Ghost war

The Swift Boat Vets say John Kerry's testimony about American atrocities in Vietnam is offensive. But they don't say it's false, because the record backs Kerry's account.

By Todd Gitlin
Published August 24, 2004 11:48PM (EDT)

William Faulkner got it right: The past is not dead, it is not even past. In a rancid and ghostly way, the Vietnam War churns on. So does the White House slime machine, though that runs more smoothly today -- George W. Bush's plumbers don't operate out of a Nixonian Committee to Re-elect the President.

Today's stench of lies about John Kerry is a stale remnant of the old lies about the war Kerry fought in. As the nation fights another botched war, today's purveyors of war lies are ghastly descendants of the last generation's unpunished deceivers. Indeed, John O'Neill of the outrageously named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (and every TV talk show within reach) is the very same -- the young man recruited by Charles Colson to do Richard Nixon's dirty work against the young Kerry in 1971.

How we got to this month's twisted replay of war lies can be easily outlined. Bush, who blew off the terror threat before Sept. 11 and then launched a backfiring bait-and-switch war against Iraq, campaigns as commander in chief. Kerry counter-campaigns as a man who has known actual command and knows how to choose his wars. Enter Bush's surrogate smear artists to impugn Kerry's command and everything else that touches on what he did both in the war and against it.

The current smears against the John Kerry of 1969 and 1971 are, of course, a massive distraction from the question of which American agenda is to prevail from January 2005 through January 2009. In another way, though, the smears are not an utterly irrelevant surrogate for everything that divides America now. Watch the players maneuver, watch carefully, and you will see who they are. Talk about character! Obscured by the obliviousness of "objective" journalists and talking-head blowhards, Bush avails himself of the smears he is too dishonest to condemn forthrightly. Once again, those who supported a dishonest war continue to do it dishonestly.

As everyone must know by now, the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has run two commercials in the battleground states of Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin -- and thanks to the TV channels that offer themselves for hijacking to the most scurrilous bidder, the majority of Americans are at least dimly aware of them. They may or may not be aware that the charges against John Kerry in wartime are (1) unsupported by contemporaneous military documents; (2) put forward by veterans who have in more than one case changed their stories since 1969; and (3) in the case of the battles that resulted in Kerry's medals, rejected by the crewmen on Kerry's boat.

Then this week, the same smear artists opened up with their bigger -- as it were -- guns. The second SBVFT commercial includes clips from Kerry's April 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads ... randomly shot at civilians ... cut off limbs, blown up bodies ... razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan ... crimes committed on a day-to-day basis ... ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam."

What happens during those ellipses is SBVFT members talking about Kerry's accusations in these terms: "Just devastating." "It hurt me." "John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I and many of my comrades in the North Vietnamese prison camps took torture to avoid saying. It demoralized us." "Betrayed us." "Dishonored his country and more importantly the people he served with. He just sold them out."

Note well: These bait-and-switch artists don't dare say that Kerry's statements were false. The anti-Kerry crusaders issue classic non-denial denials. The subtext of their outrage against Kerry is simple: They are still averse to facing the awfulness of the Vietnam War. What they are really saying with their slanders is that the truth hurts.

Take a close look at what Kerry said to the Senate committee. He was summarizing testimony given publicly at the so-called Winter Soldier Investigation of Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 1971, presented by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in Detroit. One hundred five Vietnam veterans testified there. Seventy-one of them said they were eyewitnesses to war crimes of the sort Kerry later mentioned. Thirteen said that they themselves had committed war crimes.

These veterans testified to rape; to torture and the killing of prisoners; to the torching of Vietnamese homes and whole villages. In sickening detail they filled in the blanks -- as the Pentagon was itself unwilling to do -- to put to work this sentence from a U.S. Army field manual: "Every violation of the law of war is a war crime."

It is to the Winter Soldier testimony specifically that Kerry was alluding. It was these chronicles of mayhem that he was summarizing. To judge the truth of Kerry's Senate testimony, read some excerpts from the Detroit testimony.

SCOTT CAMILE: "My name is Scott Camile. I was a Sgt. attached to Charley 1/1. I was a forward observer in Vietnam. I went in right after high school and I'm a student now ... The cutting off of heads -- on Operation Stone -- there was a Lt. Colonel there and two people had their heads cut off and put on stakes and stuck in the middle of the field. And we were notified that there was press covering the operation and that we couldn't do that anymore. Before we went out on the operation we were told not to waste our heat tablets on food but to save them for the villages because we were going to destroy all the villages and we didn't give the people any time to get out of the villages. We just went in and burned them and if people were in the villages yelling and screaming, we didn't help them. We just burned the houses as we went.

"MODERATOR: Why did you use the heat tabs? Did you just light off the villages with matches or just throw the heat tabs in so it would keep burning?

