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Six Questions for Deborah Nelson on Vietnam War Crimes, and Why They Matter Now Issue [Six Questions]

Six Questions for Deborah Nelson on Vietnam War Crimes, and Why They Matter Now


Deborah Nelson is the Carnegie Visiting Professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland at College Park. She is the author of the new book, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes (Basic Books, 2008), based on a declassified army archive and interviews with suspects, whistleblowers, survivors, former commanders, investigators, and Pentagon officials. Nelson was formerly the Washington investigations editor for the Los Angeles Times (full disclosure: I worked for her there), and also reported for the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, and the Chicago Sun-Times. Her national awards include a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a series that exposed widespread problems in the federal government’s Indian Housing Program. She recently replied to six questions about her new book.

1. The Vietnam War crimes you wrote about were covered up for many years with government and military complicity. How did they remain buried for so long?

They were classified for the first twenty years, buried in a bureaucracy for the next ten (think closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark), and currently are held hostage by the Privacy Act.

Here’s the history in brief: After Seymour Hersh exposed the My Lai massacre, the Army Staff assembled an internal team of officers to collect and monitor war-crime allegations. They kept tabs on incidents reported to Army investigators, members of Congress, the press, and at public forums. Over the next five years, they amassed an estimated 9,000 pages of evidence. All that motion did not appear to be directed at addressing or preventing atrocities–but rather served as an early-warning system and butt-covering operation for the administration. Few outside a small circle of Pentagon officials knew about it. After the war, the records were packed away, until about 1990, when the Army declassified them. They were stored in boxes on the back room shelves at the National Archives and Records Administration. A decade passed before a small number of scholars and journalists learned of their existence. One of them was Nick Turse, who had researched the files for his dissertation at Columbia University. He thought some of the cases might be newsworthy and emailed the Los Angeles Times in 2005, when I was the Washington investigative editor. We joined forces to investigate the origin and fate of the files. We tracked down suspects, witnesses, former commanders, investigators and Pentagon officials; we traveled to Vietnam and entered the information from the files into spreadsheets. We discovered that investigators had confirmed cases involving at least 300 allegations of murder, massacre, torture, assault, mutilation and other war crimes–but the Army kept the findings secret from the public. Fewer than half the confirmed cases resulted in courts martial, and convictions were rare.

The use of body counts was lethal for civilians and ineffective as a measure of success in a counterinsurgency operation. Yet it resurfaced during the Iraq war.

Unfortunately, the National Archives put the war-crime records back under wraps some time in the last few years. I was told that they contained private information on individuals and had not been properly “sanitized.” Last I checked, there were no plans to process the entire collection. However, NARA is processing individual case files requested under the freedom of information act. I, along with others, have managed to win re-release of some of the cases, although the wait can be inordinately long.

An interesting side-note: During Kerry’s run for president, the Swift Boaters attacked the testimony he made as a young veteran in 1971, when he told the Senate that war crimes were common in Vietnam. One of the officers who helped compile the secret war-crime files. Ret. Brig. Gen. John Johns, contacted Kerry’s campaign staff in 2004. He wanted to tell them that there were records at the National Archives that would show Kerry was right. Johns said he left three messages, but no one called him back.

2. Were you surprised to discover the scope of these crimes?

We didn’t really discover the extent of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam. While the war-crime archive is the largest compilation of government records on U.S. atrocities in Vietnam to surface so far, it’s not close to a full accounting. Evidence indicates the archive represents a small window into a much bigger problem. An anonymous letter-writer tried to convey the bigger picture to Gen. William Westmoreland, then Army chief of staff, in 1970. He described the routine killing of civilians in the Mekong Delta to meet command pressure for enemy body count. He estimated more than a hundred people perished a month. An internal analysis concluded the letter was credible; and, in 1972, a Newsweek article by Kevin Buckley drew similar conclusions based on hospital records and interviews with military sources and residents. Yet the allegations were not investigated, so they weren’t counted in the task force’s official tally of war-crime cases.

