Seared in My Memory: Reclaiming Stolen Honor This Election Year

Mackubin T. Owens

September 1, 2004

John Kerry’s decision to run for president on his record in Vietnam has ripped the scab off of the wounds that war inflicted on the American body politic. Some of Kerry’s defenders have laid this charge at the feet of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but the fact is that they were responding to what they perceived as an affront to their honor. This is why all the attempts to paint them as Republican stooges are so far off of the mark.

I believe my own motivation in publicizing Kerry’s actions after the war is typical of most anti-Kerry veterans, including the Swifties. I would never have written my first National Review Online piece back in January had Kerry chosen to run on his Senate record. But to coin a phrase, his April 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is “seared in my memory” and I believe his attempt now to surround himself with people he had once described as war criminals represents the height of cynicism and hypocrisy.


Of course, the Kerry campaign and most of the press blew off the pieces I wrote for National Review Online in January and for National Review in February as an attempt to question his service in Vietnam. The volume of e-mails and phone calls I received from Vietnam veterans agreeing with me demonstrated that I was far from alone. But owing to a lack of media interest, the issue dropped off the scope, permitting Kerry and his apologists to avoid addressing it.

Enter the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. They were motivated not only by Kerry’s actions after the war but by the hagiographic portrayal of his Vietnam service in Douglas Brinkley’s Tour of Duty. Despite a desperate attempt to dismiss the Swifties as Republican goons, Kerry and his defenders in the media were forced to deal with the substance of the Swifties’ charges. This they did with varying degrees of success, owing to the fact that men in battle often perceive the same event differently. It does seem clear that Kerry did not spend Christmas of 1968 in Cambodia as he claimed on numerous occasions. There are also legitimate questions about the circumstances surrounding his first Purple Heart and his rescue of Jim Rassmann.

But there would seem to be no argument about Kerry’s actions after the war. He did leave the Navy early to pursue a political career; he did join the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW); he did claim during his 1971 Senate testimony that American soldiers committed atrocities in Vietnam on a regular basis; he did participate in numerous instances of “political theater” put on by the VVAW, including Dewey Canyon III; and he did meet with representatives of the North Vietnamese Communist government. These events may have brought him to political prominence in the United States, but at the cost of alienating a substantial number of Vietnam veterans who believed he besmirched their honor and whose resulting anger has simmered for three decades.


The first attempt to defend Kerry on the substance of the charge that he had dishonored all of those who fought in Vietnam with his 1971 Senate testimony was a series of arguments claiming that he really didn’t mean to include everyone in Vietnam when he made his claim of widespread atrocities. He was, so the argument went, merely relating stories told by others. But if so, he should have chosen his words more carefully. The commonsense meaning of the statement that “over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command” seems to be that these accounts represent only the tip of the iceberg and, more important, that such actions represented U.S. policy against the Vietnamese.

So indeed, the second attempt to defend Kerry is now in play. His defenders claim that he was telling the truth—that atrocities did take place in Vietnam. Of course, as anyone who has read my articles knows, there is no controversy about this point. But the trick here, most on display in Peter Beinart’s “Apocalypse Redux” (registration required) in the September 6 issue of The New Republic, is to suggest that those who criticize Kerry are somehow denying that atrocities occurred in Vietnam at all. Beinart argues that the second Swift Boat ad (recounting Kerry’s Senate testimony) doesn’t claim that Kerry’s charges were false, but “merely suggests he was unpatriotic for leveling them.” Beinart then goes on to cite a number of historians who, sure enough, assure us that atrocities did occur in Vietnam.

But this is missing the point—whether intentionally or not I cannot say. This is now my eighth piece on this topic since January for National Review, NRO, The Weekly Standard, the Jerusalem Post, and the Ashbrook Center. In every one of those pieces, as well as many others I have written over the years about the Vietnam War, I have stated unequivocally that Americans committed atrocities in Vietnam. I have never tried to whitewash the record, as one of my correspondents claimed.

