"As perfectly ignorant of Vietnam as the men who sent them there, [soldiers] found themselves monkey in the middle of a people's war so savage that babies were routinely used as trip plates for bombs and disemboweled cadavers swung from village signposts," wrote Paul Solotaroff in Rolling Stone magazine in a 1993 story about homeless Vietnam veterans.
His piece later evolved into a 1995 book called "The House of Purple Hearts. Solotaroff's inverted reasoning illustrates common attitudes of the left.
"One register of the savagery in which Vietnam vets were steeped is the degree of fear and loathing they inspired back home. At the airport in Oakland, California, people spat upon them and jeered, hurling rocks and plastic bags of chicken blood. That scrim of opprobrium seemed to lift somewhat ten years ago when the Vietnam Memorial was unveiled. America was reminded that these men were its sons and began seeing them as victims as well as demons."
First criminals and demons, now victims. Solotaroff repeated this recurring theme, which has remained remarkably consistent since the earlyseventies. As its dominant tactic in their battle against the war, the antiwar movement successfully demonized Vietnam veterans by calling a series of "tribunals" or hearings into war crimes. But like Solotaroff's book, they were packed with pretenders and liars.
On January 31, 1971, an organization called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) convened what came to be known as the Winter Soldier Investigation. Some of the major organizers included Jane Fonda, Dick Gregory, Phil Ochs, Graham Nash, David Crosby, and actor Donald Sutherland. For four days in a hotel in Detroit, "veteran" after veteran told grisly tales of horror -- of using prisoners for target practice and throwing them out of helicopters, of cutting off the ears of dead VC, of burning villages and gang-raping women.
Lawyer and activist Mark Lane was one of the organizers of Winter Soldier. In 1970, Lane had published a book called Conversations With Americans, in which Vietnam veterans told their stories of committing atrocities and witnessing endless war crimes committed by their fellow soldiers. Many of these tales were obviously absurd. As James Reston Jr. pointed out in a review of the book, Lane quoted one man's contention that a female Communist sympathizer was interrogated, tortured, and then raped by every soldier in his battalion. "Lane does not explain that in Vietnam an American battalion runs anywhere from one thousand to twelve hundred men," Reston said.
Lane's book was blasted by writer and war correspondent Neil Sheehan in The New York Times Book Review as a hack job. Sheehan repeatedly showed that many of Lane's so-called "eye witnesses" to war crimes had never served in Vietnam or had not served in the capacity they claimed.
Veteran Chuck Onan, for example, claimed he had attended parachute, frogman, and jungle survival schools and had received special training in torture techniques, such as stripping women prisoners, spreading their legs, and driving pointed sticks into their vaginas. "They told us we could rape the girls all we wanted," he said. Onan became a member of an LRRP (Long Range Recon Patrol) unit but deserted before he was sent to Vietnam, fleeing to Sweden so he did not have to kill. "They just went too far," Onan said.
But Sheehan pointed out that, contrary to his fanciful claims, Onan's military record said he had attended Aviation Mechanical Fundamental school in Memphis, not frogman, parachute, and jungle survival school. Onan had not belonged to an Army LRRP unit; he worked as a stock room clerk at a Marine base in Beaufort, S.C. The torture school was also a product of his vivid imagination. The Marines did not give courses in tormenting prisoners. Onan deserted after receiving orders to go to Vietnam, where his lackluster record indicates that, even if he had gone, he would have been assigned to work as a mechanic or to a mundane administrative job.
Another "Winter Soldier" named Michael Schneider testified that he had shot three peasants in cold blood, had been told by a sadistic lieutenant to attach wires from a field telephone to a mans testicles, and was ordered by his battalion commander to kill prisoners. After a year and a half as an infantry squad leader, then platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division and the I96th Light Infantry Brigade, Schneider couldn't take the trauma of war any longer. Although he had been awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Silver Star, Schneider deserted and fled to Europe.
Schneider also told Lane a fascinating story about his family, claiming that his father replaced George Patton as the commander of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam. "He was a captain in World War II," Schneider said. "In the Nazi army."
Lane took this at face value. "Your father is a colonel in Vietnam?" he asked.
