Why Are We in Vietnam?

You can be forgiven for feeling good.

If you don’t look at the polls (or The New York Times ‘ best-seller list), there’s a lot to feel good about.

Bill’s ticker’s on the mend; even Karl Rove thinks Zell Miller was a bad idea; Iraq’s not getting any better; the economy remains a mess; Messrs. Carville and Begala have been enlisted to kibitz; and John Kerry finally- finally -is fighting back.

So God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.

Just kidding, of course.

There’s still those polls (Dubya 12 points ahead in Time ‘s, 11 in Newsweek ‘s), still that Times best-seller list-with Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry the No. 1 book in the land.

Pretending, though, sure beats sitting shiva, which is what Democratic dinner parties have become the last few weeks.

The suddenness of black crepe hanging boggles. Seems only yesterday the Kerry campaign’s biggest worry was John Edwards’ red-headed 4-year-old stealing the photo op. Now, betcha can’t remember the kid’s name. (Save you the Google: It’s Jack.)

All that’s spilt milk-enough to match the annual output of Wisconsin, where (just to show you how the world has turned upside down) an L.A. Times poll now has George W. Bush leading in the birthplace of Progressivism.

Blame there is aplenty. But since the press (which deserves a nice hunk for so cheerfully submitting to gonad-snipping) has done such a good job apportioning it to others-Mr. Kerry most of all-your correspondent’s only contribution to gloom this week will be a single iteration of the obvious: Now that Rove & Partners have found a bat with demonstrated home-run power, they’ll be hitting John Kerry over the head with it each and every one of the 50 or so days till the election.

And what’s the Louisville Slugger? Vietnam. Not what John Kerry allegedly didn’t do over there (that Swiftee boat has sunk at last), but what he incontestably did do when he came back, which was to testify to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that atrocities countenanced all the way up the chain of command were a daily feature of G.I. life.

Backed by a new national advertising campaign and endorsements from Karl Rove, Bob Dole, Dubya’s dad and myriad other surrogates, this is an especially lethal weapon. For the same reason “smart” bombs are deadlier than dumb: simplicity. Instead of the hassle of wading through stacks of “after-action” reports and yellowed medals citations (the equivalent of rounding up a thousand B-17’s to flatten Schweinfurt, and still missing by a mile), all that’s required of the average undecided voter is plopping down in front of the living-room TV a few seconds. Just long enough to view an endlessly-aired clip of a longish-haired, 27-year-old ex-Navy lieutenant describing boys like the ones who live next-door behaving “in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan.”

A 500-pounder riding a laser beam through an Iraqi window couldn’t do better.

Gen. Tommy Franks, Col. David Hackworth and others with extensive Vietnam experience attempt countermeasures in the form of attesting to the broad accuracy of Mr. Kerry’s statement. But they don’t get nearly the tube time. Nor do they deal in specifics, much less relate horror stories of their own.

So meet some American kids who can fill in the gaps. Here-edited for space and clarity-is what they told a hearing chaired by Congressman Ron Dellums of California back in April 1971, starting with a young man named Daniel Barnes:

I lived a life like any other normal kid. I quit school in the 11th grade for some unknown reason, and instead I went into the Army when I was 18. The idea I had was that my brothers had been in, and they had served, and they didn’t say too much about it, so it was a usual thing-like following the country and following the family tradition.

In March 1969, I went to Vietnam and was assigned to the Americal Division. I was in the field for a month, during which I saw nothing, I was just traveling from here to there. Then I was like drafted for the recon company. So I figured that I was probably going to run into a lot of action and that type of thing.

One night we were stationed on a hill 15 miles south of Duc Pho, just below a vill [G.I. slang for village]. We were there to watch if there were any people coming in and out. That night [members of my platoon] spotted two people crossing the road into this vill. They called in the mortars immediately-approximately a four-round barrage, which was unnecessary, but they did it anyway. Besides being off-target, it burned about four or five hooches.

