On January 21, 1971, a Vietnam veteran named Charles McDuff wrote a letter to President Richard Nixon to voice his disgust with the American war in Southeast Asia. McDuff had witnessed multiple cases of Vietnamese civilians being abused and killed by American soldiers and their allies, and he had found the U.S. military justice system to be woefully ineffective in punishing wrongdoers. “Maybe your advisers have not clued you in,” he told the president, “but the atrocities that were committed in Mylai are eclipsed by similar American actions throughout the country.” His three-page handwritten missive concluded with an impassioned plea to Nixon to end American participation in the war.
The White House forwarded the note to the Department of Defense for a reply, and within a few weeks Major General Franklin Davis Jr., the army’s director of military personnel policies, wrote back to McDuff. It was “indeed unfortunate,” said Davis, “that some incidents occur within combat zones.” He then shifted the burden of responsibility for what happened firmly back onto the veteran. “I presume,” he wrote,” that you promptly reported such actions to the proper authorities.” Other than a paragraph of information on how to contact the U.S. Army criminal investigators, the reply was only four sentences long and included a matter-of-fact reassurance: “The United States Army has never condoned wanton killing or disregard for human life.”
This was, and remains, the American military’s official position. In many ways, it remains the popular understanding in the United States as a whole. Today, histories of the Vietnam War regularly discuss war crimes or civilian suffering only in the context of a single incident: the My Lai massacre cited by McDuff. Even as that one event has become the subject of numerous books and articles, all the other atrocities perpetrated by U.S. soldiers have essentially vanished from popular memory
The visceral horror of what happened at My Lai is undeniable. On the evening of March 15, 1968, members of the American Division’s Charlie Company, q1st Battalion, 20th Infrantry, were briefed by their commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, on a planned operation the next daty in an area they knew as “Pinkville.” As unit member Harry Stanley recalled, Medina “ordered us to ‘kill everything in the villager.’” Infantryman Salvatore LaMartina remembered Medina’s words only slightly differently: they were to “kill everything that breathed.” What stuck in artillery forward observer James Flynn’s mind was a question one of the soldiers asked: “Are we supposed to kill; women and children?” and Medina’s reply: “Kill everything that moves.”
They killed everything. They killed everything that moved. Over the course of four hours, facing no opposition, the methodically killed more than five hundred unarmed victims. Along they way they also raped women and young girls, mutilated the dead, systematically burned homes and fouled the area’s drinking water.
An army inquiry into the killings eventually determined that thirty individuals were involved in criminal misconduct during the massacre or its cover-up. Twenty-eight of them were officers, including two generals, and the inquiry concluded they had committed a total of 224 serious offenses. But only Calley was ever convicted of any wrongdoing. He was sentenced to life in prison for the premeditated murder of twenty-two civilians, but President Nixon freed him from prison and allowed him to remain under house arrest. He was eventually paroled after serving forty months, most of it in the comfort of his own quarters.
The public response generally followed the official one. At the end of it, if you ask people what happened at My Lai, the would say: “Oh yeah, isn’t that where Lieutenant Calley went crazy and killed all those people?” No, that was not what happened. Lieutenant Calley was one of the people who went crazy and killed a lot of people at My Lai, but it was an operation, not an aberration.
Looking back, it’s clear that the real aberration was the unprecedented and unparalleled investigation and exposure of My Lai. No other American atrocity committed during the war – and there were so many – was ever afforded anything approaching the same attention. Most, of course, weren’t photographed, and many were not documented in any way. The great majority were never known outside the offending unit, and most investigations were closed ,quashed, or abandoned. Even on the rare occasions when allegations were seriously investigated within the military, the reports were soon buried in classified files without ever seeing the light of day. Whistle-blowers within the ranks or recently out of the army were threatened, intimidated, smeared, or –if they were lucky –simply marginalized and ignored.
The stunning scale of civilian suffering in Vietnam is far beyond anything that can be explained as merely the work of some “bad apples,” however numerous. Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process –such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam. They were no aberration. They were the outcome of deliberate policies dictated at the highest levels of the military.
The hundreds of previous buried and now de-classified reports that I gathered and the hundreds of witnessed that I interviewed in the United States and Southeast Asia made it clear that killings of civilians –whether cold-blooded slaughter like the massacre at My Lai or the routinely indifferent, wanton bloodshed like the lime-gatherers’ ambush in Binh Long – were widespread, routine, and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.
And such massacres by soldiers and marines, my research showed, were themselves just a tiny part of the story. For every mass killing by ground troops that left piles of civilian corpses in a forest clearing or a drainage ditch, there were exponentially more victims killed by the everyday exercise of the American way of war from the air. Throughout South Vietnam, women and children were asphyxiated or crushed to death when their bunkers collapsed on them, burying them alive after direct hits from jets’ 500-pound bombs or 1,900 pound shells launched from offshore ships. Countless others, , crazed with fear, bolted for safety, when helicopters swooped towards their villages, only to have a door gunner cut them in half with bursts from an M-60 machine gun – and may others, who froze in place, suffered the same fate.
There is only so much killing a squad, a platoon, or a company can do. Face-to face atrocities were responsible for just a fraction of the millions of civilian casualties in South Vietnam. Matter-of-fact mass killing that dwarfed the slaughter at My Lai normally involved heavier firepower and command policies allowed it to be unleashed with impunity.
This was the real war – the one in which My Lai was and operation, not an aberration. This was the war in which the American military and successive administrations in Washington produced not a few random massacred or even discrete strings of atrocities, but something on the order of thousands of days of relentless misery – a veritable system of suffering. That system, that machinery of suffering and what in meant for the Vietnamese people, is what this book is meant to explain.