In late 1970, prompted by the debate over the exposure of U.S. atrocities in the village of Mỹ Lai, an anonymous GI wrote a letter to Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland, claiming to have witnessed hundreds of acts of terrorism by U.S. soldiers during Operation Speedy Express. The campaign, intended to reclaim portions of the Mekong Delta, purportedly killed over ten thousand enemy but seized only seven hundred weapons.
“In the ambushes we killed anything or anybody and a lot of these weren’t VC. We used claymores on any people, on any boat that passed even if sometimes it would be loaded with bananas and a couple of women, or a papasan [male Vietnamese] with a hoe. No big thing, they were VC as soon as we killed them.” The GI went on to state that there was random shooting from helicopters at anything that moved on the ground and that the “snipers were the worst killers who were responsible for at least 600 murders per month [during the Operation].” The Battalion commander [Lieutenant Colonel David Hackworth, among the most decorated soldiers in U.S. history], told his company commander that “pretty soon there wouldn’t be any rice farmers left because his snipers would kill them all. And he laughed.”
Such revelations provide a pivotal component of Bernd Greiner’s compelling new book, War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam, which vividly details the genocidal nature of the warfare carried out by the U.S. Army in Vietnam, based on evidence drawn from Army criminal investigation division reports into alleged war crimes. These records were declassified in 1994 but largely ignored by scholars until recently. Greiner’s findings and analysis are especially pertinent, given the historical revisionism and cultural amnesia that have taken root in U.S. society about the Vietnam War, paving the way for the current military aggression in the Middle East.
Much of the voluminous literature on the Vietnam War focuses on the decision-making process of policy elites, and not the real-life consequences of U.S. policies on the ground. Most disturbingly, several recent books and articles have sought to exonerate the U.S. record, either by rehabilitating the U.S.-backed client Ngo Dinh Diem, or by minimizing the scale of U.S.-backed atrocities. Right-wing historian Mark Moyar has gone so far as to claim that U.S. soldiers who testified about tortures and other abuses were mentally unbalanced and hence not credible sources. Along with the recently published work of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Deborah Nelson and Nicholas Turse, Greiner’s book provides a corrective to these spurious notions.
After the Mỹ Lai massacre (in which troops under the command of Lieutenant William Calley killed five hundred villagers) was publicly exposed, the Nixon administration and military were increasingly concerned about the public relations ramifications and conducted secret investigations of alleged war crimes in Vietnam. The reports provide an important window into the massive scope of the atrocities, and confirm the charge of the antiwar movement and Winter Soldier hearings that Mỹ Lai was the tip of the iceberg. The reports further shed insight into the racist mentality of the U.S. military toward the Vietnamese and into the obsession of senior ranking officers with obtaining a high-body count, which underlay much of the barbarism.
The most disturbing facet of the book is its revelation of just how callous the treatment of Vietnamese civilians was by the U.S. military and of how human norms break down in war. Building on previous literature on the topic, Greiner documents incident after incident in which soldiers shot down peasants for sport, burned villages in so-called free-fire zones, tortured prisoners, mutilated the bodies of their victims, collected body parts, and carried out the wide-scale rape of women, often as a means of punishing collaborators with the enemy or to relieve the stresses of combat. Amid the violent social environment of the war—what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton termed the “counterfeit social universe of the Nam”—many of the soldiers actually saw killing as a means of affirming life by defying their own death. For others, killing was undertaken for pleasure purposes or, like rape, to prove their masculine prowess before their comrades. One GI commented: “The trouble is nobody sees the Vietnamese as a people.” Another said, “they’re all VC or at least helping them—same difference.”
Besides the insights into the psychology of violence, Greiner provides a devastating indictment of the military senior command, which openly embraced a strategy of terrorizing the population into submission. In routine instances, officers encouraged indiscriminate slaughter by giving orders—which soldiers dutifully obeyed—to take no prisoners and kill “anything that moves.” When some brave GIs tried to report incidents of abuse, they were often threatened with murder by platoon members. Commanding officers often valued the most bloodthirsty individuals who could amass a high body count total. When one soldier was threatened with removal for war crimes in the notorious Tiger Force death squad, his commanding officer reported to headquarters: “We’re in the middle of a war. And you want me to take [him] out for killing gooks?” Another GI commented: “The Captain liked you better if you were a rough son of a bitch who hated dinks.”
Some of the worst atrocities during the conflict were committed under the banner of the Phoenix program, which was designed to liquidate the leadership of the National Liberation Front (the southern-based resistance movement), and by South Koreans subcontracted by the U.S. military. According to the RAND Corporation, after the Korean forces arrived in 1965, they were reputed to “burn everything down, to destroy everything, to seize everything and kill everyone.” In one incident in a village near Mỹ Lai, which appears to have been quite typical, they forced thirty-six villagers to dig graves, and executed them, one after another, by shooting them in the head. The Vietnamese peasants were deathly afraid of the Koreans and refused to work in their fields for fear of attacks.
At the end of the book, Greiner provides an interesting discussion of public reaction to the Mỹ Lai massacre, which many in the United States rationalized as justified under the conditions of war or as a response to worse transgressions supposedly committed by the “Vietcong.” The Nixon administration became inundated with letters from the so-called “Silent Majority” who saw Calley as a scapegoat for broader administrative and bureaucratic failures and, in some cases, as a hero unfairly punished for carrying out his patriotic duty. For Greiner, these letters exemplify the enduring quality of the “Victory Culture,” or myth of American exceptionalism, which posits that the United States only fights wars for defensive purposes, and generally acts humanely unless responding to a savage enemy. These letters, also, in turn, foreshadowed the rise of an assortment of postwar myths claiming that the United States was stabbed in the back by treasonous antiwar protestors and liberal politicians who betrayed the troops in their unwillingness to go “all out” to achieve victory. Memory of the war was, in the process, distorted, as the culture sought to avenge the “Vietnam syndrome” through renewed projections of force, in Grenada, Panama, and now Afghanistan and Iraq.
On the whole, Greiner has written a powerful and well-documented account of the dark side of U.S. military policy and conduct in Vietnam. He sheds much insight into the barbarism inherent in the waging of modern warfare, whose principal victims are almost always civilians. War Without Fronts is especially relevant today, as the U.S. Army continues to fight in blood-soaked conflicts where, sadly, history is being repeated.