The Magazine

Apocryphal Now

The psychology, and mythology, of the Vietnam war.

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By GARY KULIK
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Nick Turse wants us to know that the killing of civilians during the war in Vietnam was “widespread, routine, and directly attributable to U.S. command policies,” that “gang rapes were a .  .  . common occurrence,” that the running-over of civilians by American vehicle drivers was “commonplace,” and that the American military visited upon South Vietnam an “endless slaughter .  .  . day after day, month after month .  .  . [that] was neither accidental nor unforeseeable.” It was “A Litany of Atrocities,” as one of his chapter headings has it—a litany recited by Turse with the fevered prosecutorial zeal of an ideologue. 

Soldier

The core of his evidence comes from a cache of records from the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, now housed in the National Archives. The group was established in the wake of the My Lai massacre. Readers who would like to know what these records actually contain will get no help from Nick Turse.  

They can turn, instead, to Turse’s former collaborator, Deborah Nelson.  Nelson and Turse coauthored a series of Los Angeles Times articles in 2006, and Nelson went on to publish The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes in 2008, using the same records and including a detailed accounting of them in an appendix. Turse, according to Nelson (in an email exchange on a Vietnam war listserv to which I subscribe), opposed her decision to publish the appendix, fearing that it might be used to minimize Army war crimes. Nelson, a journalist, sought scholarly transparency; Turse, a Columbia Ph.D., sought to prevent independent analysis of the evidence.

What Nelson’s appendix tells us is this: There were around 300 allegations of war crimes brought by Army prosecutors in 77 cases. Each case typically contained multiple allegations. The Army convened Article 32 hearings, roughly the equivalent of civilian grand jury hearings, for each case, a measure of the seriousness with which the Army took the allegations. (You won’t learn that from either Nelson or Turse, though, who have no interest in the process of military justice.) Thirty-six of those hearings led to courts-martial: 16 for the killing of civilians, 6 for the abuse of enemy corpses, 5 for the abuse of prisoners, 4 for the killing of prisoners, 4 for rape, 1 for the abuse of a civilian. The 16 killing cases include the massacre at My Lai as well as the extended “Tiger Force” killings documented by reporters for the Toledo Blade in 2003. 

Turse writes that “every major army unit in Vietnam” committed war crimes. But Nelson’s appendix lists no units smaller than divisions and brigades. Army divisions contained roughly 15,000 soldiers and brigades about 5,000—numbers never discussed by Turse or Nelson. There was only one war crime case for the 1st Infantry Division, one for the 5th Infantry Division, two for the 25th Infantry Division, and two for the 82nd Airborne Division—all of which served for several years in Vietnam. So much for the ubiquity of Army war crimes.

Turse claims that he went far beyond the War Crimes file, interviewing over 100 veterans while locating additional records. He writes of a Marine “massacre” in Quang Tri in 1967, an incident he could have learned about only through my own published work. It took me more than a year—connecting with Marines on a 1st Battalion, 1st Marines website—to learn the name of the young Marine court-martialed by the Navy. I needed the name of that obscure lance-corporal in order to gain access to the official records. There is no way that Turse could have found that name on his own, and his failure to cite me as the source is, at the minimum, a breach of scholarly courtesy.  

Moreover, there was no “massacre.” A squad of Marines, patrolling at night amidst a series of bunkers—immediately after a booby trap had claimed the life of a fellow Marine—heard movement in the bunkers and responded as they had been trained. What happened that night was ugly and tragic—women and children died in those bunkers—but the Marines who did the killing had no way of knowing who was there. A second patrol, however, resulted in the murder of a single woman, shot in the back in front of children, likely hers. Two Marines, including a company commander, went to trial for it.

I wrote about that case to refute the claims of a deserter named Terry Whitmore, who asserted in an interview with Mark Lane that an entire village had been wiped out, 300 to 400 killed, children rounded up separately and murdered—a preposterous story later published by Doubleday in 1971 and reprinted, to lavish praise, by the University Press of Mississippi in 1997.

War veterans have long exaggerated, embellished, and sometimes lied about their wartime experience. The war in Vietnam offered a new and disturbing twist: Men returned to lie about atrocities that never happened. The psychological phenomenon is well-known: False confessions are the bane of urban police officers. When I returned from Vietnam, no one wanted to hear stories of heroism. The awful massacre at My Lai hung over all of us. But some on the left—Mark Lane, Bertrand Russell, and organizers of the Winter Soldier Investigation—solicited American atrocity stories, and some troubled young veterans responded with exaggeration, embellishment, and even lies.

Nick Turse has no ear for this. One soldier tells him that we didn’t take prisoners: “It was easier to dispose of them. .  .  . It happened all the time.” He accepts at face value the testimony of Kenneth Barton Osborn, a veteran whose accounts of torture, murder, and prisoners being thrown from helicopters—first reported by Mark Moyar in Phoenix and the Birds of Prey (1997)—were thoroughly discredited by Army investigators. Turse quotes a hideous sexual atrocity story from the Winter Soldier Investigation, but the teller is the notoriously unreliable Scott Camil, whose claims of war crimes have never been corroborated and were denied by Marines with whom he served and whom I interviewed.

Make no mistake: Americans committed war crimes in Vietnam, and officers covered them up. General William Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy policies and the profligate use of air and artillery fire put Vietnamese peasants at risk, and far too many died—though not all at our hands. We still await a history of war crimes committed by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army—the “revolutionary forces,” according to Turse. And now, more than 40 years after the war, we still have no way of knowing the relative prevalence of war crimes in Vietnam as compared with other wars. Though, thanks to Rick Atkinson’s work, we now know far more about American war crimes in World War II: Berber tribesmen shot for sport, the egregious killing of German prisoners, the atrocious behavior of French colonial troops raping their way up the Italian peninsula while under Allied command.   

War brings out the best and the worst in us. Former Marine commandant Peter Pace told a Citadel audience in 2006 that, as a young platoon leader in Vietnam, he called in an artillery strike on a village from which a sniper had killed a young Marine—the first man he lost. Pace’s platoon sergeant “didn’t say a word, he just looked at me.” The look was sufficient. Pace called off the strike and ordered a sweep through the village, finding only women and children. Pace’s story, as the literature of Vietnam memoirs makes clear, could be told many times over. Any fair and balanced account of American war crimes demands attention to those stories, too. 

Nick Turse, however, has no interest in such stories. His unmeasured effort at exposé—relentless, indiscriminate, and cocksure in its judgment that American military policy made the killing of innocents inevitable—exacts a high moral price. 

If it was all policy, the war as an “atrocity--producing situation,” as Robert Jay Lifton famously put it, then we lose the ability to make moral distinctions, to recognize both evil and honor. If we’re all guilty, then no one is guilty. If every atrocity story is to be believed, then it is all noise—and we lose the ability to mourn for that woman in Quang Tri, shot in the back by a young Marine who did not know the difference between a legal and an illegal order.

Gary Kulik, who served in Vietnam as a medic, is the author of War Stories: False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers.