We must never again confuse a war with the warriors. American veterans deserve our deepest respect, gratitude and support whenever and wherever they serve. — Secretary of State John Kerry, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, writing on the lessons of the Vietnam War in the New York Times.
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In August 1965, television journalist Morley Safer, who died this month, gave Americans a searing depiction of the growing Vietnam War. He covered an attack on the hamlet of Cam Ne, about 10 miles west of the port city of Da Nang. It had been identified as a Vietcong sanctuary, though it had been abandoned by the enemy before the Americans moved in.
Safer’s account depicted Marines, facing no resistance, firing rockets and machine guns into the hamlet; burning its thatched huts with flamethrowers, grenades and cigarette lighters as old men and women begged them to stop; then destroying rice stores as the villagers were led away sobbing.
“This is what the war in Vietnam is all about,” he reported, according to a New York Times obituary. “The Vietcong were long gone. The action wounded three women, killed one baby, wounded one Marine and netted four old men as prisoners. Today’s operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. To a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.”
Safer’s report and disturbing images were broadcast on the “CBS Evening News,” then anchored by Walter Cronkite. They stunned Americans and were among the most famous television portraits of the war.
For the generation that struggled with the morality of the Vietnam War, these images and others like them made it impossible to separate the war from the young American military personnel waging it. If these things were happening in sanctioned military operations, what else might be going on?
In 1968, a company of U.S. soldiers killed between 300 and 500 civilians, including women, children and the elderly, at the village of My Lai in central Vietnam. Although it was the worst massacre by U.S. forces during the war, it was far from the only war crime committed by American troops. Books like “Tiger Force” and “The War Behind Me” have in the past decade revealed allegations of hundreds of war crimes, many of them investigated and covered up by the military.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now telling us to give blanket respect, gratitude and support to all veterans, had a different tale to tell back in 1971 when he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Speaking as the leader of anti-war veterans group, Kerry told of an “investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. … They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”
A primary lesson of the Vietnam War, it seems to me, is that individuals must be held accountable for what they do in wartime. From Vietnam to Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib, soldiers should not be exonerated for “just following orders.” There is no honor in that.