May 20, 2013
An Operation, Not an Aberration
Posted on Jan 18, 2013
The War Crimes Working Group files included more than 300 allegations of massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations, and other atrocities that were substantiated by army investigators. They detailed the deaths of 137 civilians in mass killings, and 78 smaller-scale attacks in which Vietnamese civilians were killed, wounded, and sexually assaulted. They identified 141 instances in which U.S. troops used fists, sticks, bats, water torture, and electrical torture on noncombatants. The files also contained 500 allegations that weren’t proven at the time—like the murders of scores, perhaps hundreds, of Vietnamese civilians by the 101st Airborne Division’s Tiger Force, which would be confirmed and made public only in 2003.
In hundreds of incident summaries and sworn statements in the War Crimes Working Group files, veterans laid bare what had occurred in the backlands of rural Vietnam—the war that Americans back home didn’t see nightly on their televisions or read about over morning coffee. A sergeant told investigators how he had put a bullet, point-blank, into the brain of an unarmed boy after gunning down the youngster’s brother; an army ranger matter-of-factly described slicing the ears off a dead Vietnamese and said that he planned to continue mutilating corpses. Other files documented the killing of farmers in their fields and the rape of a child carried out by an interrogator at an army base. Reading case after case—like the incident in which a lieutenant “captured two unarmed and unidentified Vietnamese males, estimated ages 2–3 and 7–8 years . . . and killed them for no reason”—I began to get a sense of the ubiquity of atrocity during the American War.
In the years that followed, with the War Crimes Working Group documents as an initial guide, I began to track down more information about little-known or never-revealed Vietnam War crimes. I located other investigation files at the National Archives, submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act, interviewed generals and top civilian officials, and talked to former military war crimes investigators. I also spoke with more than one hundred American veterans across the country, both those who had witnessed atrocities and others who had personally committed terrible acts. From them I learned something of what it was like to be twenty years old, with few life experiences beyond adolescence in a small town or an inner-city neighborhood, and to be suddenly thrust into villages of thatch and bamboo homes that seemed ripped straight from the pages of National Geographic, the paddies around them such a vibrant green that they almost burned the eye. Veteran after veteran told me about days of shattering fatigue and the confusion of contradictory orders, about being placed in situations so alien and unnerving that even with their automatic rifles and grenades they felt scared walking through hamlets of unarmed women and children.
Some of the veterans I tried to contact wanted nothing to do with my questions, almost instantaneously slamming down the phone receiver. But most were willing to speak to me, and many even seemed glad to talk to someone who had a sense of the true nature of the war. In homes from Maryland to California, across kitchen tables and in marathon four-hour telephone calls, scores of former soldiers and marines opened up about their experiences. Some had little remorse; an interrogator who’d tortured prisoners, for instance, told me that his actions were merely standard operating procedure. Another veteran, whispering so that his family wouldn’t overhear, adamantly insisted that, though he’d been present at a massacre of civilians, he hadn’t pulled the trigger, no matter what his fellow unit members said. Then there was the veteran who swore that he knew nothing about civilians being killed, only to later recount an incident in which someone in his unit shot an unarmed woman in the back. And yet another former GI ruefully recounted how, walking through a Vietnamese village, he had spun around when a local woman chat- tered angrily at him (probably complaining about the commotion that the troops were causing) and driven the butt of his rifle into her nose. He remembered walking away, laughing, as blood poured from the woman’s face. Decades later, he could no longer imagine how his nineteen-year-old self had done such a thing, nor could I easily connect this jovial man to that angry adolescent with a brutal streak.
My conversations with the veterans gave nuance to my understanding of the war, bringing human emotion to the sometimes dry language of military records, and added context to investigation files that often focused on a single incident. These men also repeatedly showed me just how incomplete the archives I’d come upon really were, even though the files detailed hundreds of atrocity allegations. In one case, for instance, I called a veteran seeking more information about a sexual assault carried out by members of his unit, which I found mentioned in one of the files. He offered me more details about that particular incident but also said that it was no anomaly. Men from his unit had raped numerous other women as well, he told me. But neither those assaults nor the random shootings of farmers by his fellow soldiers had ever been formally investigated.
Among the most poignant of the interviews I conducted was with Jamie Henry, a former army medic with whom I eventually forged a friendship. Henry was a whistle-blower in the Ron Ridenhour mold— the type of man that many want to be but few actually are, a courageous veteran who spent several years after his return to America trying to bring to light a series of atrocities committed by his unit. While many others had kept silent, Henry stepped forward and reported the crimes he’d seen, taking significant risks for what he believed was right. He talked to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (known as CID), he wrote a detailed article, he spoke out in public again and again. But the army left him to twist in the wind, a lone voice repeatedly recounting apparently uncorroborated tales of shocking violence, while most Americans paid little attention. Until I sought him out and showed him the documents I’d found, Henry had no idea that in the early 1970s military investigators had in fact tracked down and interviewed his fellow unit members, proving his allegations beyond any doubt—and that the army had then hidden away this information, never telling him or anyone else. When he looked over my stacks of photocopies, he was astounded.
Over time, following leads from the veterans I’d spoken to and from other sources, I discovered additional long-forgotten court-martial records, investigation files, and related documents in assorted archives and sometimes in private homes across the country. Paging through one of these case files, I found myself virtually inhaling decades-old dust from half a world away. The year was 1970, and a small U.S. Army patrol had set up an ambush in the jungle near the Minh Thanh rubber plantation in Binh Long Province, north of Saigon. Almost immediately the soldiers heard chopping noises, then branches snapping and Vietnamese voices coming toward them. Next, a man broke through the brush—he was in uniform, they would later say, as was the entire group of Vietnamese following behind him. In an instant, the Americans sprang the ambush, set- ting off two Claymore mines—each sending seven hundred small steel pellets flying more than 150 feet in a lethal sixty-degree arc— and firing an M-60 machine gun. All but one of the Vietnamese in the clearing were killed instantly. The unit’s radioman immediately got on his field telephone and called in ten “enemy KIA”—killed in action.
Later, however, something didn’t ring right at headquarters. Despite the claim of ten enemy dead, the Americans had no weapons to show for it. With the My Lai trials garnering headlines back in the United States, the commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division did something unusual: he asked the division’s Office of the Inspector General, whose job it was to probe instances of alleged misconduct, to investigate. The next day, a lieutenant colonel and his team arrived at the site of the ambush, where they found the corpses of five men, three women, and two children scattered on the forest floor. None was wearing enemy uniforms, and civilian identification cards were found on the bodies. The closest thing to a weapon was a piece of paper with “a small drawing of a rifle and of an airplane.” The soldiers who sprang the ambush claimed it was evidence that the dead were enemy fighters, but the lieutenant colonel noted that it looked like “something a child would do.” Similarly, “the makings of booby traps” found on the bodies, and cited by the soldiers as evidence of hostile intent, turned out to be a harmless agricultural tool. As the American investigators photographed the corpses, it was apparent that the Vietnamese had been civilians carrying bags of bamboo shoots and a couple of handfuls of limes—regular people simply trying to eke out an existence in a war-ravaged landscape.
The lime gatherers’ deaths were typical of the kind of operation that repeatedly wiped out civilians during the Vietnam War. Most of the time, the noncombatants who died were not herded into a ditch and gunned down as at My Lai. Instead, the full range of the American arsenal—from M-16s and Claymore mines to grenades, bombs, mortars, rockets, napalm, and artillery shells—was unleashed on forested areas, villages, and homes where perfectly ordinary Vietnamese just happened to live and work.
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