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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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.