Examining Vietnam-era war crimes

By Michael Uhl
Globe Correspondent / December 30, 2008
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Editor's note: The original edition of the review below erred in saying the author mistakenly put a lieutenant colonel in charge of a brigade instead of a battalion; the error appeared in the uncorrected proof, but not in the published book. The review also says the author was hasty in referring to the targets of Vietnam's Phoenix program as Vietcong "supporters," when it was officially aimed at "cadre." The author acknowledges that point of view, but says she "intentionally chose a less precise term to reflect the often imprecise manner the campaign was carried out on Vietnamese civilians." The corrected version follows.

After the My Lai revelation in November 1969, the Nixon Administration portrayed that massacre by US troops of hundreds of Vietnamese, primarily women and children, as an "aberration."

Throughout 1970 and '71 scores of veterans - most memorably John Kerry - came forward publicly, maintaining that My Lai was just "the tip of the iceberg," the result of US policy failing to discriminate between noncombatants and the enemy.

These veterans typically refused to cooperate with investigators after their accounts of atrocities became widely reported in the US media, fearing, they said, that their low-ranking comrades would be scapegoated and skeptical that the Pentagon would examine its own complicity.

Now, almost four decades later, as the nation faces similar concerns about our conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans who publicly denounced war crimes in Vietnam can claim some measure of vindication with the appearance of "The War Behind Me," by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Nelson.

The former soldiers who once made these allegations are not the book's core subject. Nelson's original contribution involves rounding up and interviewing the retired Army brass who "amassed nine thousand pages of evidence implicating US troops in a wide range of atrocities [and] kept the entire collection under wraps, even after the war ended."

Retired Colonel Jared Schopper, "the highest-ranking staff officer with day-to-day responsibility for maintaining the war crimes files" and today a Baptist preacher, told Nelson "that many of these allegations . . . were planted by . . . Hanoi." Other senior Pentagon officials blandly excuse their roles in the suppression of the veterans' charges out of loyalty to the Army.

Only retired Brigadier General John Johns, who served under Schopper in the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, lends credence to the veterans' version of their war's reality. "You'll have to forgive me," he tells Nelson, "but I have a reservation about blaming soldiers. . . . I believe the chain of command should be disciplined."

Deborah Nelson's work is in the best tradition of investigative journalism. As for Vietnam war crimes, can there be a second act? It is a thankless task to remind a nation, once again mired in war, about unfinished business from the last one.

Michael Uhl is author of "Vietnam Awakening: My Journey From Combat to the Citizen's Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam."

THE WAR BEHIND ME: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes: Inside the Army's Secret Archive of Investigations By Deborah Nelson

Basic, 304 pp., $26.95

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