Excerpt -- Guenter Lewy,


Another organization active in airing charges of American atrocities in Vietnam was the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), which was founded in 1967; by 1970 it was said to have 600 members. From 31 January to 2 February 1971, the VVAW, with financial backing from actress Janes Fonda, convened a hearing, known as the Winter Soldier Investigation, in the city of Detroit. More than 100 veterans and 16 civilians testified at this hearing about "war crimes which they either committed or witnessed"; (26) some of them had given similar testimony at the CCI inquiry in Washington. The allegations included using prisoners for target practice and subjecting them to a variety of grisly tortures to extract information, cutting off the ears of dead VCs, throwing VC suspects out of helicopters, burning villages, gang rapes of women, packing the vagina of a North Vietnamese nurse full of grease with a grease gun, and the like. Among the persons assisting the VVAW in organizing and preparing this hearing was Mark Lane, author of a book attacking the Warren Commission probe of the Kennedy Assassination and more recently of "Conversations with Americans", a book of interviews with Vietnam veterans about war crimes. On 22 December 1970 Lane's book had received a highly critical review in the "New York Times Book Review" by Neil Sheehan, who was able to show that some of the alleged "witnesses" of Lane's war crimes had never even served in Vietnam while others had not been in the combat situations they described in horrid detail. Writing in the "Saturday Review" a few days later, James Reston, Jr., called "Conversations with Americans" "a hodgepodge of hearsay" which ignored "a soldiers talent for embellishment" and a "disreputable book." (27) To prevent the Detroit hearing from being tainted by such irregularities, all of the veterans testifying fully identified the units in which they had served and provided geographical descriptions of where the alleged atrocities had taken place. Yet the appearance of exactitude was deceptive. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon was impressed by the charges made by the veterans and inserted the transcript of the Detroit hearing into the "Congressional Record." Furthermore, he asked the commandant of the Marine Corps to investigate the numerous allegations of wrongdoing made against the Marine in particular.

The results of this investigation, carried out by the Naval Investigative Service, are interesting and revealing.

Many of the veterans, though 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. A black Marine who agreed to be interviewed was unable to provide details of the outrages he had described at the hearing, but he called the Vietnam War "one huge atrocity" and "a racist plot." He admitted that the question of atrocities had not occurred to him while he was in Vietnam, and that he had been assisted in the preparation of his testimony 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. One of them had never been to Detroit in all his life. He did not know, he stated, who might have used his name.(28) Incidents similar to some of those described at the VVAW hearing undoubtedly did occur. We know that hamlets were destroyed, prisoners tortured, and corpses mutilated. 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. In either case, they were not, as alleged, part of a "criminal policy." 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. It is more likely that this inquiry, like others earlier and later, had primarily political motives and goals.

In April 1971 several members of Congress provided a platform on Capitol Hill for the airing of atrocity allegations. Rep. Ronald V. Dellums of California chaired an ad hoc hearing which lasted four days and took testimony from Vietnam veterans. Some of the witnesses were old-timers. One Peter Norman Martinson had testified before the Russel tribunal, been an interviewee in Mark Lane's book, and appeared before the CCI inquiry. Some new witnesses sounded as if they had memorized North Vietnamese propaganda. Capt. Randy Floyd, a former marine pilot, ended his testimony by telling the committee that he was ashamed to have been "an unwitting pawn of my government's inhuman imperialistic policy in Southeast Asia. . . . And I am revolted by my government which commits genocide because it is good business." For his testimony Floyd drew the praise of Congressman Dellums: "I would like to thank you very much for the courage of your testimony and the preparation and details. We are deeply appreciative of the fact that you came forward today."(29) The testimony of some other witnesses was more judicious. When Capt. Fred Laughlin, a West Point graduate, was asked by Rep. Patsy T. Mink of Hawaii about the "mere-gook" rule, he replied that the attitude of American servicemen toward the Vietnamese varied from unit to unit. Some had a bad attitude, but "I felt that most of my unit considered the Vietnamese human." Rep. John F. Seiberling of Ohio wanted to know to what extent Laughlin felt qualified to generalize about incidents of mistreatment, and the captain answered: "I certainly don't feel qualified in generalizing. . . . I hope, as you point out, that we do in this exercise get down to the facts, not be guilty of generalizing. . . ."(30)

The detailed facts of particular incidents were not of any great concern to Kenneth B. Osborn, who testified before the House Government Operations Committee in the summer of 1971. The former intelligence officer had told the CCI inquiry of an incident in which a VC suspect had been pushed out of a helicopter in order to scare other detainees into talking. Asked for the name of the marine officer who had given this order, Osborn declined: "In all due respect, I do recall his name, but I am not willing to go into that. You can see that is irrelevant. In fact, the form of the thing is what we are talking about."(31)

