Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book
Volume 5 Number 1-4
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Organizing Veterans Through War Crimes Documentation
Tod Ensign, Citizen Soldier, 175 Fifth Ave. #808, New York, NY 10010.
We are not judges. We are witnesses. Our task is to make mankind bear witness to these terrible crimes.
-- Bertrand Russell, opening the International War Crimes Tribunal, May 1967.
American veterans were first given a forum to testify about Vietnam war crimes in the obscure venue of Roskilde, Denmark in November 1967. The first three veterans to testify, Peter Martinsen, David Tuck, and Donald Duncan, were heard at the second session of the international tribunal organized by Bertrand Russell and other antiwar activists. Their eyewitness testimony of wanton killing and torture reportedly had a powerful impact on many illustrious tribunal members like Jean-Paul Sartre, James Baldwin, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Although the Russell hearings received wide attention in Europe, they were largely ignored by the American media. The New York Times did, however, find the space to print an editorial lambasting the tribunal as a kangaroo court which lacked any legal or moral authority.
While the Russell tribunal hearings were known within the American peace movement, two more years passed before anyone began documenting U.S. war crimes policies by gathering testimony from Vietnam veterans.
In November 1969, Jeremy Rifkin and I, both antiwar activists, responded to a public call from the Bertrand Russell foundation in New York to organize Citizens Commissions of Inquiry to document war crimes in Indochina. This proposal was stimulated by the disclosure that American troops had slaughtered almost four hundred Vietnamese civilians at My Lai (Son My) eighteen months earlier.
The Pentagon had responded to the furor over the atrocity by claiming it to be an isolated incident. Vice President Spiro Agnew blamed the incident on a few "bad apples" who should be rooted out and punished. Only the Tet Offensive did more to shake the public's faith in the American military than did the revelations about My Lai. The disclosure lent strong support to the antiwar movement's claim that we were waging a genocidal war against the Vietnamese people.
To quiet the firestorm of criticism, the Army hurriedly set up a special blue-ribbon commission composed of high-ranking military officers. It was headed by General William Peers, then serving as Commandant at West Point. While the Peers Commission report recommended criminal action only against a few relatively low-ranking officers, it delved deeply enough into the episode to show, at least to the careful reader, that the entire command knew, in general terms, what had gone on at My Lai village that day.
One little-noticed recommendation in the Peers Report was that GIs not be allowed, in the future, to carry personal cameras into combat zones. Had it not been for the vivid color photos taken by a GI that day it's possible that the Army could have stone-walled about My Lai until questioning reporters gave up.
Jeremy Rifkin and I discussed the concept of citizens' commissions with Ralph Schoenman, an American leftist who had played a central role in organizing the earlier tribunals.
We all felt that such commissions could be valuable in both organizing Vietnam veterans against the war and to advance the larger struggle to end the war. We reasoned that most combat veterans would feel threatened and angered by the Pentagon's insistence that war crimes were caused by aberrant or sadistic GIs--rather than the logical consequences of military policies designed at the highest levels of the command.
Unfortunately, the Bertrand Russell group was unable to contribute any money to help launch the commissions. This, however, didn't deter us in the slightest. Our attitude may be hard to understand in the recession-bound 1990s, but at that time we were happy to forge ahead, confident that, somehow, money and resources would be found. Certainly the sense Jeremy and I both had of being part of a large and vital "movement" fed our confidence.
One of my first jobs, as the commission's only lawyer, was to investigate the legal implications of veterans publicly admitting to criminal acts which they had witnessed or participated in. With legal assistance from the Center for Constitutional Rights we were able to conclude that the armed forces could not try veterans for alleged crimes committed while they were on active duty.
Next, we turned to the problem of how to work with veterans organizations. The so-called "big three" veterans groups, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Disabled American Vets, were still rabidly pro-war. Clearly, they would do nothing to help us gather war crimes testimony from their members. At that time, there were only two national veterans groups that were antiwar--the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, then headquartered in New York City, and the Chicago-based Vets for Peace. Both groups were quite small, with VVAW consisting of only a few active members and no regular staff. The midwest group was larger but many of its members were veterans of earlier wars--not Vietnam.