"Full colonel. Commanding officer in 11th Cavalry Regiment now," Schneider said, contending that his father changed his name after the war from Dieter von Kronenberger and switched loyalties to the American military.
Lane's point was clear: Nazis are running large American units in Vietnam. Vietnam soldiers are just like the Nazis. But Sheehan pointed out that at the time there was no Colonel Schneider or Von Kronenberger in the U.S. Army, and no one by that name ever commanded the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Schneider's stories about his father were bogus, as were those about his own service: Schneider deserted from Europe, not Vietnam. After surrendering to Army authorities in New York, he deserted again and was arrested on an Oklahoma murder charge. His last recorded residence: The maximum security ward of Eastern State Mental Hospital in Vinita, Oklahoma. Hardly a credible witness.
Sheehan also shed some light on a story told in Lane's book by Terry Whitmore, a black Marine who had deserted to Sweden. Whitmore claimed that he took part in a planned atrocity -- the extermination of an entire village of several hundred people, much like the My Lai massacre.
Whitmore had been in Vietnam during the time that he claimed the war crimes took place. But his battalion was operating in an unpopulated area near the DMZ. And both his former battalion commander, still on active duty, and a former platoon leader in his company, who had left the military to work as a teaching assistant at a university, said that no such massacre took place. These two men told Sheehan of an earlier incident involving Whitmore's company. The company commander, a captain, and an enlisted man had been involved in an action in which four Vietnamese -- two women, a man, and a child -- had been shot to death. The action happened at night in a hostile area. The two American soldiers were court-martialed on murder charges but acquitted. The company had been fired on; it had been impossible in the dark to distinguish friendlies from the enemy. Sheehan speculated that Whitmore had taken that story and inflated the numbers. Although a terrible incident, it was far from the planned massacre of hundreds of civilians.
According to Sheehan, another man in Lane's book, Garry Gianninoto, who claimed that as a Navy medical corpsman he had wimessed numerous atrocities, had actually been assigned to an aid station at a battalion headquarters, well out of the combat zone. He had been court-martialed for refusing orders to work in areas where he might have been shot. In the brig, he signed a statement admitting that he "had committed a homosexual act and had taken morphine," prompting the Navy to boot him out of Vietnam to a hospital for evaluation. (Otherwise, he would have had to finish his thirteen months in Viemam when he was released from the brig.) He went AWOL in New York and was given an undesirable discharge.
When asked by Sheehan about the many lies and misrepresentations in his book, Lane admitted he did not check military records. "It's not relevant," Lane said.
"This kind of reasoning," Sheehan wrote, "amounts to a new McCarthyism, this time from the left. Any accusation, any innuendo, any rumor, is repeated and published as truth." An editor at Simon & Schuster, asked by Sheehan whether they compared the soldiers' tales to their military records, "equated the idea of searching the military records with taking a radical medical theory to the American Medical Association. 'They'd just say it was wrong,' he said." The editor admitted to Sheehan that the book was published as an antiwar protest.
That same disrespect for the truth was in operation during the Winter Soldier hearings. After all the atrocities were dutifully taken down, the transcript was inserted into the Congressional Record by Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, who asked the commandant of the Marine Corps to investigate the many crimes, particularly those perpetrated by Marines.
"The results of this investigation, carried out by the Naval Investigative Service are interesting and revealing," said historian Guenter Lewy in his book America in Vietnam. His history of the war was one of the first to rely on previously classified documents in the National Archives. "Many of the veterans, although assured that they would not be questioned about atrocities they might have committed personally, refused to be interviewed. One of the active members of the VVAW told investigators that the leadership had directed the entire membership not to cooperate with military authorities."
One black Marine who testified at Winter Soldier did agree to talk with the investigators. Although he had claimed during the hearings that Vietnam was "one huge atrocity" and a "racist plot," he could provide no details of any actual crimes. Lewy said the question of atrocities had not occurred to the Marine until he left Vietnam. His testimony had been substantially "assisted" by a member of the Nation of Islam.
"But the most damaging finding consisted of the sworn statements of several veterans, corroborated by witnesses, that they had in fact not attended the hearing in Detroit," Lewy wrote. "One of them had never been to Detroit in his life." Fake "witnesses" had appropriated the names of real Vietnam veterans.
