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Real War Crimes

August 13, 2006

Before I became a journalist, I worked on an investigation of war crimes by U.S. military forces in Vietnam, a topic that most of American journalism had little stomach for. My research consisted of reading U.S. military documents on the laws of land warfare and interviewing fellow veterans, many of whom spoke about their nightmarish experiences at public forums in 1970-71 held by peace groups, members of Congress and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. As a VVAW national coordinator, I helped organize many of those forums, which culminated in the Winter Soldier Investigation.

The Nixon Administration savaged those accounts as the anti-American ravings of phony veterans. The news media did little to determine what happened in Vietnam, other than to report the official investigation of the March 1968 My Lai massacre of civilians by an Army unit, which the Pentagon maintained was an isolated incident.

Nearly 40 years later, the Los Angeles Times recently reported that long-hidden Army files in the National Archives show “confirmed atrocities by U.S. forces in Vietnam were more extensive than was previously known….Abuses were not confined to a few rogue units… They were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam.”

The LA Times cited in detail charges of war crimes that a California veteran, Jamie Henry, made in 1970 in a magazine account and at a press conference in Los Angeles. “In 1971, Henry joined more than 100 other veterans at the Winter Soldier Investigation, a forum on war crimes sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The FBI put the three-day gathering at a Detroit hotel under surveillance, records show, and Nixon administration officials worked behind the scenes to discredit the speakers as imposters and fabricators….Unknown to Henry, Army investigators pursued his allegations, tracking down members of his old unit over the next 3 ½ years.”

The Criminal Investigation Division report on the “Henry Allegation” was filed in January 1974 and buried amid a classified set of files assembled by the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a Pentagon task force that sent summaries to the Nixon White House. The CID investigation found other soldiers who corroborated Henry’s account of a massacre of women and children in a Vietnamese hamlet in February 1968, a month before the My Lai massacre, and other deliberate killings of civilians.

The Pentagon’s war crimes files “detail 320 alleged incidents that were substantiated by Army investigators—not including the most notorious U.S. atrocity, the 1968 My Lai massacre,” the LA Times reported. “There was little interest in prosecuting Vietnam war crimes, says Steven Chucala, who in the early 1970s was legal advisor to the commanding officer of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. He says he disagreed with the attitude but understood it. ‘Everyone wanted Vietnam to go away,’ says Chucala, now a civilian attorney for the Army at Ft. Belvoir in Virginia.”

The bottom line of this unusual news report: “Retired Brig. Gen. John H. Johns, a Vietnam veteran who served on the [war crimes] task force, says he once supported keeping the records secret but now believes they deserve wide attention in light of alleged attacks on civilians and abuse of prisoners in Iraq. ‘We can’t change current practices unless we acknowledge the past,’ says Johns, 78.”

Perhaps most disturbing about the Los Angeles Times report is that these official Vietnam war crimes files were declassified in 1994, but the news media didn’t bother reporting on these damning documents until now.

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