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John Kerry and War Crimes in Vietnam

By Jan Barry

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[Note: Jan Barry was a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, after resigning from West Point.]

What the national news media has not reported in the current controversy - just as was not widely reported in 1971 - are the crimes of war that Kerry summarized in his antiwar speech to Congress.

Special to VAIW, February 29, 2004

John Kerry and War Crimes in Vietnam

An outraged buzz is circulating in political circles that John Kerry is unfit to run for president because as an antiwar activist he accused Vietnam veterans of committing war crimes. In a long-simmering reaction to Kerry's 1971 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, "many critics see Mr. Kerry's words as impugning the honor of all who served in Vietnam," as the New York Times put it. This, to put it mildly, is a gross distortion of what Kerry actually said and what the war crimes hearings were about.

"Summarizing the accounts of American soldiers he had heard at an antiwar conference in Detroit weeks earlier, Mr. Kerry said the men told how '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 a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.' " the Times reported in a February 28 retrospective on Kerry's Vietnam war protests.

"But Gary Solis, a former Marine lieutenant colonel, Vietnam veteran and expert on war crimes who is an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center here, said Mr. Kerry had made a grave error. 'Sure it's true,' Mr. Solis said. 'Sure there were people raped, ears cut off and so on. Each one of the things that he mentioned happened, in some cases I know, and in others I'm confident. But when you put them all together in one sentence and say this was well known at every level of command, it impugns, it seems to me, everyone who fought over there and it gives the impression that everyone who fought over there was a war criminal and that's just not true,' " the Times report concluded.

What the national news media has not reported in the current controversy - just as was not widely reported in 1971 - are the crimes of war that Kerry summarized in his antiwar speech to Congress. When it comes to war crimes, the news world seems to prefer quoting opinions rather than presenting facts.

The fact is that the testimony on war crimes presented by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit, Michigan, was read into the Congressional Record, spurred Congressional hearings into the conduct of the war in Vietnam, and echoed the conclusions of Brigadier General Telford Taylor, who prosecuted Nazi war criminals after World War II, that in Vietnam "we failed ourselves to learn the lessons we undertook to teach at Nuremberg, and that failure is today's American tragedy" (Nuremberg and Vietnam, 1970).

The hearings in Detroit, called the Winter Soldier Investigation, were designed to counter what many veterans saw as government officials scapegoating GIs for the widespread death and destruction of civilians and villages in Vietnam. "This group's efforts to document such testimony followed the well-known 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. By the 1971 VVAW hearings, the trial of Lt. William L. Calley by the Army was planned. The 1968 My Lai incident clearly resulted in more antiwar sentiment here in the United States, including these efforts of Vietnam veterans to describe vividly their personal experiences," University of Richmond history professor Ernest Bolt stated in a 1999 essay on the war crimes hearings.

"The Winter Soldier Investigation is not a mock trial. There will be no phony indictments; there will be no verdict against Uncle Sam," William Crandall, a former infantry platoon leader in the Americal Division in Vietnam, said in the event's introduction. "In these three days, over a hundred Vietnam veterans will present straightforward testimony - direct testimony - about acts which are war crimes under international law. Acts which these men have seen and participated in. Acts which are the inexorable result of national policy. The vets will testify in panels arranged by the combat units in which they fought so that it will be easy to see the policy of each division and thus the larger policy."

"We intend to show that the policies of Americal Division which inevitably resulted in My Lai were the policies of other Army and Marine Divisions as well. We intend to show that war crimes in Vietnam did not start in March 1968, or in the village of Son My or with one Lt. William Calley. We intend to indict those really responsible for My Lai, for Vietnam, for attempted genocide . . . We are here to bear witness not against America, but against those policy makers who are perverting America."

In a closing statement, Donald Duncan, a former Army Special Forces master sergeant, said "We have presented testimony for three days covering a wide range of war crimes. We have covered a period by actual firsthand testimony from 1963 to 1970 - seven years. We find: that in 1963, we were displacing population, we were murdering prisoners, we were turning prisoners over to somebody else to be tortured. We were committing murder then, and in 1970 we find nothing has changed. Every law of Land Warfare has been violated and been testified to here in the past three days. It has been done systematically, deliberately, and continuously. It has been done with the full knowledge of those who, in fact, make policy for this country. No active step has ever been taken to curtain those acts in Vietnam"

"We built forts in Vietnam to protect villages, or so we told the Vietnamese. And at the first shot fired at Tet in 1968 we destroyed the villages to protect the fort. District Eight in Saigon was leveled brick by brick, to the ground, to secure an area where Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, and Catholics, had come to the south because that was something the Church had told them in 1954. We leveled that area to protect a bridge," Duncan said. "We have listened to some terrible stories here. We have found there are some wondrous ways indeed to inflict pain upon each other. We will call them atrocities, and we will call them war crimes. And to talk about those acts, I'm sure, has been almost as painful for those who have had to listen as for those who have talked about them."

