From March 13-16, 2008, members of the antiwar group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) will gather in Washington, DC to "testify" against the US military at a protest event called Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan. The name "Winter Soldier" is taken from the infamous 1971 event at which members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) related gruesome stories of crimes they claimed to have participated in or witnessed. The VVAW insisted that rape, torture and murder were standard practices for the US military in Vietnam. Organizers of the new IVAW tribunal, which is supported by several former VVAW leaders, say the 1971 conference was where "a courageous group of veterans exposed the criminal nature of the Vietnam War." In reality, it was part of a sophisticated, vicious propaganda effort designed to poison public opinion against the US military. Newly discovered records now reveal what happened when Army investigators asked VVAW activists for evidence of the hundreds of crimes they claimed to have seen.
In our book, To Set The Record Straight: How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs and the New Media Defeated John Kerry, Tim Ziegler and I trace the course of the anti-US war crimes propaganda campaign, which began in Europe with KGB-sponsored events that were organized before the first US ground troops ever arrived in Vietnam. In 1969, leaders of those conferences helped American radicals form the "Citizens Commission of Inquiry into US War Crimes in Indochina" (CCI), which set up a series of so-called investigations where US military actions in Vietnam were compared to those of Nazi Germany during World War II. The CCI soon joined forces with the VVAW, another leftist group created with financing and assistance from members of the Communist Party, USA, the Socialist Workers Party and the communist front Veterans for Peace.
The VVAW's Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI) took place in Detroit from Jan. 31 through Feb. 2, 1971. Financed primarily by pro-Hanoi actress Jane Fonda, the event's honorary national coordinator, WSI was the largest war crimes tribunal held in the US during the Vietnam War. Several of the discussion panel moderators were radical leaders who had previously met with top North Vietnamese and Vietcong representatives in Hanoi and Paris. Also present were leftist psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and clinicians, who pressured the witnesses to help end the war by publicly confessing their "crimes." Former VVAW member Steve Pitkin later recalled how the civilians went from man to man, "bombarding them; laying on the guilt." Pitkin signed an affidavit in 2004 charging that John Kerry and other VVAW leaders had coerced him into making a false statement.
WSI was the source of the allegations John Kerry presented to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in April 1971, at a hearing set up by antiwar Senators to showcase the VVAW's atrocity tales. The highly publicized appearance launched Kerry's political career and helped to create a lasting image of Vietnam veterans as drugged-out murderers too damaged to function in normal society. Justice was served in 2004 when a political movement led by some of the veterans John Kerry had defamed sank his presidential bid.
Investigating the winter soldiers
In 2005, I visited the National Archives at College Park, Maryland with Vietnam veteran and researcher John Boyle. Sifting through the limited material available, we found summary data for the WSI allegations the Army had investigated. The Army's Criminal Investigative Division (CID) had opened cases for 43 WSI "witnesses" whose claims, if true, would qualify as crimes. An additional 25 Army WSI participants had criticized the military in general terms, without sufficient substance to warrant any investigation.
The 43 WSI CID cases were eventually resolved as follows: 25 WSI participants refused to cooperate, 13 provided information but failed to support the allegations, and five could not be located. No criminal charges were filed as a result of any of the investigations. The individual CID case files, which had been available to the public beginning in 1994, were withdrawn from public access around 2003, when the National Archives realized that the documents should have been embargoed until the personal information they contained could be removed, or "redacted," as required by the Privacy Act of 1974.
Early in 2007, Boyle learned that a historian had copied the entire collection of CID war crime investigation summaries at the National Archives, including those involving the VVAW, while they were still publicly available. The historian permitted Boyle to photocopy these documents, which we have now posted at WinterSoldier.com:
Army CID Investigations of VVAW War Crimes Allegations
The CID summary reports are revealing. Most of the WSI participants refused to provide evidence to support their allegations. Some made statements that were contradicted by other witnesses, were discredited, or were not substantiated by subsequent investigation.
Several of the VVAW activists backtracked significantly on their WSI statements:
B7 Douglas Craig claimed at WSI that members of his battalion had fired mortar rounds each night into a local dump, intentionally killing civilians who were scavenging for food. Craig told investigators he had no direct knowledge of these events and expressed misgivings about making allegations in Detroit he could not substantiate.
B7 Larry Craig claimed at WSI that he watched US soldiers murder a Vietnamese civilian and, on another occasion, desecrate Vietnamese graves. Craig admitted to investigators that the man who was killed could have been Vietcong, and that the soldier allegedly digging in a cemetery could have been looking for weapons caches.
B7 Donald Donner claimed at WSI that Army personnel had murdered a Vietnamese male, intentionally wounded a 14-year-old Vietnamese girl, indiscriminately slaughtered livestock and failed to bury enemy dead. Donner admitted to the CID that his stories were actually lies, rumors and accounts of accidental events.
B7 John Lytle claimed at WSI that his unit murdered civilians by destroying villages with artillery fire without making any effort to determine who was there. However, Lytle told the CID that the villages were actually fired on because it was suspected that Vietcong occupied them and incoming fire had been received from the area.
