John Kerry is being pilloried for his shocking Senate testimony 34 years ago that many U.S. soldiers—not just a few “rogues”—were committing atrocities against the Vietnamese. U.S. military records that were classified for decades but are now available in the National Archives back Kerry up and put the lie to his critics. Contrary to what those critics, including the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, have implied, Kerry was speaking on behalf of many soldiers when he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971, and said this:
They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam, in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.
The archives have hundreds of files of official U.S. military investigations of such atrocities committed by American soldiers. I’ve pored over those records—which were classified for decades—for my Columbia University dissertation and, now, this Voice article. The exact number of investigated allegations of atrocities is unknown, as is the number of such barbaric incidents that occurred but weren’t investigated. Some war crimes, like the Tiger Force atrocities exposed last year by The Toledo Blade, have only come to light decades later. Others never will. But there are plentiful records to back up Kerry’s 1971 testimony point by point. Following (with the names removed or abbreviated) are examples, directly from the archives:
“They had personally raped”
On August 12, 1967, Specialist S., a military intelligence interrogator, “raped . . . a 13-year-old . . . female” in an interrogation hut in a P.O.W. compound. He was convicted of assault and indecent acts with a child. He served seven months and 16 days for his crimes.
“Cut off ears”
On August 9, 1968, a seven-man patrol led by First Lieutenant S. entered Dien Tien hamlet. “Shortly thereafter, Private First Class W. was heard to shout to an unidentified person to halt. W. fired his M-16 several times, and the victim was killed. W. then dragged the body to [the lieutenant’s] location. . . . Staff Sergeant B. told W. to bring back an ear or finger if he wanted to prove himself a man. W. later went back to the body and removed both ears and a finger.” W. was charged with assault and conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline; he was court-martialed and convicted, but he served no prison time. B. was found guilty of assault and was fined $50 a month for three months. S. was discharged from the army before action could be taken against him.
“Cut off heads”
On June 23, 1967, members of the 25th Infantry Division killed two enemy soldiers in combat in Binh Duong province. An army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) probe disclosed that “Staff Sergeant H. then decapitated the bodies with an axe.” H. was court-martialed and found guilty of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline. His grade was reduced, but he served no prison time.
“Taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power”
On January 10, 1968, six Green Berets in Long Hai, South Vietnam, “applied electrical torture via field telephones to the sensitive areas of the bodies of three men and one woman . . . ” Four received reprimands and “Article 15s”—a nonjudicial punishment meted out by a commanding officer or officer in charge for minor offenses. A fifth refused to accept his Article 15, and no other action was taken against him. No action was taken against the sixth Green Beret.
“Cut off limbs”
A CID investigation disclosed that during late February or early March 1968 near Thanh Duc, South Vietnam, First Lieutenant L. ordered soldier K. to shoot an unidentified Vietnamese civilian. “K. shot the Vietnamese civilian, leaving him with wounds in the chest and stomach. Soldier B., acting on orders from L., returned to the scene and killed the Vietnamese civilian, and an unidentified medic severed the Vietnamese civilian’s left arm.” No punishment was meted out because none of the “identified perpetrators” was found to be on active duty at the time of the June 1971 investigation.
“Blown up bodies”
On February 14, 1969, Platoon Sergeant B. and Specialist R., on a reconnaissance patrol in Binh Dinh province, “came upon three Vietnamese males . . . whom they detained and then shot at close range using M-16 automatic fire. B. then arranged the bodies on the ground so that their heads were close together. A fragmentation grenade was dropped next to the heads of the bodies.” B. was court-martialed, convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to a reduction in grade and a fine of $97 per month for six months—after which time he re-enlisted. R. was court-martialed and found not guilty.
“Randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan”
While a U.S. “helicopter hunter-killer team . . . was on a recon mission in Cambodia,” its members fired rockets at buildings and “engaged various targets [in a small village] with machine-gun fire. Gunship preparatory fire preceded the landing of a South Vietnamese army platoon, which had been diverted from another mission. A U.S. captain accompanied the platoon on the ground in violation of standing orders. The South Vietnamese troops, reconnoitering by fire, did not search bunkers for enemy forces, nor were enemy weapons found. . . . Civilian casualties were estimated at eight dead, including two children, 15 wounded, and three or four structures destroyed. There is no evidence that the wounded were provided medical treatment by either U.S. or South Vietnamese forces. . . . Members of the South Vietnamese platoon returned to the aircraft with large quantities of civilian property. . . . The incident was neither properly investigated nor reported initially.” Letters of reprimand were issued to a lieutenant colonel and a major. The captain received a letter of reprimand.
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.
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.