When War Crimes are Pardoned

When I became a war resister during the Vietnam War, a sign attached to a high-rise off I-95 in Connecticut was a constant reminder of how right wing and militaristic a segment of the U.S. had become during the Vietnam War. The sign read: “Free Calley.” Lieutenant William Calley was the officer convicted of murdering 22 unarmed men, women, and children in the hamlet of My Lai in March 1968. The assault by U.S. forces at My Lai killed hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children. They were left murdered by the side of a road and in a ditch, among other places in the Vietnamese hamlet.  The investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, (“Seymour Hersh on My Lai and the state of investigative journalism,”Columbia Journalism Review, April 1, 2015) wrote the definitive account of that massacre through his exhaustive work.

My Lai was not a case of a few “bad apples” seeking revenge for an earlier attack on their unit. War crimes were common in Vietnam. In August 2006, journalists Deborah Nelson and Nick Turse uncovered scores of cases of torture in units of the U.S. Army that were contained in material unearthed from the National Archives (“A Tortured Past,” Los Angeles Times, August 20, 2006). The government did not seek wide-ranging hearings or court-martial charges against most of those who allegedly took part in these incidents of murder and torture. Other incidents of units acting with impunity in their conduct during the war have been published. Nick Turse went further in his investigation of war crimes in Vietnam in Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (“Kill Anything that Moves: The Real War in Vietnam”By Nick Turse, Washington Post, January 25, 2013).

While it is wrong to romanticize the forces and leaders of North Vietnam, it is equally important to know that if elections were held in the 1950s, then Ho Chi Minh would have won that election by a landslide. The Geneva Accords had called for those elections. Neither Lyndon Johnson nor General William Westmoreland would ever admit the war was being fought against nationalism and the desire of the Vietnamese people to reunify their country. Then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted in the documentary film The Fog of War  (2003) that many military actions, even dating as far back as World War II, would have been condemned as war crimes. McNamara was right on one other account: When a war is begun, mayhem is a certainty.

But one did not need scholarly works or first-hand accounts of the free-fire zones, Agent Orange, strategic hamlets, carpet bombing, etc., to know that the rules of war were being made into a national disgrace and catastrophe in Vietnam. All a person had to do was to watch one of the three major television networks at the time during their nightly newscasts to know that the Vietnam War was a shooting gallery with few rules.  In the U.S., strident anti-communism and increasing power as a world superpower, and soon to be the world’s only superpower, called the tune for atrocities. Not all soldiers were war criminals in Vietnam, in fact only a very small number of soldiers took part in committing atrocities, but enough did.  Could the war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq be far behind when the U.S. government took its so-called gloves off in the endless wars to avenge the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001?

Born on the Fourth of July (revised 2016) by U.S. Marine veteran Ron Kovic documents the mayhem that was the Vietnam War. Four Hours in My Lai (revised 1993) offers an exhaustive analysis and documentation of the My Lai Massacre.

Those who don’t, or refuse to learn, from the past are doomed to relive it, is more than common wisdom as Donald Trump considers pardoning those accused and convicted of war crimes in the current spate of endless wars the U.S. now fights. Voices are being raised in the U.S. Senate against Trump’s plans to pardon war crimes (“Senators Slam Trump Plan To Pardon War Crime Vets,” Huffington Post, May 22, 2019). The latter is as welcomed a development as is the movement in Congress to put back into place limits on the executive’s war-making powers that are expressly delegated to Congress by law. But since Trump’s plan includes special forces units, the aura of those units creates more issues than a pardon for someone who might be, or not be, worthy of receiving a pardon. Try to imagine Trump issuing a pardon to Chelsea Manning for bringing war crimes to light.

Much of this nation learned from George H. W. Bush’s “turkey shoot” during the first Gulf War and the vanquishing of the Vietnam Syndrome that war was acceptable once again. Reagan’s low-intensity wars of the 1980s had set the stage. When the attacks came in 2001, the gloves were off with “shock and awe” and the devil-may-care attitude of the media until large numbers of prisoners of war were tortured at CIA black sites around the world and much of the mass media shrugged its shoulders as it had with the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq.

Had a different approach that included diplomacy taken place in Afghanistan during the Soviet war there in the 1980s, the outcome today may have differed greatly from the pardons Trump is considering. Trump is a person who never had skin in the “game” during the Vietnam War.

No one could have guessed during the Vietnam War that some would condone war crimes today at the highest levels of this incompetent and belligerent Trump administration. No one could have guessed then that the appetite for profit and power of the military-industrial complex would become so voracious! Nothing is sacred to them; the lives of noncombatants mean nothing to them!

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).