how common were US war crimes in Vietnam

I’ve heard of the My Lai massacre but I never really knew what it was all about (the US military killed about 500 unarmed civilians, and a US military helicopter pilot who was flying overhead and saw what was going on landed his helicopter and threatened to fire on US troops unless they quit the massacre and let him evacuate the remaining civilians). Reading it it is something that you’d expect the Sudan or Uzbekistan to carry out. Hell just last year the Uzbek government carried out a massacre on the same human rights scale and earned the title of international pariah for it (the EU imposed sanctions, the US is trying to)

What is worse is that some have said incidents like My Lai were a common occurence in Vietnam. How common were acts by US military personnel that would be considered to be massive human rights abuses? Were they a daily occurence?

Certainly. That’s why they made the news every day, in every newspaper and news program in the world. You do remember reading about them, don’t you? They were everywhere. All our soldiers ever did was rape, pillage, burn and loot. Day in, day out. Rape, rape, rape.

This has got to be one of the stupidest questions I’ve ever seen asked here.

Well, I was there and I certainly don’t think it’s a stupid question.
I served in the Navy “Seabees”, doing construction and support jobs. I was not directly involved in military patrols, or in engaging the enemy, but I knew many guys who were. Incidents “like My Lai” were obviously not a common occurence, but I have no doubt that there were other, similar, actions.
The NVA and the Viet Cong used terror tactics to coerce villages into hiding and suppoting their activities. There were many in the U.S. military who believed that using similar tactics was the only effective way to counteract them. Even more to the point, the most effective units of the ARVN also used these tactics. In that era, the economy of Vietnam was primarily agricultural and the majority of the population lived in small villages, mostly remote and w/o modern communications. If you went on patrol in indian country, you never knew who was friendly and who was the enemy, you always erred on the side of safety. Violations of “human rights” were not done out of pure malice, but rather in a spirit of self preservation. Many politicians and much of the military leadership were aware of the realities. They may have given lip service to playing by the rules, but the message to the people in the field was clear, do what you have to do to stay alive and accomplish your mission

I wasn’t there. My dad was, and he was never involved in something like that. He says so, and he was Air Force, which means he wasn’t in as direct contact as much. That said, from what he says, everyone there probably knew someone who did something.

It wasn’t much different from WWII in that way, from the stories my grandfather and his VFW buddies say. War puts people in a strange place. Of course, this covers a lot of ground, from shooting prisoners to… well. This doesn’t excuse any of it. It doesn’t excuse Abu Ghraib, especially, as that wasn’t war the way it was in Vietnam or WWII, either.

But it happened. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t all that common… but everyone, as I know it, knew ‘something.’

My husband is a Vietnam combat vet (Marine Corps) and he never personally saw anything, but he was in very early ('64-'65-ish). But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. We’ve only been in a relatively short time in Iraq/Afghanistan, and we’ve already confirmed incidents here. When you train thousands of people to be killing machines, you’re bound to catch people who will misinterpret the rules and get carried away with their hatred and job description.

'Scuse me, but I thought this was GD, not The BBQ Pit.

I saw a question above.

I saw an attack below.

Perhaps you know Wesley Clark’s age; I don’t. But IF he was not around or was of a very young age at that time, I don’t think he would have been reading all that much about it.

In either case, I don’t think that post deserved so much vitrol on your part.

The vitriol is quite understandable. The left has been so successful in demonizing American troops in Vietnam and drawing attention away from Communist atrocities that it’s almost impossible to hear the question without feeling a great deal of exasperation and impatience. American atrocities in Viet Nam have been greatly exaggerated for political purposes, and Communist atrocities such as the massacre at Hue during the Tet offensive have been ignored or denied. Dropping the context like that necessarily creates a very distorted and unfair picture. It is like judging Britain and America solely on the basis of Dresden and Hiroshima while ignoring what the Nazis and Japanese militarists were up to. It tends to put me in an ugly mood.

LOL. Then don’t read it.

The problem is that you expect human rights atrocities from the communists. I expect a third world communist dictatorship to abuse human rights and finding out about it will not be a shock. I do not expect a developed world country whose population and politicians are very vocal about promoting human rights to do the same things. We in america both politically and publicly promote and support a decent military and human rights. You can’t really say the same for the communists of 50 years ago who were responsible for about 50% of all government murders of civilians in the 20th century (the Nazis made up another 25 or so percent)

I realize the world of 40-50 years ago politically is very different than the world of today. Fourty years ago the French could kill a million algerians to prevent independence but nowadays there is no way France could get away with that.

Nonetheless, were war crimes by US forces common in Vietnam? I appreciate all the serious and polite replies.

Well, what do you mean by “common”? Massacres on the order of My Lai didn’t happen every day or even every month, and most of the troops acted honorably in battle.

Even many of the “atrocities” were understandable. A roommate of mine who served as a second looey in Nam told me he several times looked the other way when prisoners were tortured for information for the simple reason that he believed it was necessary to protect the lives of his troops. Ugly, yes. But quite understandable. These were not just thugs looking for an excuse to brutalize their fellow human beings.

