The Doctrine of Atrocity


“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.

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.

The declassified documents reveal that the Tiger Force atrocities — and the resulting lack of punishment, which amounted to tacit approval — were merely the tip of the iceberg. In September 1967, for instance, an American sergeant killed two Vietnamese children, executing one at point-blank range with a bullet to the head. Court-martialed in 1970, the sergeant pleaded guilty to, and was found guilty of, unpremeditated murder. According to military documents, “he was sentenced by the court to no punishment.” One of the most notorious incidents of the Vietnam War was the My Lai massacre (another story first reported by Seymour Hersh, in 1969). But the now declassified military documents reveal that it was hardly an isolated incident. On February 4, 1968, for example, just over a month before U.S. soldiers tortured and raped My Lai villagers and killed hundreds of them, a soldier in the same province and from the same division (Americal) gunned down three civilians as they worked in a field. He later admitted to his commanding officer, men in his unit, and others that he had done it, and he was charged with premeditated murder. But the soldier requested a discharge, which was granted by Americal’s commanding general in lieu of a court-martial.

As the case of the 172nd MI unit demonstrates, U.S. troops in Vietnam not only beat enemy prisoners and civilian detainees but also used a wide variety of brutal methods, including a particular torture in which water was forced down a person’s throat until he or she passed out or drowned — what U.S. troops had called the “water cure” during their battle against Filipinos in the early 20th century. One particularly heinous method was known among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam as “The Bell Telephone Hour,” in which a hand-cranked military field telephone was used to generate electrical shocks through wires to hands, feet, nipples, and genitals.

In Iraq, only when the stunning photographs, including one of a prisoner who was apparently threatened with electrical torture, surfaced late last month on network TV did the press take notice in a major way, but even then, CBS News, at the behest of General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held the pictures back for two weeks and only decided to release them when prodded by Hersh’s New Yorker article.

The army itself described “wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib prison, and there have been numerous other reports of brutality since the invasion of Iraq, demonstrating that the doctrine of atrocity is still functioning.

During the Vietnam War, a U.S. officer infamously announced that a town had to be destroyed in order to save it. Today, the same logic is used in Iraq. “With a heavy dose of fear and violence… I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them,” U.S. battalion commander Nathan Sassaman was quoted as saying in a New York Times article in December 2003. The quote was buried deep in the article, but recent reports indicate that Sassaman’s tough talk may have been backed up by wanton acts of terror. On April 5, The Washington Post reported that Sassaman, a lieutenant colonel, was recently punished for impeding an army investigation of the alleged killing of an Iraqi detainee, adding that it “marked the second time in recent months that a battalion commander in the Fourth Infantry Division has been disciplined in connection with mistreatment of Iraqis.”

Underlying attitudes apparently haven’t changed either. Captain Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, told the Times late last year, “You have to understand the Arab mind. The only thing they understand is force…” Nearly 40 years earlier, in Vietnam, another U.S. captain told The New Yorker‘s Jonathan Schell, “Only the fear of force gets results. It’s the Asian mind.” That thinking has long been evident in U.S. campaigns against racial and ethnic “others,” from the Indian Wars to the Philippine-American War and occupation; the terrorizing of people in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti; on to more conventional wars against the Japanese and Koreans; and perhaps most spectacularly in Vietnam. And now in Iraq — and not only at Abu Ghraib. Late last year, at another detention center, it was reported that Lieutenant Colonel Allen B. West allowed his soldiers to beat an Iraqi prisoner as a method of interrogation. When the illegal thrashing failed to induce the prisoner to talk, West threatened the man with death, forced his head into a sandbox, and conducted a mock execution, firing a shot next to the Iraqi’s head. West confessed to the abuse, but he was not court-martialed; instead, he was simply allowed to retire.

Then, as now, U.S. officials defend their soldiers’ actions. President Richard Nixon, Rumsfeld’s old boss, once pronounced that “throughout the war in Vietnam, the United States has exercised a degree of restraint unprecedented in the annals of war.” Similarly, today’s U.S. military claims that its recent assault on Fallujah has been marked by a “judicious use of force” by marines “trained to be precise in their firepower” and that “95 percent of those killed were legitimate targets.”

According to on-the-ground reports by journalists, aid workers, and medical professionals, writes The Guardian (U.K.), U.S. troops in Fallujah, supported by gunships and fighter-bombers, have opened fire on ambulances, targeted civilians, and blasted homes into rubble. As a result, it has been reported that over 350 women and children of the city have died in the carnage — including an elderly woman found to be clutching a white flag, a six-year-old boy who was crushed under debris after a U.S. missile strike on his home, and the little boy’s mother, who was shot to death while hanging laundry out to dry.