For the atrocities — many murders of civilians in South Vietnam — were known to the Pentagon brass and the likes of Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Army Secretary Stanley Resor. Letters were written by soldiers and Marines, investigations were conducted and reports filed. Almost all were suppressed, hidden from public view. My Lai was atypical in scale (400 killed) but not in kind, and the military knew it. Turse takes us through many of these atrocities, large and small, to document the malignancy growing inside the U.S. armed forces.
Particularly striking is Operation Speedy Express, conducted in the Mekong Delta by the 9th Infantry Division under the command of Maj. Gen. Julian Ewell. Turse documents the savagery of Speedy Express, the gratuitous execution of thousands of civilians in pursuit of high body counts and career advancement. Thousands of dead Vietnamese, claimed by Ewell and his cohort to be Viet Cong guerrillas, were found with very few weapons. The Army was fully aware of what Ewell was doing, and rewarded him with a third star and a prestigious place at the Paris peace negotiations.
Turse poignantly asks, “Where have all the war crimes gone?” But his answers are not commensurate with his research. He spends several pages on the case of Newsweek correspondents Kevin Buckley and Alexander Shimkin and the evisceration of their long expose of Ewell by feckless editors in New York. “Had Buckley and Shimskin’s investigation been published in full form in January or February 1972,” he writes, “it might have proven to be the crest of the wave of interest in war crimes allegations, resulting in irresistible public pressure for high-level inquires.” But the My Lai massacre had already been aired and had stirred only a very brief public outrage before subsiding into indifference or, indeed, a defense of Lt. William Calley. The Winter Soldier hearings, in which Vietnam veterans told their stories of grisly atrocities in a public forum, were covered by only one major newspaper, in nearby Detroit.
Turse has the journalist’s faith that exposure will result in justice, but in the case of war, there’s little evidence that the public wants to know more about atrocities, much less act upon them. British scholar Kendrick Oliver made this argument brilliantly in his book on My Lai, showing how reactions to revealed atrocities follow a pattern that ultimately leads to a rally-round-the-troops phenomenon. One could contend that war, by its very nature — and not just in Vietnam and Cambodia, but in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan — similarly leads to indifference to civilian suffering or even to blaming the victims.
Turse forcefully argues the narrower question of how the government failed to prosecute crimes committed in Vietnam or Cambodia (apart from Calley, who got 31/2 years of house arrest for hundreds of murders). He provides revealing details about the years-long Pentagon coverup, such as Laird’s taking tighter control of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, “which allowed key Defense Department officials to take an even more active role in suppressing war crimes cases. Investigations could now be quashed at the highest levels — and evidence suggests that, indeed, they were.”