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War Crimes in Vietnam

Published September 2019

In the wake of the public realization of the My Lai Massacre, there were several movements which attempted to bring to light the number of war crimes that were being perpetrated in Vietnam. The most well-known of these was the unofficial investigation known as the Winter Soldier Investigation. WSI benefitted from publicity and the now-public knowledge of war crimes being committed in Vietnam. However, there were efforts to bring attention to the widespread atrocities being committed in Vietnam before WSI, and crimes that occurred well before the My Lai Massacre.

Toth v. Quarles (1955)

Any discussion of war crimes during the Vietnam War requires a look at this court ruling from 1955. Toth v. Quarles pertained to a case in which former airman Robert Toth was arrested and charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder by military authorities, then transported to Korea to stand trial for a court martial. Toth appealed his conviction on the grounds that he was being tried in the military justice system despite currently being a civilian. Judges declared that to stand trial before a court martial after separation from the military was unconstitutional.

What meaning did this hold for war crimes committed more than 10 years later in Vietnam? Because this case established that discharged service members could not be charged with crimes committed during their service, many who participated in war crimes while serving in Vietnam could not be brought to justice afterward. Their actions went unpunished.

Russell Tribunal (International War Crimes Tribunal - 1967)

As a staunch anti-war advocate and critic of American involvement in Vietnam, Bertrand Russell worked to expose American war crimes. He and others of like mind coordinated to develop  the International War Crimes Tribunal, which was conducted in 1967 in Stockholm, Sweden and Roskilde, Denmark. Members of the tribunal developed a list of questions about the actions of the United States and its allies in Southeast Asia.  In the end, tribunal members unanimously found the US and its allies to have acted as aggressors in Vietnam and to have violated international law, or to be at least complicit in these actions.

US leaders ignored the tribunal -- not surprising, given that it was formed by individuals and not government entities. However, even those who agreed with its findings had criticism to offer. Much of this criticism rested on the fact that the organizers only focused on the US and its allies. There was no investigation or testimony given regarding the crimes committed by North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front.

Tiger Force (1967)

Tiger Force was an elite reconnaissance-attack unit developed during the Vietnam War  which received several distinguished awards in the years following its inception. Attached to 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, the unit operated in the Kon Tum province of the II Corps military region. Over a period of a few months in 1967, members of Tiger Force perpetrated multiple war crimes, the most common being the killing of known civilians, which was treated by some in the unit as sport. Commanders who were aware of the actions looked the other way, and Tiger Force members who tried to stop what was happening were transferred to other units.

The Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) investigated war-crime allegations against Tiger Force and found that 18 soldiers had perpetrated crimes, though none were ever charged. Several were allowed to resign from the military, meaning they were unable to be charged due to the decision in Toth v. Quarles.

The crimes committed by Tiger Force did not become public until a series of articles published in the Toledo Blade newspaper in 2003. These articles became the basis for a book titled Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss.

My Lai Massacre (1968)

The My Lai massacre, the most well-known war crime committed during the Vietnam War, occurred on 16 March 1968 and was made public in November 1969. The massacre and subsequent trial elicited a wide array of reaction. For many, it was emblematic of many of the problems with the war. For others, the treatment of the perpetrators, particularly Lt. William Calley, was emblematic of the societal changes occurring in the 1960s, and they viewed Calley as a martyr. But how did people reach these conclusions?

Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd Infantry (Americal) Division conducted an operation in an area containing the village of My Lai on 16 March 1968. Soldiers proceeded to murder civilians in the village. The final count of the dead is uncertain, but is thought to be as high as 500. 

Some soldiers notified commanders back in camp during the event or in the immediate aftermath. Despite these reports, men on the ground received commendation medals and praise for their actions.

Only after the publication of Seymour Hersh's seminal article did the Army truly begin to investigate. Eventually, 26 officers and enlisted men were criminally charged, though many men responsible for the atrocities on 16 March were not charged due to the ruling in Toth v Quarles. In the end, of those charged, all but one -- Lt. William Calley --  were acquitted or had the charges against them dropped.

"And Babies" is a poster designed by anti-war activists. It combines a photograph taken of massacre victims and text from an interview.

