This story is not from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, or Russia's war in Chechnya. It is an American one, revealed in late October by The Toledo Blade newspaper in an extraordinary four-day series about an elite U.S. paratrooper group in Vietnam in 1967 called Tiger Force.
Despite the shocking revelations, most major newspapers and the television networks gave them short shrift or ignored them. Similarly, Washington officialdom responded with silence. Thus, for most Americans, the events effectively never happened.
Such disregard is part of a pattern of post-war conduct, one that has allowed U.S. political structures, modes of behavior and individual actors responsible for Vietnam-era crimes to remain unscathed. In the specific case reported by the Blade, for example, a Pentagon investigation several years later confirmed that Tiger Force members had committed 20 war crimes. However, no one was prosecuted.
focus on the individual soldiers who committed the atrocities or the
officers who encouraged them is to miss a larger issue of accountability
regarding the illegitimacy of the very U.S. presence in Vietnam. The accord
ending the war made it clear that the United States was the aggressor. A
secret protocol to the 1973 Paris treaty stipulated that Washington would
provide funds to reconstruct Vietnam.
Washington has never followed through. President Jimmy Carter summarized the U.S. position in 1977, explaining that there was no need to dispense monies to Vietnam or even to apologize, as "the destruction was mutual."
The destruction was also profoundly unequal. Whereas about 58,200 American soldiers tragically lost their lives, the Vietnamese suffered an estimated 2 million deaths. Since the war's end, American land mines and unexploded ordnance have killed or maimed at least 100,000. And about 500,000 Vietnamese children have been born with birth defects believed to be related to the defoliant Agent Orange, with many second- and third-generation children feeling the effects of U.S. chemical warfare today.
Washington still pretends it has nothing to atone for. Asked during a November 2000 visit to Vietnam if the United States owed its former adversary an apology, President Bill Clinton responded, "No." During his visit Clinton avoided war-associated sites, the exception being a spot believed to contain the remains of a U.S. pilot. By doing so, Clinton perpetuated the notion that Americans were primarily victims in the war, the Vietnamese principally victimizers.
Such matters are not important merely for redressing historical wrongs. How we remember the past informs how we live in the present. As Adam Hochschild observed in his chronicle of Belgium's atrocities in the Congo, "The world we live in ... is shaped far less by what we celebrate and mythologize than by the painful events we try to forget."
The erasure from public memory of the nature of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the absence of accountability has facilitated the continuation of an American foreign policy that all-too-often prefers unilateral bullying over cooperation and exhibits disdain for international law. From aiding and abetting Indonesian atrocities in East Timor from 1975 to 1999, to ongoing efforts to undermine the International Criminal Court, to the current debacle in Iraq, the ill effects of forgetting and allowing impunity for American crimes endure.
William Doyle, a former Tiger Force sergeant, explained to the Blade how he and his fellow soldiers were able to do what they did in 1967: "You can do any damn thing you want to, anywhere you want to ... Who's going to check you? What's the checks and balances? There's not any. You're calling all the shots." He went on to say that his only regret was that he didn't kill more.
Americans should insist that their government acknowledge, apologize and repent for the horrors it has visited upon people in Vietnam and elsewhere. Such acts would constitute an important step in creating a world in which Washington no longer endeavors to call "all the shots" -- whether in Vietnam or Iraq -- and in which individual American soldiers are not in a position to commit atrocities in the first place.
Joseph Nevins is an assistant professor of geography at Vassar College, and author of A Not-So Distant Horror: Making and Accounting for Mass Violence in East Timor, to be published by Cornell University Press in early 2005. He is a contributing writer for Pacific News Service. He can be reached at: email@example.com
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