Two years later, in July 1973, Osborn appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to oppose the confirmation of William E. Colby as head of the CIA. Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri asked Osborn for the names of those who had committed the atrocities he claimed to have witnessed, but Osborn again refused. When questioned as to whether he had ever submitted an official complaint about these atrocities while in Vietnam, Osborn replied: "No, sir. They seemed to me at the time to be standard operating procedure." And when asked whether he had made any reports since his discharge from the service, he stated: "Only in the form of my testimony, which has been minimally investigated by the Army."(32) In point of fact, the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) had interviewed Osborn soon after he first made his charges, but, like the two congressional committees later on, the CID had been unable to get him to provide specific information about the alleged incidents.(33)

The refusal of men like Osborn to give substantiating factual information in support of their atrocity allegations created a situation in which the accusers continued to reap generous publicity for their sensational charges while the Army in most cases could neither investigate nor refute them. Since the CID is prohibited from divulging any information regarding its investigations, the Army could not even make it known that it was trying to pursue possible leads despite the absence of crucial details withheld by the accusers. As of 11 April 1971, the CID had determined that 7 of 16 allegations made by the CCI which could be investigated were unfounded or unsubstantiated.(34) Most of the allegations were so general as to defy investigation.

There was another reason to be wary of these allegations and confessions. They all were retrospective reports and therefore, as is well known, subject to distortion -- in this case created by the veterans' perceptions of the interviewers and organizers of the hearings, by their attitudes toward the military and by their difficulties in adjusting to civilian life after discharge.

Problems of adjustment to civilian society have been faced by all veterans returning from war. They involve the loss of a closely knit peer group and often disappointment that the veterans' sacrifices are not sufficiently valued by the civilians who stayed at home.(35) In the case of the returning Vietnam veterans these problems were increased manifold because of widespread negative sentiments toward the war in American society which left many of the veterans shocked, thinking that they had wasted their time and feeling guilty for having taken human life in an unworthy cause. By joining a group like the VVAW they could recapture some of the security and camaraderie they had enjoyed in the service and missed in civilian life. By speaking out against the war they could hope to improve their rapport with the dominant currents of opinion in the society they were re-entering. Since their acts of killing in the line of duty were not appreciated, it was tempting to convert these killings into atrocities. In this way the veterans gained approval and acceptance, especially among the college population. By confessing to having committed atrocities they achieved an emotional catharsis and relief for their guilt feelings. When they made these confessions at public hearings they became important persons; by sharing their confessions with other veterans they found a new sense of intimacy and belonging.

Some veterans who experienced adjustment problems, including some who felt uneasy over their role in a counterinsurgency war in which civilians were inevitably killed, were persuaded to join informal rap groups conducted by antiwar-oriented mental health practitioners. In these group therapy sessions they could relieve their guilt feelings by telling their war experiences in a supportive environment, and those who were not yet part of the movement were encouraged to take an active share in the antiwar agitation. A psychoanalyst who led some of these groups has written that merely sharing grief and outrage was not enough. "By actively opposing the very war policies they helped to carry out and by throwing away the medals they won, they symbolically shed some of their guilt."(36)

A certain amount of this guilt feeling was probably encouraged by the leaders of these groups, all staunch opponents of the war, and there is reason to think that at least some of the atrocities confessed at these rap sessions (and perhaps later repeated in public) were induced by group expectations and pressures. Some were the product of fantasy on the part of emotionally disturbed individuals. Robert Lifton, another psychiatrist involved in these sessions who believes in the frequent occurrence of atrocities, recalls the case of one veteran who after a year's attendance in the rap group could "confess that he had been much less violent in Vietnam than he had implied. He had previously given the impression that he had killed many people there, whereas in actuality, despite extensive combat experience, he could not be certain he had killed anyone. After overcoming a certain amount of death anxiety and death guilt, that is, he had much less need to call forth his inner beast to lash out at others or himself."(37)

The question whether the atrocity stories were true or not was dismissed as unimportant by some social scientists. Charles J. Levy, a Harvard sociologist, told the Senate Labor Committee in 1970 that the Vietnam combat experience had a highly brutalizing effect on American servicemen and created in them a propensity to become killers. His finding was based on a study of veterans, primarily in the Boston area, who after allegedly engaging in a great deal of violence in Vietnam had drifted into a life of violent crime in this country. When a senator disputed Levy's evidence for this conclusion, Levy replied that he was "primarily concemed with the subjective reality as to what these episodes that were described by them, meant to these men, how they affected them. It seems to me that if these episodes were not true, that in another way is equally telling." (38)

The existence of a killer instinct which Vietnam veterans allegedly were bringing back from combat in Vietnam was challenged at the same hearing by another sociologist as lacking even "one shred of data or evidence." According to Charles C. Moskos, there existed "a marked tendency at elite cultural and intellectual levels to portray soldiers as, variously, wanton perpetrators of atrocities, or proto-fascist automatons.. . ."(39) Atrocity stories out of Vietnam, Moskos has suggested, were the functional equivalent of heroic war stories out of World War II. Both gave the soldiers' participation in these wars a meaning which could resonate with certain elements of the public back home.