Lewy pointed out that incidents similar to those described at the Winter Soldier hearings did occur. "Yet these incidents either (as in the destruction of hamlets) did not violate the law of war or took place in breach of existing regulations," Lewy wrote. Those responsible were tried and punished.
"In either case, they were not, as alleged, part of a 'criminal policy,'" Lewy said. Despite the antiwar movement's contention that military policies protecting civilians in Vietnam were routinely ignored, Lewy said the rules of engagement were implemented and taken very seriously, although at times the rules were not communicated properly and the training was inadequate. That's what made the failures so notable.
"The VVAW's use of fake witnesses and the failure to cooperate with military authorities and to provide crucial details of the incidents further cast serious doubt on the professed desire to serve the causes of justice and humanity," Lewy wrote. "It is more likely that this inquiry, like others earlier and later, had primarily political motives and goals." (Although it has been thoroughly discredited, the Winter Soldier "investigation" is still being cited today as "proof" of American servicemen's barbarity. Writer Susan Brownmiller referenced it in Newsweek in a 1993 story on gang rape by soldiers.)
In April 1971, the VVAW staged a demonstration it called Dewey Canyon III, a "limited incursion into the country of Congress." The protest was named after an operation in 1969 that sent elements of the 3rd Marine Division into Laos. About this same time, an ad appeared in The New York Times signed by forty-nine American servicemen from the 1st Air Cavalry Division urging support for antiwar demonstrations. But as United Press International later reported, the men, members of a Mekong Delta-based helicopter unit, had neither read nor paid for the ad.
Dewey Canyon III featured Vietnam veterans marching on Washington in a very dramatic, emotional way. Long-haired, scruffy, dressed in camouflage and the remnants of military garb, and draped in medals, they presented the image of men who had obviously been tested in battle and had seen the horrors of war, like bedraggled Southerners returning home from the battle of Gettysburg.
After being blocked from holding a ceremony honoring the war dead at Arlington National Cemetery, the veterans marched to the Capitol to present sixteen demands to Congress. At the end of the day; they held a candlelight march around the White House. After a man who said his son died in Vietnam blew taps, the soldiers began flinging their war medals over a high wire fence in front of the Capitol: Purple Hearts, Bronze Star Medals, Silver Stars -- bits of ribbon and metal hurled in the face of the government that had so betrayed them. Some, after throwing away what had cost them so dearly, broke down and cried.
One of them was John Kerry, Vietnam Navy veteran and aspiring politician who had been among those who organized the protest. Kerry flung a handful of medals -- he had received the Silver Star, a Bronze Star Medal, and three Purple Hearts -- over the fence. Kerry spoke later that week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, putting a face on the antiwar movement far different from the one seen before -- the scruffy hippie or wild-eyed activist. Kerry represented the All-American boy, mentally twisted by being asked to do terrible things, then abandoned by his government.
From start to finish, the public took Dewey Canyon III at face value, not understanding that they were watching brilliant political theater. Kerry, a Kennedy protege with white-hot political aspirations, ascended center stage as both a war hero and as an antiwar hero throwing away his combat decorations. His speech, apparently off the cuff, was eloquent, impassioned.
But years later, after his election to the Senate, Kerry's medals turned up on the wall of his Capitol Hill office. When a reporter noticed them, Kerry admitted that the medals he had thrown that day were not his. And Kerry's emotional, from-the-heart speech had been carefully crafted by a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy named Adam Walinsky, who also tutored him on how to present it. TV reporters totally ignored another Vietnam veteran, Melville L. Stephens, a former aide to Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, chief of Naval Operations, who that same day urged the Senate not to abandon America's allies in South Vietnam. "Peace for us must not come at the cost of their lives," Stephens said in a speech he wrote himself.
Kerry did not return from Vietnam a radical antiwar activist. Friends said that when Kerry first began talking about running for office, he was not visibly agitated about the Vietnam War. "I thought of him as a rather normal vet," a friend said to a reporter, "glad to be out but not terribly uptight about the war." Another acquaintance who talked to Kerry about his political ambitions called him "a very charismatic fellow looking for a good issue."
