the delta the only way to overcome VC control and terror is with brute force applied against the VC".
Controversy over the operation arose in June 1972, when Newsweek's Saigon Bureau Chief, Kevin Buckley (working with Alexander Shimkin), wrote an article titled "Pacification's Deadly Price" that questioned the spectacular ratio of U.S. dead to purported Vietcong, as well the small number of weapons recovered, and suggested that perhaps more than 5,000 of the dead were innocent civilians (quoting an unnamed U.S. official). Although Buckley acknowledged that NLF structure and control in the region was extensive, he wrote that local hospitals had treated more wounds caused by U.S. firepower than by the NLF. Col. David Hackworth was a battalion commander during Speedy Express; according to him, "a lot of innocent Vietnamese civilians got slaughtered because of the Ewell-Hunt drive to have the highest count in the land." Hackworth added that "the 9th Division had the lowest weapons-captured-to-enemy-killed ratio in Vietnam." The book Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse devotes a chapter to Speedy Express. It reports that "free fire zones" were designated in the Mekong Delta where any human present could be killed. These zones helped the 9th Division achieve an unlikely enemy-to-GI kill ratio of 134:1 in April 1969.
More recently, former Senator (and eventual Secretary of Defense) Charles Hagel of Nebraska, a veteran of the Ninth Infantry, alleged that some U.S. commanders on the ground inflated the body count during the operation since this was how their success was judged.
While there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was indeed substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000).