I’m pretty sure What Were They Thinking? is going to be the subtitle of an article about the morally odious decision to invite Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell to speak at the 2019 annual conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which takes place in late May, fittingly, in Washington, D.C. The last time I used this phrase was when I first wrote about the disastrous appointment of Bob Kerrey as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam board of trustees in 2016. I had the exact same gut reaction to this message, which appeared in my inbox earlier this year.
Dr. Madeleine K. Albright and General Colin L. Powell to Speak at NAFSA 2019
NAFSA is pleased to announce that Dr. Madeleine K. Albright and General Colin L. Powell (retired) will be the Opening Plenary of the NAFSA 2019 Annual Conference & Expo in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, May 28.
As one of the world’s most respected diplomats, Dr. Madeleine K. Albright, continues to advocate for democracy and human rights across the world, while also championing the important impact international relations and educational exchanges have on the United States today. In 1997 under President Bill Clinton, Dr. Albright was named the first female Secretary of State and became, at that time, the highest ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.
General Colin L. Powell, USA (retired) has devoted his life to public service having held senior military and diplomatic positions across four presidential administrations. Under President George W. Bush, Powell was appointed the 65th Secretary of State and led the State Department in major efforts to address and solve regional and civil conflicts throughout the world. He also worked at the forefront of American efforts to advance economic and social development worldwide.
Say it ain’t so, NAFSA! Surely, you can do better than the likes of Albright and Powell. As one colleague opined, “They’re aiming to impress NAFSA attendees with Albright and Powell’s ‘star power’, lies and callousness notwithstanding. You can bet your bottom dollar that no questions from the audience that are not pre-screened will be taken.” Yes, yes, sadly but not surprisingly.
If you know anything about the background of “one of the world’s most respected diplomats” and someone who “has devoted his life to public service having held senior military and diplomatic positions across four presidential administrations,” you know that I will highlight at least some of the following issues:
Albright, a nationally televised interview, and 500,000 Iraqi children who died because of US-led sanctions against that country. Death due to malnutrition and disease falls into the category of “ultimate human rights violation,” doesn’t it? In the same role, Albright did her utmost to prevent the UN from entering Rwanda to prevent the genocide that occurred in spring 1994. She is a junior varsity member of TeamUSA.
Below is an excerpt from my latest CounterPunch article about Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University Vietnam. Think of it as the 2017 bookend to my 2016 CP article, Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University – What were they thinking?, published a month after the controversy erupted. Follow this link to read it in its entirety.
“One simply cannot engage in barbarous action without becoming a barbarian… one cannot defend human values by calculated and unprovoked violence without doing mortal damage to the values one is trying to defend.”
– J William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power
More than 48 years after mortal damage was inflicted with a vengeance on both human beings and human values in a quiet village in Bến Tre province in the Mekong Delta, justice, fairness, and common decency won a minor victory when Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor, U.S. senator, New School president, decorated veteran, and self-confessed war criminal, quietly resigned from his high-profile position as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) board of trustees, according to reliable sources.
Kerrey, whose appointment was announced one year ago at the iconic Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) by then Secretary of State, John Kerry during President Barack Obama’s visit to Viet Nam, has stepped down behind closed doors. He was reportedly replaced by Đàm Bích Thủy, a prominent Vietnamese businesswoman who is the current FUV president.
It was Bob Kerrey himself who said in an interview last June, as all rhetorical hell was breaking loose, that he would not step down. This about-face came after first saying, in response to questions emailed to him by a New York Times reporter, that he would resign if he felt his role was jeopardizing the U.S.-Vietnamese joint education venture. I’m not a diplomat and therefore have no need to play the quiet game. Bob Kerrey was appointed with much fanfare and some fanfare should accompany his surrender.
Never Say Never
Never say never and never forget this timeless wisdom from Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” It was Kerrey’s arrogance that made him dig in his heels and delay the inevitable. It was a firestorm of controversy and, most importantly, steely and steadfast official Vietnamese opposition, that forced him to do the right thing. It wasn’t only about Bob Kerrey. Jeopardize FUV he did, at the end of the day, as some predicted.
