Volume 5 Number 1-4
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What Did America Learn from the Winter Soldier Investigation?
William F. Crandell
America's press and elected officials may have been, like the corrupt police chief in Casablanca, "shocked, shocked" at the My Lai massacre, but it was no surprise to most Vietnam veterans. My Lai was just one terrible example from a long anthology of horror stories. What did America learn from these bloody tales?
When the My Lai story broke in 1969, I was the only one of a dozen vets who gathered at Ohio State who did not have my own atrocity story to tell. A year later I talked to one of the other platoon leaders from my old company and learned that he had been charged with shooting civilians on March 17, 1967, a date that was fresh in my memory because I had resumed command of my rifle platoon that day. Neither of us was really sure whether he had done it, but we thought we would probably have remembered it. The moral certainty common to both hawks and doves back home seemed to be a luxury to the footsoldiers in Vietnam.
Planning the Winter Soldier Investigation
The Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI) grew out of the moral outrage of American soldiers who had committed acts in response to official orders and policies that were criminal in nature. The Citizens Commission of Inquiry (CCI), organized with the support of clergy, veterans, Quakers, and lawyers, had presented the testimony of a few courageous vets in 1970 as a means to expose the brutality of the Vietnam war. During that period, men who had taken part in the CIA's Phoenix Program--including former U.S. Army intelligence agents Michael Uhl, Edward Murphy, and Robert Stemme--disclosed its record of terror, torture, and assassination. The need to demonstrate a broader pattern became clear.
WSI began as a project of CCI, supported by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) cofounder Jan Crumb, attorney Mark Lane, and actress Jane Fonda. The object of Winter Soldier was to take the all-too-available atrocity stories coming out of Vietnam and show their direct relationship to American policies. We wanted to bring our brothers and sisters in uniform home alive and untainted by further involvement in such deeds.
In VVAW we knew as veterans that everyone who participates in war crimes suffers, and we needed to tell our country that these horrible acts were not simply aberrations or psychotic episodes, but the inevitable outcomes of the direction soldiers in Vietnam had been given. The nightmares we had participated in during our tours in Vietnam were following us home and spilling into the streets.
The Citizen's Commission of Inquiry had contacted VVAW to find witnesses to atrocities. After months of increasingly disharmonious work together, VVAW decided that the public event that was growing out of gathering this testimony would have more credibility as an all-veteran project. Vietnam Veterans Against the War took over the Winter Soldier Investigation in late 1970.
Preparing for the Winter Soldier Investigation
A six-member steering committee for WSI was composed of three national office leaders (Al Hubbard, Craig Scott Moore, and Mike Oliver) and three members of the growing list of chapters (Art Flesch, Tim Butz, and me), reflecting the increasing importance of the membership. One of our first decisions was to hold WSI in Detroit because it was centrally located in the American heartland. VVAW had over 7,000 members by January 31, 1971, when Winter Soldier convened.
The name "Winter Soldier Investigation" came from Tom Paine's first Crisis paper, in which he wrote:
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
We were the soldiers who served past our enlistments, when we were most needed. The identification with the American tradition of revolution marked the beginning of VVAW's self-awareness that ours was a revolutionary role.
The steering committee set up a collective in a house on the industrial east side of Detroit with the help of Catholic antiwar activists. Mark Lane and Jane Fonda contributed both their fund-raising talents and their perspectives as national figures who understood media. The gathering of testimony had begun under the aegis of CCI the previous summer, and it took a month-and-a-half of on-site planning to put the conference together.
The support of antiwar celebrities was essential. Jane Fonda and her agent, Steve Jaffe, created a series of benefit concerts, including "Acting in Concert for Peace," in which Fonda, Dick Gregory, Donald Sutherland, and Barbara Dane performed, and two musical concerts given by Graham Nash and David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), and by folk song legend Phil Ochs.
WSI also relied on widespread community support. Five Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic clergymen arranged housing for witnesses because, as Dr. John B. Forsyth, director of missions for the Detroit Metropolitan Council of Churches put it, "it is important that the public realize that American atrocities in Vietnam are an every day occurrence." Attorneys Dean Robb and Ernie Goodman raised money from area lawyers. UAW Secretary-Treasurer Emil Mazey and Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin also endorsed the program and sought contributions for it.
