War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam

by Bernd Greiner, translated from the German by Anne Wyburd with Victoria Fern, Yale University Press, 2009

For some four decades now, the “aberration versus business-as-usual” My Lai argument has raged. On the one hand, there are those—generally of the hawkish persuasion—who say that the March 16, 1968, My Lai massacre was the exception to the rule: a crazed killing spree caused by poor leadership on the ground. The other take, most often espoused by doves, is that My Lai was the tip of the iceberg; that American troops took part in countless other massacres and other criminal acts in Vietnam. Doves blame the war’s managers more than the GIs, who were, they say, forced to carry out a strategy that could only lead to a war waged as one giant atrocity.

Bernd Greiner’s book falls squarely in the “not-an-aberration” camp. Greiner, a professor at the University of Hamburg and the director of the research program on the theory and history of violence at Hamburg Institute of Social Research, lays the blame for My Lai—and the entire American war effort—squarely at the feet of “the masters of war in the White House” along with “the generals in the Pentagon.” American strategy, Greiner proclaims, “was bound to result in self-brutalisation of the armed forces and an invitation to commit war crimes.”

Greiner expended a massive amount of time researching the American conduct in the war. He mentions, almost in passing, the war’s greatest atrocity, the other side’s massacre of some 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians in Hue during the Tet Offensive of 1968, then all but ignores any of the other perfidious things the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army did. Instead, we get yet another heavily detailed account of My Lai and other incidences of GIs wantonly killing, raping and torturing innocent civilians.

This is not to deny that these horrors took place, nor to excuse them at all. But to read this account, one would believe that the American war in Vietnam was one massive atrocity. Or, as Greiner puts it, “a war with the most appalling record in all of history.” More appalling than the Mongol conquests of China? Or World War II when they counted the dead in tens of millions?

And what about the other side? The simple truth is that every war ever fought on the planet spawned appalling acts committed by all sides. The brutal American acts Greiner describes did not take place in a vacuum in Vietnam, although in Greiner’s account, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong are all but invisible. The VC’s MO of entering a village and doing to the ARVN-friendly folks what Greiner describes in detail that American troops did to other civilians fits the 21st-century definition of “terrorism.”

Also marring this book are a number of not-insignificant errors of fact. One example: Anyone, Greiner writes, “who enlisted in the Army [before being drafted] could wager on gaining certain advantages: a three-year term of service reduced to two years and above all not having to take a ticket to Vietnam.” Memo to Professor Greiner: It was the other way around. The entire book, though, suffers from a bigger problem. Greiner fails to note that the war stretched out over 10 years, that 2.8 million Americans fought in Vietnam, and that the overwhelming majority did not come close to taking part in, covering up, or aiding or abetting any type of war crime. His book presents the American war in Vietnam as one long ultra-violent crime spree, a gross distortion of the truth, at the very least.


Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here