A free-fire zone in U.S. military parlance is a fire control measure, used for coordination between adjacent combat units. The definition used in the Vietnam war by US troops may be found in field manual FM 6-20:
- A specific designated area into which any weapon system may fire without additional coordination with the establishing headquarters.
Free-fire zones in the Vietnam War
Returning veterans, affected civilians and others have said that U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam MACV, based on the assumption that all friendly forces had been cleared from the area, established a policy designating "free-fire zones" as areas in which:
- Anyone unidentified is considered an enemy combatant
- Soldiers were to shoot anyone moving around after curfew, without first making sure that they were hostile.
The following quotes are from 1971 ad-hoc (i.e. not endorsed by Congress) hearings sponsored by Congressman Ron Dellums (California). The hearings were "organized by Citizens' Commission of Inquiry on US War Crimes (CCI)".
GREG HAYWARD, Capt. U.S. Army West Point, Class of 1964:
I would like to tell a few personal experiences and relate them to a policy perspective and then talk a few minutes about some of the questions that have already been asked. We had an area that General Williamson considered a thorn in our side. It was called the Citadel area. It was the home of about 200 to 300 Vietnamese. We had a fire support base called Persian where your 2nd Bn, 12th Infantry, was, and General Williamson decided we were to systematically remove these people from their homes, so we could expand the free-fire zone around the FSB Persian.
We did this by having ambush patrols at night in the road networks leading in and out of the village. One of our units was given the mission to remove the villagers, the civilians from this area. They went through with armored vehicles and started burning these homes and burnings the villages in the Citadel area. The CG's guidance was not, of course, to go through and burn. There was so much pressure on the commander of this battalion to perform and to accomplish his mission that I am sure in his mind that anything went.
Another officer, Captain Robert B. Johnson, U.S. Army, West Point, Class of 1965, related experiences corroborating the testimony of numerous returning veterans to the effect that free-fire zones, if not official policy, were widely understood as being unofficial policy conveyed by osmosis:
[Representative] SIEBERLING: You talked about the purpose of the free-fire zones. You have mentioned the fact that the free-fire zones and the harassment and interdiction fire at villagers were obviously designed to force the villagers to leave and go to resettlement areas. Did you ever hear anyone in a position of rank indicate expressly that was one of the purposes?
JOHNSON: No, I did not, because a few months after I left, there was a big report in Stars and Stripes, one area very close to us, having got 12,000 people, there was a whole operation planned where all of them at once were forcibly moved to detention camps, not by the bombings but by U.S. Marines and the ARVN troops forcibly removing them to these detention camps. That happened in June, 1968.
SEIBERLING: Did you ever hear of the expression "turkey shoots"?
JOHNSON: I have heard the free-fire zone referred to by the pilots and other people as "Indian Country."
SEIBERLING: But you are not familiar with the expression "turkey shoots"?
JOHNSON: I am familiar with it, but where I was operating I didn't hear anyone personally use that term. We used the term "Indian Country."
SEIBERLING: What did "Indian Country" refer to?
JOHNSON: I guess it means different things to different people. It is like there are savages out there, there are gooks out there. In the same way we slaughtered the Indian's buffalo, we would slaughter the water buffalo in Vietnam.
SEIBERLING: Was there any indoctrination, official or semi-officially, that incorporated the ideas that these people are gooks or that the only good gook is a dead gook or similar philosophies, or was this just something once you got there you picked it up from the other people who bad been there?
JOHNSON: I just picked it up from other people. Before I went to Vietnam, I remember one adviser who had been there before and had been through some tough straits telling me you can't trust any of these. That was not official policy. I don't think you could find it anywhere that you can't trust the gooks in writing.
SEIBERLING: Do you have any evidence that this was so widespread that it must have been known to people at all levels of command?
JOHNSON: I don't have any specific evidence except my 6 months in the infantry division, an American unit, and the disdain and disgust of the Vietnamese was extremely widespread there.
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson flew helicopters low and slow through Vietnam. He claims to have had vocal disagreements with some of his superiors and members of his own gunner crew over free-fire zones, including an incident in which one of his crew shot a wagon that wound up having a little girl inside of it. He describes one incident in which he prevented a war crime by purposely placing his helicopter between a position that was full of civilians, and another helicopter that wanted to launch an attack on the position.
World War II, Yeager
General Chuck Yeager in his autobiography describes his (and his associates) disapproval of shoot-anything-that-moves low level strafing missions during World War II (although they were not necessarily called 'free fire zone' missions). He described his feeling that, had the US lost the war, it might have been considered a criminal activity. In the game Chuck Yeager's Air Combat the player flies one of these missions, destroying any ground target within a certain area.
Soviets in Afghanistan
"We were told that we had free hunting, that we should go and shoot any people not using official roads. But it wasn't right. What if a man in the desert is just moving to the nearest village? When we first came, some people felt OK about us. But in a year or so, that changed" - translation of description by Col Vladimir Kotsuchenka, squadron commander
Other uses of the term
There is an assertion of an anonymous U.S. government worker using the term to describe a situation where civilian Defense Department leadership "pushes the envelope", that "It’s a finesse to give power to Rumsfeld—giving him the right to act swiftly, decisively, and lethally," as quoted in a book by Seymour Hersh. "It’s a global free-fire zone."
- That's Vietnam, Jake, by Michael Uhl, The Nation, November 29, 2001
- Testimony of Greg Hayward (Capt. U.S. Army West Point, Class of 1964)
- Deborah Nelson, “THE WAR BEHIND ME: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes”, Basic Books, ISBN 978-0-465-00527-7, October 28, 2008
- Yeager, by Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, Bantam (August 1, 1986)
- Wings of the Red Star: Mi-24 Hind, Discovery WINGS documentary, 1998
- Hersh, Seymour M. (January 24, 2005), "The Coming Wars", The New Yorker
- Lewis M. Simmons, "Free Fire Zones", in Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, Roy Gutman, Ed, W. W. Norton & Company, July 1999, ISBN 978-0-393-31914-9