Thursday, November 21, 2013


Folks who follow me on Twitter already know that I'm in the process of radically revising the first four chapters of my dissertation before completing the fifth chapter. By radical, I mean that I'm essentially changing what I'm writing about in significant ways. The topic remains American atrocities during the Vietnam War, which I think were a significant, but not all-encompassing issue. That puts me at odds with both revisionists like Guenter Lewy, Mark Moyar, B. G. Burkett, and Lewis Sorley, and with the more traditional historians like Stanley Karnow, Nick Turse, and Christian Appy. The revisionists do far too much to minimize the importance, scope, and scale of American atrocities during the war, while Turse and Neil Sheehan lump too much under the heading of atrocities - I'm not comfortable putting random artillery and air strikes in the same category as rape, murder, and torture.

Originally, I wanted to examine cultural contributions to American atrocities in Vietnam - American conceptions of how to fight, religious interpretations of anti-Communism, racism, etc... Unfortunately, while writing my prospectus, I ran across Nick Turse's extraordinarily long and comprehensive dissertation on American atrocities in Vietnam, which he has since published as Kill Anything That Moves. That really took the wind from my sails. How many dissertations on that topic do you really need within a few years of each other? I couldn't see anything that Turse didn't cover, so I needed a different topic.

If you accept Turse's argument, atrocities were not only common in Vietnam, they were the norm when Americans came into contact with civilians in a combat environment. I decided on a different approach - instead of looking at soldiers who committed atrocities, I would write about those that didn't, focusing on how they justified their action or inaction. If atrocities were as common as Turse claimed, then why didn't these other guys commit them? With that goal in mind, I visited the Archives II to get the publicly accessible files of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, which Turse and journalist Deborah Nelson relied on in their work. I also reviewed a slew of Oral Histories from the Library of Congress, the Virtual Vietnam Archive, and a variety of other Oral History programs, and got writing. One case in particular fascinated me, so I also found the General Courts-Martial documents for it in St. Louis.

The problem, which wasn't really obvious until after I wrote the fourth chapter, was that the evidence I compiled didn't do a great job of addressing my questions, and I didn't have time to do yet more research. So my dissertation co-chairs suggested an alternate path that used the same evidence, which my organization of the data already suggested - looking at why the soldiers who were bothered enough about atrocities chose different venues to report them. At different times, soldiers reported atrocities through their chains of command, by contacting Congressional representatives, by contacting high-ranking officers in the Pentagon, by writing to the President, by talking to reporters, and ultimately by joining the antiwar movement to expose atrocities under the auspices of Vietnam Veterans Against the War or the Citizens Commissions of Inquiry. So the question becomes, why did these soldiers use these venues, did it change over time, and were there any events that played  a significant role in determining how the tiny minority of soldiers chose to do so?

Turns out that two things really stand out - the Army's handling of the My Lai Massacre, and Richard Nixon's policy of Vietnamization. My Lai dramatically changed how the media handled the issue of atrocities in Vietnam. Before My Lai, there had been a few reports that trickled through the media's self-censorship on the subject. Morley Safer's report from Cam Ne in 1965 stands out, as does the coverage of Col. Robert Rheault in 1969. After Seymour Hersh broke the My Lai story by selling it to Dispatch News Service, there was what Time magazine called an avalanche of atrocity reports by soldiers in the media.

So why did that happen? Many people have already addressed the media side of this: Kendrick Oliver, David Halberstam, Ralph Engelman, Ted Galen Carpenter, Robert Donovan, and Ray Scherer (among others) argue that after My Lai, atrocities suddenly became news. Americans had taken a much more negative view of the war after the Tet Offensive in early 1968. Until that time, television news followed the public's attitude and supported the war. Print media provided a more negative look, but for the most part, the media censored the most shocking violence and the plight of Vietnamese civilians. That was both economic and because even most of the journalists in the field supported the goals of the war. They might not think the United States would win, or they might question the strategies and tactics American forces used, but editors and journalists were on the government's side (right where LBJ wanted them). The New Yorker was an important outlier - as its editorial policy increasingly argued against the war, its revenues suffered because the demographics of its readership skewed younger, so advertisers wouldn't bay as much to run ads.

What is less explored is why more soldiers reported atrocities, and why the venues they chose changed. That's what I'm now writing about, and strangely enough, I do have evidence that helps answer those questions, especially for the men who contacted the media, Congress, DoD, or joined the antiwar movement. I won't go into great detail here because that's what my dissertation is for, but in general scapegoating Lt. William Calley and some junior enlisted men for doing what they argued was a logical result of the Army's training, tactics, and policies showed that the Army no longer had the men's backs. Because Calley was the only individual successfully court-martialed, it seemed clear that the Army could not provide justice, and that the senior officers would not be punished, soldiers who wanted to report atrocities changed their reporting venue. These are obviously generalizations, but how disgruntled they were determined which venue they chose. Soldiers who didn't want to hurt the Army or the war effort contacted Congressmen or the President, while those who had lost faith in the system chose either the media or antiwar groups. Some soldiers tried all of these venues - James D. Henry reported atrocities to a Staff Judge Advocate, to CID, and to Congressmen before finally writing an article for Scanlan's Magazine and joining VVAW. He remains the only soldier to testify at the Winter Soldier Investigation whose claims CID substantiated (because unlike the others he specific details, including names, dates, and locations, while the others didn't because they had a different goal in providing testimony).

My problem now is fighting to revise my four existing chapters around these issues. Unfortunately, the My Lai chapter is fighting back At forty-five pages, it was a beast in its original form. In my last iteration, I made the mistake of trying to mangle that document to fit into the new analytical framework. That didn't work well, so over the next two weekends, I'll be figuring out how to do that. For the remainder of the time before Thanksgiving, the chapter on reports in the media is getting revised and sent out. I will be ecstatic if the committee likes that one.

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