Richard Brummett was born into a family of true believers—in Jesus, in war, and in a particular idea of America. He spent his youth at odds with, and trying to live up to, his father, a combat veteran of World War II and a Marine Corps drill instructor. He started down the path to be a Catholic monk, but then enlisted in the Army in 1966, eventually volunteering for service in Vietnam as the United States was rapidly escalating the war there. He was deployed to Southeast Asia in 1967, as a true believer in the US military.
Brummett didn’t speak Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese he met didn’t speak English, so violence became his language of choice. When a Vietnamese woman grabbed at his arm while he was in the process of burning down her village, he responded by slamming the flat side of his .45 caliber pistol into her forehead. That she understood, he thought to himself. Another time, when a group of Vietnamese civilians ignored his shouts to move, Brummett leveled his M-79 at them as if to fire. This time, his platoon sergeant stepped in. “Brummett, don’t you point your weapon at no civilians! What’s the matter with you?” the sergeant scolded. Too many other superiors, however, had no such scruples. His commanding officer, Brummett said, had a penchant for ordering tanks to destroy entire villages. Then there were the beatings and rapes and killings of noncombatants by other men of the unit. Brummett loaded the munitions that killed 13 people for nothing more than running. Maybe they were enemy snipers. Maybe they were just farmers frightened for their lives. In the end, they were dead and Vietnamese, so they were chalked up as enemy “kills.” All of it took a toll; 1968 changed Brummett forever.
“Get off it, Brummett,” said buddies when he later insisted that they were all complicit in the crimes being committed by their unit. He told a visiting Catholic chaplain about it and the priest replied: “These things happen in war.” Brummett soon traded Sunday mass for nights spent numbing himself with alcohol and weed. After loading a white-phosphorus shell—an incendiary tank round—that was fired into a distant village, Brummett recalled that his captain offered his congratulations. “You got arms and legs with that one,” he cheered. Incensed, Brummett grabbed his submachine gun and sat on the turret of his tank staring him down. At that moment, he considered killing his commanding officer.
He didn’t, but two years later, Brummett wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Melvin Laird. He called on the former congressman from Wisconsin to take action against those responsible for the wanton violence he witnessed. Brummett told Laird that his unit
did perform on a regular basis, random murder, rape and pillage upon the Vietnamese civilians in Quang Tin Province…with the full knowledge, consent and participation of our Troop Commander.… These incidents included random shelling of villages with 90mm white phosphorus rounds, machine gunning of civilians who had the misfortune to be near when we hit a mine, torture of prisoners, destroying of food and livestock of the villagers if we deemed they had an excess, and numerous burnings of villages for no apparent reason.