The Winter Soldier Investigation Convenes
The program was crammed with testimony. Some 105 Vietnam vets appeared on panels arranged by unit so they could corroborate each other's reports. Veterans and civilian experts who had been to Vietnam spoke on weaponry, prisoners of war, and the medical effects of the war. Two long panels discussed the ecological and cultural damage the war was causing ("What We Are Doing to Vietnam") and the wounding of America ("What We Are Doing to Ourselves"). The first public testimony on the toxic effects of Agent Orange was presented at Winter Soldier by Dr. Bert Pfeiffer of the University of Montana. I wrote and presented the opening statement, which incorporated a superb passage written by Jan Crumb on the nature of war crime.
The testimony was chilling. Veteran after veteran described the training and orders that led to the murder of civilians. Several vets admitted that they had committed torture and killed prisoners, had seen acts of rape and arson, all stemming from policies of their commanders.
Lessons of the Winter Soldier Investigation
There are those who have no patience with the moral niceties underlying the notion of war crime. War itself is a crime, they assure us, having read something about it, why be so picky? It is like arguing that the burglar who commits rape and murder need not be further stigmatized after being convicted of housebreaking.
War is a crime I have committed. Rape, mass murder, torture, the burning of homes, and the killing of prisoners are not. Yet I have known decent and courageous men who did these things, men for whom I would take serious risks. It has taken me twenty years to work out my feelings of guilt for loving them.
Decent men--and women--will commit these crimes again. War is the great dehumanizer, and a war against guerrillas and terrorists--enemies who do not play by rules that favor the powerful--bring forth a response in kind.
When a war is conducted according to the law of land warfare, which is rare, uniformed armies meet in combat and avoid the killing of civilians. Napoleon's use of mass armies and Sherman's March to the Sea eroded this distinction. Guerrilla war renders it all but meaningless. What made the Vietnam war a dirty war was that the communists hid among a people whom neither the Americans nor the ARVN cared to treat as innocent. Indiscriminate killing was bad enough, but it gave way to deliberate killing of civilians as well.
Armed forces from foreign nations will find themselves defending against "guerrillas" and "terrorists" supported by a population that is willing to conceal them. It is a formula for war crime.
At the end of World War II the triumphant Allies, declining to submit their own bomber offensive to juridical scrutiny, rendered just verdicts in the Nuremberg Trials and the Yamashita case, ruling in the former that orders do not excuse war crimes and in the latter that the commander is ignorant of the crimes his troops commit at the peril of his own life. These verdicts set tough standards, placing all responsibility at the level of the individual.
The Winter Soldier Investigation was not a trial. At the outset we pledged that there would be "no phony indictments,... no verdict against Uncle Sam." Instead we presented "straightforward testimony--direct testimony--about acts which are war crimes under international law... acts which are the inexorable result of national policy." We set out to balance the judicial decisions of the Second World war by insisting that the nation and its leaders examine their own responsibility for atrocities before those who committed such deeds were tried.
What relief we found as misled warriors came from confession rather than blaming. We never denied our individual responsibility for the acts we took part in. We were an army that was profoundly troubled by guilt for indefensible acts, and we admitted as much. Then we went further. We explained why we did those things, what orders we took, what assumptions we held, what policies and permissiveness we operated under. We confronted the racism, the sexism, the cultural egomania that shaped the Vietnam war. We invited America to come clean.
In a way, it did. The American people listened to our testimony, despite the barriers the government and corporate media put in the way. Our testimony corroborated what they saw on television, from the executing of a handcuffed prisoner in the streets of Saigon to the torching of villages that could never threaten our homes. And in April, they watched hundreds of decorated veterans throw our medals into the gutter and walk away cleansed.
The American people made a decision, however unclearly, however unconsciously. They turned away from the war their elected leaders had made. They withheld their approval and, at long last, their sons. Without realizing it--or we would never have gone forward in Central America in the 1980s--we decided as a nation that colonialism is a filthy business and we did not want to be that kind of country.
It is easy from a left perspective to write off the American people. As a nation we have difficulty sometimes telling war from professional football, we waste things that other nations wish they had a little of, and we still allow hatemongers to voice their views. Surely, it is urged, the People, when they come into power, will be kinder and gentler than the American people. This is a view that rests on a breathtaking smugness that cannot explain the reluctance of our nation to go to war with either Nicaragua or Iraq.
When the people learn, they learn one person at a time. Raised on images of valor from what may have been the most just war in human history--World War II--the soldiers of the Vietnam war made up the most volunteer-laden army this nation ever fielded. We never dreamed that a democratic nation could do anything as evil and destructive as the Nazis or the communists had done.
What we learned as a nation from the Winter Soldier Investigation is that atrocities result from unchecked power, which is not limited to dictatorships. The lesson of Winter Soldier is one Tom Paine understood: never turn your back on Authority.