Posted on October 19th, 2022


Eventually, there was public outrage, worldwide, over the slaughter caused by the US army in Vietnam. Innocent civilians are dying every day in South Vietnam, observers reported.Pentagon set up a secret task force in 1970, the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, using staff in the army Head office.

For the next few years, members of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group reviewed army investigations, interviewed people and wrote reports for the military and the White House. The documents were known as the   Pentagon files. The records were declassified in 1994, and sent to US National Archives, where investigative journalist Nick Turse found them in 2001.

In 2001 at the US National Archives, I stumbled across a collection of war crimes investigations carried out by the military, Turse said. About 9,000 pages in all, it includes investigative files, sworn statements by witnesses and status reports.

Box after box of criminal investigation reports and day-to-day paperwork had been long buried away and almost totally forgotten. Eight boxes focused on My Lai. Though not a complete accounting of Vietnam War crimes, the archive is the largest such collection to surface to date.  After I published my first article on this, the records were pulled from the Archives’ shelves and they haven’t been on the public shelves since said Turse in 2013.

This collection recorded hundreds of atrocities committed by US forces in Vietnam, said Turse. They showed that atrocities by U.S. forces in Vietnam were more extensive than people thought. War crimes committed by the US military were on a far bigger scale than imagined.

Abuses were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam. Hundreds of soldiers, in interviews with investigators and letters to commanders, described a violent group within each division who murdered, raped and tortured with impunity. Some documents detailed the most nightmarish descriptions. Others hinted at terrible events that had not been followed up.

The documents found in the Pentagon files recorded 320 incidents apart from My Lai. In addition to these 320 substantiated incidents, the records contain material related to more than 500 other alleged atrocities that Army investigators could not prove.

Pentagon papers contained 141 instances in which U.S. soldiers tortured civilian detainees or prisoners of war with fists, sticks, bats, water or electric shock. The water torture impaired prisoners’ ability to breath. Phoenix Programme of the CIA also used torture.

Vietnamese women were raped by US soldiers. Pentagon papers recorded 78 attacks on civilians which included 15 sexual assaults. Sexual mistreatment of the Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War has been witnessed by numerous soldiers, said Turse.   Rape of Vietnamese women was normal operating procedure.” 20 Vietnamese women and girls, some as young as 13, were raped by the U.S. troops at Mai Lai.:      Phan Thi Mao, a young Vietnamese woman was kidnapped, gang raped and murdered on 19 November 1966.

The Pentagon records describe recurrent attacks on ordinary Vietnamese, families in their homes, farmers in rice paddies, teenagers out fishing. Soldiers provided many first person observations on such cruel, unfeeling attacks.

A soldier stated that On Oct. 8, 1967, after a firefight near Chu Lai, members of his company spotted a 12-year-old boy out in a rainstorm. He was unarmed and clad only in shorts. “Somebody caught him up on a hill, and they brought him down and the lieutenant asked who wanted to kill him,” Two volunteers stepped forward. One kicked the boy in the stomach. The other took him behind a rock and shot him. They reported him as an enemy combatant killed in action.

On another occasion, soldiers detained and beat an elderly man suspected of supporting the enemy. Two men had him, one guy had his arms, one guy had his legs and they threw him off the hill onto a bunch of rocks.”

Soldiers discovered an unarmed man hiding in a hole and suspected that he had supported the enemy. A soldier pushed the man in front of an armored personnel carrier. They drove over him forward which didn’t kill him because he was squirming around, so the APC backed over him again.

Soldiers had ambushed five unarmed women and reported them as enemies killed in action. Soldiers had pulled a naked woman from a dwelling.  She was thrown to the ground, the soldiers shot her dead.

The main reason for the extensive killings in Vietnam was because the soldiers were told to show a high body count. To motivate troops to aim for a high body count, competitions were held between units to see who could kill the most. The highest tally was displayed on “kill boards”.

Seymour Hersh observed that the soldiers sent to Vietnam came from rural America. They were young, ignorant. They were easily brainwashed during training. They were told that Vietnamese were not people, they were subhuman, and they could be killed or abused at will. Two soldiers had used a Vietnamese man for target practice.  It was like a game,” said a military leader, Colonel Anistranski. 

Mock Vietnamese villages were set up in army bases throughout the United States, and it was in these mock villages that American soldiers learned search and destroy” tactics that taught them to approach the entire village as an enemy target and to see all Vietnamese as potential Viet Cong.” The mock village at Schofield Barracks in Hawai‘i included villagers played by native Hawaiians. Soldiers who participated in the My Lai massacre trained there in 1967.

The public in USA refused to believe that US had done wrong in Vietnam. This made it difficult to charge senior military leaders, or win convictions in military courtrooms. The public also took the side of the soldiers. They said the soldiers simply followed the orders. All those who wrote adversely on the Vietnam War have been hammered, said one writer.

The Cam Ne killings were filmed by an American crew and broadcast on CBS Evening News on August 5, 1965. The images were shocking. Reaction to the Cam Ne report was immediate and powerful. CBS was inundated with calls and letters critical of this negative portrayal of American army.

The three who had openly opposed the killing while on duty at Mai Lai, Thompson, Andreotta, and Colburn were thereafter given flight assignments in the most dangerous areas of the Vietnam War, without adequate protection.  

When the war ended, these three were accused of treason by Americans both inside and outside the Army. They were given medals, certainly, but that did not stop the persecution. Thompson faced intimidation, name-calling, death threats in the mail and by phone, mutilated animals were dumped on his doorstep. Colburn received a rising number of death threats and customers refused to patronize his business in Atlanta. 

There was little interest in prosecuting Vietnam war crimes. Investigators determined that there was sufficient evidence against 203 soldiers accused of harming Vietnamese civilians or prisoners to warrant formal charges. Fifty-seven of them were court-martialed and 22 convicted. Fourteen received prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years, but most won significant reductions on appeal.

Of the dozen or so officers and others who eventually faced court martial for Mai Lai, only Lt. William Calley was convicted. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. President Richard Nixon reduced the sentence to house arrest. 

Many substantiated cases were closed with a letter of reprimand or  a fine. In more than half the cases, no action at all.  A military intelligence interrogator convicted of committing indecent acts on a 13-year-old girl in an interrogation hut in 1967 served seven months of a 20-year term.

USA, it appears,  is not ashamed of Mai Lai or Vietnam.  In 2012  Pentagon kicked off a 13-year programme (sic) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. President Obama called the Vietnam War “a chapter in our nation’s history that must never be forgotten”. But thanks to cover-ups like that of Speedy Express, few know the truth to begin with, said angry critics.

BBC reported that an entry on the official Vietnam War Commemoration website for My Lai describes it as an “incident” and the number killed is listed as 200 not 500. In a presidential proclamation on the website, Barack Obama distils the conflict down to troops slogging “through jungles and rice paddies,  fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans, for more than a decade of combat”  There is almost no mention of Vietnamese civilians, concluded BBC.

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