Kerrey’s long overdue resignation is a cause for celebration and a sense of vindication for many. It is, however, a bitter disappointment for his supporters, both Vietnamese and U.S., who probably still cluelessly wonder why a man who led a U.S. Navy SEALS unit that murdered 21 men, women, and children in the village of Thạnh Phong in February 1969 would not be considered morally fit to assume such a leadership position.
Keep in mind that this is a man who has the dishonor and disgrace of having his very own war crimes exhibit in the War Remnants Museum in HCMC, one of many such incidents in the bloodbath and industrial-scale slaughter that was the American War in Viet Nam.
Below is a letter that was sent to Bob Kerrey about his controversial appointment as chairman of the Fulbright University Viet Nam board of trustees, announced by John Kerry during President Obama’s May 2016 visit to Viet Nam. In case you’re interested and are not up-to-date on this situation, here are some articles that have appeared since:
I will continue adding names and sending updated versions to Bob Kerrey. The names in red are the original signatories.
7 September 2016
Dear Mr. Kerrey,
We are writing with the heartfelt and urgent request that you resign from your position as chairman of the Fulbright University Viet Nam (FUV) board of trustees.
It is our firm belief that you should never have been offered this appointment and, having been offered it, should have declined the offer. We strongly believe that there are other more appropriate roles for you to play in support of FUV, and that there are better qualified people without your historical baggage.
Mark Bowyer, an expat in Viet Nam, expressed doubt in an early June 2016 blog post that “reminding the world of previously unpunished US atrocities in Viet Nam is a judicious use of the political capital accumulated during Barack Obama’s recent successful visit.”
Shawn McHale, a George Washington University colleague, wrote the following comment in response to your interview with WBUR’s “Here & Now” program:
Bob Kerrey is letting his ego get in the way of US-Vietnamese rapprochement. The man has done a lot of good — but killing civilians, a war crime, makes him unfit to be head of the Fulbright University Vietnam Board of Trustees. For the good of the university, he should recognize that he is not the person for the job.
Finally, Linh Dinh, a Vietnamese-American writer, poet, and a signatory to this letter, wrote that “This sick and vain spectacle is hurting not just him but the university. By hanging on, he’s focusing the spotlight on his war crime.”
We agree with these assessments. Your appointment is a politically- and emotionally-charged issue that is not going to go away, least of all in Viet Nam. In early June, you told the New York Times via email that you would resign, if you felt your role were jeopardizing FUV. That time is now.
There are many US veterans who have returned to Viet Nam to do penance, so to speak, some on short trips and others for the long haul. They are each making a modest contribution, trying to find a way to give back, to make amends, to make whole that which they and their government tried to destroy. On a personal level, as you can imagine, they also find this experience to be therapeutic and even cathartic.
We’d like to take the liberty of offering you some advice. Travel to Thanh Phong. Arrange to meet with the victims’ family members and the survivors. Ask for their forgiveness. Burn incense and pray at the graves of the people you and your unit killed. And do all of this with the greatest sincerity, contrition, and humility.
Offer to meet a local need, to build something of lasting value that will benefit the community. We believe that these acts will be greatly appreciated and may help you find a measure of peace. You could even invite the other members of your unit to join you.
Thank you for taking the time to read our note. We look forward to hearing from you.
Patrick Barrett, Ph.D.
Havens Center for Social Justice
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Dennis Berg, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, CSU, Fullerton
Vietnam (S.E. Asia) Workshop Facilitator (1991-2016)
Fulbright, VEF, SSRC, USSH-VNU Faculty Scholar in Vietnam
Awarded Vietnam’s National Medal for Higher Education
Long Beach, California
UH-1 Helicopter Crew Chief 1967-68
POW from February 1968 to March 1973
Dr. Stephen Cottrell
S/Sgt,Vietnam 66′ 67′
0311 grunt, I Corps,Zulu Company
Fulbright Ambassador Emeritus
Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Anthropology
University of Colorado Boulder
Fulbright Scholar with the Department of Geology and Minerals of Vietnam 2001-02
Fulbright Scholar with the Institute of Tropical Biology of Vietnam 2008-09
Political essayist, fiction writer, poet and translator. Author of Postcards from the End of America
John V H Dippel
Teachers for Vietnam
Former Foreign Service Office (Reserve) in Saigon, 1965-67
Author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers
W. D. Ehrhart
formerly Sergeant, USMC
Author of Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir
Editor of Carrying the Darkness: Poetry of the Vietnam War
Fort Collins, CO
Army Medic Vietnam
San Diego, CA
C. J. Hopkins
Playwright, author of Horse Country, The Extremists, and screwmachine/eyecandy, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Bob
Conneaut Lake, PA
Lawyer, Labor Arbitrator, Educator – Lessons of the Vietnam War
American Global Management Association
Ann Hibner Koblitz
Professor of Women and Gender Studies, Arizona State University
and Director of the Kovalevskaia Fund
Professor of Mathematics, University of Washington
Dr. Deepa Kumar
New Brunswick, NJ
Professor of Media Studies, Rutgers University
Activist, Unionist, Author
Professor Emeritus, State University of New York
Author, American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration?
