Thursday, August 26, 2004

History Forgotten Is History Repeated

With the first round of charges of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth laying in tatters and rags, either contradicted by contemporaneous military records, shown to be inconsistent with multiple accounts given by the same veterans in 1969, or categorically denied by the members of John Kerry's boat, the SBVFT have shifted their sites to John Kerry's post-war testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971.

Here is a description of the newest commercial release courtesy of (one-day pass available after a brief web ad):

The second SBVFT commercial includes clips from Kerry's April 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads ... randomly shot at civilians ... cut off limbs, blown up bodies ... razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan ... crimes committed on a day-to-day basis ... ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam."

What happens during those ellipses is SBVFT members talking about Kerry's accusations in these terms: "Just devastating." "It hurt me." "John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I and many of my comrades in the North Vietnamese prison camps took torture to avoid saying. It demoralized us." "Betrayed us." "Dishonored his country and more importantly the people he served with. He just sold them out."
The implication from the SBVFT, and from many in the mainstream media and punditry who have echoed their charges, is that Kerry was lying. These things didn't really happen, and that he in effect slandered all soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Never mind the fact that Kerry's testimony explicitly states that not all soldiers engaged in these crimes, according to them Kerry still painted them all with the same brush, and the allegations were unfounded.

What bizarre form of historical revisionism is this? How can the SBVFT's and members of the media turn a willfully amnesiac eye to mountains of historical evidence concerning the conduct of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Let me state this unequivocally: Atrocities, including and especially the ones described by John Kerry, did occur. The most famous incident of war crimes in Vietnam was the
My Lai massacre, in which over 500 unarmed civilians, the majority of which being women and children, were executed by Charlie Company, a unit of the Americal Division's 11th Infantry Brigade.

There were, of course, numerous other incidences of atrocities and war crimes. In a recent piece of investigative journalism, three reporters from the Toledo Blade were awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for their work uncovering the systematic atrocities committed by the Tiger Force, a special unit made up of soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne's 1st battalion/327th Infantry Regiment. These atrocities, which included the severing of ears for necklaces and the decapitation of infants, were documented and investigated by the Army, but were subsequently covered-up with no charges being filed against any of the participants. Thanks to the efforts of the Toledo Blade journalists, the Army is now re-opening some of these inquiries in conjunction with the Vietnam government. A list of articles detailing these far reaching and widespread atrocities
can be found here.

Here are some personal accounts containing some brutally graphic and disturbing detail. I warn the sensitive reader to consider stopping at this point.

Eric Alterman's site contains this description of pages 213-214 of the paperback edition of journalist Michael Herr's Vietnam book Dispatches, the material for which was compiled by Herr during his frontline stint in Vietnam:

...a Marine came up to [AP newsman John] Lengle and me and asked if we'd like to look at some pictures he'd taken...and you could tell by the way the Marine stood over us, grinning in anticipation as we flipped over each plastic page, that it was among his favorite things...There were hundreds of these albums in Vietnam, thousands, and they all seemed to contain the same pictures, the obligatory Zippo-lighter shot ('All right, let's burn these hootches and move out'); the severed head shot, the head often resting on the chest of the dead man or being held up by a smiling Marine, or a lot of heads arranged in a row, with a burning cigarette in each of the mouths, the eyes open...the VC suspect being dragged over the dust by a half-track or being hung by his heels in some jungle clearing; the very young dead with AK-47's still in their hands ('How old would you say that kid was?' the grunts would ask. 'Twelve, thirteen? You just can't tell with gooks'); a picture of a Marine holding an ear or maybe two ears or, as in the case of a guy I knew near Pleiku, a whole necklace made of ears, 'love beads' as its owner called them; and the one we were looking at now, the dead Viet Cong girl with her pajamas stripped off and her legs raised stiffly in the air.

'No more boom-boom for that mamma-san,' the Marine said...'But look, look at that bitch there, cut right in half!'
Here are some accounts of other soldiers made available by the

"My name is Scott Camile. I was a Sgt. attached to Charley 1/1. I was a forward observer in Vietnam...People cut off ears and when they'd come back in off of an operation you'd make deals before you'd go out and like for every ear you cut off someone would buy you two beers, so people cut off ears. The torturing of prisoners was done with beatings and I saw one case where there were two prisoners. One prisoner was staked out on the ground and he was cut open while he was alive and part of his insides were cut out and they told the other prisoner if he didn't tell them what they wanted to know they would kill him. And I don't know what he said because he spoke in Vietnamese but then they killed him after that anyway."
And this from Michael Hunter:

"I served in Vietnam two tours, the first tour was from the 1st Air Cav. Bravo Company 5th/7th Air Cav. and the second tour was the 1st Infantry Division, I Company, 75th Rangers, Lurps (LRRP) about 40 miles west of Saigon.

"Bravo Company, 5th of the 7th, when we were outside of Hue shortly after the Tet offensive, went into a village (and this happened repeatedly afterwards) and searched for enemy activity. We encountered a large amount of civilian population. The civilian population was brought out to one end of the village, and the women, who were guarded by a squad and a squad leader at that time, were separated. I might say the young women were separated from their children and the older women and the older men, the elderly men. They were told at gunpoint that if they did not submit to the sexual desires of any GI who was there guarding them, they would be shot for running away."
This is from Jamie Henry, Sgt. (E-5), H Co., 2nd Bn., 9th Marine Reg., 3rd Marine Div. (September 1967-August 1968):

"The captain simply repeated the order that came down from the colonel that morning. The order that came down from the colonel that morning was to kill anything that moves ... As I was walking over to him, I turned, and I looked in the area. I looked toward where the supposed VCs were, and two men were leading a young girl, approximately 19 years old, very pretty, out of a hootch. She had no clothes on so I assumed she had been raped, which was pretty SOP, and she was thrown onto the pile of the 19 women and children, and five men, around the circle, opened up on full automatic with their M-16s."
The tragic reality is that atrocities are inextricably linked to the mental anguish that war creates, and are thus an ugly component in practically every major armed conflict throughout the wide breadth of history. Under the particularly gruelling psychological strains of guerilla/insurgency combat like Vietnam, atrocities are even more common because of the stress and uncertainty endured by the occupying force in confronting an irregular enemy that deliberately blends in with the civilian population. Soldiers in these situations tend to view all civilians as enemies, and often act accordingly which results in countless acts of civilian targeting, on top of the typical dehumanizing of the enemy that is inevitable.

Pretending like atrocities don't exist doesn't make it so. In fact, this type of willful ignorance can lead policy makers to overestimate the efficacy of war as a substitute for other less bellicose tactics in foreign policy. Atrocities should always be factored into the calculus when deciding to use force.

John Kerry displayed great courage and bravery in acting as a spokesman, bringing these horrific events to the knowledge of the American people. His truth-telling helped to convince the majority of Americans of the futility of a war in which you had to raze a village to save it. As a result of his deeds, and the actions of other like-minded individuals, the wall at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. is that much shorter. I close on his words before the Senate back in 1971:

"We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service as easily as this administration has wiped away their memories of us. But all that they have done, and all that they can do by this denial, is to make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission: To search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war; to pacify our own hearts; to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last 10 years and more. And so, when, 30 years from now, our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say 'Vietnam' and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead where America finally turned, and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning."

"One last mission": The turning is still in progress.

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