From the National Archives: New proof of
Vietnam War atrocities
by Nicholas Turse
John Kerry is being pilloried
for his shocking Senate testimony 34 years ago that many U.S.
soldiers—not just a few "rogues"—were committing
atrocities against the Vietnamese. U.S. military records that
were classified for decades but are now available in the
National Archives back Kerry up and put the lie to his critics.
Contrary to what those critics, including the Swift Boat
Veterans for Truth, have implied, Kerry was speaking on behalf
of many soldiers when he testified before the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee on April 22, 1971, and said this:
They told stories that at times they had personally raped,
cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable
telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off
limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed
villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle
and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged
the countryside of South Vietnam, in addition to the normal
ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging
which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.
The archives have hundreds
of files of official U.S. military investigations of such
atrocities committed by American soldiers. I've pored over those
records—which were classified for decades—for my Columbia
University dissertation and, now, this Voice article. The
exact number of investigated allegations of atrocities is
unknown, as is the number of such barbaric incidents that
occurred but weren't investigated. Some war crimes, like the
Tiger Force atrocities exposed last year by The Toledo Blade,
have only come to light decades later. Others never will. But
there are plentiful records to back up Kerry's 1971 testimony
point by point. Following (with the names removed or
abbreviated) are examples, directly from the archives:
had personally raped"
On August 12, 1967,
Specialist S., a military intelligence interrogator, "raped
. . . a 13-year-old . . . female" in an interrogation hut
in a P.O.W. compound. He was convicted of assault and indecent
acts with a child. He served seven months and 16 days for his
On August 9, 1968, a
seven-man patrol led by First Lieutenant S. entered Dien Tien
hamlet. "Shortly thereafter, Private First Class W. was
heard to shout to an unidentified person to halt. W. fired his
M-16 several times, and the victim was killed. W. then dragged
the body to [the lieutenant's] location. . . . Staff Sergeant B.
told W. to bring back an ear or finger if he wanted to prove
himself a man. W. later went back to the body and removed both
ears and a finger." W. was charged with assault and conduct
to the prejudice of good order and discipline; he was
court-martialed and convicted, but he served no prison time. B.
was found guilty of assault and was fined $50 a month for three
months. S. was discharged from the army before action could be
taken against him.
On June 23, 1967, members of
the 25th Infantry Division killed two enemy soldiers in combat
in Binh Duong province. An army Criminal Investigation Division
(CID) probe disclosed that "Staff Sergeant H. then
decapitated the bodies with an axe." H. was court-martialed
and found guilty of conduct to the prejudice of good order and
discipline. His grade was reduced, but he served no prison time.
wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up
On January 10, 1968, six
Green Berets in Long Hai, South Vietnam, "applied
electrical torture via field telephones to the sensitive areas
of the bodies of three men and one woman . . . " Four
received reprimands and "Article 15s"—a nonjudicial
punishment meted out by a commanding officer or officer in
charge for minor offenses. A fifth refused to accept his Article
15, and no other action was taken against him. No action was
taken against the sixth Green Beret.
A CID investigation
disclosed that during late February or early March 1968 near
Thanh Duc, South Vietnam, First Lieutenant L. ordered soldier K.
to shoot an unidentified Vietnamese civilian. "K. shot the
Vietnamese civilian, leaving him with wounds in the chest and
stomach. Soldier B., acting on orders from L., returned to the
scene and killed the Vietnamese civilian, and an unidentified
medic severed the Vietnamese civilian's left arm." No
punishment was meted out because none of the "identified
perpetrators" was found to be on active duty at the time of
the June 1971 investigation.
On February 14, 1969,
Platoon Sergeant B. and Specialist R., on a reconnaissance
patrol in Binh Dinh province, "came upon three Vietnamese
males . . . whom they detained and then shot at close range
using M-16 automatic fire. B. then arranged the bodies on the
ground so that their heads were close together. A fragmentation
grenade was dropped next to the heads of the bodies." B.
was court-martialed, convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to
a reduction in grade and a fine of $97 per month for six
months—after which time he re-enlisted. R. was court-martialed
and found not guilty.
shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of
While a U.S.
"helicopter hunter-killer team . . . was on a recon mission
in Cambodia," its members fired rockets at buildings and
"engaged various targets [in a small village] with
machine-gun fire. Gunship preparatory fire preceded the landing
of a South Vietnamese army platoon, which had been diverted from
another mission. A U.S. captain accompanied the platoon on the
ground in violation of standing orders. The South Vietnamese
troops, reconnoitering by fire, did not search bunkers for enemy
forces, nor were enemy weapons found. . . . Civilian casualties
were estimated at eight dead, including two children, 15
wounded, and three or four structures destroyed. There is no
evidence that the wounded were provided medical treatment by
either U.S. or South Vietnamese forces. . . . Members of the
South Vietnamese platoon returned to the aircraft with large
quantities of civilian property. . . . The incident was neither
properly investigated nor reported initially." Letters of
reprimand were issued to a lieutenant colonel and a major. The
captain received a letter of reprimand.
