War Crimes and Other Misdemeanors 

Deborah Nelson's new book documents Vietnam atrocities the army did nothing to stop

An essay in last Sunday's New York Times marveled at the spate of new Holocaust movies arriving for the Christmas season. Movies fulfilling the pledge to "never forget" have become a genre, wrote film critic A.O. Scott—a feel-good genre emphasizing "hope and overcoming rather than despair and destruction."

Let me suggest this: Maybe high-minded Americans gravitate to Holocaust movies because they distract us. They let us think we're looking hard at evil when we're merely looking back at an enemy we defeated long ago.

Instead, we might look in the mirror. The War Behind Me is a new book by Deborah Nelson based on massive files that the Pentagon, in the wake of the My Lai scandal, began collecting on American war crimes in Vietnam. The reason for these archives was largely cynical. Seymour Hersh exposed My Lai in the New York Times in 1969. Jared Schopper, a now-retired colonel who'd been responsible for maintaining the Pentagon's archives, told Nelson that the army was responding to President Nixon's subsequent order to "get the army off the front page." Nelson writes, "The news media gave bigger play to atrocities if a cover-up was suspected. Schopper's job was to make sure that whenever an allegation surfaced, the army could say it was under investigation or had been investigated and repudiated."

Besides reading the files, Nelson and military historian Nicholas Turse tracked down veterans associated with them—perpetrators, enabling commanders, whistle-blowers, and investigators and custodians. A team of officers "operated in secret for five years," Nelson writes. "During that time, they amassed nine thousand pages of evidence implicating U.S. troops in a wide range of atrocities." But all that evidence "led to no major actions or public accounting."

Only one soldier was convicted for his role in the My Lai slaughter, in which as many as 500 Vietnamese villagers were killed by U.S. troops. That was lieutenant William Calley, convicted in 1970 of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison. President Nixon immediately intervened, and in the end Calley was behind bars for only four and a half months.

"How could anyone else be punished after that?" Nelson writes, paraphrasing a retired army lawyer. "The move effectively disarmed the military justice system. Commanders balked at pressing charges, lawyers didn't want to prosecute, juries were unwilling to convict."

Though the contents of the war crimes files remained classified until the early 1990s, it can't be said that Nelson's book finally reveals the war's hidden side. It had always been hiding in plain sight. In 1967, Nelson recalls, a "tribunal" convened in Stockholm by Bertrand Russell heard testimony from former GIs on American atrocities. "The forum," writes Nelson, "attracted little coverage in the United States." Four years later, more than a hundred veterans took part in a similar forum in Detroit that called itself the Winter Soldier Investigation. "The event received little coverage," writes Nelson, "but their stories became the basis for John Kerry's Senate testimony that atrocities were 'day-to-day' occurrences in Vietnam." When Kerry ran for president in 2004, that 1971 testimony would be revived by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who'd call it a "betrayal of trust."

In 1972 Newsweek estimated that "thousands of Vietnamese civilians" had been "killed deliberately" by American forces during a six-month campaign in the Mekong Delta in 1968.

In 2004 the Toledo Blade received a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles on Tiger Force ("an elite fighting unit in Vietnam—small, mobile, trained to kill"), which was formed in 1967 and over seven months of fighting in the Central Highlands committed a series of atrocities, "leaving an untold number dead—possibly several hundred civilians, former soldiers and villagers now say." No one was ever charged.

Two years ago, Nelson and Turse wrote two long articles based on the army archives for the Los Angeles Times.

When they set to work in 2005, their first order of business was to establish that the atrocities hadn't been limited to notorious units like Tiger Force and the Americal Division, which was responsible for My Lai. "When we hand-entered the data into a spreadsheet," Nelson writes, "it became clear the problem was much bigger than a few bad men: Every major division that served in Vietnam was represented. We counted more than 300 allegations in cases that were substantiated by the army's own investigations. Some had never been revealed; others had been publicly disputed while the army remained silent about its findings. Five hundred allegations couldn't be proven or weren't fully investigated. According to officers who helped compile the records, those numbers represented only a small fraction of the war crimes committed in Vietnam."

And why were they committed? Not simply because all war is hell. Nelson explains that American commanders in Vietnam's frontless battlefield quantified progress by body counts. This led to incentives being offered for bodies, and in a war in which the enemy could be anywhere and everywhere and anybody might be a guerrilla sympathizer, some soldiers found the next step easy to take. Statistics told the story. For instance, Nelson writes, "The 5th Marine Regiment reported that operations in the An Hoa region had resulted in 278 enemy killed in action. Only eighteen weapons were recovered." An anonymous whistle-blower known to the Pentagon as "Concerned Sgt" said in one of his letters, "I know guys in our sniper teams that talked about medals like a bounty system. A bronze star for so many gooks, and then a silver star for so many more. And they got the medals too.... Sometimes our guys would go out at nite with starlite scopes, but most of the time they just shoot any Vietnamese they'd see at long range in the day time.... No weapons, no VC documents, just a dead Vietnamese at about 300 or 400 yards who is automatically a VC as soon as he falls."

In addition to Nelson's book on Vietnam war crimes, there will soon be one by Nicholas Turse, her LA Times collaborator. (His article "A My Lai a Month" appears in the December 1 Nation.) When will this reporting matter? When will what it tells us become part of what we all know about war? When will it no longer be possible to understand on one level that the Vietnam war was fought with savage incoherence against an enemy that hadn't attacked us yet think of none of that when condemning a Bill Ayers as an "unrepentant terrorist"?

Nelson tells me that a German historian, Bernd Greiner, made what she believes was the "first scholarly foray" into the army archives, a 2007 book whose title translates as War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam. Nelson talked to Greiner, who told her it stood to reason that a foreigner would get there first. She explains, "His own country had to be a generation removed before the people could really deal with the Holocaust and what happened in World War II. Vietnam is still too emotional an issue in the United States."

It's also an issue Americans can pretend to have put behind them. Unlike Germany, left crushed, divided, and occupied after World War II, the U.S. has gone on to other wars. Among the officers assigned to the archives was retired brigadier general John Johns, who late in the Vietnam war did a study of counterinsurgency and after the war was assigned to rewrite the army's ethics training manual. What that exercise taught him, says Nelson, is that "there isn't any sort of training that will prevent war crimes. He makes a persuasive case against outside forces like the U.S. ever going into counterinsurgency operations. Whatever your training, war crimes will happen, civilians will turn against you, and you'll lose."

Johns told Nelson and Turse that he once believed the war crimes archives had served the army well: they'd rubbed the army's nose in mistakes it surely wouldn't make again. "But," says Nelson, Iraq showed him "we not only haven't learned from the past, but we've made it worse. We have an administration that officially endorsed torture. How can that happen?"

She has a sort of answer. Now, as then, some people are willing to shrug and say war is hell. But beyond that, "The fact that these records and other records had been buried—it's like there was no record," she says. This made it much more likely that the public officials who promoted the war in Iraq would have learned nothing from them. Nor would they have learned from personal experience because, Nelson reflects, by and large "the people pushing this war hadn't been to Vietnam." Just as in some circumstances it takes a generation to confront harsh truths, in other circumstances a generation is enough to deny them.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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