Echoes of Vietnam War Crimes

Philadelphia Inquirer

February 22, 2009 – Some lessons from the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, perhaps the most-debated invasion in American history, are just that: history. Other lessons are as fresh as today’s news, as U.S. military involvement continues in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jamie Henry knows. In 1968, at age 20, he was serving as a medic on Vietnamese battlefields. He saw the horror of a massacre, when members of his military company executed 19 unarmed children and adults. Henry reported the deaths to the U.S. Army command. Their reaction? You are lying, Henry. He assumed that his military superiors had never investigated the claim.

Decades later, Henry learned that Army investigators had conducted more than 100 interviews to determine the truth of his allegation. Those interviews formed the basis of a report sent up the chain of command to the upper echelons of the Pentagon. But those in the upper echelons kept the truth from the American public.

As war crimes by U.S. personnel reverberate from Iraq around the world, journalist Deborah Nelson demonstrates, using the Vietnam War for her template, how such lethal behavior can escalate until it is out of control.

A former newspaper reporter, Nelson is one of the most experienced, talented investigative journalists alive. Earlier in her career, she never expected to use her investigative skills on something as quasi-historical as Vietnam War massacres of civilians during the late 1960s and early 1970s that were led by American soldiers.

Nelson, now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, became involved in the reporting that resulted in her book during 2005, while working in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times. The path to her remarkable book-length expose looks like this, in short:

In 1969, journalist Seymour Hersh published a story about what that became known as the My Lai massacre, named for a hamlet in Vietnam. The U.S. military was still deeply committed to fighting the war when the story about American troops slaughtering Vietnamese civilians made the headlines. The Army investigated, and four months later acknowledged both the magnitude of the massacre and the cover-up.

In secret, the Army began a broader inquiry into other alleged war crimes throughout Southeast Asia. The inquiry lasted five years, resulting in a file of about 9,000 pages connecting American troops to atrocities. The inquiry led to no public accounting, no major prosecutions of the perpetrators.

In 1990, Kali Tal, founder of a small-circulation journal about the 1960s called Vietnam Generation, learned about the closed archive. She requested access from the National Archives and Records Administration. After waiting about a year, she received access. The material turned out to be stunning in its revelations; Tal wrote a brief account in the journal to inform other potential researchers. She did nothing more, however, and the documents returned to their archival home.

A decade after Tal’s investigations, Cliff Snyder, employed at the National Archives, mentioned the documents to Nicholas Turse, a visiting military historian. Turse contacted the Los Angeles Times, where he ended up meeting Nelson. “We joined forces soon afterward to investigate the long-buried crimes,” Nelson says in the introduction to her book.

To narrate the story of what she and Turse discovered, Nelson uses herself and her research partner as characters. As a result, readers will learn a great deal about the internal processes of investigative journalism. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became famous in the 1970s partly because they built their White House expose around their day-to-day reporting. Nelson’s book is not exactly patterned after All The President’s Men. To some extent, however, the admirable effect is the same.

After reviewing the archival files carefully, Nelson and Turse began tracking down military veterans who had reported allegations of atrocities and those who allegedly had conducted the killing. Nelson, with a well-deserved reputation as a master interviewer, explains how she persuaded some of the frightened and resentful veterans to talk openly.

The stonewalling by some veterans and the confessionals by others make for fascinating reading. At the end of the book, Nelson provides an accounting of “war-crime investigations compiled by Army staff during the Vietnam War.” Although her book shows the investigators did not learn about all the massacres, the list nevertheless tops 150.

The recounting, Nelson says, comes at an important time, “when, having failed to address the past, we’re hell-bound to repeat it.”

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