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The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes

by Deborah Nelson, Basic Books, 2008, $26.95,

Once upon a time, there was an army that had been defeated in war. Reeling from the psychological impact of its loss, the mostly conservative officer corps came to a general consensus about why it lost. “We were not beaten on the battlefield,” this reasoning went, “we were beaten by the collapse of will on the home front—a collapse caused by the leftists and defeatists and their allies in the press.” It was, for the officers, an enchanting explanation. This version of events salved their consciences and allowed them their pride. It leaked into the rest of the army and became an item of faith.

Not much later, the main political party of the right adopted the same narrative. This party was dedicated to small-town values, self-reliance, pride in the nation and pride in the armed forces. It vilified the press for “stabbing the Army in the back,” as part of its standard explanation of the nation’s woes. Its charismatic leader rode a wave of patriotic sentiment into the highest office in the land. Does all this sound familiar? It should, but perhaps not in the way that you might think.

The defeated army was that of Germany, post World War I, not the United States, post Vietnam. The political party? They were the National Socialists, better known as the Nazis. Their charismatic leader Adolf Hitler took power in the early 1930s, so do not confuse him with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. But the “stab in the back” narrative? Well, that story remained pretty much the same in both cases.

It was wrong then, just as it is wrong now.

The media of the United States did not, I say again, did not, overreport on American-committed war crimes, atrocities and various desecrations. Indeed, if anything, the journalists vastly underreported what was actually happening: in some cases because they did not know; in some cases because they did not want to tell that story. But the effect was the same. Sadly, it took a journalist of the early 21st century, and not a historian, to make this crystal clear.

Los Angeles Times reporter Deborah Nelson, through a series of newspaper articles and now the book The War Behind Me, demonstrates that the bad stories of Vietnam were massively, gigantically, hugely underreported at the time.

Her source, you ask? Well, it was not some left-wing group out to “get” the Army. Nor was it a collection of religiously oriented pacifists who investigated the claims of atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam. No, the primary source upon which Nelson relied was none other than the United States Army itself. Nelson is simply bearing the message that was written by a collection of officers working with what was the then-new Criminal Investigative Division (CID) at the direction of Generals William Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams, when each was the chief of staff, between about 1970 and 1975.

What the U.S. Army, operating under orders from the highest levels, uncovered was more than 800 separate incidents. These were usually incidents involving one or two or a dozen Vietnamese civilians or prisoners, but cumulatively it amounted to a “My Lai per week.” The Army validated hundreds upon hundreds of these cases. It is believed that many more were substantiated, but lacked the necessary evidence to prove in a court of law that a crime had been committed. As it was compiled, the information was reported to the chief of staff on a weekly basis…and then the file was closed, not to reappear for 30 years. If anyone—one of my fellow soldiers of today, a veteran or a historian—would like to dispute these facts, they need to take it up with the U.S. Army and the National Archives, not Ms. Nelson.

The narrative portion (187 pages) of The War Behind Me is surprisingly brief for a book of 296 pages. One gets the impression that it could have been much longer, but Nelson prudently took another route. Scrupulously documenting her archival research are 17 pages of endnotes, and then 78 pages are filled with original (photocopied) copies of the actual CID reports from the National Archives, slamming the door on any possible charge that Nelson was making anything up or distorting what the Army wrote at the time.

The reason nobody wrote about this before is simple. This portion of the archival records only hit its automatic declassification point a few years ago.

As a young soldier and then officer in the 1980s and early 1990s, I heard the same litany over and over again from senior officers and NCOs: “The ‘liberal media’ stabbed us in the back.” It was not until years later that I learned this was the exact same self-delusional tale that the Germans told themselves after WWI. They even used a single word for the idea, Dolchstoss. In both cases the “stabbed in the back by the media” narrative was blinkered and outright dangerous. For the Germans it led to ruin. For the U.S. Army, the institution that I serve and love, it meant we could conceal the facts and then ignore Vietnam almost entirely. If we had not, if we had, instead, sought to learn from our mistakes in Vietnam, then perhaps some of my peers, my soldiers and a couple of my superiors might still be alive today and not lying in a grave in Arlington.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here