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Winter Soldier reveals the chilling reality of the Vietnam War

By David T. Rowlands

May 10, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Between January 31 and February 2, 1971, over a hundred ex-US service personnel who had served in Vietnam between 1963 and 1970 gathered in Detroit for a three-day media conference. Organised by the activist group Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), the Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI) was intended to educate the American public about the scale of US atrocities in Vietnam, emphasising the direct relationship between such atrocities and official military policies.

Many considered that it was their patriotic duty to come forward.[1] With the US establishment keen to officially remember -- and sanitise -- the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, let’s not forget the reality check provided by these “Winter Soldiers”. Winter Soldier reminds us that Vietnam was a running atrocity from start to finish.

Adopting a panel format featuring 109 representatives of the various divisions that comprised the US order of battle in Vietnam, the veterans took their turn at the microphone, answering questions put to them by a fellow-veteran moderator, members of the public and journalists. The hearings were filmed, providing hours of material that became the basis of a documentary, entitled Winter Soldier, released in 1972. What we have in Winter Soldier is a largely unfiltered stream of personal recollections by recently returned soldiers. Apart from anything else, it is an immensely valuable historical source. They were witnesses to atrocity and, very often, perpetrators.

Consider the following recollection of Vietnam-style “counter-insurgency” warfare, provided by Scott Camil, a former member of the 1st Marines:

Anybody that was dead was considered a VC. If you killed someone they said, "How do you know he's a VC?" and the general reply would be, "He's dead," and that was sufficient. When we went through the villages and searched people the women would have all their clothes taken off and the men would use their penises to probe them to make sure they didn't have anything hidden anywhere and this was raping but it was done as searchingThe main thing was that if an operation was covered by the press there were certain things we weren't supposed to do, but if there was no press there, it was okay. I saw one case where a woman was shot by a sniper, one of our snipers. When we got up to her she was asking for water. And the Lt. said to kill her. So he ripped off her clothes, they stabbed her in both breasts, they spread-eagled her and shoved an E- tool up her vagina, an entrenching tool, and she was still asking for water. And then they took that out and they used a tree limb and then she was shot.[2]

An ex-machine gunner with the 1st Air Cavalry detailed the routine violence that accompanied cargo runs on his CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter:

It was quite usual that there would be a sniper outside a village in the foliage, in the trees, and if we took fire from one sniper we'd return fire on that sniper and then continue to spray the entire village with machine gun fire and M-16 ammunition until we either ran out of ammunition or we had flown so far away from the village that we could no longer reach them with the weapons…The free fire zones were posted on the operation map in the operations tent and this gave us a policy to kill anything that moved within that area.[3]

Sadistic games at the expense of civilians were used to spice up the day:

Rotor wash was also used to blow down the huts, literally blow down the villages….So we'd come in and flair on a ship and just blow away a person's house. Also, the Vietnamese, when they've harvested a crop of rice, put it out on these large pans to dry and that harvest is what is supposed to maintain them for that season--what they're supposed to live on. We'd come in to flair the ship, and let the rotor wash blow the rice, blow their entire supply of food for that harvest over a large area. And then laugh, as we'd watch them running around trying to pick up individual pieces of rice out of a rice paddy.[4]

Rotor wash could also be lethal, particularly when children got in the way:

I was hanging out the window observing what appeared to be a twelve year old Vietnamese boy standing there watching us. And as we lifted up with the load, the rotor wash increased because of the weight and it blew him into the path of a 2 1/2 ton truck with trailer which killed him instantly….I caught myself letting the shell down and I, and I, tightened up right away. And started laughing about it and joking about it with the flight engineer.[5]

The complete transcript became part of the official record when it was lodged in US Congress and discussed in the Fullbright Hearings into the Vietnam War by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April-May of 1971.

Attempts to discredit the reliability of the testimony came to nothing. US President Richard Nixon’s team of investigators (the “plumbers”) rigorously checked the bona fides of all testifiers, looking for any inconsistencies that they could use to discredit WSI. Yet Pentagon records revealed that every one of the testifiers was who they claimed to be -- Vietnam combat veterans.

The Nixon administration responded to the Detroit hearings with hostility, subjecting VVAW members to FBI surveillance and extrajudicial harassment.