The next morning the whole platoon moved across and down the hill and on across the road to check out this vill, and we couldn’t find anything. No bodies. No blood. Nothing. Just a couple of burned-down hooches. Well, we reported this to the LT [lieutenant] and his exact words were, “Leave nothing standing. Burn the whole thing down.”

So we made torches out of rags and sticks, and we used gasoline and we started burning the hooches down. By this time the people who lived in the vill started coming back. Naturally, like anybody would, they put up a big fight about the burning down of their houses and things. Started, you know, trying to grab the torches away from us, and crying and yelling. At first [we were] just pushing them away. Then it got to be pushing a little harder with the rifles. And it progressed. It got to be where a couple people got killed. I did not see the people being killed, but there were four or five bodies laying on the ground.

An old man was sitting inside [one of the huts]. He was about 70 or 80, and he was dressed in white clothes. He was the only man in the vill that I saw. I went in with another guy, and this other guy started tearing the things down off the wall. The old man protested, and this other guy pushed him away and shot him in the head. That was really something. But the feeling of the guys was that the killing was nothing. It was just like going and locking your car door.

[Another time], we had been chasing the footprints of a V.C. He went into a vill and a woman and an old man were there, and there was some animals around and so on. Well, they started to interrogate her, and [all she’d say] was “no bik”-which meant that she didn’t want to say anything. She kept saying “Nothing, nothing”-“No bik, no bik.” So they decided that they would throw her down a well. Two or three guys did it, and she was screaming and hollering. An old man came out from somewhere, I don’t know where. But he was screaming and yelling, because they had thrown her down the well. So they threw him down, too. Along with those two, they started throwing in, well-there was a pig that went down the well, and a couple of ducks, and a few other things. They tried to get a calf, but it wouldn’t get in there. So they had this calf halfway in there, stuck in the well. It seemed funny at the time-I don’t know why. As I walked away, I heard an explosion. I came back and there was scattered debris and bricks from the well all over the place. I figured that someone had thrown [a grenade] down the well.

Daniel Notley, who was drafted in August 1968, was in the same division, also in a recon platoon. Being the new guy, he was outfitted with an M-79 grenade launcher, a cumbersome weapon not well-suited for close-in, personal defense-but highly effective at other chores.

I was raised in Oklahoma and I was raised in a good home. I have no complaints about the way I was raised. I just about had everything I really wanted. My parents were middle-class Protestants.

My father served in World War II and Korea, and from the time I was a little kid I was always given toy guns as some of my toys. I used to wear my father’s Army helmet around the house. The American soldier, the American Army was an institution to be glorified.

I graduated from high school and then went to the University of Oklahoma for two and a half years-and had some financial problems at that point. I had to quit school, and I moved to Minnesota to get a job, and there I got drafted into the Army.

I didn’t want to go. I was beginning to wonder about the Vietnam War myself. I supported it, of course, when I started in college. I can tell you, the only speech I ever got an A on in class was a speech in support of our policy in Vietnam. But I had begun to question things. There were some things that didn’t seem right. I actually went home and talked to my parents about it. They were in complete shock. They accused me of being duped by a Communist. My father had served in two wars, why couldn’t I serve in a war? So rather than shame my parents and bring disgrace on my family-which I didn’t want to do by going to Canada or to jail-I decided I would do my duty.

I had my basic training in the infantry at Fort Polk, La., where they referred to the Vietnamese as “dinks” or “gooks.” The impression was what they were something less than human. I had a D.I. [drill instructor] in A.I.T. [Advanced Infantry Training] reply to a question, “What is it like over there?”, by saying, “It is like hunting rabbits and squirrels.”

[In Vietnam], I was assigned to Echo Company. When I went in, the guys were bragging that we had more kills in our platoon than any other platoon in the area. They were happy about it, proud of it, because we were very hard-core-just like being a Green Beret or something. I was at this point very wide-eyed and naïve. Like, “Here I am, I am really going to get down on some of these V.C. and show them where it’s at.”

For about the first month and a half, the fighting just wasn’t what I imagined. It was occasional sniper fire and so on. It got really frustrating. [My buddies] said, “Man, you haven’t seen anything yet. Just keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut. You will be all right.”

