The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Viet Nam Documents:
Systematic U.S. Policy of Terror Didn’t Just Start with Iraq

Sep 18, 2006

Before Iraq and Afghanistan, there was Viet Nam. The infamous My Lai massacre of March 1968, in which U.S. troops killed more than 500 Vietnamese villagers, put the issue up front. But declassified military documents show that such atrocities were carried out systematically, under orders from the top of the chain of command. And the U.S. government and military brass not only did their best to cover up reported crimes; in many cases they also harassed and tried to discredit those who did the reporting.

Two recent articles in the Los Angeles Times recounted examples of such incidents. In a 1970 letter to General Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Viet Nam, a sergeant described widespread killings of civilians by the members of the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta. “If I am only 10% right, and believe me it’s lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lai each month over a year,” wrote the sergeant, and blamed superiors who ordered high “body counts.”

According to an August 1971 memo to Westmoreland, military investigators tried to find the anonymous letter-writer–not to help the prosecution of those responsible for the murders, but to “prevent his complaints from reaching” certain politicians, who were likely to publicize them!

This pattern repeated itself over and over. In February 1968, then-20-year-old Army medic Jamie Henry witnessed the murder of 19 unarmed civilians, mostly women and children, by members of his company. When Henry reported this and several other murders and atrocities he had witnessed to an Army legal officer, the officer threatened him with “the million and one charges you can be brought up on for blinking your eye,” if he didn’t keep quiet.

In 1970, after he was discharged from the Army, Henry published an account of the massacre he had witnessed in a magazine. He also held a news conference. Army investigators interviewed Henry the next day for show–but nothing ever came of it.

Lt. Col. Anthony B. Herbert had it worse. In 1969, Herbert reported about the systematic torture of detainees in U.S. military prisons. Not only did his superiors ignore his reports; they also fired him from his position as battalion commander and started a campaign of slander against him. According to the Army’s own documents, other witness accounts corroborated Herbert’s descriptions of torture, but this didn’t stop the military brass from continuing to publicly attack Herbert’s credibility. The case was closed without anyone being charged.

Officials allowed L.A. Times reporters to see only about one-third of the documents released. These contained accounts of seven massacres in which at least 137 civilians died; 78 other attacks in which at least 57 were killed, 56 wounded and 15 sexually assaulted; and 141 cases of torture. Military investigators recommended formal charges against 203 soldiers, but most cases were closed with just a letter of reprimand, a fine, or no action at all. Only 57 of the accused were court-martialed and 23 convicted. The sentences ranged between six months and 20 years, but almost all of them were reduced.

More importantly, no charges were ever brought against higher-ranked officers who demanded higher body counts, or even those who directly ordered massacres. For example, the massacre witnessed and reported by Jamie Henry was independently confirmed by several other witnesses. All witnesses stated, consistently and unmistakably, that the murders were committed under a direct order by the company commander to “kill anything that moves.” No one was ever charged.

This grim chapter of U.S. military history is relevant today, as the U.S. military is now playing exactly the same game in Iraq. Once in a while reports of torture, such as in Abu Ghraib prison, or of arbitrary killings of civilians, such as in Haditha, penetrate the news and gain publicity. In an effort to control the PR damage, military brass then puts a few low-ranked soldiers on trial and hands down some prison sentences. If, on a rare occasion, a higher-ranked officer, such as the former commander of Abu Ghraib, is punished–with nothing more than a demotion, to be sure–then it’s not for overseeing the barbaric acts of torture against prisoners, but because she wasn’t able to keep a lid on it!

Obviously these atrocities, in Viet Nam then and continuing in Iraq and Afghanistan today, are not accidents or aberrations. They are part of a conscious, systematic policy–the policy of terrorizing a civilian population into accepting foreign occupation. It is the policy of the U.S. ruling class, which is out to control more and more parts of the world by any means, no matter how murderous and barbaric it gets.