John Kerry made it clear
when he testified more than three decades ago that what he told
the Senate was the cumulative testimony of well over 100
"honorably discharged and many very highly decorated"
Vietnam vets who gathered in Detroit in early 1971. Calling
their gathering the Winter Soldier Investigation, they were
trying to raise awareness of the type of war they said America
was waging in Southeast Asia. They were trying to demonstrate
that the shocking My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, of 567
civilians in a Vietnamese village—a barbarism unknown to the
American public until late 1969—was not an isolated incident
in which rogue troops went berserk, but simply one of many
All these years later,
neither the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) nor the media
feeding their allegations about Kerry's supposedly "false
'war crimes' charges" even broaches the subject of
Vietnamese suffering, let alone talk about Kerry's exposition of
large-scale atrocities, such as free-fire zones and bombardment
of villages—gross violations of international law cannot
simply be denied or explained away.
Having worked for nearly
five years doing research on post-traumatic stress disorder
among Vietnam vets, I understand the intense trauma experienced
by many of them. However, having also spent years working with
U.S. government records of investigations into atrocities
committed against the Vietnamese by U.S. soldiers, it is
patently clear which country suffered more as a result of the
war, and it isn't the U.S., which tragically lost just over
58,000 soldiers. It's Vietnam. Perhaps as many as 2 million
Vietnamese civilians died during the war, and who can even guess
at the number wounded—physically and psychologically.
On its website, the SBVT
tries to debunk the Winter Soldier Investigation by using the
same rhetoric that apologists for the Vietnam War have long
employed: They paint the vets who attended the Detroit meeting
as a parade of fake veterans offering false testimony.
"None of the Winter Soldier 'witnesses' Kerry cited in his
Senate testimony less than three months later were willing to
sign affidavits, and their gruesome stories lacked the names,
dates, and places that would allow their claims to be
tested," the SBVT claims. "Few were willing to
cooperate with military investigators."
While numerous authors have
repeatedly advanced such assertions, U.S. military documents
tell a radically different story. According to the formerly
classified army records, 46 soldiers who testified at the WSI
made allegations that, in the eyes of U.S. Army investigators,
"merited further inquiry." As of March 1972, the
army's CID noted that of the 46 allegations, "only 43
complainants have been identified" by investigators.
"Only" 43 of 46? That means at least 93 percent of the
veterans surveyed were real, not fake. Moreover, according to
official records, CID investigators attempted to contact 41
people who testified at the Detroit session, which occurred
between January 31 and February 2, 1971. Five couldn't be
located, according to records. Of the remaining 36, 31 submitted
to interviews—hardly the "few" asserted by SBVT.
Moreover, as Gerald Nicosia has noted in his mammoth tome Home
to War, "A complete transcript of the Winter Soldier
testimony was sent to the Pentagon, and the military never
refuted a word of it."
The assertion that the vets
proved uncooperative and refused to provide useful, identifiable
information has also been a typical device used to refute the
WSI. In this case, the Winter Soldiers themselves played
directly into the hands of their detractors by trying to have it
both ways: They wanted to expose atrocities as a product of
command policy while denying individual soldiers' responsibility
in committing the crimes.
At the WSI, veteran after
veteran told of brutal military tactics, like burning villages
and establishing free-fire zones. They offered blunt, graphic,
and often horrific accounts of murder, rape, torture,
mutilation, and indiscriminate violence. But when it came to
perpetrators, the soldiers did not name names. From the outset,
they made it clear that they would not allow their testimony to
be used to, as they put it, scapegoat individual G.I.'s and
low-ranking officers when, they said, it was the war's
managers—America's political and military leadership—who
were ultimately to blame for the atrocities. Because of this
stance, some veterans told investigators after the WSI that they
would not offer any further testimony or would only speak before
Congress or a congressional committee. This stance became a
convenient way for the military to stop work on cases and ignore
the charges the anti-war vets had made.
But in fact—and despite
later claims to the contrary by their pro-war critics—most of
the Winter Soldier participants had publicly given accounts with
their own names, unit identifications, dates of service, and
sometimes rather detailed descriptions of locations—namely,
all the information needed to proceed with investigations. In
practically all the specific Winter Soldier cases, such probes
were never done.
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