A reporter's archival search indicates that evidence of massacres was
kept from the U.S. public.
The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes
By Deborah Nelson
Basic Books. 296 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by Steve Weinberg
Feb. 22, 2009
Some lessons from the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, perhaps
the most-debated invasion in American history, are just that:
history. Other lessons are as fresh as today's news, as U.S. military
involvement continues in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jamie Henry knows. In 1968, at age 20, he was serving as a medic on
Vietnamese battlefields. He saw the horror of a massacre, when
members of his military company executed 19 unarmed children and
adults. Henry reported the deaths to the U.S. Army command. Their
reaction? You are lying, Henry. He assumed that his military
superiors had never investigated the claim.
Decades later, Henry learned that Army investigators had conducted
more than 100 interviews to determine the truth of his allegation.
Those interviews formed the basis of a report sent up the chain of
command to the upper echelons of the Pentagon. But those in the upper
echelons kept the truth from the American public.
As war crimes by U.S. personnel reverberate from Iraq around the
world, journalist Deborah Nelson demonstrates, using the Vietnam War
for her template, how such lethal behavior can escalate until it is
out of control.
A former newspaper reporter, Nelson is one of the most experienced,
talented investigative journalists alive. Earlier in her career, she
never expected to use her investigative skills on something as
quasi-historical as Vietnam War massacres of civilians during the
late 1960s and early 1970s that were led by American soldiers.
Nelson, now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland,
became involved in the reporting that resulted in her book during
2005, while working in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles
Times. The path to her remarkable book-length expose looks like this, in short:
In 1969, journalist Seymour Hersh published a story about what that
became known as the My Lai massacre, named for a hamlet in Vietnam.
The U.S. military was still deeply committed to fighting the war when
the story about American troops slaughtering Vietnamese civilians
made the headlines. The Army investigated, and four months later
acknowledged both the magnitude of the massacre and the cover-up.
In secret, the Army began a broader inquiry into other alleged war
crimes throughout Southeast Asia. The inquiry lasted five years,
resulting in a file of about 9,000 pages connecting American troops
to atrocities. The inquiry led to no public accounting, no major
prosecutions of the perpetrators.
In 1990, Kali Tal, founder of a small-circulation journal about the
1960s called Vietnam Generation, learned about the closed archive.
She requested access from the National Archives and Records
Administration. After waiting about a year, she received access. The
material turned out to be stunning in its revelations; Tal wrote a
brief account in the journal to inform other potential researchers.
She did nothing more, however, and the documents returned to their
A decade after Tal's investigations, Cliff Snyder, employed at the
National Archives, mentioned the documents to Nicholas Turse, a
visiting military historian. Turse contacted the Los Angeles Times,
where he ended up meeting Nelson. "We joined forces soon afterward to
investigate the long-buried crimes," Nelson says in the introduction
to her book.
To narrate the story of what she and Turse discovered, Nelson uses
herself and her research partner as characters. As a result, readers
will learn a great deal about the internal processes of investigative
journalism. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
became famous in the 1970s partly because they built their White
House expose around their day-to-day reporting. Nelson's book is not
exactly patterned after All The President's Men. To some extent,
however, the admirable effect is the same.
After reviewing the archival files carefully, Nelson and Turse began
tracking down military veterans who had reported allegations of
atrocities and those who allegedly had conducted the killing. Nelson,
with a well-deserved reputation as a master interviewer, explains how
she persuaded some of the frightened and resentful veterans to talk openly.
The stonewalling by some veterans and the confessionals by others
make for fascinating reading. At the end of the book, Nelson provides
an accounting of "war-crime investigations compiled by Army staff
during the Vietnam War." Although her book shows the investigators
did not learn about all the massacres, the list nevertheless tops 150.
The recounting, Nelson says, comes at an important time, "when,
having failed to address the past, we're hell-bound to repeat it."
Steve Weinberg is an investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo. His most
recent book is "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell
and John D. Rockefeller."