So [one] day we were not doing anything, just sitting around the camp playing cards, and I decided to go down to this stream and get some water with about four other guys. As we walked, I heard an explosion about 50 meters to my right. At first I thought we were taking incoming rounds. [But] pretty soon I heard G.I.’s down there talking.

What had happened was, two guys had decided to follow us, and they hit a booby trap. One of them was killed, and one was seriously wounded.

Now the man who was killed-this was the kind of a guy where you would go in a vill and the other people would be pushing the Vietnamese people around or beating them up, and this guy would have the kids in the hooch playing and singing with them …. Now this guy was dead all of a sudden, and it was a shock because he was the person that no one thought would ever get killed.

The platoon leader was pissed off, and the next morning we got up and he said, “You know, there is a vill over here, and there are people in it. These people are responsible for this man’s death.” He told the second squad, “I want you to go in there. I want some kills.” So they moved into the vill and the LT kept calling, “Have you got any kills? Have you got any kills?” They said that they hadn’t, just a water buffalo.

The LT got mad and told them to come back. He told us to go into the vill, and he wanted some kills. I expected to find V.C. in there, that there was going to be a firefight. I was waiting for this thing to happen, for the war to start for me.

As we approached the vill, everything was like burnt down. There was a group of people on this one end of the vill, about 10 women and kids. There weren’t any men. I was about fourth back in line, behind the radio operator. Nobody said anything, but all of a sudden guys started shooting. They were shooting women and kids. I couldn’t believe it. These guys did this so systematically, like it was something done so many times before, it was easy. It didn’t appear to bother any of them. It was just cut-and-dried, like it was understood that this was going to happen.

After that, we moved down this S-shaped trail into the vill-and there were 10 more people there. I’ll never understand why they didn’t take off after they saw the first 10 people killed. But they were standing there quietly. My squad leader looked at me and said, “This is a good time for you to try out your canister rounds.” It was like he was saying, “If you don’t, you are not one of us. And if you are not one of us, you are one of them.” I was actually scared for my life.

Well, the people were standing about 20 meters away. I pointed my canister round at them, [but] just before I pulled the trigger, I deflected the barrel toward the ground. I shot and looked away. I looked back, and there was [a cloud of] dust, but everybody was still standing. As soon as I did this, the rest of the squad opened up and killed all these people, too. At that point, I isolated myself from the rest of the platoon. Stayed by this bamboo stand, shaking like I was in shock. [While I was there], they got another bunch of people and killed them. In all, it was about 30 people killed in this vill. There weren’t any men there at all. Women and children only.

I didn’t sleep at all when we got back to the perimeter. I didn’t really understand what had happened. The lieutenant saw what had happened. I thought to myself, “The shit is going to hit the fan now.” Like, you know, this is wrong. This isn’t what it’s all about. He didn’t say anything about it, though. I don’t know how he felt. [Then], they told us the battalion commander was coming in. I thought, “This is it-some people are going to go to jail.”

Well, the battalion commander flew over the vill, and unless he is blind, he must have seen the bodies. He landed outside the vill, in an open area, and he was standing at a point probably 30 or 40 meters from where the last bunch of people had been killed. They found a child still alive at that time. It was laying in a pile of bodies, but it had not been shot. They brought the child up to the battalion commander. He could talk Vietnamese, and the child told him the V.C. had done it. I guess that’s why the people didn’t run: They just didn’t expect this from us.

The battalion commander took the kid and got on the chopper and gave us a “well done”-that we had done what we were supposed to do. [Then] he flew off like nothing had happened.

Captain Robert B. Johnson is a West Point graduate, class of ’65. He went to Vietnam in March 1968 as an officer in an infantry unit near Da Nang, a major port city.