After testifying at Winter Soldier, Sergeant Scott Camil immersed himself in university philosophy studies and VVAW activities. In 1972, he found himself indicted on federal conspiracy charges as one of the Gainsville Eight -- a group of anti-war activists who were accused of planning to disrupt the Republican National Convention.

All eight were acquitted, but that was not the end of Camil’s dealings with a vindictive establishment. In addition to being placed on Nixon’s notorious “enemies list”, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover issued a memorandum to “neutralize” him. Camil was shot in the back after his car was stopped by federal agents in 1975. His hands were above his head at the time. Camil suffered a collapsed lung, fractured ribs and damaged organs. He considers that it was an assassination attempt. The agents were never held to account. “I was told the government’s problem with me was my ability to put plans into action and motivate others into action”, says Camil.[6]

In recent years, US conservatives have taken a few ineffective swipes at the credibility of WSI -- but, in the main, it has been tacitly accepted if largely ignored.

Raw, sincere and immediate, the WSI offered a rare glimpse into the reality of the US war in Vietnam. It was, to say the least, a very disturbing reality, hence the military establishment’s refusal to engage with its implications:

The convoy was moving pretty slow and the old woman, like, most of the civilians over there sort of ignore the military people going down the road. And it didn't seem--like he didn't beep the horn or like do anything -- like, he just moved up to the old woman and started nudging her and then I saw her fall out of the way. When the convoy had completely passed, like she was on the road, really like squashed.[7]

Following is another hellish scene from the roads, as experienced by an ex-marine. It didn’t take long after arriving “in-country” to find scenes of indiscriminate killing:

The first day I got to Vietnam I landed in Da Nang Air Base. From Da Nang Air Base I took a plane to Dong Ha. I got off the plane and hitchhiked on Highway 1 to my unit. I was picked up by a truckload of grunt Marines with two company grade officers, 1st Lts.; we were about 5 miles down the road, where there were some Vietnamese children at the gateway of the village and they gave the old finger gesture at us. It was understandable that they picked this up from the GIs there. They stopped the trucks--they didn't stop the truck, they slowed down a little bit, and…the guys got up, including the lieutenants, and just blew all the kids away. There were about five or six kids blown away and then the truck just continued down the hill. That was my first day in Vietnam.[8]

While it was unusual for hundreds to be gunned down in a single location (as occurred infamously at My Lai in April 1968), the Winter Soldier testimony confirms that it was nothing out of the ordinary for dozens or scores of civilians to be slaughtered in “search and destroy” missions:

We moved into a small hamlet, 19 women and children were rounded up as VCS--Viet Cong Suspects -- and the lieutenant that rounded them up called the captain on the radio and he asked what should be done with them. The captain simply repeated the order that came down from the colonel that morning. The order that came down from the colonel that morning was to kill anything that moves, which you can take anyway you want to take it… I turned, and I looked in the area. I looked toward where the supposed VCS were, and two men were leading a young girl, approximately 19 years old, very pretty, out of a hootch. She had no clothes on so I assumed she had been raped, which was pretty SOP [Standard Operating Procedure], and she was thrown onto the pile of the 19 women and children, and five men, around the circle, opened up on full automatic with their M-16s. And that was the end of that.[9]

What follows is an account of what happened when a marine unit reported -- probably erroneously -- that they had taken a sniper round from a village:

They swept the village and they called back that there was nothing found. There was nothing found, I mean, there were just people in the village and so the Lt. told them to burn the village. From my position, which was about 150 to 200 yards away, and there was a tree line in the way, smoke started coming up over the tree line and about this time, I guess about three minutes after the smoke started showing, there was a lot of screaming and just chaos coming from the direction of the village and a lot of people started running out of the tree line. From where I was standing, I saw maybe two or three male villagers and the rest were women and children -- some of the children walking and some of them young enough to be carried, I would say under a year, maybe. The last thing I heard as a command was the gunnery sergeant told them to open fire to keep them back. Their village was on fire and they were in panic; they didn't stop, so they just cut down the women and children with mortars, machine guns … they used the .50 and the .30 off the tank and all the troops that were at the bridge with M16s. The officer, a Lt., a few got close enough to where he used his .45. They used a few frag hand grenades.[10]

It was just another “body count” operation in Vietnam.

