Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dissertation Ruminations

With just over six months left to write before I time out of the program next May, I've finally settled on what looks like a solid outline for the nine chapters (including the Introduction and Conclusion), in three sections.  The first section of two chapters, which focuses on the extreme reactions to war crimes on Vietnam, is due to my committee by the end of June.  That's a fast, but workable time frame for around sixty pages of text - I'll definitely have to stay on schedule to have any chance of getting it done, so it's a good thing I've only got two online courses to deal with over the summer.

I'm looking at the reactions of soldiers to alleged war crimes that they witnesses in Vietnam, which means that while the events are important, what I'm most interested in is how the soldiers reacted to what they saw or heard.  Of necessity, that means I'm mostly focused on company grade officers and enlisted men; there will be few officers above the rank of Major in my analysis unless I'm discussing things they experienced while younger.  William Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams will be unlikely to make a significant appearance in my dissertation.

For my first section that means that I'm going to be dealing with the elephants in the room: My Lai, the Winter Soldier Investigation, and the Citizens Commissions of Inquiry into United States War Crimes in Indochina. The My Lai Massacre hangs over the entire conversation of American atrocities in Vietnam due to its scope, the attempted cover-up in the 11th Brigade, the actions of Hugh Thompson's helicopter crew to end the violence, and then the protracted investigations and trials afterward.  Reactions of the soldiers present range from Calley's assertion that he was just following orders, to Hugh Thompson ordering his crew to open fire on American troops if they continued to fire on the villagers, to Paul Meadlo telling Calley that God was punishing him for his role at My Lai after he lost a foot to a mine.

Winter Soldier and CCI represent another type of extreme reaction to alleged war crimes in Vietnam - concerted political and propaganda efforts to use reports of atrocities by American troops to end end the war, but while protecting individual soldiers from potential prosecution.  While some of the events soldiers claimed they saw or heard about appear to have been invented, the majority of the allegations were investigated by the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division.  In the case of the Winter Soldier/Vietnam Veterans Against the War claims, most could not be confirmed because the soldiers who testified at the Winter Soldier hearings refused to cooperate with investigators.  These soldiers gave two primary reasons for their noncooperation: their attorneys advised them not to to avoid self-incrimination, or because they blamed political and military leaders.  Several indicated that they would only provide details to the Secretary of Defense, or the President himself.  What that means is that we'll likely never know whether the majority of the events described in the Winter Soldier investigation occurred, but the reason is not as simple as critics argue (that they didn't happen).

So the first part in my dissertation will look at the varying reactions to war crimes in Vietnam, and in the motives for action and inaction that we see in these three events.  The second and third parts of my dissertation are trickier, as I try to describe and analyze "normative" reactions to witnessing atrocities (part II) , and other efforts to report alleged war crimes to Congress, the media, and the Executive branch for other purposes (Part III).

Obviously, my reading and organizing this week are going to focus on My Lai.  More on that as I work on the topic.  The first step is reading the Peers Commission reports, followed by a trip to the library at my alma mater later in the week to pick up some key references (the alumni association membership is handy after all).

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