"CAMILE: We'd throw the heat tabs in because it was quicker and they'd keep burning. They couldn't put the heat tabs out. We'd throw them on top of the houses. People cut off ears and when they'd come back in off of an operation you'd make deals before you'd go out and like for every ear you cut off someone would buy you two beers, so people cut off ears. The torturing of prisoners was done with beatings and I saw one case where there were two prisoners. One prisoner was staked out on the ground and he was cut open while he was alive and part of his insides were cut out and they told the other prisoner if he didn't tell them what they wanted to know they would kill him. And I don't know what he said because he spoke in Vietnamese but then they killed him after that anyway."

JAMES DUFFY: "I served as a machine gunner, on a CH-47, Chinook helicopter with Company A, 228th Aviation Battalion, 1st Air Cav. Division, from February '67 to April '68.

"I iced a contingent of Vietnamese peasants chopping wood and I decided, well, if the Vietnamese can fire a round into my ship, then I can fire as many rounds into the Vietnamese as I want to.

"So I swung my machine gun onto this group of peasants and opened fire. Fortunately, the gun jammed after one or two rounds, which was pretty lucky, because this group of peasants turned out to be a work party hired by the government to clear the area and there was GIs guarding them about 50 meters away. But my mind was so psyched out into killing gooks that I never even paid attention to look around and see where I was. I just saw gooks and I wanted to kill them. I was pretty scared after that happened because that sort of violated the unwritten code that you can do anything you want to as long as you don't get caught. That's, I guess that's, what happened with the My Lai incident. Those guys just were following the same pattern that we've been doing there for 10 years, but they had the misfortune of getting caught at it.

"I looked out across the field and I spotted a Vietnamese woman peasant running away from the ship. I fired a burst of about six or seven rounds into her back before we fired, before we hit the ground. When I was being questioned as to what happened about two weeks later by a captain in my company, I told him what we did and what I did. We both had a good laugh about it. That was pretty much company policy. Also in Hue, during the Tet offensive in '68, I observed American fighters and bombers (Phantoms) dropping bombs and napalm into very crowded streets full of civilians. I don't know how many people were wiped out in that place. They blamed that on the NVA. Also, I was flying tail gun at the time on one mission into Hue, and just for kicks, the pilot told me to spray a house with my M-16. I don't know if the house was occupied, but the area was occupied by civilians. This was common policy. Kill anything you want to kill, any time you want to kill it, just don't get caught."

MICHAEL HUNTER: "I served in Vietnam two tours, the first tour was from the 1st Air Cav. Bravo Company 5th/7th Air Cav. and the second tour was the 1st Infantry Division, I Company, 75th Rangers, Lurps (LRRP) about 40 miles west of Saigon.

" 4 years old, ranging up to 16 years old, came around the fence to sell GIs cigarettes, or candy, or beg for food, they were CSed. And what I mean is they were gassed. This didn't happen just once, it happened constantly, the whole time we were there and when we were in the base camp also. And when we didn't use CS out of the grenade we used CS out of the canister round of the M-79, which, if you're hit by it, you can be killed...

"Bravo Company, 5th of the 7th, when we were outside of Hue shortly after the Tet offensive, went into a village (and this happened repeatedly afterwards) and searched for enemy activity. We encountered a large amount of civilian population. The civilian population was brought out to one end of the village, and the women, who were guarded by a squad and a squad leader at that time, were separated. I might say the young women were separated from their children and the older women and the older men, the elderly men. They were told at gunpoint that if they did not submit to the sexual desires of any GI who was there guarding them, they would be shot for running away.

"MODERATOR: ...every person that sat at this panel for the 1st Air Cav. has stated that they would swear, under oath, for everything that they have said."

JAMIE HENRY: "Sgt. (E-5), H Co., 2nd Bn., 9th Marine Reg., 3rd Marine Div. (September 1967-August 1968)

"The captain simply repeated the order that came down from the colonel that morning. The order that came down from the colonel that morning was to kill anything that moves ... As I was walking over to him, I turned, and I looked in the area. I looked toward where the supposed VCs were, and two men were leading a young girl, approximately 19 years old, very pretty, out of a hootch. She had no clothes on so I assumed she had been raped, which was pretty SOP, and she was thrown onto the pile of the 19 women and children, and five men, around the circle, opened up on full automatic with their M-16s."

SAM SCHORR: "SP/4 (E-4), 86th Combat Engineers (September 1966 to September 1967)

"Regarding throwing people out of helicopters, I only saw one incident to this ... There were five Vietnamese people. I do not know if they were civilians, Viet Cong or Viet Cong suspects. Three of them were wounded, had bandages on their bodies and their legs and their arms looked in bad shape. The other two were older men, somewhere around 50 years old. The lieutenant from the armored personnel carrier and the captain from the chopper helped place these people in the helicopter. He got in the helicopter and took off. He got a couple of hundred feet up and three bodies came out. The lieutenant who was on the ground radioed up to the 'copter and he asked, "What happened to the prisoners?' The reply was point blank, 'They tried to escape.'

