Politics & Policy

Winter-Soldier Again

But maybe this time, the press will be less credulous.

An organization calling itself Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) convened a conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, entitled Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan — Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations, this month. Modeling itself on the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI), which provided the text for John Kerry’s infamous testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee later that year, the event claimed to “feature testimony from U.S. veterans who served in [the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan], giving an accurate account of what is really happening day in and day out, on the ground.” But in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it was like déjà vu all over again.

Then . . .

Those who suffered through my many National Review Online and National Review pieces on John Kerry and alleged atrocities in Vietnam during the election year of 2004 — a series that began, by the way, in January, long before anyone had ever heard of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — will recall that the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI) was organized by “the usual suspects” among antiwar celebrities, e.g. Jane Fonda, Dick Gregory, and Kennedy-assassination conspiracy theorist Mark Lane. During the course of the proceedings, individuals purporting to be Vietnam veterans recounted horrible stories of atrocities: using prisoners for target practice, throwing them out of helicopters, cutting off the ears of dead Viet Cong soldiers, burning villages, and gang-raping women as a matter of course.

My assessment of the WSI and Kerry’s use of it to advance his political career was, shall we say, negative. Based on my own research and that of others, I concluded that at least some of the WSI witnesses were imposters, and that many of those who were not imposters nonetheless recounted stories that they were in no position to observe. On the very useful Winter Soldier internet site, Scott Swett, co-author (with Tim Ziegler) of To Set the Record Straight: How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs, and the New Media Defeated John Kerry, offers additional evidence to discredit the 1971 WSI. He provides access to the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigative Division’s (CID) investigations of the allegations made by WSI witnesses, which if true, would have qualified as crimes. CID opened criminal investigations into the claims of 43 WSI witnesses, which were eventually resolved as follows: “25 WSI participants refused to cooperate, 13 provided information but failed to support the allegations, and five could not be located. No criminal charges were filed as a result of any of the investigations.”

As I pointed out in several of my NRO pieces, the experience of the Naval Investigate Service (NIS, now Naval Criminal Investigative Service, NCIS) examining the claims made by Marines at the Detroit event was identical. When NIS attempted to interview the witnesses, most refused to cooperate, even after assurances that they would not be questioned about atrocities they may 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.

. . . And Now

Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan (WSI II) repeats the pattern of the 1971 WSI:

‐ vague charges, lacking specific details and the supporting evidence that real investigations require to ascertain the truth;

‐ mischaracterizing as atrocities or war crimes events occuring during the conduct of combat operations that, while disturbing or tragic, are still legal and moral, e.g. the events in Hadithah two years ago — the fact is that not every bad thing that happens in war is an atrocity;

‐ descriptions of events that, if they did in fact occur, should have been reported up the chain of command, but were not; and

‐ “witnesses” of questionable veracity.

The big difference between then and now is that in 1971, far too few members of the press or the public were predisposed to question the claims of the WSI witnesses. My Lai had recently burst upon the American public, contributing to the belief that atrocities were widespread in Vietnam. The WSI and Kerry’s testimony seemed to merely confirm what a cynical press and a war-weary public had been primed to believe.

By the time the truth became known — that while atrocities took place in Vietnam, as in all wars, they were far from widespread — the perception that they were ubiquitous was firmly established in popular culture. While the record is now being corrected, it is analogous to the situation in which a sensational, scurrilous charge appears as front-page news, while the retraction is later buried deep in the newspaper.

While many in the press are still predisposed to believe the worst about the American solider, claims of “supporting the troops” notwithstanding, today’s GI in Iraq and Afghanistan can rely on those who suffered through the post-Vietnam War era — assisted by the internet and the blogosphere — to give them the benefit of the doubt, and to hold accountable those who make outrageous claims about their conduct. This is the biggest difference between now and 1971. For instance, the blog site Obiter Dictum put together a useful “Reporters’ Guide” for WSI II that reveals some interesting facts about IVAW. For example, in spite of the organizations name, a large percentage of its members have not in fact deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan. The resource draws attention to the questionable veracity of some IVAW members — the infamous Jesse MacBeth and IVAW co-founder Jimmy Massy to name only a couple.

Jonn Lilyea, a blogger who attended the festivities (and provides a useful summary of the proceedings here) demonstrates that as in 1971, many of the “witnesses” during the WSI II event were REMFs who recounted stories often based on rumor, but not on first-hand observation. As the late Harry Summer once remarked, the more grisly the atrocity story, the further removed from the battlefield the storyteller most likely was.

Let us stipulate that war sucks, but context matters, and those who cover it have to know what questions to ask when confronted by sensational claims. The press failed to do precisely this in the wake of Vietnam. Will it be better this time around? I don’t know, but at least some members of the press seem to attempt fairness.

For instance, in late February, I was contacted by a reporter from the Syracuse Post-Standard who wanted to interview me about the upcoming WSI II. I tried to impress upon him the importance of taking the sort of statements he was likely to hear at WSI II with a substantial grain of salt. It was important, I stressed, for reporters covering this story to “dig deep,” asking for details and ensuring that those making the claims were credible.

I told him that the Vietnam generation of journalists who bought the WSI political theater hook, line, and sinker, had merely enabled the dissemination of political propaganda and were complicit in defaming a generation of decent men, most of whom did their duty in Vietnam with honor and restraint. I told him how Jug Burkett had done what journalists should have been doing — asking for documentation and insisting on details — when he unmasked numerous phony Vietnam “veterans,” as recounted in Stolen Valor. I told him that if reporters were truly interested in the truth, they should do what Burkett did: get the name and service number of every one who testified during the WSI II, use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gain access to their real records, and then check to see if that individual was in a position to have committed or witnessed atrocities.

I haven’t seen much in the way of mainstream reporting on the WSI II event, so I can’t yet tell if today’s reporters are less credulous than their Vietnam-era predecessors. I can only hope they are.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.

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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