As is often the case, Jim Webb—a Marine hero of the Vietnam War (Navy Cross) and best-selling author whose novel Fields of Fire is the best book about Vietnam—got to the crux of the matter in a recent NPR commentary when he said that the “stories of atrocious conduct, repeated in lurid detail by Kerry before the Congress, represented not the typical experience of the American soldier, but its ugly extreme” (emphasis added).


Some of us who believe that the American soldier did not typically commit atrocities have called into question the credibility of many of the accounts upon which Kerry based his testimony—the “Winter Soldier Investigation” (WSI), an early 1971 event in Detroit organized by the VVAW and sponsored by Jane Fonda, Dick Gregory, and conspiracy theorist Mark Lane. I had read Lane’s 1970 book, Conversations with Americans, and was struck by how implausible most of the atrocity claims were. I was not alone. Lane’s book was panned by James Reston Jr. and Neil Sheehan, not exactly known as supporters of the Vietnam War. Sheehan in particular demonstrated that many of Lane’s “eyewitnesses” either had never served in Vietnam or had not done so in the capacity they claimed.

The transcripts of the WSI struck me the same way. My own beliefs were reinforced several years later by the publication of Guenter Lewy’s America in Vietnam, in which he related the difficulty that military investigators faced trying to get particulars. As I wrote in the February 23 issue of National Review, paraphrasing Lewy, when the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) attempted to interview those who allegedly had witnessed atrocities, most refused to cooperate, even after assurances that they would not be questioned about atrocities they might have committed personally. Those that did cooperate never provided details of actual crimes to investigators. The NIS also discovered that some of the most grisly testimony was given by fake witnesses who had appropriated the names of real Vietnam veterans.

The same thing happened with Army investigators. As Lewy wrote,

the refusal of [those who claimed to have witnessed atrocities] to give substantiating factual information in support of their atrocity allegations created a situation in which the accusers continued to reap generous publicity for their sensational charges while the Army in most cases could neither investigate nor refute them…As of April 1971, the CID (the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division) had determined that [in one case] 7 of 16 allegations…which could be investigated were unfounded or unsubstantiated. Most of the allegations were so general as to defy investigation.

My skepticism about the WSI was further strengthened by the publication of Stolen Valor by B. G. Burkett and Genna Whitley. In the course of trying to raise money for a Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Burkett discovered that reporters were only interested in homeless veterans and drug abuse and that the corporate leaders he approached had bought into the popular image of Vietnam veterans: They were not honorable men who took pride in their service, but whining welfare cases, bellyaching about what an immoral government did to them.

Fed up, Burkett did something that any reporter worth his or her salt could have done: He used the Freedom of Information Act to check the actual records of the “image makers” used by reporters to flesh out their stories on homelessness, Agent Orange, suicide, drug abuse, criminality, or alcoholism. What he found was astounding. More often than not, the showcase “veteran” who cried on camera—about his dead buddies, about committing or witnessing atrocities, or about some heroic action in combat that led him to the current dead end in his life—was an impostor.

Indeed, Burkett discovered that over the last decade, some 1,700 individuals, including some of the most prominent examples of the Vietnam-veteran-as-dysfunctional-loser, had fabricated their war stories. Many had never even been in the service. Others had been, but had never been in Vietnam.

Lewy’s account recently has been called into question and Burkett has been criticized for simply accusing everyone who talks about atrocities as a phony or imposter. In the August 30 TNR Online, historian John Prados writes regarding the WSI atrocity accounts that “a handful of individual stories may have been called into question, but the main thrust of the [WSI] testimonies—that American atrocities were widespread in Vietnam—is today beyond dispute. Indeed the emergence of new evidence during the last 30 years has only solidified the winter soldiers’ overall case.” He then criticizes Lewy’s account of the WSI:

Lewy’s primary evidence consists of noting that VVAW members refused to give depositions. When the Naval Investigative Service tried to pull VVAW members into an inquiry, it found one Marine who either could not or would not give details of what he had seen and allegedly located several other veterans who said they had never gone to Detroit. (O’Neill had cited this same information in his televised debate with Kerry.) But even if true, these incidents were far too limited to establish anything in particular about the Winter Soldier Investigation; the fact that some of the winter soldiers declined to give depositions does not prove or disprove the legitimacy of the entire project. The VVAW leadership left it up to individual members to decide how to respond to requests for depositions. And veterans had good reasons to decline. For one thing, they argued that their purpose was to protest U.S. policy, not to draw attention to individual soldiers. What’s more, with the VVAW under direct assault from the Nixon administration, it’s understandable that the group’s members were loath to cooperate with government investigators.

