Deborah Nelson, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes—Inside the Army’s Secret Archive of Investigations (New York: Basic Books, 2008) and Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian, Collateral Damage: America’s War against Iraqi Civilians (New York: Nation Books, 2008).
“[U.S. military forces] 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 South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war….”
— Vietnam Veteran John Kerry
“I remember my unit was coming along this elevated overpass. And this kid is in the trash pile below, pulls out an AK-47 and just decides he’s going to start shooting. And you gotta understand… when you have spent nine months in a war zone, where no one—every time you’ve been shot at, you’ve never seen the person shooting at you, and you could never shoot back. He’s some guy, some fourteen-year-old kid with an AK-47, decides he’s going to start shooting at this convoy. It was the most obscene thing you’ve ever seen. Every person got out and opened fire on this kid. Using the biggest weapons we could find, we ripped him to shreds…. Everyone was so happy, like this released that they finally killed an insurgent. Then when we got there, they realized it was just a little kid. And I know that really fucked up a lot of people in the head….They’d show all the pictures and some people were really happy, like, “Oh, look what we did.’ And other people were like, ‘I don’t want to see that ever again.’”
– Iraq Veteran. Patrick Campbell
“Support the troops.” How many times in the last seven years have you heard or seen this imperative? Its frequency may be due to its mindless lack of specificity. With the dominance of the Bush Administration’s viewpoint in the media during this “global war on terror,” “support the troops” easily functioned as “support the Bush Administration.” Don’t question authority.
One Iraq war veteran, Aidan Delgado offered a more specific challenge to those fond of repeating, mantra-like, support the troops: “Honor the veterans by listening to what they really have to say.” Of course, veterans have all kinds of things to say as well as all kinds of things they are unable and unwilling to say. Several of my students over the years have spoken about a relative who was in the Vietnam War, and the young people have never heard a word from their uncle or father about their war-time experiences. It’s obvious, too, that they know not even to ask a question of their elders.
Two recent books provide an opportunity for us to consider veterans who want to communicate to us about the crimes of war that are barely acknowledged in the mainstream press. Deborah Nelson’s The War Behind Me and Laila al-Arian and Chris Hedges’s Collateral Damage examine U.S. soldiers who’ve been willing to confront the U.S. military’s contempt for civilian life in Vietnam and Iraq. A few hours with these two succinct and revelatory volumes may better enable us to understand what has happened in both Vietnam and Iraq and so stimulate our critical thinking and responsible action.
Deborah Nelson conducted interviews with a number of Vietnam veterans whose stories she initially found in a recently declassified Army archive of war crimes investigations about U.S. troops in Vietnam. Composed of letters from soldiers, official investigations, and statistical reports, the archive provided ample, official confirmation of what soldiers had long been desperate to reveal to those high in the chain of command. Nelson excerpts amply from these documents as well as from recent interviews with the soldiers, and some of the higher-ups responsible for the policies that horrified these soldiers.
Nelson offers the following pointed rationale for her book: “It’s a place for [veterans] to tell their stories again, now with the full force of the army’s own investigation findings behind them. Years ago, many of them hoped their accounts would pressure the Pentagon to stop ‘all the wrong killing,’ as a soldier wrote in a private letter to then army chief of staff William C. Westmoreland in 1970. The war ended without an accounting or acknowledgement of the war crimes they witnessed. Their retelling comes at an equally important time when, having failed to address the past, we’re destined to repeat it.” [4-5]
The very nature of U.S. strategy in South Vietnam was to increase the “body count” of the enemy, the “Viet Cong” (National Liberation Front). This necessitated neutralizing the value of the civilian population to the guerilla fighters, which required uprooting villagers and moving them to “strategic hamlets” behind barbed wire. Once removed, the areas around their villages became “free-fire zones,” which allowed the U.S. to bomb or shoot anything that moved, including civilians who went back seeking food or to be near where their ancestors were buried. Vietnam veteran Myron Ambeau observed, “The firefighting you could handle. It’s all that other stuff that plays on your mind. We just basically search and destroy with no rhyme or reason….How in the hell do you go in there, completely destroy everything they have, beat up their family members, rape their wives, and burn down their houses?” 
Some older Americans will be able to link the name My Lai with U.S. atrocity in Vietnam. One “Anonymous Soldier” had written persistently to U.S. commanders, asserting that the My Lai massacre of March 1968 wasn’t unique: “In case you don’t think I mean lots of Vietnamese got killed this way, I can give you some idea how many. A batalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day. With 4 batalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 to 1500 a month, easy. (One batalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!) If I am only 10% right, and believe me its lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay each month for over a year.” 