After assembling the obligatory "national advisory panel" which consisted of every antiwar notable from Dr. Benjamin Spock to Dick Gregory, we were ready to begin. We decided to seek our first witnesses among the many Vietnam veterans who had deserted and sought refuges in Canada. Before going to Toronto, however, we attended the national convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science which was meeting in Boston in December 1969. It was at this conference that the issue of the human health effects of herbicide Agent Orange was first raised publicly. The AAAS designated a special study team which later traveled to Vietnam in an effort to determined the extent of damage caused by the massive use of these toxic chemicals. Jeremy and I were also heartened by the strong interest that many AAAS members expressed in the war crimes initiative.
On a bitter cold January day, Jeremy and I arrived in Toronto, then the center for exiled war resisters. In no time we had arranged to talk with a number of deserters about their experience in Vietnam.
I'll never forget our first interview. After some cloak and dagger maneuvers, we arrived at a modest house in one of Toronto's suburbs. For the rest of the afternoon, we sat transfixed as two baby-faced GIs described, in horrifying detail, what it was like to fight with the 173d Airborne Brigade. They gave new meaning to sterile military terms like "free fire zones" and "search and destroy" operations with their accounts of some of the human carnage they'd witnessed. That night, I was awakened several times by nightmares in which I imagined myself in Vietnam. In one episode, I was involved in helping the scalp a corpse, just as it had been described by one of the veterans that day.
After that night, my psyche made some sort of adjustment because I never again had a strong emotional reaction to the gruesome testimony. I was helping to gather. While we did befriend a number of the veterans with whom we worked, I don't think we understood that some of them were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I'm afraid our concern for uncovering and presenting powerful testimony of war crimes policies sometimes blocked out our awareness of the anguish many vets felt about their role as soldiers.
Word spread quickly about the citizens commissions and within weeks a Veterans for Peace group in Baltimore had agreed to co-sponsor the first commission in Annapolis, Maryland in February, 1970. The day before the Annapolis event, we co-sponsored with Canadian peace activists, a hearing in Toronto at which several deserters provided war crimes accounts to the Canadian press.
For reasons I can no longer recall, the next citizens' commission was held in the gritty factory town of Springfield, Massachusetts. This was the first commission that received national attention and it taught us how the Pentagon would respond when unwanted publicity became too pervasive.
One witness, David Bressem, who had been a helicopter pilot, testified that several helicopters had engaged in a "turkey shoot" in which at least thirty-three Vietnamese civilians were killed. Both the New York Times and the Associated Press gave prominent coverage to these allegations and with hours, the Pentagon had sent criminal investigators to Bressem's home. They wanted to question him about the identities of those involved in the incident so, they claimed, they could prosecute any who might still be on active duty. Bressem also received a phone call from his former commander, a Major as I recall, who expressed fear that his Army career might be ruined. While not condoning his commander's actions, David felt that the focus on military policies such as body-counting which encourage such massacres was being lost.
The Pentagon's tactic of seeking the identities of wrongdoers for possible prosecution presented us with a difficult problem. By taking the position that witnesses should not cooperate with military investigators whose goal was to prosecute low-ranking GIs, we came across as being indifferent to criminal conduct. Even though we continually explained that we wanted a thorough, independent investigation of policies conceived by our military and civilian leaders, I'm afraid that we were often viewed as moral agnostics, even by some in the peace movement.
During the next few months, successful citizens commissions of inquiry were held in Richmond, Virginia; New York City; Buffalo; Boston; Minneapolis; Los Angeles; and, Portland, Oregon. In some cities, the commissions were co-sponsored by antiwar coalitions, in others they were organized independently. Several Vietnam veterans, most notably Michael Uhl and Bob Johnson, joined CCI as staff members. We also established contact with a growing number of veterans throughout the country who were beginning to mobilize, as veterans, against the war. For some, testifying before a citizens commission was the first political act of their lives. As we had hoped, it often led veterans to become much more active in local antiwar work.
During the summer of 1970 we were approached by Al Hubbard who had become a full-time organizer with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Al proposed that CCI join forces with Jane Fonda, Mark Lane, Rev. Dick Fernandez of CALC, and Donald Duncan (the Green Beret who had testified at the Russell Tribunal in Denmark). The VVAW steadily gained membership and visibility as the citizens commissions took place. One boost was a free ad in Playboy that brought in over 12,000 responses and many new members.
