This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Winter Soldier Investigations, a three-day media event sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) featuring over 100 honorably discharged veterans testifying in regards to war crimes committed in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
The intention of the Winter Soldier Investigation was to highlight the ongoing nature of war crimes as part of the U.S. military’s operating procedure. William Crandell, a first lieutenant of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade Americal Division stationed in Vietnam, delivered the opening statement of the WSI: “We intend to show that war crimes in Vietnam did not start in March 1968, or in the village of Son My or with one Lt. William Calley. We intend to indict those really responsible for My Lai, for Vietnam, for attempted genocide.”
In his opening statement, Crandell gave a short speech on the nature of war crimes:
“A war crime is more and other than war. It is an atrocity beyond the usual barbaric bounds of war…Deliberate killing or torturing of prisoners of war is a war crime. Deliberate destruction without military purpose of civilian communities is a war crime. The use of certain arms and armaments and of gas is a war crime. The forcible relocation of population for any purpose is a war crime. All of these crimes have been committed by the U.S. government over the past ten years in Indochina.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross expands on Crandell’s definitions of war crimes by criminalizing any conduct which “breaches important values” such as respect for the dead or the dignity of a human being. Overall, any violation of international humanitarian law is considered a war crime.
During the testimony, the men admitted to committing numerous crimes, including the mistreatment of prisoners, deliberate destruction without military purpose, illegal use of gases, forcible relocation of civilian populations, over-violent rules of engagement, burning of civilian villages, artillery fire as a game, falsified body counts, and mutilation of civilians.
The massacre of over 300 unarmed, non-aggressive civilians in Vietnam on 16 March 1968 by U.S. military forces in the village of My Lai is one of the few war crimes from the Vietnam era that was actually investigated. However, the massacre went unreported for almost a year and a half, until reporter Seymour Hersh revealed the story and images to the press; subsequently in September 1969, the commanding officer Lt. Calley was charged with six counts of premeditated murder. Following a U.S. Army investigation, 14 men were charged with wrongdoing, yet every one of them was exonerated. Similarly, no charges were brought against the men who testified in the WSI.
Since then, innumerable atrocities have occurred at the hands of U.S. military personnel in overseas conflicts. As revealed in the Winter Soldier Investigations, U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have reported eerily similar accounts of crimes committed.
Hart Viges, a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq, revealed stories of “kill counts” and “kill games” during the Iraq and Afghanistan Winter Soldier testimony held in 2008 by the Iraq Veterans Against the War as a follow-up to the original WSI. He also stated, “We never went on a raid where we got the right house or the right person”, and rarely found evidence of the civilians being of “enemy” relations; in one case, a single small pistol was considered enough evidence to take a whole family as prisoners.
Scott Camile, a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, testified in regards to his participation in using “artillery on villages for games,” in which soldiers would compete to use the least amount of artillery fire to destroy entire villages; whoever “won” received free beer from the losing soldier.
Ambiguous rules of engagement were reported by both Iraq and Vietnam soldiers. Iraq War veteran Adam Kokesh reported being told to “shoot anything after dark” by his commander, and if any prisoners were captured to “rough them up” to reveal any information they might have. This assumption that any civilian who crossed the military’s path had ties to the enemy was present in Vietnam soldiers’ conduct overseas as well; Veteran Michael Kenny reported that “[w]hen a body was found, the general procedure was that if the body didn’t have a weapon it was a Viet Cong suspect. If a weapon could be planted on it, it became a Viet Cong.”
The highly publicized Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal is perhaps the best-known instance of war crimes from the Iraq War. Physical, sexual and psychological abuse of prisoners was reported in testimony from the Abu Ghraib investigation, with one case involving the sodomization of a prisoner with a broomstick. Instead of a broomstick, Lt. Scott Camile reported the use of entrenching tools and tree limbs on a captured Vietnamese sniper.
When asked why these violations were not reported to higher-ups in the chain of command, Sergeant Javal Davis, who was stationed in the Abu Ghraib prison, stated “because I assumed that if they were doing things out of the ordinary or outside the guidelines, someone would have said something.” Captain Ernie Sachs, a Marine helicopter pilot stationed in Vietnam from August 1966 to September 1967 gave a similar answer forty years earlier:
“The general attitude of the officers was ‘Well, there’s somebody senior to me here and I guess if this wasn’t SOP [standard operating procedure] he’d be doing something to stop it,’ and since nobody senior ever did anything to stop it, the policy was promulgated and everybody assumed that this was what was right…We were never told anything about the way to treat prisoners…”
There are very few, if any, examples of the United States military justice system acting effectively to hold those responsible for war crimes accountable. Not a single person involved in the My Lai massacre saw punishment other than within the workplace. Lynndie England, a U.S. soldier stationed in the Abu Ghraib prison, was found guilty of committing sexual, psychological and physical violence against prisoners after the release of photos depicting her dragging a prisoner on the floor by a leash on his neck. She was sentenced to three years in prison, but only served about half of that before she was released on parole. When asked if she regretted her actions, England said that she did not: “They weren’t innocent. they’re trying to kill us, and you want me to apologize to them? It’s like saying sorry to the enemy.”
Violence and destruction are perceived by the U.S. military as normal, unintended, and unavoidable consequences of combat operations. The individuals responsible for committing war crimes are often seen as courageous “patriots” following orders, whatever those orders may be, ignoring reasonable discretion. Declaring war in a region does not justify designating its entire population as enemy combatants.
A non-biased, independent investigation into evidence of war crimes is crucial to ensuring accountability. Without proper oversight, war crimes will continue, and the power of military personnel will go unchecked.
The International Criminal Court is a just alternative to the internal investigations that are often conducted in cases involving allegations of criminal activity during conflict. However, the U.S.’s non-participation in the ICC precludes American soldiers from trial in the Court. The danger of internal investigations lies in the skewed lens of justice and truth in institutions like the U.S. military that are built to justify certain deadly force.
The cycle of crimes without consequence continues.
Anna Brown is a student at the University of Connecticut studying English and Political science.