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The War Behind Me
Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes
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The files contain reports of more than 300 confirmed atrocities, and 500 other cases the Army either couldn’t’t prove or didn’t’t investigate. The archive has letters of complaint to generals and congressmen, as well as reports of Army interviews with hundreds of men who served. Far from being limited to a few bad actors or rogue units, atrocities occurred in every Army division that saw combat in Vietnam. Torture of detainees was routine; so was the random killing of farmers in fields and women and children in villages. Punishment for these acts was either nonexistent or absurdly light. In most cases, no one was prosecuted at all.
In The War Behind Me Deborah Nelson goes beyond the documents and talks with many of those who were involved, both accusers and accused, to uncover their stories and learn how they deal with one of the most awful secrets of the Vietnam War.
To MOLLY and ANNA, and for THEIR GENERATION
On November 12, 1969, the Dispatch News Service carried investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh’s first article on the My Lai massacre.1 In the weeks that followed, photographs appeared in print and on television. The army announced a full-scale inquiry that, four months later, confirmed the magnitude of the slaughter and the cover-up.2 The tragedy and its fallout are in every credible history book on the Vietnam War.
The army launched a second important inquiry in the wake of Hersh’s exposé. But this one would receive no public notice. The chief of staff quietly assembled a team of officers to collect information on other war-crime allegations that had been reported internally or elsewhere. The men culled investigation files, surveillance reports, press accounts, court-martial records, and congressional correspondence. Each month they summarized what they’d found and sent a memo up the chain of command.
They operated in secret for five years. During that time, they amassed nine thousand pages of evidence implicating U.S. troops in a wide range of atrocities.3 In contrast to the My Lai investigation, their inquiry led to no major actions or public accounting. In fact, the Pentagon kept the entire collection under wraps, even after the war ended.
In 1990, Kali Tal, founder of Viet Nam Generation, a small journal of contemporary history and literature on the 1960s, was tipped to the papers’ existence. She requested a declassification and Freedom of Information Act review. After a year had passed, the National Archives and Records Administration notified her that the documents were available for inspection.4 She found the records deeply disturbing and posted a short notice in her journal to alert others. She did not pursue the matter further, and the boxes returned to the storeroom shelves.
A decade later, Cliff Snyder, a Vietnam specialist on the Archives staff, brought the cartons to the attention of Nicholas Turse, a visiting military historian.5 While researching them for his dissertation, he came across a 1968 massacre and other cases he believed to be newsworthy. In 2005, he contacted the Los Angeles Times about them. I was the newspaper’s Washington investigative editor at the time, so his e-mail was relayed to me. We joined forces soon afterward to investigate the long-buried reports.6
When I proposed the project to John Carroll, then the Los Angeles Times’ top editor, his first question was whether a few rogue units committed most of the crimes. That had been his impression as a young Vietnam War correspondent, and a commonly held view. The most notorious was the Americal Division, responsible for My Lai and a lengthy list of less-known atrocities. The Tiger Force, an elite army platoon, became a late addition to the club with the Toledo Blade’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series in 2003 that documented a seven-month killing spree in which scores perished .7
The archive collection contained hundreds of sworn statements from soldiers and veterans who committed or witnessed rapes, torture, murders, massacres, and other illegal acts. There were letters from soldiers, statistical reports, and case summaries. 8 When we hand-entered the data into a spreadsheet, it became clear the problem was much bigger than a few bad men: Every major division that served in Vietnam was represented. We counted more than 300 allegations in cases that were substantiated by the army’s own investigations. Some had never been revealed; others had been publicly disputed while the army remained silent about its findings. Five hundred allegations couldn’t be proven or weren’t fully investigated.9 According to officers who helped compile the records, those numbers represented only a small fraction of the war crimes committed in Vietnam.