Associate Professor of History and International Affairs
Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University
President, Green Cities Fund
Co-founder, Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery established in Saigon in 1966 to treat war-injured children
Co-founder Vietnam Green Building Council
Greg Nagle, Ph.D.
Hanoi, Viet Nam
Scientific Researcher/Faculty Member
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore
Dzung Kieu Nguyen
Ph.D., Economics, SUNY Albany
Le Minh Nguyen
Hanoi, Viet Nam
London School of Economics
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Los Angeles, CA
Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California
Author of The Sympathizer, Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author
Author of Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam (6-20-16)
Kittery Point, ME
TV news and documentaries
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Producer/Director: Same Same But Different
Artillery Crew Chief, Central Highlands, 1967-68
State College, PA
Korean War veteran, co-founder of the State College Peace Center and creator of its documentary film series, lifetime member of Veterans for Peace
Marine Corps Combat Viet Nam 1968 Veteran, Agent Orange Survivor, co-founder of Education Without Borders and Board Member of Veterans for Peace
Founder, Center for Media and Democracy
Author of books, including Weapons of Mass Deception
Jeffrey St. Clair
Editor of CounterPunch; Author of Born Under a Bad Sky
Director, World Beyond War
Author of books, including War Is A Lie
Iowa City, IA
Journalist and author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics
Fred Tomasello, Jr.
Former platoon commander, forward air controller and casualty assistance officer during the Vietnam War
US Postal Service (Retired)
Michael Uhl, Ph.D.
Author Vietnam Awakening: My Journey from Combat to the Citizens Commission of Inquiry on US War Crimes and The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist (Oct. 2016)
Author of The Phoenix Program
Peter Van Buren
New York City, NY
Former US Diplomat
Brad Van Den Elzen, Ph.D.
Stevens Point, WI
Hanoi, Viet Nam
Editor, TRỒNG NGƯỜI
A Clearinghouse on Education in Viet Nam
San Francisco, CA
Author of Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson
Subject of documentary, Paying the Price For Peace: The Story of S. Brian Willson http://www.Brianwillson.com
Viet Nam veteran, peace activist, and trained attorney
Below is the English translation of an open letter written by Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh about Bob Kerrey’s appointment as chairman of Fulbright University Vietnam’s Board of Trustees. Follow this link to read the original Vietnamese version: Thư ngỏ của bà Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh gửi người Việt Nam và các bạn Mỹ Mdm. Ninh’s statement is compelling and spot-on.
To say that the reaction to Kerrey’s appointment has been mixed is an understatement with people often falling into various predictable categories and camps, most without a full picture of his background and the status of the Fulbright University Viet Nam as a joint initiative. I even received a Facebook message from a young Vietnamese, a mid-career professional, essentially lobbying me to support Bob after reading some of my anti-Bob comments in the media. He later posted this simple yet sincere statement on my Facebook page: I am with Bob. I countered with this heartfelt reply: I’m with the victims of Bob’s CIA-sponsored (Phoenix Program) slaughter and for someone who will not taint the reputation of this fledgling university.