The bottom line here (for me, anyway) is that the number of actions by American troops that could clearly be considered atrocities was very much smaller than is commonly believed, and more or less typical of what happens in a time of war.

Given how differently various people might define ‘atrocity’ and how they may or may not find any given action ‘understandeable’, this isn’t a very helpful answer.

Typical in the context of what? Waffen SS units on the Eastern Front? Greek hoplites fighting the Persians? Neolithic tribesmen fighting over a waterhole? Colonial troops putting down a rebellion? Operations by NATO troops in Kosovo? Roman legions fighting a civil war?
Given the vast range of behaviour that has occurred in conflicts, and the different ways those actions have been regarded at the time later in history, you might as well say that a piece of string is of typical length.

‘war crimes’ is a concept that seems to change all the time. There have been lengthy squabbles on these boards about whether use of white phosperous ina city constitues a war crime, yet no-one was ever prosecuted for dropping thousands of tonnes of the stuff in WW2. As LonesomePolecat pointed out, hundreds of thousands of troops served in Vietnam over a decade, and there’s no way incidents like My Lai were ‘common’. Whether they were as rare as one would hope is unclear.

The only answer I can give to the OP is that for any given definition of “massive human rights abuses”, you will get a huge range of numbers, with the official US military estimates probably on the low end and the Vietnames and assorted peacenik groups giving figures on the high end. Extracting the truth is going to be nigh-on impossible given how long has elapsed, the degree of political charge still attached to the subject, and the confusion inherent in counter-insurgency warfare. It’s possible the UN, the Red Cross or some other reasonably neutral body has tried to come up with figures, but I wouldn’t want to bet serious money on any such number being accurate. If you look at incidents like No Gun Ri, even after half a century of claims, counterclaims and investigations there is no definitive agreement as to what really happened.

I was a serving officer and in a position to know during those awful times.

There were constant rumors that this sort of thing was happening. There were not a few prosecutions of officers and soldiers for atrocities but nothing else on the scale of MiLai that I ever heard about.

As the pointlessness of the war became apparent to everyone and the resentment toward the war within the Services increased the incidents of promiscuous slaughter, rape and pillage became more frequent – in my judgement out of a sense of frustration and resentment rather than actual malicious policy. It was no invention of Leftists. The horrors of the free fire zones, the machine gunning of peasants because they ran or because they didn’t run, the tossing of prisoners out of helicopters to encourage others to talk, the taking of ears as trophies, the burnings of rice cashes and huts, the raping of women and girls was all real enough, as were the tell-tale engagements with high body counts and few weapons captures.

That the question even has to be asked is an indication that the foolish war my generation fought is as remote from public memory as the War of 1812. That it still stirs such political rancor, such efforts to rewrite history, such resort to easy answers, is all too telling. This country should have learned lessons in Vietnam – General Powell learned them – but a lot of other people forgot what they were.

Spavined Gelding,

Thank you for the reminder of why I always take the time to read your posts. There is no one at the Dope whose opinion I hold in higher regard.

I lost a friend in Vietnam. He was a West Point graduate – a Captain on his second tour of duty. We disagreed about the war. He is no less a hero to me.

I try not to argue about the war anymore, but your post is still consolation to me after all these years.


Read the transcripts of the Winter Soldier Investigation. Decide for yourself if you think the testimony was credible.

My dad was in Vietnam as a very young man during the Tet offensive. A period of very heavy fighting. In fact, most of the stories he has told me about that time were about what he called “suicide raids” on camps, and how bat shit scared he was, and how a basket of really close calls kept him that way. He did tell me that on one occasion some recently captured Viet Cong were taken up in a helicopter, then tossed out until the remander starting giving up information about their uncaptured comrades somewhere out there. I think if I asked my dad about this today he would still have no problem with it - the tossing part. He orginally told this story laced with a ‘better them than me’ attitude and gave the impression that this was the general feeling among his comrades.

My lingustics professor who was an officer in Vietnam talked about how he would do this too. I think he called it the helicopter trick.

My father also talked about this. Personally, I believe that, while it happened, it has a certain air of urban legend about it.

My grandfather’s friends stories had more to deal with taking germans prisoner, having to advance, and not being able to take them with them, or feed them.

There’s this funny thing that whatever side of whatever war you are from, the atrocities are always committed by the other side. There’s a few possible explanations. One is that there is something paranormal going on. Another is that people lie. Another is that people genuinely do not see what they do as an atrocity, but genuinely do see what the other side does as an atrocity. Personally, I doubt the first explanation, so that leaves the second and third. Plus of course the distinct possibility that there is something I haven’t thought of.

Well, there’s the possibility that the other side really is much, much worse than your own when it comes to atrocities. That was certainly the case in WWII, at least as far as the British and the Americans were concerned, and as nearly as I can tell it was true in Vietnam.

But the question wasn’t about Vietnamese atrocities. It was about the frequency of American. Oh, and Clinton’s BJ.