Many veterans tried to alert the Pentagon and the public to the problem in the early 1970s at forums sponsored by such groups as Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Most famously, John Kerry, then a leader in the organization, testified on Capitol Hill on April 22, 1971, that U.S. forces had “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 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. . . .” 10
Within days, the declassified records show, the White House quietly requested a list of war-crime investigations from the army.11 The staff at the Pentagon was ready with a lengthy response that reported 213 suspects and included confirmed cases of acts from the litany cited in Kerry’s testimony. 12 Yet the Nixon administration went ahead with an aggressive backroom campaign to discredit as fabricators and traitors Kerry and other veterans who spoke out about war crimes. The president and White House aides worked closely with a rival organization, Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace, to publicly condemn the allegations. 13 “The big lie” became the group’s familiar drumbeat. Years later, the founder of the group would boast, “Americans got the message that a motley crew of exaggerators and frauds didn’t speak for Vietnam veterans.”14 The impression stuck. By the mid-1980s, the whistle-blowers largely had been silenced, and conventional wisdom held that atrocities in Vietnam were overblown. 15 The controversy resurfaced in 2004, when Kerry ran for president. His old detractors ran ads demanding that he disavow his 1971 testimony, confident they would play to a receptive audience; their efforts contributed to his defeat.16 All the while, the army had evidence in its files that he had spoken the truth.
But this book isn’t about Kerry. It’s about setting the record straight for the many ordinary men who were ignored, threatened, or disbelieved. It’s a place for them to tell their stories again, now with the full force of the army’s own investigation findings behind them. Years ago, many of them hoped their accounts would pressure the Pentagon to stop “all the wrong killing,” as a soldier wrote in a private letter to then army chief of staff Gen. William C. Westmoreland in 1970.17 The war ended without an accounting or acknowledgment of the war crimes they witnessed. Their retelling comes at an equally important time when, having failed to address the past, we’re destined to repeat it.
The sworn statement of former army medic James Henry that launched a secret three-and-a-half-year investigation.
WHAT WAS RIGHT THEN
Jamie Henry swings open the door. He is a striking figure: tall, lean, and strong, with gray hair and a handsome face as craggy as the Sierra Nevada mountains that loom to the east. He leads his two visitors with their heavy bags to the dining room table in his small, comfortably worn house. Over a pot of coffee, he slowly pages through the records we have brought. His wife, Patty, who has been with him since he returned from Vietnam, hovers anxiously in the background.
Thirty-seven years earlier, Henry reported to military officials that members of his company executed nineteen unarmed children and adults in a tiny hamlet on the central coast of Vietnam.1 The massacre occurred on February 8, 1968, a month before U.S. troops opened fire in My Lai to the south. The army accused him of lying and, as far as he knew, did nothing with the information. Now, decades later, he holds the declassified file of a three-and-a-half-year internal inquiry.
“I had no idea,” he says.
Henry’s case had been among the hundreds of declassified war-crime accounts collected by the Army Staff in the 1970s and kept secret for the better part of three decades. His own typed, ten-page sworn statement was tucked into one of several fat folders labeled “Henry Allegation.” As far as he knew, the statement had been the beginning and end of the investigation. Yet the file reveals more than one hundred interviews, conducted by army investigators across the country with former members of his company, and a final report sent up the chain of command with signatures of top brass at the Pentagon.
As Nick Turse and I set out to investigate the contents of the long-hidden archive for the Los Angeles Times, Henry’s case quickly rose to the top. It did not stand out in terms of lives lost or brutality—nearly every case in the collection contained its own horror. But for reasons not yet clear, it was one of the most aggressively pursued and mysteriously dropped.
We also were drawn to Henry himself. The records showed that he had earned a Bronze Star for valor while serving as a battlefield medic in Quang Nam province from 1967 to 1968.2 Fellow members of B Company, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division described him as honest and brave in their interviews:
“On numerous occasions, he would repeatedly disregard his own personal safety to administer aid to a wounded soldier. He knew military medicine. He was fast and sure of himself. I am certain that several men in B Company owe their lives to James Henry.”
We found Henry largely through providence. Someone in the federal bureaucracy had neglected to take a black marker to the names and Social Security numbers in the investigative files before placing them on the public shelves at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Armed with that data and a people-finder database, Times researcher Janet Lundblad could find almost anyone. There would be some notable exceptions that would test the luck and limits of my own gumshoe skills. But Henry wasn’t one of them. Janet easily traced him to a small town in the gold-rush foothills of the Sierras.
Nick called Henry in September 2005 to ask if he would be willing to meet with us. His wife took a message. He was a logger and out in the field, Patty explained. We waited a few days for a response. He had to ponder the request. With Patty’s encouragement, he finally sent an e-mail agreeing to an interview.