Ho Chi Minh City, June 6, 2016
On June 1st I expressed an initial opinion on the appointment of Mr. Bob Kerrey (BK) as chairman of Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV)’s Board of Trustees. Today, I am sending this open letter to Vietnamese and Americans interested in the matter with a view to clarify and elaborate on prominent points:
First, I would like to bring to light some facts about the role of the Board of Trustees (BOT) of an American-style university like FUV and the latter’s funding:
2.1. For an American-style university like FUV, the role of the Board of Trustees and its chair is not confined to fundraising but includes deciding on strategic directions for the School and formulating policies on complex issues affecting very diverse stakeholders. It is the BOT which selects and appoints the President. It would be erroneous to consider this position as inconsequential, or with little power, not worth the public’s attention or debate.
2.2. After the Vietnamese version of this letter was published, the leadership of FUV clarified the source of the initial funding for the school, to the effect that the first 20 million FUV received did not come from cutting the same amount from the VEF (Vietnamese Education Foundation), as had been mentioned in the news but from the Vietnamese Debt Repayment Fund (VDRF). While acknowledging FUV’s clarification, I would like to further clarify that the bill about the creation of VEF/VDRF was introduced to Congress by Representative George Miller and co-sponsored by a number of other Representatives and Senators.
I do not agree with the drive to suppress the opposition to BK’s appointment by linking the issue to President Obama’s visit to Viet Nam. I do not believe that President Obama would have agreed to the association had he known the appointment would lead to controversy and reopen old wounds, contravening the visit’s primary goal of consensus building and looking together to the future.
I also do not agree with the labelling of people opposing the appointment as conservative, not forward-looking and “not in favor of reconciliation”. I oppose the appointment but none of the Americans that I know have come to the conclusion that I am not forward-looking or “not in favor of reconciliation”. Promoting reconciliation and looking towards the future is neither the exclusive right nor the sole prerogative of those supporting BK’s appointment. Had BK not been
involved in that dark chapter against Vietnamese people, no one would have had any comment. If the appointment had been that of a Vietnam veteran like former Congressman and first United States Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, or Mr. Thomas Vallely himself, also a veteran, someone who has been instrumental in the establishment of FUV, no one would have opposed it.
I do not see the imperative to put BK in such an important position during FUV’s initial phase, one fraught with symbolism. The Americans (including veterans) who have spoken out on the issue directly to me or publicly through the media and social networks have expressed disapproval if not outright criticism. For instance, the BBC on June 2nd quoted Assoc. Prof. Jonathan London: “… [that is] an irresponsible decision. To establish a new university in Viet Nam, the least you could do is to be sensitive to the history of the two countries. I think this is a very sad mistake”. Dr. Mark Ashwill, an education expert who has been living and working in Viet Nam for many years, told Soha News on June 3rd that the appointment is “… disgraceful”. BK should “resign immediately”. Why is it that we, Vietnamese, remain unperturbed compared to Americans over searing pain inflicted on Vietnamese civilians?
To the number of netizens and others asking people to be “generous, forgiving, forward-looking for the future of Vietnam…”, I want to reiterate that:
6.1. To forgive or not to forgive BK for his role in the Thanh Phong massacre is an individual right and choice. That said, it is entirely conceivable for one to forgive AND to disapprove of BK holding a leadership position in a university in Viet Nam (his leading an American university in the US is a different issue).
6.2. My opposition is not based on raw emotions nor is it the result of a “lack of a conscious and lucid mind”. On the contrary, I am raising my voice in full consciousness and lucidity about the matter with the desire that Fulbright University have a smooth start on a healthy, consensual basis for a sustainable development. The people involved in BK’s appointment should have been “moving on in Vietnam but remembering its lessons”, the third lesson being “to exercise humility in assuming knowledge about foreign cultures” (The New York Times Op-Ed, May 23rd, 2016).
We are witnessing a kind of exhortation to the masses to express across the board “generosity of mind and nobility of heart”. I believe the Vietnamese do not have to prove time and again their sense of humanity in their relations with former enemies, a fact which has been widely recognized, especially among American veterans themselves. I was surprised at the profound sympathy expressed for BK’s “agony” and the praising of his “courageous decision to take the position”. Meanwhile, echoing in my mind are the words of a former staff of the War Remnants Museum where evidence of the Thanh Phong massacre is in display, crying for the victims who have yet to see the culprit return and light them a candle. That person could not fathom how hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese students at Fulbright University would eventually refer to BK as “Thầy”, a respectful form for addressing teachers in Asia, particularly in Viet Nam. And I could see BK’s portrait hanging in the prominent space reserved to the School’s founders!
