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The Unknown Whistleblower June 4, 2015

Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, Genocide, History, Imperialism, Torture, Vietnam, War, Whistle-blowing.
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Roger’s note: torture and corrupt imperial aggression didn’t begin with George W. Bush (1492 might be a good place to start).  Here we have documented Vietnam War the torture regime (under presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) and the beginning of the murderous (and counterproductive) doctrine and strategy of massive bombing that is alive and well in Iraq and Syria today (along with its little brother drone killing machine).

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The Secret Origins of the CIA’s Torture Program and the Forgotten Man Who Tried to Expose It

 

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Daniel Ellsberg (left) and his less well known colleague Anthony Russo (r) were charged with theft and unauthorized possession of classified documents under the Espionage Act in 1971, but were eventually acquitted. (File)

The witness reported men being hung by the feet or the thumbs, waterboarded, given electric shocks to the genitals, and suffering from extended solitary confinement in what he said were indescribably inhumane conditions. It’s the sort of description that might have come right out of the executive summary of the Senate torture report released last December. In this case, however, the testimony was not about a “black site” somewhere in the Greater Middle East, nor was it a description from Abu Ghraib, nor in fact from this century at all.

The testimony came from Vietnam; the year was 1968; the witness was Anthony J. Russo, one of the first Americans to report on the systematic torture of enemy combatants by CIA operatives and other U.S. agents in that long-gone war. The acts Russo described became commonplace in the news post-9/11 and he would prove to be an early example of what also became commonplace in our century: a whistleblower who found himself on the wrong side of the law and so was prosecuted for releasing the secret truth about the acts of our government.

Determined to shine a light on what he called “the truth held prisoner,” Russo blew the whistle on American torture policy in Vietnam and on an intelligence debacle at the center of Vietnam decision-making that helped turn that war into the nightmare it was. Neither of his revelations saw the light of day in his own time or ours and while Daniel Ellsberg, his compatriot and companion in revelation, remains a major figure for his role in releasing the Pentagon Papers, Russo is a forgotten man.

That’s too bad. He shouldn’t be forgotten. His is, unfortunately, a story of our times as well as his.

The CIA Interrogation Center, Saigon

Before him sat the enemy.  VC.  Vietcong. He was slender, a decade older than the 28-year-old American, and cautious in his initial responses.  The American offered him a cigarette. “Smoke?”

Anthony Russo liked to befriend his subjects, finding that sharing a cigarette or a beer and congenial conversation could improve an interview’s results.

This man’s all right, Russo thought — unlike the one he had interviewed when he first arrived in Saigon. That prisoner hadsat before him, quivering in fear, pleading for his life.“Are you going to kill me?” the distraught man had said repeatedly, his thumbs red and bulbous from being strung up.

Torture was not something Russo had anticipated when he took the job. A civilian with a rank equivalent to major working for the RAND Corporation, he had arrived in the South Vietnamese capital on February 22, 1965, and was briefed on his mission. Russo was to meet the enemy face-to-face and figure out what made them tick. On that first day, he could hear General Richard Stilwell, chief of staff of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), barking orders from the next room: “You get every goddamn plane in the air that you can!”

Russo thought the war would be over in a few weeks,months at worst.

Instead of the limited conflict he expected, years slipped by. Bombs fell, villages were decimated, the fabric of Vietnamese life assaulted. Russo persisted with his interviews ofVietcong prisoners, witnessing the after-effects of torture in nearly every instance.

It’s hard to pinpoint just when the shift occurred in the young man who came to Southeast Asia to “promote democracy.” But as one tour of duty extended to two, contact with the enemy changed not their hearts and minds, but his. On the eve of the 1968 Tet Offensive, he returned to the United States intent on challenging the war, a chance he would get, helping his friend and RAND co-worker Daniel Ellsbergwith the Pentagon Papers.

That secret history of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam, a massive compilation of internal government memoranda and analyses, had been quietly commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967 to assess what had gone wrong in Vietnam. Ellsberg leaked the Papers to the press in mid-1971, setting off a political firestorm and First Amendment crisis. He would be indicted on charges of espionage, conspiracy, and theft of government property, and would face a maximum penalty of 115 years in prison. Charges were also brought against Russo, who was suspected of complicity, after he refused to testify before a grand jury. He was jailed for 47 days for contempt and faced a possible sentence of 35 years in prison if convicted.

Ellsberg’s leak led to a Supreme Court decision on prior restraint, a landmark First Amendment case. Though all the charges were ultimately dropped, the leak and its aftermath had major political fallout, contributing to the demise of the presidency of Richard Nixon and forming a dramatic chapter on the path to U.S. defeat in Vietnam.