"...The destruction of crops was fairly widespread. I was in an engineering outfit. I operated a bulldozer and also an earth mover, which is a very large piece of equipment for removing 18 cubic yards of dirt at a time. When we had to build a base camp or we needed dirt for a road, we just drove off the side of a road into somebody's rice paddy and just started scraping away and taking their dirt. It didn't matter if the Vietnamese people there were using it at the time, or if they were going to use it at a future time. We just went in there and got it anyway 'cause we needed the dirt. Along almost all these rice paddies, they have graves on the dikes, at corners of the dikes, and these are the fathers, mothers, and grandfathers of the people who lived near that particular rice paddy. If there was a grave in the way, we just went right through it."

THOMAS HEIDTMAN: "My first day with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, I was informed that the nickname of the company was the 'Burning Fifth Marines.' Once, just before my first operation, we had a company formation, which means that the entire company who was going on the operation is fully equipped with everything they're going to take with them, including ammunition. At the time, our company commander was a 1st lieutenant, who was hit on Hill 1100 in April, but he said that we're going out in the morning and we're going out on choppers. We're going out into an area west of Tam Ky. Then he said, "We're going to have a Zippo inspection right now." And I would say approximately two-thirds of the entire company had Zippo lighters. We held them up, lit them, demonstrated that they were filled, would burn. Then put them away. He smiled and let it go at that. When we went out, I would say 50 percent at least of the villages we passed through would be burned to the ground. There was no difference between the ones we burned and the ones we didn't burn. It was just that where we had time, we burned them."

Consider the setting at the time of the Winter Soldier event and Kerry's summary of it. The country was still reeling from the evidence presented at the trial of Army Lt. William Calley for murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai on March 16, 1968. The country had read Seymour Hersh's epoch-making report on the massacre of more than 300 unarmed Vietnamese and had seen the photos in Life magazine. "We intend," said William F. Crandell, a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in opening the event, "to demonstrate that My Lai was no unusual occurrence."

Indeed. Decades later, reports of the horrors are still trickling out. The Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer Prize for its October 2003 series about killings committed by an elite U.S. Army "Tiger Force" unit in the course of a seven-month period in 1967. "Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed -- their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings," the Blade reported. "Investigators concluded that 18 soldiers committed war crimes ranging from murder and assault to dereliction of duty. But no one was charged."

"The object of Winter Soldier," Crandell wrote in 1994, "was to take the all-too-available atrocity stories coming out of Vietnam and show their direct relationship to American policies ... In VVAW we knew as veterans that everyone who participates in war crimes suffers, and we needed to tell our country that these horrible acts were not simply aberrations or psychotic episodes, but the inevitable outcomes of the direction soldiers in Vietnam had been given." In other words, the war itself, defending against guerrillas, was "a formula for war crime."

And in a passage that reads like an anticipatory rebuttal to the accusations by the SBVFT, Crandell added: "What relief we found as misled warriors came from confession rather than blaming. We never denied our individual responsibility for the acts we took part in. We were an army that was profoundly troubled by guilt for indefensible acts, and we admitted as much. Then we went further ... We invited America to come clean."

I spoke to Crandell this week. A former infantry patrol leader, he had returned to the United States in October 1967 with a Purple Heart and had joined VVAW after the Tet offensive of January-February 1968. Crandell told me that, in 1971, after an attorney named Mark Lane had included unreliable evidence in an earlier compilation of war-crimes charges, he had been concerned about keeping the evidence to the straight and narrow. "We vetted the witnesses," he said. "People had to produce identification. They cross-checked each other. That's why we organized the testimony by military unit."

And as for the charge that Kerry "betrayed" his comrades, Crandell insists: "The whole point we made was that the war crimes came from above." Kerry said the same in Washington in 1971. He repeated it on "Meet the Press."

And yet on Aug. 23, as if nothing at all had been learned from decades of scholarship and journalism, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked former presidential advisor David Gergen whether Kerry should apologize for what he said about the war. He didn't ask whether Robert S. McNamara should apologize. He didn't ask whether Henry Kissinger should apologize. He didn't ask whether Dick Cheney and George W. Bush should apologize for their support of a wrong war. (As recently as his interview with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" on April 18, Bush repeated the right-wing stab-in-the-back demagogy that what had been wrong with the Vietnam War was that the civilians had run it.) Responsibility has never been George W. Bush's game. He represents the America that refuses to be sorry, and the unscrupulous John O'Neill does his dirty work as he did for that spiritual guide, Richard Nixon.

Some thought Kerry was overdoing his Vietnam credentials with his theatrics of "reporting for duty." But Kerry was on to an essential truth about the America that emerged from Vietnam: That duty begins when you open your eyes in the dark face of reality. It is the same truth with which he closed his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 33 years ago:

"We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service as easily as this administration has wiped away their memories of us. But all that they have done, and all that they can do by this denial, is to make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission: To search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war; to pacify our own hearts; to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last 10 years and more. And more. And so, when, 30 years from now, our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say 'Vietnam' and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead where America finally turned, and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning. "

"One last mission": The turning is still in progress.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin teaches at Columbia University, writes regularly for and Tablet, and is the author, most recently, of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

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