I think that at this stage we can say that the appointment of BK as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Fulbright University Vietnam has become a public controversy rather than contributed to the consensus needed for this ambitious project to take off smoothly.
The ball is now in FUV founders’ court. Since this is an educational project of great significance and far-reaching implications, I hope FUV founders will reconsider their decision and together with BK offer a reasonable solution: to appoint another person to lead FUV’s Board of Trustees.
If the occasion arises, I have no problem meeting again Bob Kerrey, the Vietnam veteran, and discuss matters benefitting US – Vietnam relations and peoples of the two countries.
Below is the English translation of a statement by Mdm. Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh, whom I like, respect, and admire, about the appointment of Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor, US senator, New School president, and self-confessed war criminal, as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) board of trustees. Mdm. Ninh, Vietnam’s former ambassador to the European Union and Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for the National Assembly, focusing on North America and Western Europe, was quoted in this 2 June 2016 New York Timesarticle.
While attending a conference last week, I was asked by a Vietnamese media outlet to share my reaction to Kerrey’s appointment. The quote below is what I had time for.
The appointment of Bob Kerrey as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Fulbright University Vietnam is, in a word, disgraceful. The fact that he accepted the appointment is equally disgraceful. Sen. J. William Fulbright must be turning in his grave. 15 years ago, Kerrey admitted that he and his commando unit massacred civilians in February 1969. He should do the honorable thing on behalf of the Fulbright University Vietnam by resigning immediately. Surely, the University can do better than the likes of Bob Kerrey, a self-confessed war criminal and relic from a dark past.
As a student in Paris, I actively participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the nineteen sixties and seventies. My Master’s thesis was about the American writer William Faulkner. For almost 30 years in the foreign service, I built relationships of mutual understanding and sincere friendship with a large number of Americans from all walks of life, for example, diplomats like Ambassador Pete Peterson; leaders of humanitarian groups that made direct contributions to the antiwar movement such as John McAuliff and Sally Benson; business leaders like Ernie Bower; veterans like Bobby Muller and Tom Vallely (who was first to bring the Fulbright program to Viet Nam); journalists like Murray Hiebert; and academics and researchers such as Walter Isaacson, to name a few. I am not haunted by or living in the past. I am neither an America “hater” nor do I feel an innate hostility to Americans. Like most people in Viet Nam, I am more than willing to put the past behind and look to the future together with the American people for our mutual benefit. Education is among Viet Nam’s top strategic interests. I fully support the foundation of Fulbright University (FUV) in Viet Nam, and I was happy to attend its license granting ceremony on May 25 in Ho Chi Minh City. Like everyone else, I sincerely hope FUV will be a significant actor in the building of a healthy, high quality institution of higher education in Viet Nam, a center for genuine learning in pursuit of excellence, contributing to the country’s global integration.
That’s why I was stunned to learn that former Senator Bob Kerrey was appointed Chair of the FUV Board of Trustees. That decision makes no sense to me. Why Bob Kerrey?
Mr. Kerrey directly participated in the massacre of innocent civilians, women, children and the elderly in the village of Thanh Phong on May 2, 1969. This is indisputable and has been acknowledged by Mr. Kerrey. We cannot obliterate such facts by invoking the need to look to the future.
On each side the issue may trigger different reactions. Though it might be seen differently depending on where one stands, one thing is certain: Bob Kerrey is not an appropriate choice, to put it mildly, to be Chair of the Board of Trustees of Fulbright University.
Mr. Kerrey said he expressed remorse over his role in the Thanh Phong massacre. This may be so. What I know, however, is that a leadership position at a university with the status and ambitions of FUV cannot be viewed as giving him an “opportunity” to atone for past wrongdoings. That opportunity can take many other forms rather than such a high profile position already inviting controversies. I know of many US veterans not directly involved in wartime atrocities who are living in Viet Nam and working alongside the Vietnamese to confront war legacies, like Chuck Searcy with the unexploded ordnance removal project in Quang Tri; or Billy Kelly, the former Infantry Captain who comes back to My Lai every March 16th to seek forgiveness of the victims, though he himself had nothing to do with the tragedy.
