Was Kerry Right About Atrocities in Vietnam?

Roundup: Media's Take

Michael Kranish and Bryan Bender, in the Boston Globe (May 13, 2004):

... Even as President Bush apologized for the abuses by the military under his command, questions have resurfaced about allegations that Kerry, his Democratic challenger for the presidency, made about the behavior of US troops in Vietnam three decades ago....

Three weeks ago, Kerry said his allegations were a "little over the top," even as he pointed out that many atrocities have been documented.

But the question remains: How widespread was the abuse by American troops in Vietnam?

"There were atrocities, without any question," Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era defense secretary, said in an interview. "We had photographs of officers shooting innocent Vietnamese. I would say it was not intentional, at least through the hierarchy of command. But I don't think enough attention was paid to it by the chain of command."

The official US record on wartime atrocities in Vietnam is that 278 members of the armed forces were convicted of war crimes in an eight-year period. But some historians say that atrocities were much more widespread than that, although perhaps not as common as Kerry asserted.

The most notorious Vietnam atrocity was the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, in which at least 175 civilian men, women, and children and possibly as many as 400 were killed by US troops.

In 1971, Kerry shocked many Americans and caused great consternation in the Nixon White House when he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about alleged atrocities that went far beyond My Lai.

A decorated combat veteran, Kerry based his remarks partly on the Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit, which featured 150 veterans telling their stories in a forum financed partly by actress Jane Fonda. Kerry told the Senate that soldiers "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Kahn."

One of Kerry's most publicized allegations, that soldiers cut off heads, became the subject of scrutiny by US officials as Kerry was preparing to testify in 1971, according to a report published last year by The Toledo Blade. The newspaper said that in February 1971 the US Army was examining an allegation that a soldier had cut off an infant's head. The 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning series also said that Army investigators found that more than 100 civilians may have been killed and that 18 soldiers committed war crimes; none was charged.

Stanley Karnow, author of "Vietnam: A History," said there is no question that atrocities occurred on both sides in the Vietnam War. Indeed, Karnow said Kerry made a mistake on "Meet The Press" last month when he backed off some of his allegations about atrocities and war crimes.

"He could have dealt with it forthrightly by saying atrocities were committed by everybody," Karnow said.

In 1971, Kerry blamed the atrocities on a culture that began at the top, and he accused leaders in Washington of setting a tone that condoned the outrages. In the Iraqi abuse scandal, Kerry once again raised questions about the involvement of people high in the chain of command.

But even some former Kerry commanders who acknowledge that atrocities occurred in Vietnam said they have believed for 33 years that Kerry wrongly tarred them. While Kerry has not specifically said that his own commanders acted improperly, his 1971 statement was sweeping and targeted even himself. "I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed, in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones," he said.

Kerry went on to say that the people who designed the strategy of firing on anyone who violated that curfew zone "are war criminals."

Retired Rear Admiral Roy Hoffmann, who was ultimately responsible for ordering Kerry into the free-fire zones, took such offense at Kerry's allegations that he organized last week's gathering of veterans to criticize the Democratic presidential candidate, which drew several of Kerry's former commanding officers, along with some other officers who served with Kerry. While many of those critics were Republicans, they insisted they were motivated by Kerry's allegations, not his standing as a Democrat.

Kerry's close friend, David Thorne, who was at his side during the 1971 protests, said that Kerry was not trying to blame his own commanders. Rather, Thorne said, Kerry's aim was to "break through the public apathy."

"Fourty-four thousand people had died, and no one was listening," Thorne said, referring to the number of US war dead at that time.

But the retired officers who criticized Kerry said he misled the public by lumping together documented atrocities like My Lai with his complaints about the in humanity of the US military's policy on free-fire zones.

They also questioned whether the 1971 testimony of veterans at the Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit was accurate. They pointed out that one of Kerry's fellow antiwar leaders was found to have misstated his service record, and they cited reports that some of the Winter Soldier testimony has been discredited.

Asked about those assertions last month on Meet The Press, Kerry said: "A lot of those stories have been documented. Have some been discredited? Sure, they have."

One of Kerry's former commanders, Coast Guard Captain Adrian Lonsdale of Massachusetts, said he has no recollection of Kerry ever expressing concern about atrocities during their conversations while in Vietnam. Lonsdale was among those who said he opposed Kerry on grounds that he falsely made allegations about atrocities.

"Atrocities by US Navy men and Coast Guardsmen under my command were never reported to me," Lonsdale said via e-mail. "Once in a while, a trigger-happy gunner may have shot up a pig or empty hutch in a free-fire zone. I would consider those acts of poor judgment to be vandalism and not to be condoned. I would not have considered them atrocities.

"I do not know what happened during the interrogation of captured Viet Cong," he added. "My experience is that about 90 percent of our personnel were moral, compassionate, patriotic Americans, trying hard to follow the rules and do their duty for their country. Perhaps 10 percent were misfits, half of whom already had problems before they arrived in Viet Nam. Atrocities probably were committed, but they would have been isolated incidents."

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