B7 Robert McConnachie claimed at WSI that Army troops in a convoy threw C-ration cans at Vietnamese children with such force as to kill one or two. He also said an artillery unit had intentionally shelled a hospital and killed civilians. McConnachie backtracked when questioned by military investigators, saying that no Vietnamese children were actually killed by troops throwing C-rations. He said he now believed that the alleged killing of civilians in a hospital by artillery fire was accidental.
B7 Ronald Palosaari claimed at WSI that Army troops killed two children and an old lady by throwing a grenade into a bunker next to a house. He also said he saw a Vietnamese soldier cut off the ear of a NVA soldier who had just been killed. Interviewed by Army investigators, Palosaari was unable to provide specific dates, locations or the names of any individuals involved in the alleged grenade incident. He admitted that he did not actually witness the mutilation of any enemy dead.
B7 Donald Pugsley claimed at WSI that a helicopter gunship strafed and killed water buffalo. He admitted to investigators that no water buffalo were actually fired upon.
B7 Kenneth Ruth claimed at WSI to have witnessed the torture of Vietcong suspects, and told Life Magazine that he saw troops test fire weapons into a village, wounding 43 civilians. However, Ruth admitted to Army investigators that he had no personal knowledge of such an event. The CID found his torture claims unsubstantiated.
B7 George Smith claimed at WSI that members of his Special Forces unit had beaten enemy prisoners and placed them in small barbed-wire cages. Smith backtracked on these claims when interviewed by Army investigators, saying that the alleged acts were actually committed by South Vietnamese forces rather than American troops.
B7 David Stark claimed at WSI that hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were killed by indiscriminate bombing and strafing in the Saigon area during late 1968. He also claimed to have witnessed the maltreatment of prisoners. However, Stark told CID interviewers that he actually saw no bodies, was unable to identify the aircraft or military units involved in the attacks or the cleanup operation, and admitted that he had never witnessed maltreatment of prisoners, except for a single occasion when he said he saw a prisoner pushed and shoved by two South Vietnamese officers.
The only Army witness to appear at WSI whose allegations have been substantiated was James Henry. Military authorities closed Henry's case, which had already been under review for nearly a year by the time of WSI, after "an extensive investigation did not reveal sufficient evidence to prove or disprove Mr. Henry's allegations." However, the CID also opened a supplemental investigation into whether a group of civilians had been killed by US troops. The results of that investigation indicate that crimes were probably committed, but no documentation of any prosecutions has been found or reported.
The Naval Investigative Service (NIS) was ordered to investigate charges made at WSI by VVAW members representing themselves as veterans of the Navy or Marines. Their reports have not been located, and it is uncertain whether they were destroyed or are lost in the vast government archives system. Historian Guenter Lewy cited a summary report by NIS in his 1978 book America in Vietnam, noting that many participants refused to provide evidence to Navy investigators, and others backtracked on their stories C"b," the same pattern found in the newly discovered Army CID documents. Lewy also reported that several veterans told the NIS in sworn statements corroborated by witnesses that they had not been in Detroit -- i.e., the VVAW activists who used their names were imposters.
It is unfortunate that the military didn't simply release the results of the investigations as they were completed. America's Vietnam veterans might have been spared several decades of public distrust and contempt stimulated by the leftist "baby-killer" agitprop. Unfortunately, US military leaders during the Vietnam era failed to understand that home-front psychological warfare operations pose at least as great a threat to the military's ability to successfully complete its mission as enemy operations in the field.
The (not so) new winter soldiers
Among the VVAW retreads supporting the IVAW's new propaganda campaign is Joe Bangert, a former Marine mechanic who claimed at WSI that he had watched while his fellow Americans casually gunned down Vietnamese children and murdered and skinned a Vietnamese woman. Bangert, a fervent supporter of America's wartime enemies, met in 1971 with North Vietnamese and Vietcong delegations in Paris, where he proudly sang "We Will Liberate the South," and the "Ballad of Uncle Ho" for his hosts. He later moved to join his comrades in communist Vietnam, where he lived for several years.
Members of the military with actual knowledge of crimes committed by US troops in Iraq or Afghanistan have a legal and moral obligation to report them to military authorities. The activists who will claim in Washington that they saw or participated in such crimes presumably failed to do this. What are we to make of "witnesses" who ignore crimes while in the field, but later make allegations in a venue designed to smear the military and its mission? Add the near-certainty that the charges themselves will be vague, lacking the specific details and supporting evidence that real investigations require. Perhaps this time we should assume that the troops who defend us are innocent when they are accused of unsubstantiated "crimes" by a radical movement with a long history of deceit.
In light of the new CID documents, will John Kerry admit that the war crime allegations he presented to the Senate in 1971 were largely fictitious? When the Winter Soldier documentary is shown to college students, will liberal professors now point out that it has been thoroughly discredited? Will the Washington Post reconsider its credulous 2005 film review? Can we expect the new discovery to be reported accurately on Wikipedia's leftist-controlled Winter Soldier page? Will the IVAW radicals currently preparing their own attack on the US military be embarrassed to learn that they are emulating a fraud?
Not a chance. WSI was always about perceptions; never reality. America's detractors will peddle the VVAW's grisly myths for as long as people are willing to believe them.