The debate turns, it seems to me, on Prados’s assertion that it is today beyond dispute that “American atrocities were widespread in Vietnam.” Again I stipulate that they did occur. Recent revelations include the Son Thang event described by Marine Corps veteran Gary D. Solis in his book Son Thang: An American War Crime and the more troubling “Tiger Force” story broken earlier this year by the Toledo Blade, which reported that members of an elite unit of the 327th Airborne Infantry in the Central Highlands in 1967 committed war crimes ranging from murder and assault to dereliction of duty.

Of course the best-known incident was the admission several years ago by Bob Kerrey, the highly respected former senator from Nebraska and Medal of Honor recipient, that the Navy SEAL team he led in Vietnam killed women and children during a nighttime mission some 32 years ago.

Kerrey’s admission was prompted by a lengthy New York Times Magazine story by Gregory Vistica that went further than the charge that civilians died during this action. It contained the explosive claim that then-Lieutenant (j.g.) Kerrey had ordered the civilians to be rounded up and then shot point-blank to facilitate the SEAL team’s escape. If this allegation is true, what happened that night in the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong was more than a terrible tragedy of war— it was a war crime.


These are all troubling events. But they do not prove that atrocities in Vietnam were more widespread than in previous wars. Additionally, there is no evidence that atrocities were a matter of policy, as suggested in this September 1970 VVAW flyer issued in conjunction with one of its stunts:

US Infantry

Company Just

Came through


If you had been Vietnamese—

We might have burned your house

We might have shot your dog

We might have shot you

We might have raped your wife and daughter

We might have turned you over to the government for torture

We might have taken souvenirs from your property

We might have shot things up a bit

We might have done all these things to you and your whole town

Let’s put things in perspective. Some three million men served in Vietnam. Since the logistics tail of U.S. forces is fairly large, only about 25 percent, or 750,000, served in combat units. If we add up all of the atrocities, both proven and alleged, and multiply them by two as a hedge against under-reporting, the percentage of American combat soldiers who might have committed atrocities is still less than 1 percent of the total. I doubt that many armies in history could match that record.

I have tried on many occasions to get to the heart of why some Americans committed atrocities in Vietnam and others didn’t. The fact is that anyone who has been in combat understands the thin line between permissible acts and atrocity. The first and potentially most powerful emotion in combat is fear arising from the instinct of self-preservation.

But in soldiers, fear is overcome by what the Greeks called thumos, spiritedness or righteous indignation. It is thumos, awakened by the death of his comrade Patroclus, that causes Achilles to quit sulking in his tent and wade into the Trojans, slaughtering them in great numbers. But unchecked, thumos can engender rage and frenzy. It is the role of leadership, which provides strategic context for killing and enforces discipline, to prevent this outcome. Such leadership was not in evidence at My Lai, or most of the other cases of atrocities.

In the May 3 issue of National Review, I suggested three reasons that explain the belief on the part of so many that atrocities in Vietnam were more frequent than in other wars and that they were a part of policy: 1) Soviet propaganda; 2) the belief on the part of the veterans who related atrocity stories that they were telling their listeners what they wanted to hear; and 3) liars and phonies.

