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The American Nightmare: Vietnam

by Volker Ulrich Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007 at 9:26 AM

The number of killed adversaries-the body count-was made the most important criterion of military success. Identifying a dead Vietnamese as Vietcong was the general rule. In free fire zones, the US armed forces moved in a law-free space. The war was without fronts.


A shocking and alarming book. Bernd Greiner investigated the war crimes of the US in Vietnam more thoroughly than any other historian

By Volker Ulrich

[This article published in: DIE ZEIT 40, September–October2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://images.zeit.de/text/2007/40P-Vietnam.]

This book is a shock. It tells of a bloody tragedy whose dimensions we could only speculate for a long time: America’s war in Vietnam.

The author Bernd Greiner is a professor of contemporary history and member of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. That research institute founded by Jan Philippe Reemtsma who finally unmasked the legend of the “clean army” with the two exhibitions on the crimes of the Hitler army in the Second World War. The Vietnam War was not a war of destruction and did not aim at genocide. Still Bernd Greiner’s book changes our view of this war. A military conflict that began with the intent to defend a “cornerstone of the free world” in South East Asia escalated to a violent excess that put all western values and achievements in question. Never before was this described as forcefully and with such copious material.

“There was more of it in Vietnam.” Greiner makes this saying among American soldiers into the leit-motif of his presentation. The Vietnam War was not only the longest hot in the Cold War. More destructive weapons were dropped here than anywhere else. US combat aircraft dropped more bombs over Vietnam and the neighboring territories of Laos and Cambodia than on all the theaters of war of the Second World War together. Millions of hectares of land were contaminated by herbicides. Gigantic forest areas were destroyed by defoliant Agent Orange. Thousands of villages were leveled to the ground. The share of civilians among the war casualties was extremely high. The percentage was over 40 percent. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were forcibly removed and vegetated for years in camps.

The writing of history or historiography is occupied with the political-military decision=making process and the global-strategic aspects of the war. Historiography, following the cultural turn of international history, enters into memories of war, the traumas of veterans and descriptions in media, literature and film. “There is often writing about the war without describing the war as such.”


The author does not describe all the sides of war, the devastating effect of B52 bombardments or the ruthless use of chemical weapons. Atrocity and war crimes perpetrated by American ground troops are at the center of his book. The name of a Vietnamese village, My Lai, where a US unit on March 16, 1968 murdered almost the whole population over 400 men, women and children has become a symbol. As we learn now, My Lai was not an isolated case. There were many small and massive massacres.

Bernd Greiner consulted two sources in the National Archives, College Park, Maryland that were hardly used by historians because of the revelations about My Lai since the end of 1969 although they offer a true gold mine for understanding the American warfare in Vietnam. One is the archive of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group – a study group instituted by army leaders that compiled all relevant material about American war crimes between 1970 and 1974. 246 more cases are documented in addition to My Lai. One part of the documents that Greiner utilized has been locked up again since 2004, the second year of the Iraq war. Secondly, this book relies on the documents of the Peers commission led by General William P. Peers, an investigatory committee of the army providing extensive dossiers on the excesses of violence. The four-volume final report was edited in a shorter version in 1979. The Hamburg historian was the first to systematically evaluate over a hundred boxes of archives of the Peers commission.


While this material is revealing, only one part of reality is shown. Both the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group and the Peers commission were limited to cases approved for investigation by the army. Atrocities that were not reported or whose traces were blurred are left out of the documents. According to Greiner’s findings, the number of unreported cases is considerable. The extent of the crimes perpetrated in Vietnam, the number victims and the number of culprits cannot be ascertained. The author’s estimates incline more to understatement than overstatement.

Nevertheless what the sources reveal is horrifying enough. A battlefield on which the rules of the international law of war were annulled and torture, murder and massacre were the agenda should be probed.

What caused the readiness to this excessive violence? For explanation, Bernd Greiner hearkened back to the model of “asymmetrical war”: the confrontation of a strong heavily-armed military power with a supposedly weaker adversary. In Vietnam, the superiority of the Americans could hardly have been greater. They ruled the airspace; US aircraft carriers were anchored before the coast. US enemies were fully motorized while the Vietcong often only brought war equipment with the help of bicycles over the Ho-Chi-Minh trail. The guerillas could only win the battle by not engaging in the warfare expected by the adversary. relying on the factor time and using their most important resources: the support of the population. This meant avoiding field battles and attacking the enemy in an ambush – in a war that knew no fronts. For the US troops, the prospects deteriorated as the war dragged on and support by the “home front” waned. Under these conditions, the readiness grew to use more radical means to force a quick decision.

The author does not regard the dynamic of escalating violence as inevitable. On the contrary, he carefully illumines the action- and decision-possibilities on all planes of the political and military process. His work is divided in two large parts. In the first, he analyzes the role of the actors – from the warlords in the White House, the generals in the pentagon, the officers who exercised command to the frontline soldiers, the grunts in the operational missions. In the second part, he follows the trail of blood left by US units in their “pacification campaigns.”

Bernd Greiner emphasizes America did not “drift” into the war as though there were no warnings. Fixated on the “domino theory,” the obsession that all South East Asia would fall to communism with Vietnam’s loss, US presidents from John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to Richard Nixon believed in showing strength. In every case, strength had to be proven. For them, the credibility of the American armed forces was central. The symbolic elevation of the conflict made American policy incapable of self-correction. Nixon coupled the concept of the “Vietnamization” of the war with a massive expansion of the bombardment to Cambodia and North Vietnam. The most powerful man of the world pretended to know everything in his little circle: “Screw the jerks.” “We will blow their ears out.” “We will raze this God-damned land to the ground.”