Poster: Art Workers Coalition

Photo: Ronald Haeberle

Text: Mike Wallace (CBS) and Paul Meadlo (US Army)

Many Americans who were against the Vietnam War believed the My Lai Massacre to be evidence of just how deeply flawed and unjust the war was. Americans had been involved in the wholesale slaughter of civilians, even though the government claimed the American military was in Vietnam to prevent such atrocities, not commit them. Moreover, the massacre stayed covered up for over a year, another mark against the military, the government, and the war. If this atrocity was covered up, then what else was the government lying about?

Meanwhile, the fact that only one man stood trial, and that he was only a lieutenant when others further up the chain knew of the events and were at the very least complicit, became a matter of contention for Americans who did not protest the war. Many believed that, whether the war was right or wrong, Lt. Calley was merely doing his duty by serving his country. There were many young men who refused to do so. 

According to this group of people, Calley followed orders and did his best, and now the military was putting him on trial for it. These people looked not to the larger implications of the atrocity, but to the one man who became its face. In their eyes, Calley was on trial not because he had done something wrong, but because the ideals he represented - selflessness, duty to country, manhood - were under attack. (See All in the Family by Robert Self.)

Citizens Commission of Inquiry (1970)

Founded in November 1969 in the immediate aftermath of the publication of Seymour Hersh's report on the My Lai Massacre, the Citizens Commission of Inquiry (CCI) sought to document American atrocities throughout Indochina. The original founder, Ralph Schoenman, had worked on the Russell Tribunal, but the CCI was later run by two anti-war activists and a handful of veterans. The CCI was the precursor to the Winter Soldier Investigation.

The US Army strenuously asserted that the My Lai Massacre was an anomaly. In contrast, those running the CCI claimed that war crimes were not only fairly common but the direct result of military policies. Over the course of 1970, numerous veterans stepped forward to testify to war crimes they witnessed or participated in. This culminated in the National Veterans Inquiry, which took place from 1 December 1970 to 3 December in Washington, DC.

Vietnam War Crimes Working Group (1970)

Also inspired by the publication of the My Lai Massacre story, the Pentagon developed its own task force, the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, to investigate other incidences of war crimes in Vietnam. The National Archives and Records Administration describes the working group as "unofficial" and "informal," but it is an example of the military taking further steps to investigate alleged crimes. 

The group found 320 alleged incidents to have factual basis. Investigative journalist Nick Turse accessed the group's files and utilized them extensively for his dissertation and later his book, Kill Anything That Moves. 

Winter Soldier Investigation (1971)

Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) organized the Winter Soldier Investigation over the course of 1970, in the same vein as the Citizens Commision of Inquiry and the Russell Tribunal before it. The public testimonies occurred 31 January to 2 February 1971. It was important to the veterans running the investigation and others participating that the American public realize My Lai was not the only instance of blatant and deliberate war atrocities in Vietnam, but that American troops had perpetrated other war crimes during their time in Vietnam and were continuing to do so. The record of these crimes, given by veterans of all kinds, illustrated the broader immorality of the war.

In one example of testimony offered to the WSI, Scott Camile, an artillery forward observer attached to the 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, testified to witnessing multiple war crimes. "I saw one case where a woman was shot by a sniper, one of our snipers. When we got up to her she was asking for water. And the [lieutenant] said to kill her." Camile's testimony continues with a graphic description of how the woman was mutilated and violated before being murdered. 

Those who organized the WSI also focused on racism present in the military and in the policies carried out in Vietnam. William Crandell said in his opening statement that "our testimony will show that our strategy and tactics are permeated with racism." This was established through testimony from veterans as well as Vietnamese civilians.

Albertson, Jeff. Vietnam Veterans Against the War Winter Soldier Investigation: audience and panel at rostrum, October 10, 1971. Jeff Albertson Photograph Collection (PH 57). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/muph057-b006-sl257-i021

Conclusion

We must examine the war crimes committed in Vietnam because they shed light on the ways in which the war was fought by both sides. They showcase how guerrilla tactics employed by communist forces created a natural distrust between allied military members and the population at large. Simultaneously, the crimes and reactions from military command offer insight into the policies pursued by American leaders. Context like this helps to explain how such events could happen. In understanding context of war crimes, we can understand failures of policy.

We must be able to trust the military to wield violence with purpose and responsibility. When lines are crossed, we must be able to trust the military to police their own efficiently and appropriately. Part of this process must include understanding war crimes committed in the past. We must hold those found guilty accountable, just as we must hold the military and the government accountable.

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