Vietnam’s Shadow Over Abu Ghraib

In reading the Abu Ghraib articles Seymour Hersh wrote for the New Yorker in May (here, here, and here), what struck me about the revelations of abuse and torture was the similarity in detail to what I experienced in Vietnam 35 years ago. The one major difference has been the media’s willingness to embrace in 2004 a story that they shunned in 1970, when returning veterans attempted to inform the American public of widespread atrocities, including the routine killing and torture of prisoners, committed by American forces in Southeast Asia.

Only certain episodes of the widespread Vietnam veteran war protests throughout 1970 and into 1971 are well-known, like the April 1971 veterans’ encampment in Washington. Scores of former combatants – with John Kerry in a visible position of leadership – threw their service ribbons and medals of valor over a barrier in the direction of the Capitol steps. But one has to dig far deeper to recover and stitch into a coherent narrative an account of the precise issue – U.S. war crimes in Indochina – that motivated much of Vietnam veteran antiwar activism in those times. With the exception of the My Lai massacre – made public in the U.S. under Seymour Hersh’s byline more than a year and a half (November 1969) after it had occurred (March 1968) – Vietnam war crimes, which often included torture, never attained the level of media validation and public recognition afforded to the events at Abu Ghraib.

I’ve often wondered why Hersh never demonstrated more interest during Vietnam in the larger war crimes issue, of which My Lai was only the most dramatic component. Perhaps unfairly, I’ve concluded that, for the investigative reporter, the scoop is at least as important as the story. Had Hersh investigated the "systematic" nature of American war crimes during the Vietnam War as thoroughly as he is investigating the "systemic" presence of torture during interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan, he might have instructed his readers and his colleagues that the murder, torture and abuse of prisoners is military business as usual.

Some of the parallels between what I witnessed in Vietnam as leader of a small military intelligence team, and the details reported by Hersh about Abu Ghraib, reflect, in my view, disturbing patterns of American military practice over decades that the American public would prefer not to know about. As one of Hersh’s informants puts it, "The process is unpleasant. It’s like making sausage. You like the results, but you don’t want to know how it’s made." The more serious of these wartime parallels have grievous consequences for both victims (typically civilian non-combatants) and perpetrators, who in time reenter the U.S. population as damaged veterans.

But even some of Abu Ghraib’s more ordinary occurrences are reported by Hersh as if they were without precedent. In two of his three New Yorker articles, for example, Hersh, adds a shade of cloak and dagger intrigue describing military intelligence (MI) personnel at Abu Ghraib who appeared in "sterile" uniforms, unmarked by rank, or, when entitled to wear military uniforms, were dressed in mufti. Some interrogators, he writes, used "aliases."

My first assignment in 1967, fresh from Army counterintelligence school (preceded by Infantry Officer School), was as titular head of a Corps level counterintelligence (CI) office at Fort Hood, Texas. Provided a snub-nosed .38 and a set of "boxtops" (badge and credentials), I was styled a Special Agent and wore civilian clothes on duty. Even my small motorcycle with its green civilian sticker was "undercover."

The man who met me at the airstrip when I arrived at the 11th Infantry Brigade in Duc Pho, South Vietnam, to become officer-in-charge of the 1st Military Intelligence Team (1st MIT) wore unmarked jungle fatigues. He had a "U.S." pinned where the insignia of rank normally appeared, as did all members of counterintelligence on the MI team, including me. Months later in Quang Ngai City, I ran into a fellow Georgetown undergrad, also with Army military intelligence, dressed in khakis and a bright button-down broad cloth shirt – my uniform in college, and his still in Vietnam. Like the OSS operatives who preceded us in World War II, certain special agents routinely posed as civilians in designated contexts, and some had occasion to operate under noms de guerre. This practice was SOP, standard operating procedure. It was not something exotic or irregular.

The 11th became infamous as the Calley brigade, a reference to Lt. William L. Calley, the platoon leader who led the mayhem at My Lai and was later convicted by court-martial of murder. The My Lai massacre took place eight months before I arrived at the 11th in November ‘68. It was my good fortune to never witness anything to compare with such a horror, though just over one year later as a veteran activist in the antiwar movement I would have a hand in exposing massacres that other Vietnam veterans had seen or participated in. What I witnessed personally were many acts of abuse and torture while on patrol, or within our own team’s IPW (Interrogation Prisoner of War) section located on the brigade base camp; and once, following the bizarre hunt for Viet Cong cadres operating in a nearby hamlet, I stood alone in preventing the murder of a prisoner captured in the field.

One obvious parallel between Iraq and Vietnam that is a clear violation of the conventions of war is the treatment of civilian populations. In both wars, civilians have been subjected to omnibus rounds-ups, arbitrary incarceration under brutal conditions, severe deprivations and acts of physical abuse, and, in some cases, interrogation under torture. In his New Yorker article of May 10, Hersh writes that a "lack of proper screening also meant that many innocent Iraqis were wrongly being detained – indefinitely … in some cases … [with] more than sixty percent … deemed not to be a threat to society." The modus operandi of rounding-up resistance suspects and confining them no doubt differs widely in Iraq from what occurred in Vietnam. But the net effect on that majority of innocent civilians is the same, and it is this practice of unjustified population removal followed by brutal incarceration that very likely constitutes a war crime.