3. What were some of the more shocking cases you found?

Army investigators documented routine torture of detainees by a military intelligence detachment over a 19-month period from 1968–69. Interrogators used “water rag,” a near-drowning technique similar to water boarding. They beat and kicked detainees, and shocked them with electric wires from field phones. The Army identified 20 U.S. suspects. We exchanged emails with one of them. He was more than willing to discuss his technique: “Water poured over a cloth gave a sensation of drowning that generally scared the PW into talking.” By the way, many of the “PWs” turned out to be innocent civilians swept up by battalions competing to capture the most VC suspects. At least eight interrogators confessed to investigators. Yet no one was prosecuted and the findings were kept secret.

I’ve had people say to me that things are better now, that war crimes have been limited to a few isolated incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have to remind them that it took 30 years for these records to surface.

A 3-and-a-half-year investigation confirmed the massacre of 19 civilians in February 1968–a month before the My Lai massacre. Children, infants, women and an elderly man were rounded up and executed after the platoon leader received radio instructions to “kill anything that moves,” according to sworn statements of numerous men on the scene that day. As in the torture case, investigators identified suspects, but the Army didn’t prosecute anyone nor publicly disclose the findings. In both of those cases, Army investigators threatened the soldiers who reported the incidents, but they persevered. We’ll never know how many others faced the same sort of intimidation and gave up.

4. You went back and talked to some of the soldiers directly involved in these cases? What sort of reactions did you get?

Some of the men seemed to have been expecting our call for a long time. It was almost a relief for them to be able to talk to someone who already knew their secret. Most were willing to talk–a couple with their wives’ encouragement. But not everyone was glad to hear from us. When I approached the former battalion commander about the 1968 massacre, he suggested that I “get a respectable job.” The captain in that case refused to talk about the massacre for 2½ years. I tried everything–doorstep, phone, email, express shipping. He finally sent an email to me last year in which he acknowledged the atrocity and admitted issuing an order shortly before it. He said he couldn’t remember the words he used but did not intend them as an order to shoot civilians.

I had a particularly hard time getting through to a former Army Staff officer, whose name appeared on periodic status reports sent up the chain of command. He wouldn’t pick up the phone, so I flew cross-country to knock on his door–only to find that he lived in a gated community guarded by a fence, a razor-sharp hedgerow and a small moat. Upon clearing those last obstacles, I finally got my interview, in which he echoed what I had heard from others: As far as he knew, the top brass were keeping tabs on war-crime allegations to cover their rears.

5. You’re writing about crimes that took place decades and decades ago. Why?

First of all, I believe you should write about the truth whenever it reveals itself. This is a chance to set the record straight on an issue that has divided the country for 30 years. These are the Army’s own records that show atrocities were systemic and not confined to isolated incidents by a few rogue units, as the military asserted then and since. Secondly, the records provide an extraordinary opportunity to analyze the conditions and policies that lead to atrocities, particularly in other counter-insurgency operations, such as the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The use of body counts, for example, was a bad idea from both a moral and pragmatic perspective. It was lethal for civilians and ineffective as a measure of success in a counterinsurgency operation. Yet it resurfaced during the Iraq war. Free-fire zones and excessive use of firepower in Vietnam led to significant civilian casualties that turned communities against U.S. forces. The same thing is happening in Afghanistan, where we’ve see repeated incidents in which the victims of air strikes and ground attacks by U.S. forces turned out to be civilians instead of insurgents. Certainly the Army’s failure to address torture by U.S. troops has resonance today.

6. Did you reach any broader conclusions from the history of war crimes by American soldiers? Are these sorts of the abuses inevitable when a country invades and occupies a foreign land?

Ret. Brig. Gen. Johns–I mentioned him earlier–did an analysis in the late 1960s of counter-insurgency operations from World War II onward. He said the Army rejected a significant conclusion in his report: That U.S. involvement should not extend beyond an advisory role. His research showed that whenever foreign combat forces were sent into counter-insurgency operations, they committed atrocities. Fighting an elusive enemy embedded in the population inevitably led to substantial collateral damage and deliberate killing of civilians, he found. When that happened, the foreign troops lost the support of the population, giving the insurgents an almost insurmountable advantage. So when reports of atrocities began crossing Johns’s desk at the Pentagon in the 1970s, he wasn’t surprised. He said he didn’t speak out then or in the years after the war, because he still thought the Army would see and learn from its mistakes. The Bush Administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq changed his mind.

I’ve had people say to me that things are better now, that war crimes have been limited to a few isolated incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have to remind them that it took 30 years for these records to surface.

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