Book review: The War Behind Me
By Deborah Nelson Basic Books, 304pp, £15.99 Review by TARA MCKELVEY
YOU might think the United States has written everything it can possibly write about Vietnam, but you'd be wrong. It was a war, writes Deborah Nelson, where war crimes were almost routine.
There's an archive at the University of Michigan where it's all spelt out. Villagers acting as human minesweepers. Prisoners being tortured. Teenagers and children casually killed. "There are hundreds of such reports in the war crime archive, each one dutifully recorded, sometimes with no more than a passing sentence or two, as if the killing were as routine as the activity it interrupted," Nelson writes.
The archive holds documents from Col Henry Tufts, former chief of the US army's investigative unit. Most war crimes remain unknown to Americans.
The one war crime everyone knows about – the killing of the My Lai villagers in 1968 – was regularly ascribed to "a few rogue units". In fact, notes Nelson, in these hidden, forgotten My Lais, "every major division that served in Vietnam was represented". Precisely how many soldiers were involved, and to what extent, is not known, but she shows that the abuse was far more common than generally believed. Her book helps explain how this misunderstanding came about.
After the My Lai story broke, officials acted quickly. They looked into other crimes – for example, studying anonymous letters sent to superiors by "Concerned Sgt", which described the deaths of hundreds of civilians, or "a My Lai each month for over a year". Serious offences were indeed investigated, and 23 men were found guilty, though most got off easy. The harshest sentence was 20 years' hard labour, for the rape of a 13-year-old girl by an interrogator in a prisoner-of-war compound. The rapist served seven months and 16 days.
"Get the army off the front page," President Richard Nixon reportedly said. Investigations were a good way to do that. A cover-up attracts attention; a crime that is being looked into does not. The military investigations, Nelson argues, were designed not to hold rapists and murderers accountable, but to deflect publicity. When reporters heard about a war crime, they'd call the army to see if it would provide information. If they suspected a cover-up, they'd pursue the story. If a military spokesman said an investigation was under way, the story was usually dropped.
Nelson, who wrote a series on war crimes when she was at the Los Angeles Times, is a diligent, passionate reporter. Her zeal, though, sometimes leads to awkward moments. In Vietnam, villagers tell her about killings that took place in a ravine, giving her "hope" that she has discovered a hamlet where a massacre occurred in 1968. It is a different massacre, as it turns out; she seems vaguely disappointed.
Still, this is an important book. Nelson demonstrates that cover-ups happen in plain sight and that looking for an exclusive can blind reporters to the real story. She also points out that these crimes are endemic to counter-insurgency operations. When troops fight among a civilian population, in conflicts that extend for years, atrocities are almost bound to happen. "If we rationalise it as isolated acts, as we did in Vietnam and as we're doing with Abu Ghraib," a retired brigadier general tells her, "we'll never correct the problem. Counter-insurgency operations involving foreign military forces will inevitably result in such acts, and we will pay the costs in terms of moral legitimacy." Whether it's Vietnam or Iraq, the truth is disturbing. "After such knowledge," TS Eliot wrote, "what forgiveness?"
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