How many of the other participants in Dewey Canyon threw away "props"? How many were really Vietnam veterans? Well, let's take one example: Al Hubbard, the VVAW's executive secretary and one of the organizers of Winter Soldier. He wrote a poem that appeared at the beginning of The Winter Soldier Investigation, a book of testimonies from the hearings:
"This book is dedicated to you,
Before the napalm-scorched earth
consumes the blood of would-be-fathers
mothers on the run.
See what you've become,
A scathing commentary by one of those who could no longer stomach the fight, right? Wrong. Hubbard first claimed he was a decorated Air Force captain who had caught shrapnel in his spine flying a transport plane into Da Nang in 1966. But after NBC received a tip that Hubbard was lying about his rank, a reporter confronted him. He confessed on the evening news and the Today Show that he actually served as a sergeant, not a pilot or captain, in Vietnam.
John Kerry defended Hubbard, citing the confession as proof of Hubbard's integrity. "Al owned up to the rank question," Kerry said. "He thought it was time to tell the truth, and he did it because he thought it would be best for the organization."
William Overend, a CBS reporter sympathetic to the antiwar movement, later pointed out that Hubbard only confessed when he was confronted. Then the Defense Department issued a news release. "Alfred H. Hubbard entered the Air Force in October 1952, reenlisted twice and was honorably discharged in October 1966, when his enlistment expired," the statement said. "At the time of his discharge he was an instructor flight engineer on C-123 aircraft with the 7th Air Transport Squadron, McChord Air Force Base, Tacoma, Washington. There is *no record of any service in Vietnam* [emphasis in the original], but since he was an air crew member he could have been in Vietnam for brief periods during cargo loading, unloading operations, or for crew rest purposes. His highest grade held was staff sergeant E-5."
The announcement that Hubbard had no record of service in Vietnam jolted Overend, who had been impressed by Hubbard's leadership qualities. He began looking into Hubbard's background independently. Hubbard claimed he had been severely wounded. Overend called the VA, which confirmed that Hubbard had a sizable medical record and had a service-connected disability rating of 60 percent. At the time, he was receiving disability compensation of $163 a month. But the VA refused to say how, where, or when Hubbard was injured. Overend checked Hubbard's medals and decorations: Hubbard had no Purple Heart or Vietnam Service Ribbon, which can rightfully be claimed by any member of an air crew serving in Vietnam, no matter how briefly.
Hubbard refused to discuss his record. Overend finally discovered that Hubbard had suffered a rib injury during a basketball game in 1956, and a back injury in 1961 during a soccer game. Hubbard had not been wounded, nor had he ever served, in Vietnam. But the story was too long for television, and when Overend tried to sell the piece to a liberal publication, no one would touch it. The truth might hurt the antiwar effort. Overend finally published the story in July 1971 in the National Review.
Other major VVAW leaders, like Michael Harbert, also had problems with their credibility. Harbert claimed he was an ex-sergeant who had flown forty-seven missions over Vietnam during 1967 and 1968. "I had fantasies that they were going to take me prisoner because I was in the Air Force and flew in bombing missions over the North," he said after returning to Hanoi in the 1980s. "Suddenly I was back on my last combat mission after the Long Binh Bridge, over the Red River. I closed my eyes, and I was right back in the AWACS, directing an air strike...and the MiGs are in the air, and the surface-to-air missiles are after us." Hearing the explosions brought that fear back.
But Harbert's record showed that he was a member of the 964th Airborne Early Warning and Control Squadron, based at McClellan Air Force Base in California throughout the Vietnam War. The 964th flew EC-121D aircraft on what were known as "College Eye" missions -- well out of danger zones, usually along the coast of Siberia or China and not in range of MiG attacks and surface-to-air missiles. Harbert's awards and decorations include the Air Medal with one oak leaf cluster but no Vietnam Service Medal. His only overseas service was in Taiwan from November 28, 1967, to April 9, 1968.
"Stolen Valor", B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley, Verity Press, 1998, Chapter 6, Atrocities: The Good War Versus the Bad War, pgs. 130 - 137.