The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about US War Crimes in Vietnam


American soldiers look over the remains of a home in My Lai, South Vietnam in this January 8, 1970 file photo. The GIs are in a safe area marked off with white tape, having been swept for booby-traps that have already wounded five soldiers since the investigation of the killing of unarmed civilians by members of the U.S. Army - what would come to be called The My Lai Massacre - began. (AP Photo/File)


By Deborah Nelson

A letter from Robert Froehlke, secretary of the Army in the early 1970s, arrived in my mailbox a few weeks after the release of my book on U.S. war crimes in Vietnam last year. Mr. Froehlke wrote that he had read the book and didn’t enjoy it. He assured me that I should not take this personally, as he could not imagine reading a book on the Vietnam War and enjoying it.

“But your facts are correct,” he said, “and you can’t ask for more than that.”

The facts in The War Behind Me were drawn from a declassified Army Staff archive of reports on U.S. atrocities, and from interviews with the Pentagon officials who compiled the records and combat veterans named in them. The picture that emerged contrasted sharply with the military’s official version of the facts. The Army then and since maintained that My Lai was an aberration and that, while other atrocities occurred, they were “isolated incidents” not indicative of a systemic problem.

Claims to the contrary were disparaged as enemy propaganda The existence of an alternate reality in the Army’s own files remained a closely held secret long after the war ended. Finally declassified around 1990, the files lingered in obscurity on the storeroom shelves of the National Archives and Records Administration for another decade, until a handful of scholars and journalists took notice. I learned about the collection in 2005 from Nick Turse, who had analyzed the documents for his dissertation at Columbia University. Over the next year and a half, we entered data from the files into spreadsheets, conducted scores of interviews, visited Vietnam and published a two-part series in the Los Angeles Times.

Our research found that Army investigators had secretly confirmed cases involving 300 or more incidents, including massacres, murders, torture, mutilation of corpses, indiscriminate fire in civilian areas, wanton destruction of property and cover-ups. Yet the public was not told of the findings.

Among the cases was an atrocity that took place on February 8, 1968, a month before the My Lai massacre. A company from the 35th Infantry Regiment entered a tiny rural hamlet in Quang Nam province, gathered 19 civilians – babies, children, women and an elderly man – and executed them.

A medic, Jamie Henry, reported the massacre as soon as he returned stateside, but the Army investigator didn’t believe him. Henry repeated his allegations at a press conference in Los Angeles in early 1970. This time, Criminal Investigation Division called him, and he provided a detailed, 10-page sworn statement. But as far as he knew, the Army did nothing with the information.

The declassified records show differently: CID contacted 100 members of his company over the next three and a half years, confirming the massacre and identifying several suspects. The Army never told the public about its findings, and no one was prosecuted. Henry first learned of the investigation and outcome in 2005, when we contacted him.

The Army Staff archive also made cryptic mention of an egregious case of torture that had never come to light. Our reporting filled out the details: A dozen members of a military intelligence detachment in Binh Dinh province wrote to the Army inspector general in spring 1969 to report that U.S. interrogators were abusing detainees. A major from the inspector general’s office threatened the letter-writers with charges, so they shut up. Much later, Army investigators looking into another case came across evidence of torture by the unit. They ultimately concluded that interrogators had participated in torture over a 19-month period in 1968-69. Common techniques included electric shock delivered through field phone wires, water rag (similar to water-boarding), sticks and fists. The report identified 20 U.S. suspects, including eight who admitted to abusing prisoners. No one was prosecuted, and the findings were covered up.

The outcomes of those cases were not at all unusual. I analyzed the fate of 191 suspects in the most serious of the confirmed cases – those that involved violence against people. Fifty-two were tried by courts martial, twenty-three were convicted and fourteen were sentenced to confinement. Half spent less than a year in confinement. Over and again, the light or nonexistent penalties reinforced the “mere gook rule”: the attitude, ingrained from boot camp onward, that Vietnamese were less than human.

Among those convicted was Sgt. Roy Bumgarner, Jr. In 1969, he executed two teenage duck-herders and an irrigator as they stood in a rice paddy near their homes in Binh Dinh province. Afterwards, he ordered one of his men to detonate a grenade by their heads, dropped weapons around their remains and reported three dead enemy combatants. (We were told that he was engaged in a “body count” competition at the time.) Angry villagers demanded an investigation. Bumgarner was tried by court martial and convicted. His sentence for a triple murder: A $582 fine and reduction in rank, but no prison time. The Army allowed him to re-up several months later, and he remained in Vietnam until the end of the war. He served as an Army instructor at Fort Jackson before retiring in 1981. He died in 2005 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The files also summarized more than 500 allegations from cases closed as “unfounded,” “unsubstantiated” or “due to insufficient evidence.” Some reflected paper-thin investigations. Others – roughly one quarter – included allegations that in fact had been confirmed by investigators. For example, CID confirmed a report that three GIs had tied a corpse to the fender of their truck in 1970, and they received reprimands. Yet the case was closed as “unsubstantiated.” A former top official at the Criminal Investigation Division Command attributed the spotty work product to an under-trained, overwhelmed and demoralized staff.

Taken as a whole, the records offered an extraordinary window into conditions and policies that led to atrocities: free-fire-zones, search-and-destroy operations, indiscriminate use of firepower, and body count, which measured results and meted out rewards through a tally of corpses. The narratives reflected a failure of leadership on the ground. Yet we found little soul-searching by military leaders in the files. Neither punishment nor deterrence seemed to be front-burner concerns. Records and interviews pointed instead to a cynical motive: damage control.