“A long time ago I tried to put . . . the war behind me and move on with my life,” he wrote in his e-mail. “To be honest, I don’t relish going back there now, after all these years, but if you think talking to me will be useful in some way, then I am fine with that.”
The table nearly fills the cozy dining room off the kitchen, and our documents cover its surface. But Henry, lost in his reading, has been transported to another place. He has returned to a part of his life that he had “put in a closet and locked the door.”
He was nineteen in 1967, done with high school and trying to figure out what to do next. He lived at home with his mom, worked at a dismal state hospital, and moonlighted as a hippie at San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. It was more about pot than peace, he confesses. When the draft letter arrived, he initially refused induction and was arrested. After a six-month tangle with the Selective Service, he emerged with conscientious objector status.
“No religious designation,” he says. “The first and only one I know of.”
The army still sent him to Vietnam, but as a medic instead of a rifleman.
He arrived in the fall of that year, part of a 100,000-troop surge that brought U.S. forces close to the half-million mark.3 The numbers on the other side of the ledger were rising at an even more precipitous rate: 9,378 Americans killed in combat, an 87 percent increase over the prior year.4 Quang Nam province was an enemy stronghold. Snipers, land mines, and booby traps infested the bucolic landscape of farms and foliage. Military maps denoted the most treacherous zones with Wild West nomenclature, such as “Arizona Territory” and “Dodge City.” By the end of the war, more American lives would be lost in Quang Nam province than any other.5
“The first day in B Company, the first patrol I went on, we walked across this rice paddy. These guys had all been there a long time and I was just green as could be, and coming down the other path on the berm are these two young girls. Young—eighteen, nineteen, twenty. The guy in the lead immediately stops her and puts his hand down her pants. This goes on for—they’re making jokes, and we pretty much all stayed in line. I just thought, ‘My God, what’s going on?’
“She didn’t move and the girl with her didn’t move. They just put up with this. A couple of minutes later he has a good laugh and we go walking on down the berm. It was my first day in the field with an infantry company. I just knew I can’t have a fit right here, because I don’t know what’s going on. But I was just really appalled. It went downhill from there on.”
“Welcome to Vietnam,” Patty Henry says from a corner of the room. She is a pretty woman with a soft spray of lines around her eyes. She is relieved that he’s finally talking about Vietnam after years of silence.
When not in combat, the troops were on patrol. They combed the countryside for enemy enclaves and searched hamlets for hidden stockpiles of weapons and food. They’d rarely find a military-age man in the village, only women, children, and old people. The men disappeared, some to stay out of harm’s way, others to avoid service in the Republic Army, many to join the elusive local resistance that picked off Americans from their invisible perches in the trees.
“Most of the time we were getting our butts kicked,” Henry says. B Company suffered heavy casualties with few clear gains. The orders to search hamlets gave way to orders to burn them to the ground. “Search and destroy” became the mantra. The malevolence caught like their cigarette lighters to grass hooches. Several men stabbed a pig to death for sport. When Henry objected, they told him to shut his mouth if he wanted to live long. Another time, a soldier shot a water buffalo repeatedly with an M- 16, until the young medic stopped him and used an M-14 to put the animal out of its misery.
By October, some of the men turned their sights on civilians: a shirtless young boy led behind a rock and executed on a lieutenant’s orders; a prisoner beaten and tossed over a cliff; five defenseless women gunned down and reported as enemy killed in action.6 Henry overheard a lieutenant ask permission to test-fire his weapon and went to investigate. The officer and other soldiers had discovered a Vietnamese man sleeping in a hut, shot him dead, and now were using the body for target practice. By some estimates, members of B Company killed as many as thirty unarmed Vietnamese in the five months leading up to the massacre. No one stopped them.
On February 7, 1968, the battalion commander, Lt. Col. William W. Taylor Jr.,7 ordered B Company to fight what many of the men believed to be a senseless suicide mission. From his helicopter overhead, he ordered them to advance on snipers hiding in a line of trees. “Really good snipers,” Henry recalls. Five men died, including a popular lieutenant.
