On August 8th, the Los Angeles Times published a long article in which Nick Turse and Deborah Nelson reported that Army investigators had substantiated 320 U.S. atrocities during the Vietnam War. It is not clear what the Times meant by “substantiated,” since many of these investigations did not lead to criminal charges.
It is also difficult to determine how many of the events, if confirmed, would qualify as war crimes, since Turse and Nelson did not distinguish between ordinary crimes by soldiers and military atrocities. The only “news” presented in the article was that documents on file in the National Archives appear to support the claim of James Henry, then a 20-year old medic, to have witnessed a war crime in the province of Quang Nam.
Why would the Times make available 4,400 words of valuable space to allow a relatively obscure researcher to expound his theories about the Vietnam War? Because James Henry was one of the men who testified at the Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s signature “war crimes” propaganda effort, the “Winter Soldier Investigation,” held in Detroit in early 1971.
Henry’s own story predated the VVAW event, and was already being investigated by the Army at that time. Winter Soldier provided the basis for John Kerry’s April 1971 testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, during which Kerry became a media star by comparing U.S. troops in Vietnam to “the army of Genghis Kahn” and charging the U.S. military with routinely committing war crimes “authorized at all levels of command.” This lie, which came under intense criticism and exposure during the 2004 presidential campaign, is a central part of the leftist myth that America is the primary cause of evil in the world. And it is this lie that the Times seeks to defend.
Authors Turse and Nelson are careful to avoid providing context for the U.S. atrocities that did occur. More than 2.6 million Americans served in Vietnam over a ten-year period. By comparison, Detroit, population 1.5 million, reported 690 homicides in 1971 alone – the same year that John Kerry and his fellow radicals met there to swap stories about U.S. war crimes.
Nick Turse has written about the Winter Soldiers before. In a 2004 article published in the leftist Village Voice just six weeks before the election, Turse claimed to have found documentary evidence that many of the “war crimes” reported by the VVAW radicals were true. His “proof” of this contention was that military authorities prosecuted and convicted men for crimes in Vietnam similar to those the VVAW described.
In fact, the evidence suggests quite the opposite conclusion – that if the Winter Soldiers had been telling the truth, the military would likely have initiated charges based on their accounts as well. The more plausible explanation is that some VVAW witnesses simply repeated stories and rumors they had heard as though these were their own experiences, in order to make atrocities seem far more common than they really were.
It is unclear how Turse and Nelson obtained unredacted files from the National Archives. Under the Privacy Act, references identifying individuals must be removed before documents are made available to researchers, yet Turse apparently was given access to 9,000 pages of unprocessed material. The Times’ article hints darkly that the government tried to cover up the War Crimes Working Group files, but that is not the case. These records, which have never been treated differently from other military documents, were declassified more than 10 years ago.
All the Winter Soldier allegations were considered for possible investigation and pursued to various extents, depending on the cooperation of each WSI witness with military authorities and the credibility of his story. The U.S. Army CID (Criminal Investigative Division) declined to open cases for a number of the allegations – 33 of the 76 Army witnesses were discarded at the outset – because their claims were either obviously false or did not qualify as criminal violations. Of the remaining 43 witnesses, 25 “refused to provide factual data,” 13 provided information that “did not support the allegations,” and the remaining five could not be located.
None of the investigations resulted in criminal indictments.
Now, after scrutinizing thousands of pages of records, Turse and Nelson have identified a single case in which atrocity claims made by a Winter Soldier may have been prematurely dismissed by investigators. They use this case to argue that the other VVAW allegations were largely true.
It would be astonishing if none of the hundreds of atrocities alleged by the Winter Soldiers actually occurred. The law of averages pretty much guarantees that the VVAW, seeking far and wide for veterans who could be persuaded to tell such stories, would stumble across a few men who were telling the truth. The complete absence of outside verification for any of the Winter Soldier accounts, coupled with the fact that military authorities investigated them carefully and declined to file any charges, shows what a small percentage the truth-tellers must have been.
But telling the truth was never the purpose of Winter Soldier and the other war crimes tribunals. Like the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong representatives they worked with and supported, VVAW leaders relentlessly exaggerated American war crimes in Vietnam as a political tactic.
Largely lost in the focus on the relatively few U.S. atrocities is the horrific toll North Vietnamese and Viet Cong terrorism took on the South Vietnamese people. Who now recalls the 1968 mass murder at Hue? As part of their failed Tet Offensive of that year, the Viet Cong seized and held the old imperial capital for 25 days, during which time communist cadres rounded up thousands of people to be “re-educated.” After U.S. and South Vietnamese forces liberated the city, it was discovered that some 5,000 people were missing. Weeks later a farmer walking through ravines outside the city stumbled on a piece of wire sticking out of the ground. When he kicked at it, it came out with a hand attached. That was the beginning of the discovery of the bodies, which had been buried in mass graves. Thousands of civilians had been buried alive, shot in the back of the head, or strangled. Many of the victims had their hands tied behind their backs with wire.
Unlike the largely imaginary stories of the VVAW, the Hue Massacre, by far the most horrific war crime committed during the Vietnam War, was never reported on American television.
The VVAW’s Winter Soldier conference remains what it always was – a leftist propaganda effort aimed at destroying support for the war, for the military, and for America by peddling the Big Lie that our troops, rather than those of the enemy, routinely committed war crimes in Vietnam.
As we see, that effort still goes on.
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