Dead civilians were counted as “V.C.” and so increased the body count, said quantification facilitating officer advancement and perks for the enthusiastic soldiers. In one case, a U.S. soldier eager to win a competition of the most kills was convicted on unpremeditated murder, but only received less pay and demotion in rank. He was soon able to get another tour in Vietnam. One of Nelson’s interviewees, Robert Stemme, Jr., told her, “I just couldn’t believe that went away after what happened to those people. I was really kind of shocked.” Nelson goes on to write, “The wrist slap reflected the ‘mere gook rule,’ [Stemme] says. U.S. soldiers learned in basic training to dehumanize the enemy and carried the lesson to its logical conclusion in the field. So when Army leaders pressured the men at LZ English [a support area and camp] to produce more bodies and intelligence, the ‘mere gook’ rule provided an easy solution.” 
Some defenses of the Vietnam War view claim that the war was lost because of a cantankerous, anti-military media, or the half-hearted timidity of the politicians, who did not allow the military to use all the power at its disposal. Yet, Vietnamese themselves used words like “extermination” for what the U.S. military was doing in the 1960s. Consider two perspectives contrary to the view that the U.S. might have won if allowed to use its full might. The first is James Henry, one of the whistle blowers interviewed by Nelson: “All we wanted to do is survive this and get out. Nobody wanted to quit. Everybody wanted to do their job. When we were told to attack, we did. It was a fight. But it was pretty obvious that we weren’t going to accomplish what the government wanted us to accomplish, especially the way we were going about it. I mean, going around killing all the people that we’re supposed to be saving isn’t going to work. If they weren’t enemies before we got there, they were enemies after we got there.” A second view is that of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “The more American troops sent to Vietnam, the more the anti-American campaign led by the NLF becomes successful. Anger and hatred rise in the hearts of the peasants as they see their villages burned, their compatriots killed, their houses destroyed. Pictures showing NLF soldiers with arms tied, followed by American soldiers holding guns with bayonets, make people think of the Indochina war between the French and the Viet Minh and cause pain even to the anti-Communist Vietnamese.” [from Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, 63-64]
As more and more soldiers began to complain of systematic disregard for Vietnamese civilian life, the Army grew concerned. It was obligated to investigate each claim of a war crime, but, like President Richard Nixon, military officials weren’t interested in seeing these crimes make the front page of the nation’s newspapers. Damage control mode kicked into high gear, which tried to minimize what happened, or to discredit the soldiers who became increasingly outspoken
There has yet to be an honest national reckoning with the crimes the United States committed in Indochina. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission needs to take place here. If such were to happen, the testimony revealed in Nelson’s book would surely be crucial evidence in the process of facing the gruesome truth of what really happened and who was ultimately responsible. Let James Henry have the last word: “I would guess that there hundreds if not thousands of allegations of various abuses. Not stealing bananas, but serious abuses. The army could not possibly bring all of these problems out into the open, (which court martial trials would do) without admitting that they had failed in every aspect of training, tactics, and command of the troops in Viet Nam and the ultimate responsibility and the corruption went from the rice paddies, all the way to the Pentagon.” [185-186]
One striking difference between the U.S occupation of Iraq and the U.S. occupation of South Vietnam is that in the latter case, U.S. commanders were obsessed with body counts—the greater the number of “Viet Cong” killed, the closer we were to “victory.” Yet, General Tommy Franks said after the invasion of Iraq, “We don’t do body counts.” When he declared “mission accomplished” in May 2003, President Bush also said, “With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war, yet it is a great advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent…” In Collateral Damage Hedges and al-Arian focus principally on those modes of a military occupation that cause harm and death to innocent civilians: convoys, checkpoints, raids, and detentions. By understanding the dynamics of these phenomena, we can detect an operative “mere haji rule” in Iraq. The authors state, “The word ‘haji’ in the Muslim world is a term of respect and denotes someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. But it is used by American troops as a slur, taking the place of ‘gook’ in Vietnam or ‘raghead’ in Afghanistan. The dehumanization of the Iraqis, the implicit assumption that they were less than human, made it easier to cope with abuse and killing, to deny the humanity of those standing on the wrong end of the conflict.” 
According to the authors, “conveys are the arteries that sustain the occupation. They ferry water, mail, maintenance parts, sewage, food, and fuel to bases across Iraq.”  But to the Iraqis, they are seen as “freight trains of death.” To supply the troops, convoys have to travel great distances and need protection. Drivers are therefore instructed by commanders never to stop because that puts the convoy and its protectors at risk of insurgent attack. The human consequences: if Iraqis of whatever age, including children, are seen as an impediment to the plan to go smoothly from point A to point B, then the Iraqis will be run over, or shot, no matter what. Sergeant Geoffrey Millard said, “No one ever questioned if someone skipped the step [of firing a warning shot] and just fired directly into the vehicle, because it’s a split-second decision. And you err on the side of life, meaning your life and not the life of the person in the vehicle.”  Sergeant Kelly Dougherty commented, “It was just like, the mentality of my squad leader was like, Oh, we have to kill them over here so I don’t have to kill them back in Colorado. He just seemed to view every Iraqi as a potential terrorist.”  National Guardsman Fernando Braga reported: “[The lieutenant] said the reason was that we shouldn’t hesitate [to run over children] because of the way they would treat their children. They don’t value human life like we do and they don’t share our same Western values.” 