In retrospect, we entered into a close collaboration with Fonda, Lane and the others without any real discussion of roles and responsibilities. Since we all agreed that our goal was a national hearing lasting several days, we assumed that other problems would take care of themselves.
It was a mistake to think that celebrities like Jane Fonda and Mark Lane who were used to operating as free agents would submit to the discipline of a steering committee. We should have placed them, instead, on an advisory panel where their visibility and political and money contacts would have been used without having to tangle with them on broader strategic and tactical questions.
At any rate, less than three months into planning for the Winter Soldier Investigation, most of the Vietnam veteran coordinators and Jeremy Rifkin had become adamant that WSI disassociate itself from Mark Lane. He had published a book, Conversations with Americans, which was denounced by a Vietnam expert in the Sunday Times Book Review as a shoddy piece of research.
Even in 1970, Mark Lane displayed the same penchant for sleazy dealings and associations that led him, years later, to the jungles of Guyana. There, he climbed a tree to escape the brainwashed minions of his friend and client, Rev. Jim Jones, who had just ordered hundreds of his followers to commit ritual suicide.
Al Hubbard, the VVAW's representative on Winter Soldier, had originally been one of the veterans most critical of Lane. However, once he learned that Fonda wasn't willing to jettison her pal Mark, he promptly reversed himself. Al was to have some additional credibility problems later on when it was disclosed that, despite his war stories, he'd never served in Vietnam.
So, a split occurred and the work of organizing national hearings proceeded along two parallel tracks. We at CCI set our sights on a December event in Washington, DC, while the WSI's new organizers continued with the original plan to hold its hearings in Detroit. Fonda had insisted on this obscure venue because she saw it, mechanistically in my opinion, as a way to reach out to blue-collar America.
James Simon Kunen summarized the two hearings in his book Standard Operating Procedure as follows: "the goal of both events was the same--to show that American policies lead to war crimes--and the substance was similar. Some veterans testified at both. The WSI got less attention in the mass media and more in the underground press."
The National Veterans Inquiry, as we called the Washington event, sparked the participation of a number of active-duty personnel, especially those active in the Concerned Officers Movement. In January, 1971, we organized four COM members to file formal criminal charges against several U.S. generals for violations of international law.
The election of black radical Ronald Dellums as Congressman from the Bay Area also gave a boost to our efforts to expose war crimes policies. Within days after arriving in Washington, Ron agreed to turn over part of his office for an exhibition of war crime materials. We also convinced him that another large hearing under Congressional auspices was needed.
Since the formal committees with jurisdiction over military operations were tightly controlled by pro-war hawks, we knew that official hearings were unlikely. Therefore, CCI began organizing for ad hoc hearings under Dellums' leadership. In April 1971, we held four mornings of hearings on Capitol Hill. Twenty members of Congress attended some or all of the hearings.
One of the witnesses before the Dellums panel, Danny Notley of Minneapolis, described a massacre identical in all respects to that which occurred at My Lai. The only differences were that Notley's Army unit killed fewer civilians (about one hundred) and that the atrocity occurred thirteen months after My Lai. Typically, the Army responded by trying to get Notley to "name names." No less a luminary than Nixon's Counsel Fred Buzhardt contacted me seeking Notley's cooperation in identifying the guild (read: low-ranking) parties.
Looking Back: What Did We Accomplish?
The fact that thousands of combat veterans were willing to "go public" to document U.S. war crimes policies in Indochina indicates how little legitimacy the war effort retained. For veterans who had been raised on a spiritual diet of unquestioning patriotism, participation in the various hearings represented a radical break with their pasts. The hearings helped them overcome their feelings of powerlessness and allowed them to fight back against the military's cynical scapegoating. Their testimony challenged one of American's most guarded myths--the myth of its sacred purpose.
Recently, it has again become fashionable to talk about Vietnam as a war in which the military was not allowed to "do its job." George Bush repeatedly pledged that his military chiefs in the Persian Gulf would not have to fight with "one hand tied behind their backs." I believe that our work in documenting the actual conduct of the Vietnam war has helped to counter this demagogy, at least among those who were called to fight there.