If this isn’t the most disturbing book you will ever read, there’s something wrong with you. Historian Nick Turse, as he says, “stumbled” upon this story when as a graduate student, he was researching post-traumatic stress syndrome disorder among Vietnam vets. He was ‘looking through documents at the U.S. National Archives when a friendly archivist asked [him], “Could witnessing war crimes cause post-traumatic stress?”’ Very shortly thereafter, he was reading the “yellowing records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret Pentagon task force that had been assembled after the My Lai massacre to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” (Not, the reader will note, to ensure that the American Army never again committed war crimes.)
There were tons of material on American atrocities against Vietnamese civilians in these files. “The War Crimes Working Group files included more than 300 allegations of massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations and other atrocities. . . . They identified 141 instances in which U.S. troops used fists, sticks, bars, water torture and electrical torture on noncombatants. The files also contained 500 allegations that weren’t proven at the time—like the murders of scores, perhaps hundreds, of Vietnamese civilians by the 101st Airborne Division’s Tiger Force, which would be confirmed and made public only in 2003.”
And the answer to the archivist’s question turned out to be yes, witnessing war crimes can and did cause post-traumatic stress. Turse learned of this when he began talking to the people who had been there and who had witnessed the atrocities—generals, civilian officials, military war crimes investigators, and more than one hundred American veterans, “both those who had witnessed atrocities and others who had personally committed terrible acts.” These veterans, youngsters then, old men now, some repentant, some defiant, “told . . . about days of shattering fatigue and the confusion of contradictory orders, about being placed in situations so alien and unnerving that even with their automatic rifles and grenades they felt scared, walking through hamlets of unarmed women and children.”
But do not imagine that only the private soldiers were culpable. Their officers engaged in a “deliberate suppression or withholding of information . . . at ever command level from company to division.”
This isn’t a pretty story at all, and it almost shatters one’s faith in one’s fellow man. It is most unpleasant reading, but then this type of bearing witness almost always is.