Facilitating this terroristic mass murder campaign was the institutional racism that pervaded the US military. What is strikingly repeated in the testimony is the extent to which recruits were systemically encouraged to develop an indiscriminate hatred of the Vietnamese:

When you go into basic training, you are taught they are gooks and all you hear is, "gook, gook, gook, gook” [and] once the military has got the idea implanted in your mind that these people are not humans, they are subhuman, it makes it a little bit easier to kill 'em. One barrier is removed and this is intentional, because obviously, the purpose of the military is to kill people. And if you're not an effective killer, they don't want you. The military doesn't distinguish between North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong, civilian--all of them are gooks, all of them are considered to be subhuman. None of them are any good, etc. And all of them can be killed and all of them are killed.[11]

Little wonder, then, that scenes such as the following were played out again and again. According to a veteran of the 101st Airborne,

We went down [to the village] to get some water and there were two little boys playing on a dike and one sergeant just took his M-16 and shot one boy at the dike. The other boy tried to run. He was almost out of sight when this other guy… shot this other little boy off the dike. The little boy was like lying on the ground kicking, so he shot him again to make sure he was dead.[12]

An Americal Division infantryman was quite open about the recreational killing that went on:

We're taking some grunts out on a beachhead. And there were some fishermen out on the ocean and a couple of our sergeants thought it would be a good sport to use them as target practice. So they swung their 50 calibers around and they just shot the _____ out of them, for no reason, I guess. And, I'm no better. Lots of times on mine sweep, we'd pass a lake, also running from Duc Pho to Sai Wen, and there'd be fishermen in this lake and since we had nothing better to do, we'd fire M-79 rounds at them, M-16 rounds. Sometimes M-60s. We'd call for a test fire. And...sort of aim their way, hoping we'd hit somebody.[13]

Perhaps one of the most abject images in the testimony is that of the starving civilians who were forced to scavenge in US military garbage dumps. The relentless humiliation went on even there:

There used to be a game we played -- we'd pour liquid garbage off the end of our truck to make 'em crawl for it. The mama-sans would come up with half-cut fifty gallon drums and they'd try to fill it up. They'd get pork chops and sloppy rice and mystery meat or wop slop, or whatever we had for chow, and put it in there and we'd let 'em walk so far and then we'd tip it over, spill it on the ground, and watch them scrape the dirt in there. Anything to dehumanize them.[14]

A pastime that was considered particularly amusing was throwing unwanted ration cans at young children:

Any little children who were begging along the side of the road, which never numbered less than 50 or 60, were fair game for these full cans of food. They wouldn't throw them to the kids, they would just bounce them off their heads or try and knock them off their bicycles. If they ran out of food they would just light up heat tabs and wait until a kid got really close to the truck and then they would just easily drop it into his hands….And there was a little kid with crutches out there; he was missing one leg; he was about five years old and he was about the most popular target because every time we came by he ran out and the people wanted to see if they could knock his crutch.[15]

Sometimes these throwing “games” became murderous. Few extracts highlight the extent of the dehumanisation as much as this account of the “prank” killing of a Vietnamese toddler:

We used to drive by this row of hootches and a little three year old kid in a dirty grey shorts used to run out and scream, "You, Marines, Number 10," and we'd always go back, "Oh _____ you kid," and all this stuff. So one night the kid comes out and says, "Marines, you Number 10," and throws a rock. So we figured we'd get him because this was a way of having fun. The next night before we … picked up the biggest rocks we could get our hands on and piled them in the back of the truck. So when we left the Combat Base we just turned the corner and we saw a little kid, we were waiting for the kid -- he ran out of the hootch -- and he was going to scream, "Marine Number 10," and we didn't even let him get it out of his mouth. We just picked up all the rocks and smeared him. We just wiped him out. In fact, the force of the rocks was enough to knock over his little tin hootch as well. I can't say that the kid died, but if it would have been me, I would have died easily. The rocks, some of them, were easily as big as his head. It was looked upon as funny. We all laughed about it. And then we forgot about it.[16]

This material provides a valuable insight into the true nature of the Vietnam War, cutting through all the layers of official lies and justifications that have been repeated over the years.