Ellsberg became a twentieth-century hero, applauded in print and film, his name nearly synonymous with the Pentagon Papers, but Russo, the young accomplice who goaded Ellsberg to go public, has been nearly forgotten. Yet he was, according to Ellsberg, the first person to document the systematic torture of enemy combatants in Vietnam. If no one knows this, it’s because his report on the subject remains buried in the vaults of the RAND Corporation, the think tank that did research for the Pentagon in Vietnam. Similarly, while the use of unprecedented airpower against the civilian populations of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia inspired international calls for war crimes trials in the 1970s, Russo’s exposure of the fabrication of data that propped up that air war remains but a footnote in Vietnam War historiography, unknown to all but a handful of academics.

He has remained “the other conspirator.” Ellsberg later conceded that he probably wouldn’t have thought of releasing the Papers if Russo hadn’t prodded him to “put that out” and helped copy them in a series of all-night sessions. But Russo would take a backseat to Ellsberg, who had snuck the massive set of documents out of RAND headquarters and released them to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and 18 other news organizations.

The two of them would become the antiwar movement’s odd couple. Ellsberg was articulate, suave, and fashionable; Russo opted for hippie attire, long hair, and impossibly bushy sideburns, a style of dress that fit with his growing political radicalism. Russo and his attorney, Leonard Weinglass, devised a bold — some said reckless — defense strategy focused on using expert witness testimony to put the U.S. prosecution of the war on trial. Weinglass would emerge as a star attorney on the case, even — in the opinion of some observers — eclipsing Ellsberg’s senior lawyer, Leonard Boudin. But his client kept getting into trouble: scrawling a wiseacre comment on evidence before the court, handing a prosecution witness a press release that accused him of war crimes, peppering his statements to the press with movement jargon. In the end, Russo’s leftwing antics would help marginalize him and bury the story he had to tell.

The Think Tank

It all started in a nondescript mid-century building on Main Street in sunny Santa Monica, California. There, the RAND Corporation, a quasi-private think tank with a cozy relationship with the Air Force and Washington power brokers, dreamed up study projects for the Department of Defense.

RAND, an acronym for “research and development,” was launched in 1946 as a private research arm of the Army Air Forces, whose successor, the Air Force, would remain its primary financial backer and client for years to come.  The think tank’s work ranged from weapons development to advanced strategic thinking on how to wage — or avert — nuclear war.  RAND theorists would set the parameters for strategic defense thinking for decades, with the likes of Herman Kahn, once dubbed the “heavyweight of the megadeath intellectuals”; Thomas Schelling, Nobel laureate in economics for his work on game theory and the originator of “tacit bargaining”; and Albert Wohlstetter, the godfather of RAND’s nuclear strategists who devised the concepts of “second strike,” “fail safe,” and what he called the “delicate balance of terror” (aka “deterrence”).

In 1961, as President John F. Kennedy launched a counterinsurgency effort that would see its first expression in Vietnam, the think tank took on the study of guerilla war, falling into an easy alliance with the Department of Defense and Robert S. McNamara, the numbers man at its head. Thinking he could apply a systems analysis approach to national defense, Secretary of Defense McNamara had turned to the leader in the field for ideas and manpower. From RAND, he recruited heavily to help lead the counterinsurgency charge in Vietnam, creating a team popularly known as “McNamara’s Whiz Kids.” And he turned to RAND for an answer to an essential strategic question: “What makes the Vietcong tick?”

“M&M” would become the institution’s shorthand for the Vietcong Motivation and Morale Study that resulted, an attempt to apply social science to the study of enemy motivation. Russo was eager to join the effort. Elizabeth Gibbs, who married him in 1964, said that her young husband was preoccupied with the threat of guerilla war and wanted to see action on the front lines of the counterinsurgency effort.

Fascinated by flight, Russo had pursued aeronautical engineering in a cooperative work-study program run by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and NASA’s Langley Research Center, where he worked on the first Mercury space capsule.  He then went to graduate school at Princeton, specializing in plasma physics. After just a year there, however, he took up the study of national defense policy at its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, receiving master’s degrees in both engineering and public affairs in 1964. An ambitious academic, he also exhibited an unruly, prankster side.  In one of his moments of youthful excess — a story he liked to tell — he cemented a commode to a Virginia war memorial, an act that might be considered a foreshadowing of things to come.

At Princeton, Russo studied under four men he called “heavyweights”: Oskar Morgenstern, an originator with Schelling of game theory; Cold War theorists Klaus Knorr and George Kennan; and Richard Falk, an expert on international law and the lone dove among Russo’s mentors. Falk argued against the move to RAND. But Russo, impressed by the think tank’s influence in the highest echelons of U.S. policymaking, jumped at the opportunity. Within six months he had secured an assignment to Vietnam.

Russo arrived in Saigon in February 1965 and met Leon Goure, his boss and future nemesis, just as the U.S. bombing campaign against North Vietnam was beginning and only two weeks before the first United States Marines landed at Danang.  His job was to meet the enemy.

The M&M

“How many people in your village work for the Front?”

“Everyone in the village works for the Front,” the prisoner responded in Vietnamese, translated by the young man at Russo’s side.  His village was in the Cu Chi district, an area near Saigon under Vietcong control. Russo would later describe it as the birthplace of southern resistance to the French and then American armies. Despite their vastly superior arms, the South Vietnamese Army and its American allies rarely ventured into the prisoner’s village for fear of the VC’s deadly resistance methods.  