The authors describe the checkpoint system as follows: “The U.S. military has checkpoints dotted across Iraq. They are designed to restrict the flow of traffic, make travel by insurgents difficult on roads, and prevent the shipment of weapons and explosives. These checkpoints serve as safety valves, used by the occupation troops to protect neighborhoods, fortified compounds, and city streets from attack. But the checkpoints are deadly for civilians.”  Due to the ignorance of the Iraqi civilian drivers, or to the short temper of the U.S soldiers, a checkpoint is a calamity waiting to happen. A family in a car approaches and the driver is neither able to read the minds of the soldiers positioned many meters away nor understand their language, the U.S. modus operandi is predictable: Shoot first, ask questions later. Sergeant Dougherty admitted, “You start looking at everyone as a criminal…. Is this the car that’s going to try to run into me? Is this the car that has explosives in it? Or is this just someone who’s confused?”  Sergeant Ben Flanders recollected, “The enemy can come from any direction. They can come in any form, whether it’s a pregnant woman who blows herself up on soldiers or it’s this car just sitting idly on the side of the road.”  Spc. Patrick Resta stated, “I even specifically remember being told that it was better to kill them than to have somebody be wounded and still alive.”  The U.S. military does not keep statistics of civilians killed at checkpoints.
Raids are frequently undertaken to identify and arrest the insurgents. The raids typically take place from midnight to 4 or 5 a.m. These are incursions into domestic Iraqi lives, disruptive, destructive, and tending to the dehumanizing. Sergeant John Bruhns pointed out, “And if you find something, then you’ll detain him. If not, you’ll say, ‘Sorry to disturb you. Have a nice evening.’ So you’ve just humiliated this man in front of his entire family and terrorized his entire family and you’ve destroyed his home. And then you go right next door and you do the same thing in a hundred homes. [53-54] Staff Sergeant T.J. Westphal contended: “Most of the people were terrified. You could see it in their eyes. We knew that this was not the way to win the hearts and minds. You don’t come in the middle of the night and harass people and then expect them to give you flowers the next day.”  As with U.S. “pacification” efforts that uprooted Vietnamese civilians, the raids, according to some of the interviewees, were seen as counterproductive, as they led outraged Iraqis to become opposed to the U.S. occupation.
Detentions have achieved certain notoriety in the U.S. as increasing attention has been paid to the practice of torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Hedges and al-Arian state the gravity of the problem: “Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been incarcerated in prisons and detention facilities in Iraq. The numbers range from 60,000 to 120,000, according to military officials. Some prisoners have languished for months, even years, in Iraqi prisons. Families are forced to navigate a dysfunctional bureaucracy to find and plead for the release of their relatives.”  Spc. Resta’s supervisor claimed, “The Geneva Conventions don’t exist at all in Iraq, and that’s in writing if you want to see it.” Resta had the gumption to ask to see it in writing, but the commander refused. Resta realized that he could be obedient and relent or risk a court-martial. Power trips by the soldiers and dehumanization of the Iraqis went hand in hand.
The last chapter, “Hearts and Minds,” alludes to President Lyndon Johnson’s “Hearts and Minds” speech. To win in Vietnam required military success and political success, the latter involving “winning over the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.” Yet the U.S. was doomed in Vietnam, because napalm, Agent Orange, search and destroy, torture, mass murder, and strategic hamlets/concentration camps were guaranteed to be great recruiting for the resistance, as Thich Nhat Hanh observed in 1967. The continued U.S. domination of Iraq is guaranteed to generate outrage, bitterness, leading some to take up arms (or to throw shoes at Bush), leading others to recall, in a hard to fathom nostalgia, the good old days under Saddam Hussein.
Many have felt a sense of relief at Barak Obama’s 2008 election victory, as well as the impending supposed handing over of power from the U.S. to Iraqis. Yet, these two books ought to give pause. 30,000 more troops going to Afghanistan? Won’t they have to institute more checkpoints there? Won’t these troops undertake hundreds of nocturnal raids, seeking Taliban terrorists? Won’t there be a proliferation of convoys, leading to further “collateral damage” of Afghan civilians, added to those already killed while celebrating at their weddings by U.S. aerial bombings? Won’t more Afghanis and other nationals be swept up in raids and pressured to confess via means Americans have found abhorrent?
In Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the United States created an incalculable disaster for the people of these rcountries. The damage and destruction of human life and society has continued in Iraq and is soon to accelerate in Afghanistan. But veterans ranging in age from their mid-20s to their mid-60s, continue to speak out about the human costs of U.S. arrogance and belligerence past and present. In his communication to superiors when the Vietnam war was a daily topic of conversation in the United States, James Henry said, “My motivation can be stated quite briefly: I want the murder of Vietnamese stopped and I want the military to stop putting Americans in the position of becoming murderers.”