I took a class at West Point on Land Warfare taught by a major who had returned from Vietnam after being wounded. He showed us slides, and told us in a joking way how American pilots would send each other parts of V.C. bodies-heads, arms and ears-as jokes, wrapped as Christmas presents. He also told us that a good way to get P.O.W.’s to talk was to take two up in a helicopter and throw one out: The other talked immediately. He said it in a very serious vein. I recall no meaningful instruction whatever on the Law of Land Warfare while I was at West Point. I did not know what the Law of Land Warfare was until I returned from Vietnam in ’69.

[Where I was in Vietnam], 90 percent of the surrounding countryside was a “Free-Fire Zone.” It was understood by me, by all of us in the Tactical Operations Center and elsewhere, that we were allowed to shoot anything that moves in that area. My first initiation to it was a map. Whoever was briefing us came in and showed us where we were: “These are the secure hamlet areas. The outlying areas you see on the map are enemy territory, Free-Fire Zones. If these people were not enemy, they would not be out there. If you see them, they are the enemy.”

We had pre-planned and random artillery strikes going in [on these areas] on a routine basis. In the afternoons, I could hear the strikes on one particular place, Barner Island, coming in about every five minutes. People would wave the South Vietnamese flag at the pilots before they came in with the bombings. We regarded that as a hoax on the part of the National Liberation Front to prevent us from bombing.

On one of our first major combat operations, we bombed, strafed, hit with artillery, a particular village complex for approximately three hours and then moved up. When I got to the village, there was nothing there but civilians.

I guess I participated in about 13 search-and-destroy missions. On all these ops, we systematically destroyed every home and every bit of rice. If we could not burn down the hooches, we blew them up with dynamite. Again, we did this on a routine basis.

We dropped leaflets in much of the surrounding countryside. On one side of the leaflet, I remember there was a picture of a B-52 bomber. The other side said in Vietnamese, “Come to the New Life Hamlet, Come to Peace, Freedom and Justice.” Of course, the message was: Leave Your Homes or We Will Kill You.

I remember a particular detention camp near Da Nang-one of the camps where these people were moved in great numbers. We were near the river, having a barbecue, cooking steaks and eating. And right next to us was a barbed-wire detention camp. Inside of it were mainly children. We would throw them bits of steak and candy, and they would fight for it inside this detention camp.

That’s the testimony of three men. A few mouse clicks will bring you similar stories told by many more. Or, if you want it from the horse’s mouth, you can ring up Rusty Calley, the lieutenant whose troops butchered 569 Vietnamese women, children and old men at a place called My Lai. Everyone was saying that never happened, either, when Seymour Hersh broke the news in 1969, so I was sent there by the publication that employed me to see if the story was true; I guess you know it was.

The rainy day I slogged in through brimming rice paddies fertilized with human excrement, all that was left of My Lai was a collection of shattered and blackened brick huts; an extraordinary number of spent cartridge casings; some crushed Coke cans; and a few used-up matchbooks from nightclubs in Chu Lai, where Rusty’s division, the Americal, was headquartered.

But the spookiest thing was the people: There weren’t any, except for an old woman in black pajamas and a conical hat, and the little girl she was looking after. I talked to them atop a long, wide earthen mound I took to be a dike. The little girl-whose name was Mai, the Vietnamese word for flower-I remember especially well. She appeared to be about 12; smiled nervously and avoided looking directly at me; and was very pretty-save for the missing half of her right arm, which had been torn off by an American rifle bullet. She’d survived by hiding under the corpses of her mother, father, two brothers and a sister.

I asked the old woman where Mai’s family and the others were buried.

“Where you are standing,” she said.

Rusty-who did 18 months’ house arrest for the premeditated murder of 109 “Oriental human beings”-could give you more details. Last I heard, he was selling jewelry outside Fort Benning, in Georgia, near where they play the Masters every year, and doing fine.

Or, if you have a mind, you could enter www.c-span.org/2004vote/jkerrytestimony.asp on your computer, which will bring up the full text of what John Kerry said to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971. I was in the hearing room and it was rugged listening, especially if you’d been in the place he was talking about. Because John Kerry told the truth that day.

Now, it may cost him the Presidency. Why Are We in Vietnam?