The next morning, the troops were rousted from their uneasy sleep with another unwelcome directive: Conduct a sweep of nearby fields and hamlets for enemy forces. Kill anything that moves, they were told. A man hiding in a spider hole in a field became the first casualty. Henry was with a small group of soldiers that found him. Later, a couple soldiers “held him down while a willing APC [Armored Personnel Carrier] ran over him with the right track. It didn’t kill him the first time, so they backed over him again.”
They marched on toward a nondescript hamlet of grass hooches. They met no resistance and found only women, children, and old people in town. As others searched for hidden stashes of enemy supplies, Henry took a break. He stepped into a hut, dropped his heavy medical bag onto the floor, unbuckled his bandolier, and lit a cigarette.
Voices crackled on a company radio parked nearby. Henry heard Lt. Johnny Mack Carter, one of the platoon leaders, report that that his men had rounded up nineteen civilians. Carter asked their captain, Donald C. Reh, what to do with them.
Reh, a West Point graduate and career officer, had joined B Company in November, after the first spate of civilian killings. Henry liked him and considered him a decent person. But Reh had not intervened in the APC incident. And now he gave a response that took Henry’s breath away: “He said that higher said to kill anything that moves.”8
Did Reh really mean for Carter to kill the civilians? Henry spotted the captain and took a couple steps toward him, hoping to get him to take back his words.
“I don’t know why I suspected that Carter could do it, but I suspected that he could.”
As Henry moved, he thought Reh might be trying to get Carter back on the phone. Henry peered over a short hedge, where women and children huddled as Carter and others took aim. Soldiers dragged a naked teenager from a hooch. “She was brought out by two guys, and she was thrown into the pile. . . . There were babies in there too . . . She was just thrown on the pile and they started shooting.”
Within minutes, the massacre was finished. Reh was back on the horn, ordering his men to move out, with no hint of what had just transpired. At camp that night, emotions ranged from disbelief to disgust.
“I think they kind of accepted the ones and the twos and this over there, but this is just going way too far, rounding people up—old men and little children and women and just—I think it was just a total shock to the company. I think they just went, ‘We can’t do this.’”
The next day, Lt. Col. Taylor dispatched B Company to help two other companies engaged in a fierce battle with Vietnamese troops from the north. The battalion reported three hundred enemy and nineteen Americans killed in action (KIA), including three from B Company. The massacre faded into the background after that. But Henry made a promise to himself.
“From the minute it happened I was determined to do something about it. The minute—thirty seconds after the shooting stopped, I knew that I was going to do something about it. And I knew I couldn’t do anything about it there.”
Henry returned from Vietnam in September 1968. Upon landing at Fort Hood, Texas, he quickly made an appointment with an army lawyer to report the massacre. To his dismay, the lawyer admonished him to keep his mouth shut until he got out of the service. The lawyer warned of “a million and one charges you can be brought up on for blinking your eye.”
That day or the next, he was contacted by an agent from the office of the Criminal Investigation Division9 at Fort Hood. More commonly known as CID, it is the army’s detective bureau, the lead agency for investigating serious crimes, including war crimes committed by U.S. soldiers on foreign soil. Henry discovered that the agent had already been briefed by the lawyer. “He wanted to know what I was trying to pull, what I was trying to put over on people, and so I was just quiet. I told him I wouldn’t tell him anything and I wouldn’t say anything until I got out of the army, and I left.”
As Henry reads the documents, the old feelings return. “I never wavered on it. The lawyer was wrong and this stuff was going on and we had to get it stopped, and I never once thought of not doing anything about it. . . . I wanted to make a big stink about it and the public to know what was going on.”
Henry received an honorable discharge in early 1969, moved to Los Angeles, enrolled in a community college, and met Patty. He helped form a local chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
“I’m not antimilitary,” he says.
Patty adds, “Jamie’s goal was the atrocity thing. Not so much antiwar but to report the atrocities.”
He stares at the opening pages of the army file on the Henry allegation. There is a flurry of memos on February 21, 1970—two years after the massacre and seventeen months after his meeting with the agent at Fort Hood. The memos originated not at CID but in the army’s Office of the Chief of Information at the Pentagon. The press staff had received an inquiry from CBS News about an upcoming article in an obscure muckraking magazine on an “alleged atrocity/massacre.”10 They tracked down an advance copy, notified CID, and sent alerts up the chain of command.
