I spent the weekend discussing Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at a conference, and on the way home I finished reading a new, short book by a remarkable investigative journalist, Deborah Nelson. Entitled The War Behind: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes, it was written after two researchers named Kali Tal and Nicholas Turse had uncovered an Army file of a number of extensive investigations of war crimes that began after the revelation in 1969 of the My Lai massacre As she eventually realized, the Army had started the investigations to forestall possible accusations of cover-up. Most of them—like the My Lai revelation—were provoked by letters from soldiers, often written after they had left the service. (We owe our knowledge of My Lai to Ronald Ridenhour, who had gone from Vietnam to journalism school in Arizona, and whose extraordinary letter—dispatched to more than 20 offices in Washington—can be read here.) Another spur was the Winter Soldier investigation, a series of hearings (later turned into a documentary film, now available again) sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which were the basis for John Kerry’s famous testimony before a Congressional Committee—testimony for which other veterans have never forgiven him.
Nelson and Nick Turse tracked down an extraordinary number of veterans and senior officers who had written letters, participated in atrocities, and participated in investigations. Quite a few had died, including one George Lewis, who had written an extraordinarily detailed letter to General Westmoreland, then the Chief of Staff of the Army, from Germany in May 1970 about the huge body counts run up by the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta during 1968-9. Lewis, still in the military, signed his letter “Concerned Sergeant,” but army investigators eventually identified him. A year later, after Lt. William Calley’s conviction for My Lai, “Concerned Sergeant” wrote two more letters. By September 1971 the CID had identified Lewis as the man, but General Westmoreland ordered that the investigation be closed before he could interviewed. After a lengthy search, Nelson and Turse found that Lewis had died in 2004 after years of homelessness, drug addiction, and heart disease. No action was ever taken against the commanders of the 9th Division, Generals Ewell and Hunt, who were also the subject of scathing criticism in About Face, the autobiography of David Hackworth, who had been one of their battalion commanders.
Another extraordinary finding referred to the famous case of Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert, who became a national figure after appearing on the Dick Cavett show to discuss his attempts to bring war crimes—especially involving coercive interrogations—to the attention of higher authority. It has long been known that the Army waged an intensive campaign to discredit Herbert, even enlisting 60 Minutes in their effort to do so. Newly available documentation proves the Army had found that Herbert had told the truth in several key allegations. Worse, it turns out that on April 15, 1971, Major Carl E. Hensley of the Criminal Investigation Division, who was leading the Herbert investigation, shot himself in his home. Within 24 hours the CID Chief, Henry Tufts—who later assured General Westmoreland that he had more than enough material to discredit Herbert—announced that the suicide had absolutely nothing to do with the Herbert investigation. That was false. The file on Hensley’s suicide contains sworn statements by both a psychiatrist and his wife confirming that he had become deeply depressed by problems involving his work. He never discussed them specifically with either one, but he told his wife that he had “suppressed information and could get four to ten years for what he knew.” When she asked him what he was talking about, he replied that “it goes all the way up to the highest,” and said that shooting himself was the only way out. Two days later he carried out his threat.
Almost without exception the superior officers Nelson found denied that their units had done anything wrong. More than a few criticized her for bringing up old allegations and asked her instead to help drum up support for the war in Iraq. Many stated, in one way or another, that no one understood the pressures soldiers were under. Nelson also went to Vietnam to gather information on specific accusations. Looking for evidence of one documented massacre, she sometimes found memorials to several more (usually involving from two to a dozen deaths) that she had known nothing about.
War crimes investigations in Iraq have followed a similar pattern to those in Vietnam. Only one Marine is still awaiting trial in the Haditha massacre of more than 20 people—charges against most of them were dropped. (Sean Hannity, by the way, frequently rails against Congressman John Murtha for not having apologized to the Marines involved after the Marine Corps had dismissed most of the charges.) The disposition of the Abu Ghraib allegations—the subject of an amazing documentary by Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedures—is well known. The Nation published a very long study, based on statements by soldiers who identified themselves, about more or less random killings of Iraqi civilians, but it drew little attention. Some months ago it developed that some US soldiers in Afghanistan had gone on a rampage on a highway, shooting perhaps 10 civilians at random, but I am not aware that any prosecutions are underway. The United States simply is not disposed to act harshly against soldiers who commit war crimes in this kind of environment.
I am not sure myself how these cases should have been handled. On the one hand, I feel crimes should be published, especially by the United States, which did so much to establish the Nuremberg precedents. On the other hand, I have felt for 40 years—since the My Lai revelations at least—that such crimes are inevitable any time that large numbers of foreign soldiers are deployed in a hostile environment. The real fault lies with the highest authorities who undertake these kinds of wars in the first place, and the only remedy is not to make the decision to subdue foreign populations.
Near the end of the book Nelson introduces to a venerable gentleman who agrees with me, retired army Brigadier General John Johns, who spent many years as a faculty member in military institutions after the war and is a qualified military ethicist. It turns out that Jones both worked on investigating war crimes allegations—a job he took very seriously—and also wrote a study on the Army and counterinsurgency and nation building in the late 1960s. It became policy guidance, but higher-ups deleted his most important conclusion. I quote from Nelson’s paraphrase, based apparently on her own interviews with Johns: “Foreign combat forces, such as the United States military in Vietnam, could not successfully conduct such wars. The most fundamental reason, he argued, was that the nature of such wars made atrocities inevitable, regardless of leadership and training of the troops. Fighting insurgents would place U.S. troops in populated areas, where the combatants were mixed with civilians. That would give the insurgents a tremendous advantage, unless the U.S. forces were willing to accept a high level of civilian casualties. But killing civilians would only increase support for the insurgency.” Although Army leaders avoided any possible counterinsurgencies for their own reasons during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, they did not want to put that lesson in print. Now we are back in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Officials,” Johns told Nelson, “should not go into counterinsurgency operations without accepting the fact hat atrocities will be committed, they will turn the people against us, and we will lose.”
I agree with Johns, not simply because of atrocities, but because I believe that the day in which a traditional third world nation—certainly one with a warrior tradition—will accept a regime imposed by a western army is long, long past. It seems, indeed, as if our stay in Iraq will terminate about as quickly as the British one did 80 years or so ago. Right now President Obama desperately needs good advice about Afghanistan, and we can only hope that he gets it. When I recently expressed skepticism about new wars in distant lands on an email list, a conservative Boomer accused me, in effect, of never having gotten over Vietnam. He is right—not because of squeamishness or sentimentality, but because it taught me a lesson about the limits of U.S. power that I shall never forget, and which the nation may have to learn all over again.