US army continues to avoid legacy of concealed Vietnam crimes

By James Palmer Source:Global Times Published: 2012-9-27 0:30:03

Despite the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, there's been no more painful war for the US than Vietnam. The quagmire was not only a military and economic disaster, but tore the nation apart at home. Despite eventual retreat, the legacy of Vietnam has still proved contentious.

Among the US right, a potent legend emerged following US withdrawal and the eventual fall of Saigon in 1975.

Like the Dolchstoßlegende  (stab-in-the-back myth) of the German right after World War I, it held that the US had really won on the battlefield but had been defeated at home.

Whereas German nationalists blamed republicans and Jews, the US right focused on what they claimed was distorted media coverage that turned the US public against the war. 

One of the chief targets of their claim was allegations of US war crimes, which they alleged were exaggerated by the media. Such claims, exonerating the US for its killings of Vietnamese civilians, are still common among the US right.

Nevertheless, an increasing volume of evidence has proved that not only were war crimes common, but that the US military did everything in its power to conceal or downplay them.

Even those atrocities that became known at the time resulted in strikingly little punishment for the murderers. The most infamous incident was the massacre of nearly 500 civilians in the village of My Lai by US soldiers.

Most Americans of the right age remember this, but few remember that, despite the vast volume of evidence, the only person ever convicted of the crime was Second Lieutenant William Calley, who led the massacre. And Calley was not only allowed to serve out his sentence under comfortable house arrest, but was even granted a presidential pardon by then US president Richard Nixon.

In the end, he served three-and-a-half years of house arrest after being convicted of the murder of 22 people.

But at least My Lai was exposed at the time. The US military, for instance, as revealed by investigative journalism by the Toledo Blade, knew about but concealed the war crimes of Tiger Force, an anti-guerilla unit which murdered, tortured, and raped hundreds of Vietnamese.

Despite the revelations of the case in 2003, the US army has still not followed up the investigation or brought charges.

Files on the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, an internal army investigation after the war, have been made public in the last few years. They show that out of over 800 atrocities investigated, only 23 soldiers were ever convicted. Most of those served sentences of less than a year, for crimes ranging from murder to the rape of 13-year-olds.

The US is making admirable efforts to tackle the legacy of war in Southeast Asia. But until the military conducts a comprehensive reinvestigation of its own crimes, it won't have truly faced its own past.

The author is a copy editor with the Global Times.

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