The Army Staff appointed to small group of officers to begin compiling the records shortly after Seymour Hersh’s expose on the My Lai massacre in late 1969. “We were following the president’s orders,” explained Jared Schopper, an aide to Gen. William Westmoreland when he served as Army chief of staff.

The White House wanted to know about any other potential scandals in the offing and to keep the Army “off the front page.” So the Army Staff set up a system to collect and monitor war crimes allegations that surfaced at CID, in congressional correspondence, in the media or at public forums. Schopper said they wanted to make sure the Army could say that every allegation was investigated as required under the Geneva Conventions. I asked Schopper what came of the investigations. “Generally no action was taken,” he said.

And the ultimate fate of the files?

“I suppose they ended up in the reservoir of official documents that no longer have viability”.

Other former Army Staff officers characterized their efforts as an elaborate protect-your-rear operation for the administration. Over five years, they amassed an estimated 9,000 pages of evidence on war crimes, representing the largest compilation of government records on U.S. war crimes in Vietnam. Yet it is by no means a full accounting. Many atrocities were never reported. In that sense, the archive offers a small, albeit invaluable, window into a much bigger problem. Bernd Greiner, a historian at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, published the first book on the war-crime files in 2007. The book, written in German, reached a similar conclusion:

“Just how many atrocities were committed in the course of the Vietnam War is a question to which there presumably will never be a definitive answer. But it is clear that such crimes were by no means singular occurrences, nor where they the acts of a few individual perpetrators of excessive violence.” See Krieg ohne Fronten: Die USA in Vietnam (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2007).

There is a private letter in the file sent to Gen. Westmoreland in 1970 by an anonymous soldier from the 9th Infantry Division that attempted to convey the scale of unreported war-crimes in a single year in the Mekong Delta. He wrote that troops had deliberately killed hundreds of civilians and reported them as enemy KIAs in response to pressure from their commanders for a higher body count. He described rampant abuse of the rules of engagement:

“Number one killer in the 9th Div, was the rule that said shoot if they run. Not just prisoners or suspects, or guys with weapons, but anybody…And lots of them did…The gunships and loaches [helicopters] would hover over a guy in the fields till he got scared and fun and they’d zap him…We always had to report how many we killed and what they were doing, and I know I heard ‘taking evasive action’ more than a hundred times…Most of all the times we never found weapons or nothing on them,” he wrote.

Snipers shot “any Vietnamese they’d see at long range in the day time…No weapons, no VC documents, just a dead Vietnamese at about 300 or 400 yards who is automatically a VC just as soon as he falls.” Troops would “detain a suspect,” usually a civilian, to walk ahead of them to detonate land mines and booby traps, he wrote. Artillery units bombarded hamlets in free-fire zones, even when commanders knew they were occupied by women and children. The dead went into the body count.

“In case you don’t think I mean lots of Vietnamese got killed this way, I can give you some idea how many. A battalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day or 1200 to 1500 a month, easy. (One battalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!) If I am only 10% right, and believe me it’s lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lai each month for over a year”.

The letters caught the attention of the secretary of the Army, then Stanley Resor, who asked the general counsel’s office to evaluate them. A memo in response said the writer seemed sincere and his concerns about body count credible. But Army officials decided against investigating the allegations. CID instead dispatched investigators to find the writer before he contacted the press or a member of Congress. The anonymous soldier sent two more letters before the chief of CID announced in the fall of 1971 that his staff had tentatively identified the writer. Westmoreland ordered the matter closed, and the file ended there. Because CID never opened an official investigation, the letter and its allegations were not included in the Army Staff’s official cases or statistics.

The next year, in 1972, Newsweek published an investigation by war correspondent Kevin Buckley that found “thousands of Vietnamese civilians” were “killed deliberately” by 9th Division forces during Speedy Express, a six-month combat operation in 1968. “The death toll there made the My Lai massacre look trifling by comparison,” he wrote. Buckley based his report on hospital visits and interviews with military readers and residents.

We brought up the letters in our interview with Resor, who was 89 when we spoke. He said he didn’t remember them. He also said he didn’t remember that the Army Staff had assigned a special team to compile war-crime allegations. He could recall only a handful of high-profile atrocities besides the My Lai massacre. We attributed his forgetfulness to his age.

Froehlke replaced Resor as secretary of the Army in summer 1971. He too didn’t remember the war-crime team or the letters. But he recalled walking in on a heated debate over body count at the time he took office. He wasn’t a fan, believing body count encouraged lying and exaggeration. I asked if he was aware of the more lethal implications – that civilians were being killed to pad the numbers?

“Yes, it was raised, and almost out of frustration there was never anything done. Other than orders stating the obvious: In body count you will not take civilian lives. But it was hard to follow through”.

As for the archive that the Army Staff compiled, Mr. Froehlke said he may not remember the war-crime reports but he was quite sure of their fate: “To my knowledge he [Westmoreland] did nothing about them. By ‘to my knowledge’ I mean he took no action.”

Related Links:

A My Lai a Month
By Nick Turse
The Nation, November 13, 2008

Vietnam: The War Crimes Files
By Deborah Nelson and Nick Turse
Los Angeles Times, August 2006

The War Behind Me: Official Website

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