US intervention in South Vietnam was supposedly undertaken for the benefit of the civilian population, preserving the independence of South Vietnam, defending “democracy” against “communism”. Yet the impression created by Winter Soldier is rather different. Taken as a whole, the testimony adds weight to the so-called “radical” historiographical interpretation of US policy in Indochina.[17]

There are three main schools of interpretation of the Vietnam War, identified by one authority on the subject as “liberal-realists”, “radical neo-Marxists” and “conservative revisionists”. Whereas liberal scholarship, which comprises the majority view, tends to argue the war was an idealistic crusade with good intentions but serious or even tragic flaws in execution, the radical view is that US “intervention” in South Vietnam was actually a coldly plotted invasion stemming from hegemonic, imperialistic motives.[18]

In order to prevent Vietnam’s reunification and secession from the US-dominated global order, troops were sent to wage a deliberately brutal “colonial” war of occupation -- and a colonial war, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, “is a very dirty kind of war. You’re not fighting armed forces. You’re fighting mostly unarmed people. And to fight that kind of war requires professional killers.”[19] (Some conservative revisionists, by stark contrast, defend the legitimacy of the “pacification” program in Vietnam and even propose that it should have been allowed to go further to secure US victory.[20])

Ultimately, the question that arises from sources like Winter Soldier is whether the war had a genocidal impact on Vietnamese civilians. The international legal definition of genocide holds that it consists of “the intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. It includes acts such as “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction; imposing measures to prevent births within the group.”[21]

There can be doubt that in the minds of many US soldiers, the entire Vietnamese population -- whether combatant or not -- was the enemy. “The Vietnamese were gooks. We didn't just call the VC or the NVA gooks”, responded one participant. “All Vietnamese were gooks and they were slant eyes. They were zips. They were Orientals and they were inferior to us. We were Americans. We were the civilized people. We didn't give a ------ about those people.”[22]

As another soldier put it, “You don't even think of them as human beings, they're ‘gooks’. And they're objects; they're not human, they're objects. The general rule was a Vietnamese who is dead is confirmed Viet Cong and one who is living is a Viet Cong suspect. And that's the way it was.”[23]

In other words, Vietnamese civilians were targeted for racial reasons and slaughtered not because of anything they did, but because they were Vietnamese. And it is this aspect of the war that seems, on reflection, to conform to the historically familiar pattern of an indiscriminate extermination campaign committed by an invading power.

Winter Soldier suggests that US military policies in Vietnam embodied tendencies that were genocidal both in intent and execution. While the Vietnam War was not a straight-out genocide like the Jewish Holocaust or the WWI Ottoman campaign against the Armenians, there were enough features in common to evoke disturbing parallels. And that is without even considering the wanton spraying of teratogenic Agent Orange and the systematic carpet bombing of two small nations in their entirety: Laos and Cambodia.

Despite the criminal nature of that war, it continues to be portrayed by the US political establishment and its allies (such as Canberra) as a noble crusade. In a recent speech delivered at Arlington National Cemetery commemorating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the US military involvement, US President Barack Obama said that US soldiers “pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans [and upholding] the highest traditions of our Armed Forces.”[24] One wonders what surviving “Winter Soldiers” such as Scott Camil -- now aged 66 and still a prominent anti-war activist -- make of such remarks.

Sources

Primary

“Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide” [reproduced at http://www.preventgenocide.org.]

“Winter Soldier Investigation: Testimony given in Detroit, Michigan, on January 31, 1971, February 1 and 2, 1971”, transcript, reproduced online at the “The Sixties Project”, a document digitisation project sponsored by the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville [http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Winter_Soldier/WS_entry.html]

Secondary

Chomsky, Noam. “The Legacy of the Vietnam War- Noam Chomsky Interviewed”, October 1982, at http;//www.chomsky.info.

Colby, William. Lost Victory: a firsthand account of America’s sixteen-year involvement in Vietnam, Detroit: Contemporary Books, 1989.

Crandell, William F. “What Did America Learn from the Winter Soldier Investigation”, Viet Nam Generation Journal, vol. 5, 1-4, March 1994.

Jackson, David. “Obama to mark 50th anniversary of Vietnam War”, USA Today, 27/5/12.

Kolko, Gabriel. Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience, New York: The New Press, 1985.

McMahon, Robert J. “Changing Interpretations of the Vietnam War”, Oxford Companion to Military History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Notes

[1] According to one of the organisers, William F. Crandell, “The name "Winter Soldier Investigation" came from Tom Paine's first Crisis paper, in which he wrote: These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” “What Did America Learn from the Winter Soldier Investigation”, Viet Nam Generation Journal, Vol. 5, 1-4, March 1994.

