The Doctrine of Atrocity

U.S. against "them"—a tradition of institutionalized brutality

"Kill one man, terrorize a thousand," reads a sign on the wall of the U.S. Marines' sniper school at Camp Pendleton in California. While the marines work their mayhem with M-40A3 bolt-action sniper rifles, most recently in Fallujah, a different kind of terror has been doled out in Iraq by the U.S. Army at Abu Ghraib prison, where, according to an army probe first reported by Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" were the order of the day between October and December of 2003. One of the many questions arising from the Abu Ghraib scandal is how widespread is the brutality and inhumane treatment of Iraqis.

Just last month, the Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing a series of brutal war crimes committed by American troops during the Vietnam War. It took more than 35 years for the horrors committed by a "Tiger Force" unit to be fully exposed, but the Blade got more ink in the national press and TV for winning the Pulitzer than the stories themselves got when they were published last fall. The paper detailed the army's four-and-a-half-year investigation, starting in 1971, of a seven-month string of atrocities by an elite, volunteer, 45-man Tiger Force unit of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division that included the alleged torture of prisoners, rapes of civilian women, mutilations of bodies, and the killing of anywhere from nine to well over 100 unarmed civilians. The army's inquiry concluded that 18 U.S. soldiers committed crimes including murder and assault. However, not one of the soldiers, even those still on active duty at the time of the investigation, was ever court-martialed. Moreover, as the paper noted, six soldiers were allowed to resign from military service during the criminal investigations specifically to avoid prosecution. The secretary of defense at the time that decision was made, in the mid '70s, was Donald Rumsfeld.

But even the Blade's powerful stories didn't put the Tiger Force atrocities in context; the paper portrayed them largely as an isolated killing spree carried out by rogue troops. The Tiger Force atrocities were not the mere result of rogue G.I.'s but instead stem from what historian Christian Appy has termed a "doctrine of atrocity"—an institutionalized brutality built upon official U.S. dicta relating to body counts, free-fire zones, search-and-destroy tactics, and strategies of attrition, as well as unofficial tenets such as "shoot anything that moves," intoned during the Tiger Force atrocities and in countless other tales of brutality.


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  • While the U.S. military has never been alone in the commission of atrocities, in Iraq or elsewhere, the illegal acts of others serve as no excuse for an American disregard for the laws of war. We are only now, more than three decades after the fact, beginning to grasp the true scope of American war crimes in Vietnam. Will it take us that long to know to what extent the doctrine of atrocity is being applied in Iraq?

    In Vietnam, the doctrine of atrocity was built not only on official U.S. policies but also on such macabre principles as the "mere gook rule," which cast all Vietnamese as subhuman, and its attendant dictum: "If it's dead and Vietnamese, it's VC." These standard operating procedures led to many acts of mistreatment and killing of noncombatants by U.S. troops that, while illegal under the laws of war, were tacitly encouraged, unofficially condoned, and rarely punished in a severe manner.

    Appy, a former Harvard and MIT professor most recently known for his 2003 book, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, explained the "doctrine" in his 1993 history of American combat troops in Vietnam, Working-Class War. "American military policy," he wrote, "did not . . . make atrocities by individual soldiers inevitable, but it certainly made it inevitable that American forces as a whole would kill many civilians." Thus, a history of brutal behavior, official and unofficial doctrines that encourage a patent disregard for human life and well-being, as well as a persistent failure to publicly recognize prior misdeeds and effectively deal with them has fostered an environment of tacit approval of atrocities in the military.

    The Toledo Blade articles, some of the best reporting on a Vietnam War crime during or since that war, tell only a small part of the story. As a historian writing a dissertation at Columbia University on U.S. war crimes and atrocities during the Vietnam War, I have been immersed in just the sort of archival materials the Blade used to flesh out one series of incidents. My research into U.S. military records has revealed that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of analogous violations of the laws of war.

    The Blade said the Tiger Force's seven months of brutality was "the longest series of atrocities in the Vietnam War." Unfortunately, this was not true. According to formerly classified army documents, for instance, a military investigation disclosed that from at least March 1968 through October 1969, "Vietnamese [civilian] detainees were subjected to maltreatment" by no fewer than 21 separate interrogators of the 172nd Military Intelligence Detachment. The inquiry found that, in addition to using "electrical shock by means of a field telephone," the MI personnel also struck detainees with their fists, sticks, and boards, and employed water torture. The documents indicate that no disciplinary actions were taken against anyone implicated in that long-running series of atrocities.

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