Politics & Policy

They Charge War Crimes

How John Kerry et al. have defamed the American serviceman in Vietnam

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the May 3, 2004, issue of National Review.

Vietnam is the war that just won’t go away. And for many Americans, especially those in the media, nothing says “Vietnam” quite like “atrocity” and “war crime.” Indeed, it is the conventional wisdom that My Lai, the darkest chapter of America’s war effort, was merely a microcosm of the war.

This belief that Vietnam was one big atrocity explains why most reporters, even those too young to remember it, are predisposed to believe the worst about America’s role in Indochina. As everyone now knows, a young John Kerry, testifying before the Senate in April 1971, gave credence to the charge that U.S. policy in Vietnam violated the laws of war and that individual service members routinely committed war crimes and atrocities. Some have defended Kerry by arguing that only a small part of his testimony dealt with atrocities and war crimes; unfortunately for them, there is something called the Internet that permits people to read Kerry’s testimony in full, and to see that that characterization is wrong. Others have embraced Kerry as a hero for refusing to accept what former anti-war activist Tom Hayden called the “fabrications, delusions, and fantasies” Americans had embraced to assuage their guilt about Vietnam. In a touching defense of his ex-wife in The Nation, Hayden wrote: “It will be easier, I am afraid, for those Americans to believe that Jane Fonda helped torture our POWs than to accept the testimony by American GIs that they sliced ears, burned hooches, raped women, and poisoned Vietnam’s children with deadly chemicals.” And Lawrence O’Donnell said, on MSNBC on February 11, that “everything that John Kerry has said about the Vietnam War was true. It was an unjust war for American interests. . . . There was not a worthy moment of American military intervention in Vietnam.”

With all due respect, these people have no idea what they are talking about. There are two issues here. The first is the broad claim that the U.S. conducted the Vietnam War in violation of international law. The second is that U.S. servicemen committed atrocities regularly. The evidence doesn’t support either claim. As Guenter Lewy observed in his indispensable book America in Vietnam, these charges for the most part were “based on a distorted picture of the actual battlefield situation, on ignorance of existing rules of engagement, and on a tendency to construe every mistake of judgment as a wanton breach of the law. Further, many . . . critics had only the most rudimentary understanding of international law and freely indulged in fanciful interpretations of conventions and treaties so as to make the American record look as bad as possible.”

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Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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