“Not very good news!” read a handwritten note attached to a staff memo summarizing the article for Gen. Bruce Palmer Jr., then the vice chief of staff under Gen. William Westmoreland.
Henry’s accusations surfaced at an inopportune time for the army. Reporter Seymour Hersh’s explosive exposé on the My Lai massacre three months earlier had unleashed a flood of atrocity claims by returning soldiers and veterans. Worried about the impact on public support for the war, the Nixon administration had begun monitoring the reports closely while searching for an effective strategy to contain the damage.
Within hours of receiving notice, CID agents contacted Taylor and Reh. Taylor denied knowledge of any massacre by his troops and insisted he had never issued an order to kill civilians. Reh, through a lawyer, declined to discuss the matter with investigators. 11
Patty Henry says men in sunglasses began stalking her and Jamie. The couple spotted two in a parked car down the street as they left another veteran’s house. “Dark sunglasses,” she recalls. “Total James Bond.” Henry read a one-page statement at a Los Angeles news conference sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War on February 27, 1970, and Patty is certain that she spotted two undercover army operatives in the audience. She gets her proof thirty-five years later. In the file, there’s a memo dated February 28, 1970, from a press officer in Washington, D.C., stating that an officer in Los Angeles reported “very little of interest transpired during Henry’s meeting with the press.”
Attached to the memo is a copy of Henry’s statement: a one-paragraph summary of the massacre followed by a five-paragraph condemnation of military leaders for ignoring atrocities. “My motivation can be stated quite briefly: I want the murder of Vietnamese stopped and I want the military to stop putting Americans in the position of becoming murderers,” the statement says.
A short story ran inside the Washington Evening Star12 two days before the press conference, and it’s included in the file. So is a letter demanding an investigation, sent by Sen. Ogden R. Reid, a Democrat from New York, to army Secretary Stanley R. Resor. A CID investigator contacted Henry the day of the press conference, and they met soon afterward. Henry provided a ten-page typewritten statement with names, dates, and details. The investigators questioned him a few more times. Then CID stopped calling, and the press and the politicians moved on.
“We tried to get as much publicity as we could, and it just never went anywhere. Nothing ever happened. We published that article, nothing happened. Went to CID, nothing happened,” Henry says, gloom suddenly clouding his face. Maybe the same would come of this retelling.
In late January 1971, he traveled to Detroit in the bitter cold to repeat his account at the “Winter Soldier Investigation,” a forum on atrocities sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. More than one hundred veterans participated. 13 The event received little coverage, but their stories became the basis for John Kerry’s Senate testimony that atrocities were “day-to-day” occurrences in Vietnam.14 That modest victory was soon overtaken by other events. The movement had been infiltrated by poseurs—undercover FBI agents looking for dirt and a handful of veterans who made up or embellished their combat experiences.15 The Nixon administration capitalized on the discrepancies and worked closely with a charismatic veteran (a future Swift Boat leader) from a rival veterans group that challenged the atrocity allegations. 16 The public attacks, a whisper campaign, and the movement’s own failings drove veterans like Henry into the closet and led to the popular perception, which persists today, that their ranks were “packed with pretenders and liars.”17
Henry dropped out—tainted, disillusioned, and defeated.
Nick and I take Jamie and Patty to dinner and then call it a night. We return the next day so he can finish reading the file. He looks discomfited when we arrive.
“I was kind of in a turmoil this morning about it,” he eventually discloses. “I guess it is, it’s just I don’t know if it’s going to—people are going to go, ‘God, it’s coming back.’” He pauses. We wait. “That was all I wanted to say.”
He is paging through the thick stack of sworn statements that CID collected from fellow members of B Company. Henry hasn’t talked to most of them since Vietnam. He had no clue that investigators interviewed so many of them.
“He says it happened!” Henry exclaims as he reads one of the first statements in the CID file. Dozens more follow.18 (The documentary excerpts here and throughout the book reflect word usage, spelling, and grammar as they appear in the records.)
Staff Sgt. Wilson “Punchy” Bullock:
As we made the sweep, my platoon came upon about three or four houses. The houses were fired into and then entered.
- On Sale
- Oct 28, 2008
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Basic Books