The War Behind Me
By Deborah Nelson; Basic Books, 2009, 304 pp.
Over the course of the past decade, swift boaters and revisionist historians have tried to attack the credibility of Vietnam veterans, including John F. Kerry, who spoke out against the extensive war crimes carried out during the war. Critics claim that any atrocities were isolated incidents and aberrations and that the veterans who testified about them were psychologically scarred, politically motivated, or brainwashed by communist propaganda. Based on a cachet of newly declassified army documents and interviews with Vietnamese and Americans, investigative reporter Deborah Nelson’s new book, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes, shows that war crimes were in fact systematically committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam owing to the political climate of the war, the racial characterization of the Vietnamese as "gooks," and the pressure faced by soldiers to obtain high body count totals to impress their superiors. Her book serves to vindicate once and for all the veterans who courageously spoke out against the injustice of the war and antiwar activists of the era who broadcast the wide scope of atrocities in an appeal to public conscious.
Evidence of massive U.S. war crimes is copiously documented in the memoirs and testimonials of American and Vietnamese participants, journalistic exposés, and war crimes tribunals conducted during the 1960s by peace activists like Bertrand Russell. Newsweek correspondent Kevin Buckley chronicled one of the worst cases of U.S. atrocities in Operation Speedy Express, a six month operation in 1968 to eradicate the National Liberation Front (NLF) from Kien Hoa province in the Mekong Delta in which over 10,000 enemy were reported killed while only 748 weapons were recovered.
Nelson’s book adds a new level of detail and is unique in drawing on newly declassified Army criminal investigations files that were kept buried in the national archives for decades. The files consist of reports by lower-ranking soldiers of atrocities committed against civilians that were in turn investigated by the Army. As Nelson notes, these cases likely represented the tip of the iceberg because killings of civilians were so routine that in most cases they were never reported or investigated.
In one of the prominent examples, Jamie Henry, a battalion medic, reported to his superiors that in February 1968 members of his unit massacred 19 unarmed civilians in a tiny hamlet on the coast of South Vietnam. They had been given orders by their lieutenant while on a search and destroy mission to "kill anything that moves." Henry’s allegations spawned a three-year Army investigation, which found that massacres of civilians and systematic killings had indeed taken place. Seeking to avoid bad publicity after the exposure of the My-Lai massacre in which U.S. GI’s killed an estimated 504 Vietnamese civilians, the Army publicly covered up their findings and tried to slander Henry as a liar. Henry later spoke out in the Winter Soldiers hearings, which was organized by Vietnam veterans to raise public attention about the wide scope of atrocities in Vietnam. Apart from the antiwar movement, the full extent of the atrocities in Vietnam thus never became engrained in American public consciousness.
With the assistance of Nick Turse, who wrote his dissertation at Columbia University on U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, Nelson was able to track down and interview many of those cited in the criminal files, including Henry. He was astounded to learn that his complaints were investigated so thoroughly by the Army and that they knew he was telling the truth yet remained silent. Besides lower-ranking "grunts," Nelson and Turse interviewed many high-ranking Army personnel who either gave the direct orders for mass killings or were responsible for investigating and in turn covering up the atrocities. Most continue to try to minimize the scope or provide ipso facto rationalizations for U.S. conduct. A few, however, are highly critical of the lack of discipline among U.S. troops which they blame in part on poor leadership, as well as the insolubility of U.S. strategy in Vietnam. John H. Johns, a retired brigadier general who helped to develop the Army’s first course on counter-insurgency strategy, was most frank in admitting to Nelson that tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians died in incidents that weren’t investigated as war crimes, including prisoners being thrown out of helicopters and officially sanctioned attacks in free-fire zones and under the notorious Phoenix program. Johns was among those to sign a petition calling for withdrawal in 2006 from Iraq, which he considers to be one of the greatest blunders in history.
One of the most poignant sections of the book is when Nelson recounts the interviews that she and Turse conducted in southern Vietnam in the hamlets where many memorials have recently sprung up honoring the victims of atrocities during the war. The memory of the witnesses and survivors remains crystal clear, 40 years later. The people of the region also continue to be filled with sorrow at the loss of their loved ones and vividly recall the fear and terror that they felt when U.S. troops invaded their villages. Ngo Ba Nanh, whose father was murdered by U.S. troops while tending to his flock of ducks, recalled that "the Rangers were the most frightening. Everyone would just panic to hear the painted-face Americans were coming to the neighborhood." Ho Thi Van, who witnessed the death of her mother and younger sister, further recounted that afterwards "the liberation army gathered the surviving villagers and promised them revenge for those innocent villagers…. Now we are at peace, but if the war returns and the Americans come back I will try to shoot one round before I die as revenge for my family."
These testimonials provide a gripping reminder of the destructiveness of the American war in Vietnam and the sorrows that it brought for countless Vietnamese. Nelson deserves great credit for her leg-work not only in going through the Army criminal files, but also in interviewing participants and survivors of the atrocities. She provides definitive evidence to counteract the claim of mythologists that the Vietnam War was fought humanely or for a just cause. The one bright spot is that many soldiers like Henry were brave enough to report the abuses taking place with the hope of putting an end to the carnage. It is from their example that we can draw hope for the future.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is visiting assistant professor of history at Bucknell.