Nicholas Turse: The Archives Back Up Kerry's 1971 Charge About Vietnam Atrocities

Roundup: Historians' Take

Nicholas Turse, in the Village Voice (Sept. 21, 2004):

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:

"They 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 crimes.

"Cut off ears"

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.

"Cut off heads"

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.

"Taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power"

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.

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Steven Schaffer Scott Schaffer - 11/6/2005

Does anyone know if there's been a scholarly follow-up to the Winter Soldier Report? Also, I was wondering if anyone could point me in the right direction concerning some information about Mark Lane's book, "Conversations with Americans." I'm familiar with Neal Sheehan's critique of it, but I've been unable to find scholarly discussions of the book, nor of the greater subject of the veracity/ validity of Vietnam oral histories, and the changing view toward these oral histories (if in fact there is any discussion of this) from the mid-1970's to the present. I have read, "Soldier talk : the Vietnam War in oral narrative" / edited by Paul Budra and Michael Zeitlin but I was wondering if anyone had some further suggestions/ideas.
Steve Schaffer

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

It is tiresome to read some armchair warrior of the likes of Turse claiming that atrocities were commonly committed by G.I.s in 'Nam based on the very few reported isolated incidents mentioned above.

I was in-country serving with units, Troop D, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division, 15 Sept. 1966 to 14 Sept. 1967; Troop B, 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division, approximately 3 March, 1969 until 22 January 1970, when WIA during a firefight, that were nearly constantly engaged in intense combat and not once, save for My Lai, did I a company grade officer ever see the commission or evidence of the commission of an atrocity committed by U.S. troops.

As far as I'm concerned, any unverified account of an atrocity is a lie. And in some instances where verified, as in the incidents mentioned above of the decapitation of dead bodies & cutting off of ears, so what? Could those things have hurt the dead? IMO reducing the Staff. Sgt. in grade was excessive punishment for the incident he provoked.

Bad things happen during wars & wars are not for the weak of heart or stomach. Will the sissie academics among us sulking in "sheltered habitats" ever understand that wars are rough?

Nor do Girl Scouts make good soldiers, whose duty it is to met out pain, death & destruction. No, it takes men willing to get blood on their hands for the greater good of our civilization & society.

Oh boy, do I hope that the Democratic Party keeps listening to wet-hanky academics for moral guidance, they'll never win another national election.