War Crimes in Indochina And Our Troubled National Soul
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
We live in a time when truth has become increasingly irrelevant. Reality is indistinguishable from spin, not only from politicians but sports figures, church leaders and business executives. It seems almost pointless to note the latest untruths – who has the time to research the facts amid the welter of accusations, attacks, ripostes and counter-attacks?
There are certain lies so monstrous, so odious, so malignant, and so significant, however, that they cry out to heaven for rectification. One of these is the claim of the "Swift Boat Veterans" in their latest ad: that John Kerry lied when he stated that the U.S. had committed widespread war crimes in Indochina as a matter of policy as well as individual wrongdoing.
This nation has no greater moral failing that our ongoing refusal to take responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Indochinese peasants whom we killed in violation of the laws of war. Those who shape opinion in this country have no higher duty to history or nation than to research the facts of U.S. war crimes in Indochina, and to educate our people and children about them. How can we teach "personal responsibility" to our children, for example, if we refuse to take responsibility or even admit our illegal murder of innumerable innocent Indochinese? Doesn't true patriotism call for perfecting our democracy by admitting our crimes and ensuring they never happen again, rather than remaining silent and repeating them?
We cannot understand the true nature of our nation unless we grapple with the contradiction that we are both the greatest democracy on earth and have committed in Indochina the most protracted and widespread violations of the rules of war of any nation since the end of World War II. Our children cannot understand who they really are unless they grasp the grotesque fact that their parents' generation not only killed innumerable innocent Indochinese peasants in Indochina, but have tried to deny this reality for more than 30 years now.
The clearest U.S. violation of the rules of war was the widespread U.S. bombing and use of artillery against villages throughout Indochina, in violation of Article 25 of the U.S.-ratified 1907 Hague Convention which states that "the attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended, is prohibited."
Uncounted Indochinese peasants were burned alive by our napalm, buried alive by our 500-pound bombs, shredded by our anti-personnel bombs, and obliterated by our artillery shells. By simply declaring non-combatants to be either combatants or their "supporters", the military justified illegal bombardment of populated areas, making millions of Indochinese peasants fair game for U.S. bombing and/or shelling.
Jonathan Schell described in The Village of Ben Suc, a book which strongly influenced the young John Kerry, how U.S. planes would fly over vast inhabited areas declared "free fire zones" by U.S. officials, and bomb villages and villagers alike. Equally devastating bombardment occurred from the millions more tons of ground artillery fired from army bases and navy ships upon undefended towns, villages, dwellings and buildings. I personally interviewed over 2,000 peasants who had escaped from U.S. bombing in Laos. Every single one said that their villages had been leveled by American bombing, and the evidence of this is still apparent to those who visit the Plain of Jars in northern Laos today. Most of this bombing was directed at undefended villages, since Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese guerrillas traveled through jungles so thick that their movements could not be detected from the air.
In Cambodia, U.S. officials claimed that they would not bomb a village unless the "Bombing Officer" at Nakhorn Phanom airbase in Thailand certified that enemy soldiers were present. This was a baldfaced lie. I tape recorded conversations between pilots and their controllers while bombing was being conducted that showed definitively that the Bombing Officer was not consulted before villages were bombed, as reported by Sidney Schanberg in the New York Times in May 1973. I later interviewed the Bombing Officer at Nakhorn Phanom airbase. He said his only task was to ensure there were no CIA teams in the area where the bombing occurred. Undefended villages throughout vast areas of Cambodia, inhabited by two million people according to the U.S. Embassy, were leveled by U.S. bombing.
The United States dropped 6,727,084 tons of bombs on 60-70 million people in Indochina, more than triple what it dropped on hundreds of millions of people throughout Europe and the entire Pacific Theater in World War II. It fired an equally massive tonnage of ground artillery. We will never know how many innocent Indochinese peasants died from this massive and unprecedented U.S. firepower, but former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamera has estimated that 3.4 million Indochinese died during the war. Since the vast majority of these were killed by U.S. munitions, estimates of the innocents who died must begin in the hundreds of thousands.
John Kerry stated on Meet The Press in April 1971 that "I committed the same kinds of atrocities as thousands of others in that I shot in free fire zones, fired 50-caliber machine bullets, used harass-and-interdiction fire, joined in search-and-destroy missions, and burned villages. All of these acts are contrary to the laws of the Geneva Convention, and all were ordered as written, established policies from the top down, and the men who ordered this are war criminals."There is no serious doubt that this is a factual description of what occurred in Indochina, and that Kerry showed transcendent moral courage in stating it aloud – just as those who have remained silent about our war crimes, such as Bob Dole, Colin Powell, John McCain, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush, have dishonored themselves and their nation. The dozens of soldiers who testified to having committed such war crimes at the Detroit "Winter Soldier" hearings, which so affected Kerry just prior to his Meet the Press appearance, had little reason to implicate themselves other than a desire to tell the truth.
