How long does it take the US government to release documentation about atrocities in which US military forces killed unarmed civilians, women and children? In the case of Vietnam, it's taken almost 40 years. The 1968 My Lai massacre became public in 1969, but officials at the time said My Lai was an "isolated incident"–the same thing we hear about atrocities today in Iraq and elsewhere. After that, GIs described dozens of other My Lai-style atrocities in which they said they had taken part. Those GIs were called liars and traitors, and no one was ever punished for any of the events they described.
Now the Los Angeles Times has published a page one story, "Vietnam Horrors: Darkest Yet," based on official government documents detailing 320 incidents of Vietnam war atrocities that were confirmed by army investigators. The documentation, according to the Times, comes from "a once-secret archive assembled by a Pentagon task force in the early 1970s." This "Vietnam War Crimes Working Group" archive, 9,000 pages long, was discovered by Nick Turse, who was doing research for a Ph.D. dissertation as a student at Columbia University. Turse shares the byline on the Times report with staff writer Deborah Nelson.
The stories are terrible. "Kill anything that moves" – that's what one company of American soldiers was told when they set out on a sweep of the rice paddies on Vietnam's central coast in February 1968, according to Jamie Henry, at the time a 20-year old medic. So they shot and killed 19 unarmed civilians, women and children. When Henry got home to California, he held a news conference describing the slaughter, but there was no official response. Now we learn that the army did investigate his report — and concluded it was accurate – but did nothing to punish the guilty.
The official line that abuses were "confined to a few rogue units" is demolished by the material Turse discovered. Atrocities were committed, according to the Times, by "every army division that operated in Vietnam." They found a pattern of "recurrent attacks on ordinary Vietnamese–families in their homes, farmers in rice paddies, teenagers out fishing," who were "murdered, raped and tortured with impunity" by American soldiers.
Military investigators documented seven large-scale massacres between 1967 and 1971 in which at least 137 civilians were killed. They described 78 other attacks on civilian noncombatants in which US troops killed at least 57, wounded 56 and sexually assaulted 15. They described 141 incidents of torture of civilians, including the use of electric shock.
The evidence against 203 soldiers was strong enough for the military to bring formal charges of war crimes. According to the Times investigation, 57 were court-martialed and 23 convicted – about ten percent. Fourteen were sentenced to prison for terms ranging from six months to 20 years, but most appealed and won significant reductions. The longest sentence, 20 years, went to an interrogator convicted of "committing indecent acts on a 13 year old girl in an interrogation hut." He served only six months.