[2] Scott Camil, Sgt. (E-5), 1st Bn., 11th Marine Regt., 1st Marine Div., Winter Soldier Investigation [WSI] transcript, 1st Marine Div., p. 2.

[3] James Duffy, SP/5 (E-5), 228 Avn. Bn., 1st Air Cav. Div., WSI transcript, 1st Air Cav. Div., p. 2.

[4] Ibid, p.2.

[5] Ibid, p.2.

[6] Cited in Rachel Rakoczy, “Gainsville’s 25 Most Interesting People -- Scott Camil”, INsite Gainsville, 12/1/12.

[7] Robert S. Craig, Pfc. (E-2), 2nd Bn., 5th Marine Regt., 1st Marine Div., WSI transcript, 1st Marine Div., p. 2.

[8] Joe Bangert, Sgt. (E-5), VMO-6, PMAG-39, 1st Marine Air Wing, 1st Marine Div., WSI transcript, 1st Marine Div., p. 3.

[9] Jamie Henry, Sgt., 1/35 Inf., 3rd Bde, 4th Infantry Div., WSI transcript, 3rd Marine Div., p. 3. On the subject of rape as a deliberate terror tactic, one panelist pointed out it makes a lasting impression on some guy -- some "zip" -- that's watching his daughter worked over. So we have a better opportunity of keeping him in line by working her over.” WSI transcript, 1st Marine Div., p. 4.

[10] Jack Bronaugh, Pvt. (E-1), "E" Btry. 213, 2nd Bn., 27 Marine Reg.; H & S Bn., 7th Marine POW Compound; 1st Bn., 5th Marine Regt.; MAC-11, H & MS-11, 1st Marine Air Wing, 1st Marine Div., WSI transcript, 1st Marine Div., p. 3.

[11] Jamie Henry, WSI transcript, 3rd Marine Div. p. 3.

[12] Charles Stephens, Pfc. (E-3), 1/327, 101st Airborne Div., WSI transcript, 82nd/101st Airborne Divs., p. 2.

[13] Gary Keyes, SP/4, "E" Troop, 1st Cav. Reg., 11th Bde., Americal Div., WSI transcript, Americal Div., p. 1.

[14] William Hatton, Cpl. (E-4), Engineer Mn. Plt., FLSG Bravo, 3rd Marine Div., WSI transcript, 3rd. Marine Div., p. 2.

[15] Robert Clark, L/Cpl. (E-3), "H&S" Co. & "G" Co., 2nd Bn., 9th Marine Reg., 3rd Marine Div., WSI transcript, 3rd Marine Div., p. 3.

[16] William Hatton, Cpl. (E-4), Engineer Mn. Plt., FLSG Bravo, 3rd Marine Div., WSI transcript, 3rd Marine Div., p. 2.

[17] See Robert J. McMahon, “Changing Interpretations of the Vietnam War”, Oxford Companion to Military History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). This succinct and useful essay is available online at http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/vietnam/interpretations.htm.

[18] See, for example, the Marxist historian Gabriel Kolko’s, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York: The New Press, 1985).

[19] “The Legacy of the Vietnam War- Noam Chomsky Interviewed” [October 1982], at www.chomsky.info.

[20] See, for example, William Colby, Lost Victory: a firsthand account of America’s sixteen-year involvement in Vietnam (Detroit: Contemporary Books, 1989). As US chief of station in Saigon, Colby was the key implementer of the CIA’s “Phoenix” assassination program. He went on to head the CIA under the Nixon and Ford administrations.

[21] Excerpt from the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, reproduced at http://www.preventgenocide.org.

[22] Kenneth Campbell, 21, Cpl. (E-4), "A" Btry., 1st Bn., 11th Marine Regt., 1st Marine Div., scouted for "B" Co., 1st Bn., 1st Marine Regt., 1st Marine Div., WSI transcript, 1st Marine Div., p. 2.

[23] Joe Bangert, Sgt. (E-5), VMO-6, PMAG-39, 1st Marine Air Wing, 1st Marine Div., WSI transcript, 1st Marine Div., p. 4.

[24] Cited in David Jackson, “Obama to mark 50th anniversary of Vietnam War”, USA Today, 27/5/12.

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