6/30/98
 Dennis Rogers: " A war tale touches a nerve "
 
 
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      The most irritating thing about CNN and Time magazine's bogus nerve gas
story is how eager the national media were to believe the worst about American
soldiers in Southeast Asia.
      If you didn't know any better, it was a corker: American Special Forces
soldiers were said to have swooped into a Laotian village in September 1970
and killed everyone.
      If that were not bad enough, they were there to execute American
defectors. But then came the really ugly part: Deadly nerve gas was used on
the village -- not once but twice -- to soften it for the massacre and then to
help wounded Green Berets escape.
      The story was just the most recent in a long array of dark images to
haunt us from that time: innocents slaughtered by cruel Americans, young
soldiers hunted and slaughtered for their beliefs, shadowy soldiers on
murderous missions in a neutral country. And then nerve gas.
      The entire story, top to bottom, was a monstrous lie, according to
everyone who has investigated it since it was first broadcast. CNN and Time,
to save face, have said they are looking into their coverage and promise a
full report.
      "You'd think CNN and Time would have the resources to check out a story
like that," said Paul Campbell, a retired Special Forces soldier from Raleigh
who pulled five tours in Southeast Asia. "I don't know if anyone would believe
it but just think what it could do to foreign relations. Saddam would love
this."
      What apparently happened was that reporters, even after having been
warned, confused tear gas with sarin, the nerve agent made famous in the
terrorist bombing of a Tokyo subway in 1995.
      It is tempting, being one of their own, to excuse the writers by saying
they were misled by an unreliable source shoveling war stories. But they were
told, time after time, that the story was not true. Their willingness to
believe the worst about those who sacrificed so much for their country led
them to ignore the warnings and go with the story.
      Those who really know what happened on Operation Tailwind say the
village was an enemy stronghold, not a civilian village; there were no
defectors (the government can account for only two turncoats in the entire
war); and no nerve gas was used, period.
      There are any number of true hair-raising stories involving the
commandos of the Studies and Observation Group in Vietnam. The men who risked
their lives on those dangerous secret missions performed with valor and
dedication. Yes, they killed people -- a lot of them. They were this country's
best-trained warriors. Killing was their job and they were good at it.
      In another time they would be legends. Instead, hardened by a war they
were not allowed to win and slandered by a culture they neither understood nor
felt part of, the men of SOG have mostly slipped back into anonymity.
      Stories like this demean not only those who served during those
difficult times and have tried (without success, it seems) to erase the "baby
killer" image, but they also shame the profession that I love. When one
reporter gets something so wrong, that taints the credibility of all of us.
      CNN and Time not only owe Vietnam vets -- in SOG and out -- an apology
and explanation, they also owe one to those of us who must now slog through
the slime they have left in their wake.