Mr. Kerrey believes that holding a leadership position at FUV will contribute to promoting cooperation between the two sides. However, in his recent response to
the Financial Times (UK), Mr. Kerrey said he was ready to step down if his participation in FUV is detrimental to the project. I think that Mr. Kerrey should demonstrate his readiness and act as he proposed without further ado. Such a timely gesture would show self-respect and grace and would be duly appreciated by the Vietnamese. I am convinced that many of Mr. Kerrey’s fellow Americans would agree.
I am well aware that a number of people directly related to the project have publicly affirmed that Bob Kerrey is the “perfect fit” for this leadership position. Really? Is there indeed no one else in the United States but Bob Kerrey who is capable to raise funds for FUV? If the project team had carried out an open selection of the chair position, with more than one candidate, I have no doubt that somebody with the appropriate expertise and experience but no similar baggage would have been identified. There will be an indelible mark on the foundation of a prestigious institution such as Fulbright University if Mr. Kerrey is the founding board chair of the University. American friends with whom I have discussed the matter fully concur with this opinion.
If the US side insists on holding to its decision, then, in my view, FUV can no longer be considered a joint education project as averred by the founding team. A happy marriage is one where both parties listen to each other, have consideration for one another’s opinions and respect each other’s emotions. Otherwise, Fulbright University will be an American university project in Viet Nam conceived and decided upon by Americans, in which the opinions and contributions of the Vietnamese are secondary.
In other words, the decision to appoint Bob Kerrey as FUV Chair of the Board of Trustees shows insensitivity to the feelings of the Vietnamese and, may I say, disregard for our opinions, our sense of self-respect and our dignity.
It is my firm belief that a reversal of that decision in no way affects the ongoing positive bilateral relations between our two countries. On the contrary, it will allow for an equitable, healthy and sustainable Viet Nam-US cooperation in this meaningful university project.
This post is quite obviously NOT about education or US-Vietnam educational exchange. It’s about history, its impact on the present, and the United States’ (in)ability to overcome its past. The German word that describes this process, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, implies dealing with, learning from, but also overcoming the past.
It’s about a horrible truth that Nick Turse tells his fellow citizens and the world about the murder of civilians as official policy during the American War, as it’s known in Vietnam, in Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (KATM). KATM, which will be released tomorrow, is unlike any book that’s ever been written about the war. It brings to light what survivors, perpetrators and eyewitnesses know but rarely, if ever, talk about. Below is a related excerpt from an article by Mr. Turse entitled A My Lai a Month that appeared in the 1 December 2008 issue of The Nation (the bold is mine):
In late 1969 Seymour Hersh broke the story of the 1968 My Lai massacre, during which US troops slaughtered more than 500 civilians in Quang Ngai Province, far north of the Delta. Some months later, in May 1970, a self-described “grunt” who participated in Speedy Express wrote a confidential letter to William Westmoreland, then Army chief of staff, saying that the Ninth Division’s atrocities amounted to “a My Lay each month for over a year.” In his 1976 memoir A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland insisted, “The Army investigated every case [of possible war crimes], no matter who made the allegation,” and claimed that “none of the crimes even remotely approached the magnitude and horror of My Lai.” Yet he personally took action to quash an investigation into the large-scale atrocities described in the soldier’s letter.
I uncovered that letter and two others, each unsigned or signed only “Concerned Sergeant,” in the National Archives in 2002, in a collection of files about the sergeant’s case that had been declassified but forgotten, launching what became a years-long investigation. Records show that his allegations–of helicopter gunships mowing down noncombatants, of airstrikes on villages, of farmers gunned down in their fields while commanders pressed relentlessly for high body counts–were a source of high-level concern. A review of the letter by a Pentagon expert found his claims to be extremely plausible, and military officials tentatively identified the letter writer as George Lewis, a Purple Heart recipient who served with the Ninth Division in the Delta from June 1968 through May 1969. Yet there is no record that investigators ever contacted him. Now, through my own investigation–using material from four major collections of archival and personal papers, including confidential letters, accounts of secret Pentagon briefings, unpublished interviews with Vietnamese survivors and military officials conducted in the 1970s by Newsweek reporters, as well as fresh interviews with Ninth Division officers and enlisted personnel–I have been able to corroborate the sergeant’s horrific claims. The investigation paints a disturbing picture of civilian slaughter on a scale that indeed dwarfs My Lai, and of a cover-up at the Army’s highest levels. The killings were no accident or aberration. They were instead the result of command policies that turned wide swaths of the Mekong Delta into “free-fire zones” in a relentless effort to achieve a high body count. While the carnage in the Delta did not begin or end with Speedy Express, the operation provides a harsh new snapshot of the abject slaughter that typified US actions during the Vietnam War.