A military strategy, a “ton-ideology” corresponded to this thinking. Through constantly increased destruction, the adversary should be worn out and forced to give up. One alternative could have been winning the population through a catalogue of civil measures – economic assistance, building the infrastructure, land reform, offering farmers a perspective and isolating the guerillas. However such a strategy would have required much time and patience and therefore was not considered at all by the American military leaders.

Instead they adopted the search-and-destroy tactic. The same territory was “combed again and again and cleared – in the hope that the adversary would move in with fresh forces and be bled white” in this way. In the logic of this exploitation calculus, the number of killed adversaries – the body count – was made the most important criterion of military success. A strong pressure to increase the “killing rate” was exerted on every camp leader and every combat unit.

With exactness, Bernd Greiner describes the catastrophic consequences. In areas declared free fire zones, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants was annulled. Anything that moved could be shot. “A dead Vietnamese is a Vietcong” was the general rule. Indiscriminate shooting at civilians was common practice. Helicopter pilots took joy rides as they were called. Torture of prisoners was the everyday routine. The airborne interrogation was popular: suspects were made to talk by dropping them from a helicopter. “It didn’t matter what was done with them. NO one here sees the Vietnamese as human.” This remark of a GI reflected a widespread attitude.


The rules of engagement, the official guidelines for operational missions, required protection of the civilian population not involved in the battle. Greiner makes clear most of the young officers inexperienced at the front were neither willing nor able to satisfy these – very flexible – regulations. In the free-fire zones, the US armed forces actually moved in a law-free space. Soldiers who drew a license to kill from this could be sure of the silent tolerance if not explicit approval of their superiors.

Thus the whole strategy in Vietnam amounted to a deregulation of violence and a brutalization of warfare. Bernd Greiner also observed a tendency to self-radicalization among the combat troops. Normal young men, mostly from the lower classes of society, changed within a few weeks into furious warriors with no inhibitions about murdering and raping. The author refers this back to the hate training to which GIs were subjected and secondly to the specific combat situation in the jungles of Vietnam. The front was everywhere and no where; the enemy was invisible and yet omnipresent. Death through mines, traps or snipers threatened at any time. Fear mixed with rage and hatred with self-hatred. “The self-authorization of excessive force” arose out of that, Greiner concludes.

What this meant in practice is illustrated in three close-up shots. Whoever reads this chapter needs strong nerves because they show an unbridled rabble of soldiers. First of all, the rage of Task Force Oregon, one of the combat units consisting of three brigades, was described in the Quang Nai province between the spring and fall of 1967… At the end 70 percent of all the settlements were in debris. Some provinces were completely pulverized. 40 percent of the residents were temporarily or permanently in flight. Countless dead civilians were grieved. A solider unit named Tiger Force was marked by special brutality. 0The American journalists Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss published a monograph in 2006 about these death squads.) Tiger Force murdered everyone in their way, mutilated the murdered and showcased the parts of the corpses.

The second case study follows Task Force Baker and the Tet-Offensive beginning in February 1968. The detailed reconstruction of the events of My Lai was central here. This was not the first but the most shocking presentation of this massacre. With the automatic fire of M16 machine guns, the marauding American soldiers transformed the village within a few minutes into a slaughter house. “Women with infants in their arms were slaughtered along with groups of adults begging for mercy on their knees or seniors in their accommodations.” This was cold calculated “murder- and killing-work,” not an excess in bloodlust. “When we kill mothers and women, they will not produce Vietcong any more. When we kill the children, they will not grow up to be Vietcong. When we kill everyone, there will be no Vietcong at the end,” one of the soldiers said.


The third example focuses on Operation Speedy Express carried out in the Mekong Delta between November 1968 and April 1969 by troops from the 9th Infantry Division – one of the bloodiest “pacification campaigns” of the whole war whose planning and execution was analyzed by Greiner for the first time. At the end 11,000 dead were counted but only 748 captured weapons – a certain evidence of the high share of civilian casualties.

The last chapter concentrates on a single scandal: the non-existent legal prosecution of war crimes. Only a fraction of the culprits had to answer to military criminal courts. Most trials ran aground at the outset since the criminal prosecutors of the army in union with bureaucrats and politicians sabotaged the investigations. The few sentenced persons got off with ridiculously mild penalties. Lieutenant William Calley, one of the main responsible perpetrators in the My Lai massacre, was at large again after 44 months in house arrest. The author speaks of “an erosion of the military legal culture in legal ways.”

Bernd Greiner has written an important and compelling book. It relies on extensive sources and literature, probing analyses and a great deal of objectivity and differentiation. Again and again Greiner highlights the example of American soldiers who preserved a sense for humaneness and refused murder. The conduct of helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson who saved some Vietnamese from certain death in My Lai was very impressive. The sharp condemnation of the American war strategy did not seduce the author to idealize the opposing side. Rather he points out the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese soldiers were not afraid of using terrorist measures against the civilian population. They perpetrated one of the worst massacres when they occupied the imperial city Hue in February 1968.

With his research, the author stands in the enlightened tradition of critical American journalists like Seymour M. Hersh who caused a sensation with his first article about My Lai in November 1969 and Daniel Ellsberg who in the summer of 1971 brought the “Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times. The book can also be read as a shining justification of the anti-war movement in the US and other western countries who contributed with their protests to ending the murderous enterprise.

After forty years Bernd Greiner’s research brought to light the whole extent of American war crimes in Vietnam. How long will it take until we learn what is happening today in Iraq?

Brend Greiner: Krieg ohne Fronten. The USA in Vietnam (War Without Fronts), Hamburger Edition, 2007, 595 pages, 35 euro

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