Swift Boat veterans dishonor themselves as well as these brave young men, who so movingly described their participation in war crimes at considerable emotional cost to themselves, by claiming that they were lying. The Swift Boat veterans are also insincere in claiming that they are personally hurt because John Kerry is maligning their service in Vietnam. Neither Kerry nor anyone else has ever claimed that all, or even most, U.S. soldiers were personally guilty of war crimes. The reason that U.S. war crimes in Indochina were so massive is because they were the result of overall policy which did not adequately distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, and the major responsibility for these crimes of war thus lies with superiors who created and implemented these policies, not individual soldiers who carried them out. The responsibility of policy-makers includes not only the policies they created, but their failure to change them even when incontrovertible evidence existed that they were resulting in the widespread murder of civilians.
The Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer in 2003 for reporting that elite Army paratroopers murdered hundreds of civilians in a 7-month rampage in South Vietnam with the encouragement of superiors, and that high U.S. officials including Donald Rumsfeld were informed about their crimes but failed to bring charges against the guilty.
Official CIA involvement in widespread assassination and torture in Vietnam is also a matter of public record. CIA head William Colby testified to Congress that the CIA's Phoenix Program routinely assassinated thousands of civilians. At no time has he or any other CIA official presented any evidence that those civilians they murdered were in fact guilty of the crimes of which they were accused. And numerous Operation Phoenix operatives have testified that in fact local assassination teams were given quotas by Colby of the number of people they were to murder weekly, and that there was little evidence that their victims were in fact Viet Cong cadre. And the CIA's notorious "Office of Public Safety" funded and participated in the torture and murder of prisoners in a Kafkaesque South Vietnamese prison system far worse than Abu Ghraib.
As a result of "victor justice", no high-ranking U.S. official has ever been punished, or even reprimanded, for the crimes of war that they committed in Indochina. On the contrary. People like Henry Kissinger, who bears a major responsibility for laying waste vast portions of Laos and Cambodia, have been honored by our society. We do not teach our children that our nation is capable of the same kinds of violations of the rules of war as those we despise, or that American officials who commit crimes of war bear any responsibility for their actions.
This is not only a further outrage against the innocents we killed and to history. It also harms our national self-interest. Had high officials been punished for their war crimes in Indochina it might have made today's crimes like the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib less likely. This would reduce the growing Muslim hatred of America which has caused – and will continue to cause – so much killing of Americans.
But there is a far deeper issue at stake here. The success of America's foreign policy – and our ability to remain a healthy society at home – ultimately rest on our moral authority, on remembering that not only we but those foreigners we seek to influence have the same inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as do we. Post-war Germany acknowledged its responsibility for World War II crimes of war not only for the sake of its victims, but for itself. It understood that a nation that does not admit its failings to its children and the world cannot regain its moral center.
Tring Cong Son, the poet-troubador of Vietnam's Calvary, has written these words: "Corpses float on the water, dry in the field, on the city rooftops, on the winding streets. Corpses lie abandoned under the eaves of the pagoda, on the road to the city churches, on the floors of deserted houses. Oh, springtime, corpses will nourish the plowed soil. Oh, Vietnam, corpses will lend themselves to the soil of tomorrow."
The very fact that the issue of U.S. war crimes is at the center of a U.S. presidential race three decades after the end of the war is proof that we have not yet laid these ghosts of Indochina to rest. We can deny our crimes there, pretend that they never occurred. But we cannot erase them from our troubled national soul.
The basis of healing is the importance of acknowledging our wrongs, and making amends. America will neither regain its moral standing nor ability to improve the world until we teach our children that we created many of these corpses in violation of the rules of war, and that each had a name, a family, dreams and aspirations, and as much of a right to live as do we. If America is to become a nation based on truth again, let it begin with one of the most important verities of all: that we bear responsibility for the civilian deaths we caused in Indochina and need to make amends for them.
We have not even apologized to the families of our victims, let alone taken even such minimal steps as cleaning up the tons of unexploded ordnance we left behind that still kills dozens of Indochinese peasants yearly. It is to our honor that we have a Holocaust Museum in Washington to remember the innocent victims of World War II. It is a national disgrace that we ignore our own crimes against the innocents of Indochina. America will never be made whole again until we face the awful truth of what we did there.
Fred Branfman, as Director of Project Air War, exposed U.S. bombing of civilians in Indochina as it was occurring after interviewing thousands of refugees in Laos. He is currently a Santa Barbara-based writer.