Monday, August 30, 2004

There's a great deal of controversy over Kerry's testimony before the senate thirty-odd years ago, as head of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The key passage seems to be this description of the results of a meeting in Detroit called the Winter Soldier Investigation:

I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.

It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit, the emotions in the room, the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam, but they did. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.

They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, tape wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the country side of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

There are two different ways I've seen to smear this statement. The most common is to paint it as simply the wild-eyed recitation of baseless charges that all soldiers were involved in this stuff. In fact, as Kerry's actual words make plain, he was referring to acts which the witnesses in Detroit said they personally committed.

There's a more sophisticated attack against the Winter Soldier Investigation, though, which is harder to counter than the common misquote. You can find it at the site that the "Swift Boat Veterans" against Kerry themselves refer you to for "detailed information about the anti-war activities of the VVAW and John Kerry",, which has among its "key points",

Later investigators were unable to confirm any of the reported atrocities, and in fact discovered that a number of the witnesses had never been in Vietnam, had never been in combat, or were imposters who had assumed the identity of real veterans.

The question of confirmation of atrocities has got to be a vexed one, given that the officer corps is known to have tried to cover such things up, to preserve the appearance that "relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent". (Those are, in fact, the the exact words that the young Colin Powell used to brush off reports of the My Lai massacre, which he had been assigned to investigate). But the question of whether the witnesses actually were Vietnam veterans would be, one might hope, clearer cut. And indeed, there's a welter of stuff like this, which cites some debunking done by New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, at the time:

Veteran Chuck Onan, for example, claimed he had attended parachute, frogman, and jungle survival schools and had received special training in torture techniques ...

But ... contrary to his fanciful claims, Onan's military record said he had attended Aviation Mechanical Fundamental school in Memphis, not frogman, parachute, and jungle survival school. ... Onan deserted after receiving orders to go to Vietnam, where his lackluster record indicates that, even if he had gone, he would have been assigned to work as a mechanic or to a mundane administrative job.

Another "Winter Soldier" named Michael Schneider testified that he had shot three peasants in cold blood, had been told by a sadistic lieutenant to attach wires from a field telephone to a mans testicles, and was ordered by his battalion commander to kill prisoners. ...

Schneider's stories about his father were bogus, as were those about his own service: Schneider deserted from Europe, not Vietnam.

Convincing? Not quite. These guys did falsely claim to have served in Vietnam. But they didn't do it at the Winter Soldier Investigation. Search the full transcript of the sessions if you like -- I did. Their names are not there; nor are Terry Whitmore and Garry Gianninoto, two other people who are cited by as false witnesses, who in fact weren't Winter Soldier witnesses at all. According to the Winter Soldier organizers, they couldn't have been -- they explain here (via Arthur Silber) that every witness at Winter Soldier was required to present a DD214 -- the form issued to every soldier on leaving the service -- showing Vietnam service, and have that matched against other ID.

(The fraudulent four actually come not from Winter Soldier, despite the description of Schneider quoted above, but from a 1970 book by an activist connected to it, who had failed to check his sources' claims against military records. Sheehan's debunking was from a review of the book, not coverage of the Winter Soldier Investigation itself. In the year between the publication of the book and Winter Soldier itself, it seems the organizers had learned something).

If you're having trouble sorting out these competing claims, consider the White House attack dog that didn't bark. As we are all aware by now, the Nixon administration put serious effort into discrediting Kerry. Among other things, they recruited John O'Neill to try to discredit Kerry any way he could, and as we now know, it was important enough that Nixon personally met with O'Neill in the White House (though right about now, O'Neill himself probably wishes he could forget). And one of the extant memos about that effort, from Nixon's hatchet man Chuck Colson, promises that

The men that participated in the pseudo-atrocity hearings will be checked out to ascertain if they are genuine Viet Nam combat veterans.

