Swift Boat Swill

From the National Archives: New proof of Vietnam War atrocities

John Kerry made it clear when he testified more than three decades ago that what he told the Senate was the cumulative testimony of well over 100 "honorably discharged and many very highly decorated" Vietnam vets who gathered in Detroit in early 1971. Calling their gathering the Winter Soldier Investigation, they were trying to raise awareness of the type of war they said America was waging in Southeast Asia. They were trying to demonstrate that the shocking My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, of 567 civilians in a Vietnamese village—a barbarism unknown to the American public until late 1969—was not an isolated incident in which rogue troops went berserk, but simply one of many U.S.-perpetrated atrocities.

All these years later, neither the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) nor the media feeding their allegations about Kerry's supposedly "false 'war crimes' charges" even broaches the subject of Vietnamese suffering, let alone talk about Kerry's exposition of large-scale atrocities, such as free-fire zones and bombardment of villages—gross violations of international law cannot simply be denied or explained away.

John Kerry testifies to Vietnam horrors in 1971
John Kerry testifies to Vietnam horrors in 1971

Having worked for nearly five years doing research on post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam vets, I understand the intense trauma experienced by many of them. However, having also spent years working with U.S. government records of investigations into atrocities committed against the Vietnamese by U.S. soldiers, it is patently clear which country suffered more as a result of the war, and it isn't the U.S., which tragically lost just over 58,000 soldiers. It's Vietnam. Perhaps as many as 2 million Vietnamese civilians died during the war, and who can even guess at the number wounded—physically and psychologically.

On its website, the SBVT tries to debunk the Winter Soldier Investigation by using the same rhetoric that apologists for the Vietnam War have long employed: They paint the vets who attended the Detroit meeting as a parade of fake veterans offering false testimony. "None of the Winter Soldier 'witnesses' Kerry cited in his Senate testimony less than three months later were willing to sign affidavits, and their gruesome stories lacked the names, dates, and places that would allow their claims to be tested," the SBVT claims. "Few were willing to cooperate with military investigators."

While numerous authors have repeatedly advanced such assertions, U.S. military documents tell a radically different story. According to the formerly classified army records, 46 soldiers who testified at the WSI made allegations that, in the eyes of U.S. Army investigators, "merited further inquiry." As of March 1972, the army's CID noted that of the 46 allegations, "only 43 complainants have been identified" by investigators. "Only" 43 of 46? That means at least 93 percent of the veterans surveyed were real, not fake. Moreover, according to official records, CID investigators attempted to contact 41 people who testified at the Detroit session, which occurred between January 31 and February 2, 1971. Five couldn't be located, according to records. Of the remaining 36, 31 submitted to interviews—hardly the "few" asserted by SBVT. Moreover, as Gerald Nicosia has noted in his mammoth tome Home to War, "A complete transcript of the Winter Soldier testimony was sent to the Pentagon, and the military never refuted a word of it."

The assertion that the vets proved uncooperative and refused to provide useful, identifiable information has also been a typical device used to refute the WSI. In this case, the Winter Soldiers themselves played directly into the hands of their detractors by trying to have it both ways: They wanted to expose atrocities as a product of command policy while denying individual soldiers' responsibility in committing the crimes.

At the WSI, veteran after veteran told of brutal military tactics, like burning villages and establishing free-fire zones. They offered blunt, graphic, and often horrific accounts of murder, rape, torture, mutilation, and indiscriminate violence. But when it came to perpetrators, the soldiers did not name names. From the outset, they made it clear that they would not allow their testimony to be used to, as they put it, scapegoat individual G.I.'s and low-ranking officers when, they said, it was the war's managers—America's political and military leadership—who were ultimately to blame for the atrocities. Because of this stance, some veterans told investigators after the WSI that they would not offer any further testimony or would only speak before Congress or a congressional committee. This stance became a convenient way for the military to stop work on cases and ignore the charges the anti-war vets had made.

But in fact—and despite later claims to the contrary by their pro-war critics—most of the Winter Soldier participants had publicly given accounts with their own names, unit identifications, dates of service, and sometimes rather detailed descriptions of locations—namely, all the information needed to proceed with investigations. In practically all the specific Winter Soldier cases, such probes were never done.

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