The 1st MIT interrogation section in Vietnam was often swamped with Vietnamese rural villagers who were dragnetted by infantry units on their sweeps of the countryside and delivered to the brigade base camp as "VC suspects." Once in our custody, there was enormous pressure from the intelligence command to classify detainees as "civil defendants (CDs)," adjudged by American interrogators, despite our obvious lack of competency, to have broken the laws of South Vietnam. As a CD, the "suspect," without the slightest evidence of being either a VC cadre or a criminal, might then be turned over to the local South Vietnamese police, whose methods of persuasion were even less gentle than ours.

The most prized classification aspired to by the IPW section was that of PW, prisoner of war, but this required that the detainee be captured with a weapon, an infrequent occurrence. The category CD, therefore, became a functional substitute for the more valued PW designation, in that the number of CDs also counted toward the MI teams’ performance and productivity in the manner of a "body count." And, whereas in Iraq, males who are indeed apparently of fighting age formed a large percentage of the Abu Ghraib detainee population, the demographics in Vietnam differed greatly. There we were dealing primarily with women of child-bearing age, seniors, and late teens. It was assumed that all the draft age male inhabitants of a given locale were already fighting on one side or the other, or were off somewhere hiding whenever American forces were operating in their area. Ironically, it was only these latter military-aged males whom the South Vietnamese government considered "draft dodgers." They were most likely local force guerrillas living outside the Saigon government’s control whom the IPW interrogators might have legitimately designated "CDs" on strictly legal grounds. And they were the one group we rarely saw.

Hersh might have drawn other instructive comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. One is the defensive manner in which the sitting administration in Washington responded to the battlefront atrocity. George W. Bush, when finally forced to respond to a scandal that persisted in headlines around the world, said, according to Hersh, that "the action of a few did not reflect on the conduct of the military as a whole." The media, for the most part, seemed to reject this wan excuse, and news accounts began referring to the ever-widening exposure of abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere as "systemic." At the same time, such expressions of skepticism have by no means translated into any deeper criticism of the Iraq war within the media mainstream  For his part, Richard Nixon, following the revelation of My Lai back in 1969, called the perpetrators "a few bad apples," and the massacre itself was termed an "aberration." Antiwar veterans had a different spin: My Lai was just the tip of the iceberg, we claimed, and the torture of prisoners, "systematic." When it came to Vietnam, it was Nixon’s message, not the veterans’, that history recorded.

Hersh writes with justifiable outrage in his May 10 article that the "wrongdoing" at Abu Ghraib reflects a "failure of Army leadership at the highest levels." At the same time, one of his anonymous sources reminds the reporter that, far from distributing real responsibility up the chain of command, the "army is attempting to have these six soldiers [American MP guards at Abu Ghraib prison] atone for its sins." And in his piece of May 24, Hersh quotes another unnamed "insider" that the operatives from elite intelligence units are "vaccinated," and that "the only people left to prosecute are those who are undefended, the poor kids at the end of the food chain." Affixing primary responsibility for atrocities that are hardwired into modern wars of "counterinsurgency" onto the lowest-ranking soldiers, those tasked with carrying out the dirty work, while limiting the culpability of the command, is yet another echo from the My Lai massacre that resonates with Abu Ghraib.

Thirty-five years ago, antiwar Vietnam vets demanded that the Pentagon not scapegoat a few low-ranking GIs for atrocities that could be traced to the nature of an aggressive war conducted against an entire people, designed and carried out at the highest levels of the American government and its military establishment. A similar view was expressed by then Senator George McGovern when commenting on the conviction of Lt. Calley in March 1971: "I think it’s a mistake to make one man the scapegoat for a mistake in national policy. It’s policy that’s wrong." To which antiwar vets amended, "GIs in the field do not make policy." As for "command responsibility, " then as now, a few senior officers in direct positions of command had their wrists slapped, ending or sidetracking their military careers (with full pensions), but without the stigma of conviction and prison time that their enlisted subordinates will carry for life.

Not surprisingly, the former spooks and military professionals in Hersh’s pieces attempt to obscure the trail of amoral practices institutionalized in the intelligence community from the Cold War to the present. We read that, at Abu Ghraib, "fundamentally good soldiers – military intelligence guys – [were] told that no rules apply," because "since 9-11, we’ve [the government apparatus responsible for intelligence oversight] changed the rules … and created conditions where the ends justify the means." And so, instead of seeing Vietnam’s shadow over Iraq, readers may conclude that torture and abuse in Iraq are unique in the recent annals of American warfare, or, as Nixon said when speaking of My Lai, "an aberration."

Of course, Seymour Hersh’s disinterest in drawing comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam may be perfectly valid. He may see historical analogies as an unnecessary distraction from the urgency and gravity of the subject at hand; why muddy the waters? The reason history matters here, however, is because the valuable lessons of Vietnam, which have deterred the U.S. from the unilateral application of major force over the past three decades to achieve its hegemonic foreign policy objectives, have been severely undermined by Iraq. It now appears that Bush II may have succeeded in finally putting the country’s "Vietnam Syndrome," so intolerable to the war party, behind us.