In America in Vietnam, Lewy noted the establishment of a veritable war-crimes industry, supported by the USSR, as early as 1965. As Ion Mihai Pacepa, a former Romanian intelligence chief, has recounted, the Soviets set up permanent international organizations—including the International War Crimes Tribunal and the Stockholm Conference on Vietnam—”to aid or to conduct operations to help Americans dodge the draft or defect, to demoralize its army with anti-American propaganda, to conduct protests, demonstrations, and boycotts, and to sanction anyone connected with the war.” Pacepa claims to have been responsible for fabricating stories about U.S. atrocities in Vietnam and “flacking” them to Western news organizations. Lewy writes that “the Communists made skillful use of their worldwide propaganda apparatus… and they found many Western intellectuals only too willing to accept every conceivable allegation of [American] wrongdoing at face value.”

The VVAW, a small, radical group that never exceeded a membership of 7,000 (including John Kerry) from a pool of nearly three million Vietnam (and nine million Vietnam-era) veterans, essentially “Americanized” Soviet propaganda. When he testified before the Senate in 1971, Kerry was merely repeating charges that had been making the rounds since 1965.

To the anti-war Left, atrocities revealed the Nazi-like character of “Amerika.” But, unlike their Nazi counterparts, U.S. soldiers could be redeemed: By confessing atrocities, the Vietnam veterans, once denigrated as “baby killers,” were able to receive absolution from the Left, and were transmuted into innocent victims of a brutal war. American military sociologist Charles Moskos has suggested that atrocity stories out of Vietnam were the functional equivalent of heroic war stories from World War II: They provided a meaning to participation in Vietnam that resonated with those who opposed the war and were now judging the returning soldiers. Some atrocity claims were the product of outright fantasy, on the part of soldiers who returned from the war emotionally disturbed. The (anti-war) psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote of a veteran who, after some time in group therapy, could “confess that he had been much less violent in Vietnam than he had implied. He had previously given the impression that he had killed many people there, whereas in actuality, despite extensive combat experience, he could not be certain he had killed anyone.”

Third were the phonies: In response to the claim that some if not many of those who testified at the WSI event were exaggerating or even imposters, Prados writes that “every veteran who presented in Detroit had to show a copy of his military papers (the military form known as DD-214) to demonstrate that he had actually been present at the places and times he was speaking about.”

Let me be clear. Not all atrocity stories can be pawned off as the work of phonies. But one of the most striking revelations of Stolen Valor is how easy it is to produce fraudulent records, including the DD-214. And anyone who served in Vietnam has no doubt at one time or another confronted a wannabe Vietnam vet. It has always amazed me how many people want to claim to have served in such an unpopular war.

I would add a fourth reason—the passing down of a story from soldier to soldier. According to, Keith Nolan, author of ten published books on Vietnam, says he’s heard many veterans describe atrocities just like those Kerry recounted from the Winter Soldier event. Since 1978, Nolan has interviewed roughly 1,000 veterans in depth for his books, and spoken to thousands of others. “I have heard the exact same stories dozens if not hundreds of times over,” he said. “Wars produce atrocities. Frustrating guerrilla wars produce a particularly horrific number of atrocities. That some individual soldiers and certain units responded with excessive brutality in Vietnam shouldn’t really surprise anyone.”

Let me recount a personal anecdote that makes me question the idea that a story heard many times validates it. I didn’t commit or witness atrocities during my tour as a Marine infantry platoon leader. As far as I know, neither did the other officers in my regiment and battalion. But I heard of an atrocity just after I joined the unit. A Marine who was scheduled to rotate soon recounted an incident that he claimed had occurred shortly after he had arrived in the unit about a year earlier.

According to the story, members of a sister company had killed some North Vietnamese soldiers after they had surrendered. Some months later, I heard another Marine who had joined my platoon after I took it over relate exactly the same story to some newly arrived men, only now it involved me and my platoon. I had a little chat with him and he cleared things up with the new men. But that episode has always made me wonder how many of the stories have been recycled and how many accounts of atrocities are based on what veterans heard as opposed to committed or witnessed. Of course, an account based on hearsay may be true. After all, the soldier who broke the My Lai story was not present during the massacre.

Unfortunately for the body politic, this issue is not going to go away. Too many veterans have long memories and they believe that Kerry sacrificed their honor on the altar of his political ambitions.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.