If any of them hadn't checked out, you'd expect that Nixon would have been shouting it then from the White House roof -- and O'Neill now, in his current post with "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" wouldn't have much trouble at all producing the names.

There's one other historian that goes to for backup -- one Gunther Lewy, who actually backs up the claim that, in Lewy's words,

To prevent the Detroit hearing from being tainted by [false witnesses], all of the veterans testifying fully identified the units in which they had served and provided geographical descriptions of where the alleged atrocities had taken place.

but goes on to cite their failure to cooperate with subsequent official investigations, and to claim once again that an investigation by the Naval Intelligence Service showed that despite these precautions, "several" veterans gave

sworn statements ..., corroborated by witnesses, that they had in fact not attended the hearing in Detroit.

However, Lewy doesn't give a number or, again, cite any names (which keeps anyone from independently checking whether the Naval Investigative Service was just talking to the wrong Jim Smith). And as to noncooperation with official investigations -- if these folks thought any official investigation would be trying to discredit them with malice aforethought, Mr. Colson says they were right.

But does it even matter? Lewy goes on to state -- right in the excerpt from his book at -- that

Incidents similar to some of those described at the VVAW hearing undoubtedly did occur. We know that hamlets were destroyed, prisoners tortured, and corpses mutilated. Yet these incidents either (as in the destruction of hamlets) did not violate the law of war or took place in breach of existing regulations. In either case, they were not, as alleged, part of a "criminal policy.

(Which isn't enough for another "Vietnam Vets against Kerry" site, which quotes those words out of Lewy's book, and goes on to say that "those responsible were tired [sic] and punished". So no crimes were committed, and the soldiers were punished anyway! What more could you ask for?)

But even in his own bare text, Mr. Lewy does, I'm afraid, protest too much. In fact, as Neil Sheehan -- the same Neil Sheehan cited above -- reminds us,

The worst and most horrendous atrocity was officially sanctioned. The American command coldbloodedly set about to deprive the Communists of the recruits and other assistance the peasantry could provide by emptying the countryside. Peasant hamlets in Communist-dominated areas were deliberately and relentlessly bombed and shelled. Free Fire Zones - anything that moved, human or animal, could be killed - were redlined on military maps.

By 1968, civilian deaths, the great majority from air strikes and artillery, were estimated at about 40,000 a year and seriously wounded at 85,000. The wholesale killing cheapened the value of Vietnamese life in American eyes. It created an atmosphere that fostered the massacre at My Lai hamlet on March 16, 1968, when 347 Vietnamese old men, women, boys, girls and babies were butchered. That same morning another 90 unarmed Vietnamese were slaughtered at a nearby hamlet by a second army unit.

At this point, it's worth stepping back for a minute to see what we are really arguing about. No one denies that some atrocities took place in Vietnam. Even the "key points" acknowledge that, though they try to minimize the extent. So if your argument is that the experiences described in the Winter Soldier testimony are not representative of the conduct of the war, you could make that case directly. The Winter Soldier witnesses were, after all, a purely self-selected group -- so even granting all their claims, you could still argue that they saw isolated incidents from bad units, and the rest of the war wasn't like that. You'd have a hard time making that case to someone who knows about the free-fire zones -- but that's because of the free-fire zones, not because of anything that happened in Detroit. And you can make that case without calling anyone a liar.

That's not what Kerry's detractors are doing. What they're doing instead is using what, so far, looks like very flimsy evidence to attack the honor of the veterans who went to Detroit to testify to the horrors of their experience of the war. Which strikes me as a strange way to defend the honor of American vets.

By the way, since it seems to matter to participants in this debate, I might as well say here that I'm not a veteran. But it's worth noting that there are veterans on both sides in this fracas -- David Hackworth was another veteran active against the war, who doesn't seem repentant about that now, and I haven't noticed anyone lately calling him a bad soldier. And while veterans -- particularly combat vets -- have earned the respect of the rest of America with their sacrifice, they haven't earned the right to silence their critics.


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