Since the end of the American involvement in Vietnam one has not heard much about the brutalization hypothesis. It would appear, as one student of Vietnam returnees has suggested, that the reports of detrimental psychological effects of the Vietnam combat experience were based on uncontrolled studies of highly selected samples and that "some mental health professionals have overstepped their data to support their politics."(40)

The Role of the Media

In the absence of corroborating evidence, the atrocity stories told by some Vietnam veterans should have been treated by the media with far more circumspection than they in fact were. But the tendency on the part of all too many newspaper and television reporters and editors was to see the war in Vietnam as an atrocity writ large, and specific incidents reported therefore were widely accepted as true. Some allegations were repeated so many times that they seemed to supply their own confirmation: where there was so much smoke there just had to be a fire.

One of the stories told and retold was that of prisoners pushed out of helicopters in order to scare others into talking. It is, of course, possible that some American interrogators engaged in this criminal practice, though not a single instance has been confirmed. We do know of at least one case where such an occurrence was staged through the use of a dead body. An investigation by the CID identified the soldier who had taken the photograph; it also identified a second soldier who acquired the picture, made up the story of the interrogation and mailed it and the photograph to his girlfriend. She in turn gave them to her brother, who informed the Chicago Sun-Times. On 29-30 November 1969 the picture and the story appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and the Washington Post and generated wide media interest. A lengthy investigation by the CID, which began on 8 January 1970, established that a dead NVA soldier had been picked up on 15 February 1969 after an operation in Cia Dinh province (III CIZ) and adduced other details of how the picture had been posed. The commander of the helicopter in question was reprimanded; the two crew members who had pushed the body out of the aircraft had since been discharged and therefore were beyond the Army's disciplinary jurisdiction.(41)

On at least one occasion a reporter contributed to the commission of an atrocity. On 9 October 1967 the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite showed a young American soldier cutting off the ear of a dead VC soldier as a souvenir of battle. An investigation disclosed that the soldier and another man in the same unit on 7 October 1967 had apparently acted on a "dare" after being given a knife by a CBS cameraman, who then filmed the sequence. The two soldiers were tried and convicted by special court-martial of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline and were sentenced to a reduction in grade and a fine.(42) The CBS cameraman admitted that he had provided the knife, but insisted that he had not known what the soldiers asking for it were going to do with it.

(26) Vietnam Veterans Against the War, The Winter Soldier Investigation: An Inquiry into American War Crimes (Boston, 1972) p. xiv.
(27) Saturday Review, 9 January 1971, p. 26.
(28) Office of the Director, Judge Advocate Division, Headquarters USMC, Winter Soldier Investigation files.
(29) Citizens Commission of Inquiry, The Dellums Committee Hearings on War Crimes in Vietnam (New York, 1972), p. 302.
(30) Ibid., p. 22.
(31) U.S. House, Committee on Government Operations, Subcommittee on Foreign Operations and Government Information, U.S. Assistance Programs in Vietnam, Hearings, 92nd Cong., 1st sess., 15 July-2 August 1971, p. 319.
(32) U.S. Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Nomination of William E. Colby, Hearings, 93rd Cong., 1st sess., 2-25 July 1973, pp. 109-10.
(33) Ibid., p. 117.
(34) U.S. Department of the Army, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Talking Paper, "Allegations of War Crimes Other Than Son My," 11 April 1971, JAGW 1971/1068.
(35). Cf. Roy R. Grinker and John P. Spiegel, Men Under Stress (Philadelphia, 1963), p. 451.
(36) Chaim F. Shatan, "How Do We Turn off the Guilt?" Human Behavior II, no. 2 (February 1973):61.
(37) Robert Jay Lifton, Home From the War: Vietnam Veterans -- Neither Victims nor Executioners (New York, 1973), p. 140.
(38) U.S. Senate, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, Unemployment and Overall Readjustment Problems of Returning Veterans, Hearings, 91st Cong., 2nd sess., 25 November-3 December 1970, p. 215. See also Levy's book Spoils of War (Boston, 1974), p. 42.
(39) U.S. Senate, ibid., pp. 342, 345.
(40) Jonathan F. Borus, "Incidence of Maladjustment in Vietnam Returnees," Archives of General psychiatry XXX (1974):556.
(41) U.S. Department of the Army, Office of the Judge Advocate General, International Affairs Division, files of atrocity allegations.
(42) Ibid. See also John J. O'Connor, A Chaplain Looks at Vietnam (New York, 1968), p. 47.

"America in Vietnam", Guenter Lewy, Oxford University press, 1978, Chapter 9, Atrocities: Fiction and Fact, pgs. 316 - 322.