In his testimony to Congress, Kerry went on to say: "We saw Vietnam ravaged equally by American bombs as well as by search and destroy missions, as well as by Vietcong terrorism, and yet we listened while this country tried to blame all of the havoc on the Viet Cong. We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We saw America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly a My Lai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum. We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives of orientals."

"Now we are told that the men who fought there must watch quietly while American lives are lost so that we can exercise the incredible arrogance of Vietnamizing the Vietnamese... Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can't say they we have made a mistake," Kerry said, emphasizing his call for supporting the troops by bringing them home from a hell of our creation. "Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be, and these are his words, 'the first President to lose a war.' "

"We are asking Americans to think about that, because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? We are here in Washington to say that the problem of this war is not just a question of war and diplomacy. It is part and parcel of everything that we are trying, as human beings, to communicate to people in this country - the question of racism, which is rampant in the military, and so many other questions, such as the use of weapons: the hypocrisy in our taking umbrage at the Geneva Conventions and using that as justification for a continuation of this war, when we are more guilty than any other body of violations of those Geneva Conventions; in the use of free-fire zones; harassment-interdiction fire, search-and-destroy missions; the bombings; the torture of prisoners; all accepted policy by many units in South Vietnam. That is what we are trying to say."

Shortly after Kerry's testimony, hearings on war crimes in Vietnam were held by an ad hoc committee chaired by Rep. Ronald Dellums of California. In summing up four days of testimony by West Point officers, pilots, POW interrogators,and infantrymen who served in various units in Vietnam, Dellums said: "My hope is no other young person will have to go through the same kind of evil, the same kind of insanity, the same kind of wanton death and destruction that you have been engaged in."

More than three decades later, in 2003 the Toledo Blade, a small daily newspaper in Ohio, published an expose on war crimes committed in Vietnam that military officials investigated and then covered up. "The records related to a four-and-a-half year government investigation into the actions of a platoon of soldiers from the elite 101st Airborne known as Tiger Force who allegedly killed and mutilated dozens of Vietnamese civilians during a seven-month period in 1967."

"The investigation apparently concluded that at least 18 soldiers committed war crimes . . . but nothing was ever publicly disclosed, no charges were filed, and the documents have remained classified since 1975. The Blade's investigation, adding to the military's findings, and based on interviews with Tiger Force soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, concluded that the unit killed hundreds of unarmed people," Editor & Publisher magazine noted.

"Many readers of a recent series revealing alleged war crimes in Vietnam 36 years ago must have wondered: Why now? And why in The Blade of Toledo, Ohio? It seems more like a New York Times or Washington Post kind of project," the Editor & Publisher writer wrote. But the national news media skirted covering crimes of war while GIs slogged through mud and blood in Vietnam, and it still skirts the reality of war today.

Yet in one corner of Ohio, and in many homes in America, the bitter reality of the war in Vietnam is all too real. Reporters for the Toledo Blade found numerous veterans with stories as gruesome as any that Kerry relayed to Congress. And the Ohio newspaper seriously examined Kerry's comments on war crimes as the presidential candidate sought Democrats' votes in the state.

"As Senator Kerry geared up for Tuesday primaries in Ohio and nine other states, he told The Blade last week that he stands by what he said in 1971 - insisting his comments never portrayed all veterans as war criminals. Any suggestion of such, he said, is just political posturing by his opponents: 'They're just trying to muddy the waters here.' "

"Senator Kerry said last week that he never meant to blame the soldiers. 'I have stood up and consistently defended the soldiers as innocent victims of civilian policy at higher levels,' he told The Blade. He has few regrets over what he said in 1971. 'I think that occasionally there was language that might have been a little hot here and there,' he said. 'But by and large, the facts I laid out and the basic criticism of the war has been documented by countless people.' "

The Toledo Blade report on John Kerry and war crimes concluded: "Just one day after the end of the Winter Soldier Hearings, on a Kentucky army base, a sergeant told Army investigators about a rumor of a member of an elite paratrooper unit who had beheaded a Vietnamese baby four years earlier. That statement would launch the longest war crimes investigation of the Vietnam War, substantiate the longest-known series of atrocities by a battle unit in Vietnam, and lead to a case that would be concealed from the public for 36 years."

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