Conflicting eyewitness accounts make it difficult to determine whether Bob Kerrey’s Navy SEAL team killed Thanh Phong residents deliberately or accidentally. Still, the profound questions of guilt that were reopened by last week’s reports of the 1969 incident deserve continued attention. If the massacre was premeditated, is Kerrey a war criminal? Or is it unfair to single him out in the madness that was the Vietnam War? How do we judge the soldiers who knowingly murdered innocents in what is now widely considered an unjust enterprise?
Our judgment seems to depend, in part, on how common such acts were during Vietnam. Popular memory has tended to remember American brutality in the war as confined to a handful of high-profile atrocities. Most notably, in the 1968 massacre at My Lai, Lt. William L. Calley Jr. and his troops slaughtered between 350 and 500 villagers in a daylong murderous frenzy. Less well-remembered was the 1970 killing of 16 women and children by Americans at Son Thang, which led to the trial of five Marines and the conviction of two. With only a few such infamous episodes lingering in most people’s memories, there’s a tendency to assume that they must have been, as they were often called at the time, “isolated incidents.”
History suggests otherwise. Deliberate violence against civilians was fairly common during the Vietnam War. No one has ever conducted a systematic study of atrocities in Vietnam, and it’s impossible to know how many went unreported or were covered up by senior officers. (My Lai was kept under wraps for a year, and Thanh Phong stayed hidden until last week.) But according to the psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, who interviewed Vietnam veterans extensively, “every returning combat soldier can tell of similar incidents [to My Lai], if on a somewhat smaller scale.” Likewise, Gary Solis, who wrote a book about Son Thang, told the New York Times Magazine that far more GIs committed war crimes in Vietnam than the 122 who were convicted.
This news is no secret. Starting in the mid-1960s, reports of atrocities against Vietnamese civilians began reaching American audiences and mobilizing the war’s critics. In 1967, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam compiled a thick report, In the Name of America, which detailed hundreds of possible war crimes, ranging from mistreatment of prisoners to incidents of Americans killing civilians without regard to their identity. After My Lai came to light in November 1969, the subject of American savagery moved to the front burner.
Perhaps most important in bringing atrocities to light were the public hearings that Vietnam Veterans Against the War convened in Detroit in January 1971. Over three days, 150 servicemen related in grisly detail the barbaric deeds they and their peers had performed and the dehumanizing training they had received. One recalled that his platoon sergeant told him that if he found civilians in a hut, “if it’s a male, kill him; and if it’s a female, rape her.” Another man recounted a gang rape of a young girl and said he knew first hand of at least 10 or 15 similar incidents. Still others confessed to torturing prisoners or throwing them out of helicopters. These were not cases of being unable to distinguish Viet Cong from noncombatants.
Following the VVAW hearings, the group’s leader, John F. Kerry (later Sen. John F. Kerry), told a Senate committee that such acts had occurred “on a day-to-day basis, with full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” He summarized the testimony from the three-day hearings:
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 fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war.
The very existence of international laws to govern wartime behavior means that we expect men, even when placed in morally desensitizing environments, to abide by basic rules of humanity. Kerry and the veterans were arguing not that war absolves soldiers for their barbarism but something more specific: In Vietnam, Americans were at every stage trained and encouraged to follow their basest violent instincts.
Other doves noted that U.S. military programs were perversely designed to ensure civilian deaths: the designation of “free-fire zones,” which were (often wrongly) assumed to contain no civilians and where indiscriminate killing was officially allowed; the wanton bombing and napalming of regions known to contain noncombatants; and the CIA’s Phoenix Program, which sanctioned the direct assassination of alleged Viet Cong leaders and led to the killing of thousands of civilians. Under the logic of the war, political scientist Hans Morgenthau argued, massacres such as My Lai were actually the natural outgrowth of American policy itself. “Since everyone in the countryside of Vietnam is to a lesser or greater degree our enemy,” he contended, “it is perfectly logical to kill everyone in sight.”
The anti-war left thus tended (contrary to myth) not to place primary blame on wayward GIs. Although there was no shortage of hostility to William Calley, most Americans—including anti-war activists—saw him as a scapegoat in the My Lai trials, since all the higher-ups involved in encouraging or concealing the massacre were exonerated while Calley got life in hard labor. (He wound up serving just three and a half years.) Indeed, rather than censuring the grunts, the left thought it more fitting to prosecute Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, and others who needlessly prolonged the war—as left-wing journalist Christopher Hitchens still howls today.
Everyone sympathizes with the fighting men who were just carrying out orders in a misguided war. But some critics of the war, such as Robert Jay Lifton and Telford Taylor, rightly noted that following orders was no more an excuse in Indochina than it was at Auschwitz. The rules of war to which the Nazis were held to account at Nuremberg must also pertain in Vietnam.
After all, they pointed out, not every American GI in Vietnam participated in atrocities. At My Lai, Sgt. Michael Bernhardt refrained from the slaughter, despite peer pressure that made him feel as if he—and not his trigger-happy buddies—were the one doing something wrong. An American soldier, Robert Ridenhour, conscience-stricken when he heard about My Lai, first brought it to light by writing a letter to public officials about it. Even many who had themselves partaken of criminal violence had the conscience to come clean soon afterward—like the scores of VVAW members who testified in Detroit. Their sense of moral responsibility in owning up to their actions during the height of the war’s controversy stands in contrast to those who kept their actions secret for years—such as Bob Kerrey, who maintained a 30-year silence about Thanh Phong, despite a high public profile.
The choices of collective guilt and individual guilt are often presented as mutually exclusive. Either a William Calley was guilty of perpetrating a massacre, it’s said, or he was innocent because he was only a cog in the runaway U.S. war machine—and the military or the government or the nation was at fault. The dichotomy is a false one. In Vietnam,.