The substantiated assertion in bold forms the basis of KATM, which consists of archival research and interviews with survivors of US attacks in Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as interviews with US veterans. Efforts to “achieve a high body count” are summed up in this slogan on the walls of the U.S. Army’s Ninth Division helicopter headquarters during Operation Speedy Express (December 1968-May 1969): Death is our business and business is good.
The Truth Shall Set You Free?
If the truth can sometimes hurt, the truth revealed in KATM is excruciatingly painful and traumatic. It is one of the reasons why PTSD afflicts so many US veterans who fought in Vietnam. One clinical psychologist found that one in three soldiers reported killing the enemy (my italics), others found that one in five acknowledged killing a civilian; two in three handled or uncovered dead bodies, and the same number saw wounded and sick women and children they were unable to help. (This applies to Vietnam and Iraq.)
Most US Americans don’t have a clue as to the scale of killing carried out in their name in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and many don’t want to know the truth because it doesn’t mesh with the image they have of their country and its place in the world. They obsess over the 58,000 US Americans who lost their lives and are shocked to hear about the estimated 3 million (as in 3,000,000) Vietnamese who were murdered. (That’s the modern-day equivalent of about 22 million US Americans, in case you’re counting.)
I often ask those who have been to the “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” in Washington, D.C. to close their eyes and imagine, just for a moment, The Wall X 50 with the inscription of 3 million Vietnamese names on it: mothers & fathers, sons & daughters, brothers & sisters, aunts & uncles, grandmothers & grandfathers, lost generations who died at the hands of the US military and its client state, South Vietnam, which together turned large swathes of Vietnam into a charnel house.
“…If They Learn About the Wartime Suffering of People in Vietnam, Do You Think They Will Sympathize?”
As I was wrapping up my interview, Pham Thang asked me about the purpose of the last hour and a half of questions I’d asked him. Through my interpreter, I explained that most Americans knew next to nothing about Vietnamese suffering during the war and that most books written in my country on the war years ignored it. I wanted, I told him, to offer Americans the chance to hear about the experiences of ordinary Vietnamese for the first time. “If the American people know about these incidents, if they learn about the wartime suffering of people in Vietnam, do you think they will sympathize?” he asked me. Soon enough, I should finally know the answer to his question.
He is, of course, referring to the reaction to KATM. What do you think the answer(s) to Mr. Thang’s question will be, dear reader?
Thanks to Nick Turse for telling the stories of those who perished and those who survived, and to Henry Holt (under its Metropolitan Books imprint) for publishing KATM. While I would very much like to see this book translated into Vietnamese, I won’t hold my breath given the political sensitivities involved and less than favorable “market conditions.”
P.S.: Be sure to read the letters in response to The Nation article, including these two:
To the veterans who are offended by this article, look harder. We need more scrutiny into how we were used as a military force. Most of my fellow C7 cargo pilots would be offended, no doubt, by my assertion that we laid waste to terrain and populace. The urge to conformity and mainstream honor is the greatest barrier to the truth about the Vietnam War. The abuses of military power we brought down on many innocents, who were no threat to America or the world.
This is more detail than I have ever seen before about Operation Speedy Express, but the basic outlines of this story have appeared in various books, all citing Kevin Buckley’s story. (I’m thinking of The First Casualty, Fire in the Lake and various books by Noam Chomsky.) But it goes completely unmentioned in many books on the Vietnam War. It’s amazing that people think we live in a self-critical society, when an atrocity like this can remain unknown to the vast majority of Americans for forty years, even though the basic facts are available if you happen to stumble across them.