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 U.S. 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.
World War II
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 U.S. 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.
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.
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Free-fire zones were discussed during 1971 ad hoc (i.e. not endorsed by Congress) hearings sponsored by Congressman Ron Dellums (California), organized by Citizens' Commission of Inquiry on US War Crimes (CCI).
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 had 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.
- Yeager, Chuck; Janos, Leo (1986-08-01). Yeager: An Autobiography. Bantam. ISBN 978-0-553-25674-1.
- That's Vietnam, Jake, by Michael Uhl, The Nation, November 29, 2001
- 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