Nicholas Turse: Atrocities Were Common in Vietnam (We Just Didn't Hear About Them)

Roundup: Historians' Take

Nicholas Turse, in the Village Voice (May 11, 2004):

Just last month, the Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing a series of brutal war crimes committed by American troops during the Vietnam War. It took more than 35 years for the horrors committed by a "Tiger Force" unit to be fully exposed, but the Blade got more ink in the national press and TV for winning the Pulitzer than the stories themselves got when they were published last fall. The paper detailed the army's four-and-a-half-year investigation, starting in 1971, of a seven-month string of atrocities by an elite, volunteer, 45-man Tiger Force unit of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division that included the alleged torture of prisoners, rapes of civilian women, mutilations of bodies, and the killing of anywhere from nine to well over 100 unarmed civilians. The army's inquiry concluded that 18 U.S. soldiers committed crimes including murder and assault. However, not one of the soldiers, even those still on active duty at the time of the investigation, was ever court-martialed. Moreover, as the paper noted, six soldiers were allowed to resign from military service during the criminal investigations specifically to avoid prosecution. The secretary of defense at the time that decision was made, in the mid '70s, was Donald Rumsfeld.

But even the Blade's powerful stories didn't put the Tiger Force atrocities in context; the paper portrayed them largely as an isolated killing spree carried out by rogue troops. The Tiger Force atrocities were not the mere result of rogue G.I.'s but instead stem from what historian Christian Appy has termed a "doctrine of atrocity"—an institutionalized brutality built upon official U.S. dicta relating to body counts, free-fire zones, search-and-destroy tactics, and strategies of attrition, as well as unofficial tenets such as "shoot anything that moves," intoned during the Tiger Force atrocities and in countless other tales of brutality.

While the U.S. military has never been alone in the commission of atrocities, in Iraq or elsewhere, the illegal acts of others serve as no excuse for an American disregard for the laws of war. We are only now, more than three decades after the fact, beginning to grasp the true scope of American war crimes in Vietnam. Will it take us that long to know to what extent the doctrine of atrocity is being applied in Iraq?

In Vietnam, the doctrine of atrocity was built not only on official U.S. policies but also on such macabre principles as the "mere gook rule," which cast all Vietnamese as subhuman, and its attendant dictum: "If it's dead and Vietnamese, it's VC." These standard operating procedures led to many acts of mistreatment and killing of noncombatants by U.S. troops that, while illegal under the laws of war, were tacitly encouraged, unofficially condoned, and rarely punished in a severe manner....

The Toledo Blade articles, some of the best reporting on a Vietnam War crime during or since that war, tell only a small part of the story. As a historian writing a dissertation at Columbia University on U.S. war crimes and atrocities during the Vietnam War, I have been immersed in just the sort of archival materials the Blade used to flesh out one series of incidents. My research into U.S. military records has revealed that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of analogous violations of the laws of war.

The Blade said the Tiger Force's seven months of brutality was "the longest series of atrocities in the Vietnam War." Unfortunately, this was not true. According to formerly classified army documents, for instance, a military investigation disclosed that from at least March 1968 through October 1969, "Vietnamese [civilian] detainees were subjected to maltreatment" by no fewer than 21 separate interrogators of the 172nd Military Intelligence Detachment. The inquiry found that, in addition to using "electrical shock by means of a field telephone," the MI personnel also struck detainees with their fists, sticks, and boards, and employed water torture. The documents indicate that no disciplinary actions were taken against anyone implicated in that long-running series of atrocities....

During the Vietnam War, a U.S. officer infamously announced that a town had to be destroyed in order to save it. Today, the same logic is used in Iraq. "With a heavy dose of fear and violence . . . I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them," U.S. battalion commander Nathan Sassaman was quoted as saying in a New York Times article in December 2003. The quote was buried deep in the article, but recent reports indicate that Sassaman's tough talk may have been backed up by wanton acts of terror. On April 5, The Washington Post reported that Sassaman, a lieutenant colonel, was recently punished for impeding an army investigation of the alleged killing of an Iraqi detainee, adding that it "marked the second time in recent months that a battalion commander in the Fourth Infantry Division has been disciplined in connection with mistreatment of Iraqis."

Underlying attitudes apparently haven't changed either. Captain Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, told the Times late last year, "You have to understand the Arab mind. The only thing they understand is force. . . . " Nearly 40 years earlier, in Vietnam, another U.S. captain told The New Yorker's Jonathan Schell, "Only the fear of force gets results. It's the Asian mind." ...

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Arnold Shcherban - 8/31/2004

"We are only now, more than three decades after the fact, beginning to grasp the true scope of American war crimes in Vietnam."

Which invokes several questions:
Who are "we"? American nation, as a whole? American, so-called, liberals?
How is it possible that the rest of the world has been well aware of the American war crimes in Vietnam (as well, as in Korea before that, and in many other parts of the world, at least, by proxy), and "we" haven't?
Would it be much closer to the truth to say that "we"
had that "grasp" for many years, but didn't do, and still don't do, anything about it?
Isn't it a fact that "we" politically and socially (in some cases criminally) persecuted the Americans who insisted on making the Vietnam war crimes a "loud" socio-political issue?
Isn't it the pattern of the forceful application of American foreign imperial policy that stems from the
arrogant axiom of the latter: to fight for a-la-US democracy (read: economical and politcal dominance) by killing the true democracy, i.e. power of PEOPLE for