“How was your village defended?” he asked.

“It had pit traps with bamboo spikes, grenade booby traps.  It was surrounded by bamboo hedges,” the prisoner responded and then explained in detail how the villagers organized their resistance.

Physically fit and tall, Russo towered over the former cadre.  He felt anything but complacent, however, about the enemy he faced, having barely escaped a bomb that had recently exploded in a Saigon restaurant where he was planning to have dinner.

“Why does the Vietcong use terrorism against women and children?” Russo asked.  Until now, he had been careful to call the enemy military by its homegrown name, “the Front,” rather than the pejorative “Vietcong.” Emotion must have caused him to break protocol.

He was part of the second M&M study team. Joseph Zasloff and John Donnell, analysts from the initial team, had reported their results in Washington at a meeting attended by Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John T. McNaughton and Henry Rowen (who would later head RAND). They described the Vietcong as a unified, disciplined army that already acted as an alternative government in large swaths of SouthVietnam with widespread support from the population, prompting a shocked McNaughton to comment that it sounded as if the U.S. had signed up with the wrong — and losing — side. Daniel Ellsberg, who then worked for McNaughton, witnessed the exchange.

The Zasloff-Donnell report, however, came too late for an audience that had already made up its mind. The previous March, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy had urged an expanded war even as the president campaigned for a full term in office with a promise to keep American soldiers out of Vietnam. Meanwhile, within the military, a struggle for dominance was underway, with Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, instrumental in the founding of RAND, agitating for a bigger role for air power.

Then came the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964. As presented by President Lyndon Johnson, the destroyer USS Maddox was innocently sailing through the Gulf of Tonkin when attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats followed, two nights later, by a second attack on the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy.  Johnson orderedmilitary action “in reply,” and Congress quickly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving the president carte blanche to repeatedly intensify the war. The claim of two separate attacks would, however, prove untrue, as Daniel Ellsberg would attest. It had been his first night on the job in the Pentagon.

At RAND, the stage was set for Leon Goure, an analyst acclaimed for his work on Soviet civil defense preparations. Goure had toured Vietnam and visited RAND’s Saigon operation in 1964. Upon his return to the U.S., he proposed that the M&M project be redefined with a critical twist. No longer would it focus solely on an assessment of enemy motivation and morale. It would now identify what kinds of weaponry would be most likely to demoralize that enemy, with an emphasis on air power.

A meeting with his friend LeMay cemented the deal. He would later report that “by the strings he pulled, LeMay assured continuation of the project” under Goure’s lead. At that time, the Air Force still provided two-thirds of RAND’s funding, a connection the new lead analyst made no attempt to hide.

The Answer Is Always Bombing

Susan Morrell could scarcely believe it. As RAND’s Saigon-based administrative assistant, it fell to her to pick up her new boss at the airport on his arrival. Making the Vietnam version of small talk on the way back to town, she asked Goure if he planned to use the existing protocol for enemy interviews or wanted to start over from scratch.

“I’ve got the answer right here,” he responded with a pat on his briefcase.

“What do you mean?” asked Morrell.

“When the Air Force is footing the bill, the answer is always bombing.”

Decades later, Morrell told RAND historian Mai Elliott that it was a moment seared into her memory and in those early days she wasn’t the only RAND staffer to observe Goure’s special affinity for the Air Force. At their first meeting, for instance, Russo remembered Goure commenting on that service’s unhappiness with the Zasloff-Donnell study.  Zasloff himself was still in Saigon when Goure arrived and would soon accuse his successor of pandering to the Air Force. Half a century later, in a phone interview just before his death, Zasloff still lamented that his intelligence data hadn’t changed the course of the war and Goure’s had.

Goure’s work on Soviet civil defense was then widely known. In 1961, he claimed that the Soviets had trained 50 million citizens in civil defense procedures, were readying a massive system of bomb shelters to ride out a nuclear conflagration, and so were preparing to absorb a preemptive nuclear strike. His research seemed to have frightening implications: U.S. reliance on what was then called mutual assured destruction, or MAD, to stop a nuclear war suddenly appeared insufficient. The Soviets could strike preemptively if they thought national survival after a nuclear attack was possible. Kennedy stepped into the heated debate in July 1961 with a call for a $207 million appropriation for civil defense. That October, he began to encourage Americans to build their own private shelters for protection from nuclear fallout. Goure became a sought after expert.

In fact, his work would be challenged by New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury, who questioned Goure’s sources, found observers who vigorously challenged his conclusions, and made his own 12,000-mile trip across the Soviet Union and found them unsubstantiated.  But nothing, it seemed, could crack Goure’s reputation in Washington.

The year 1961 had been a seminal moment for Russo, too.  His lifelong friend and future technology consultant William Grossmann recalled them driving to their NASA jobs together, one day in Russo’s white 1959 Ford convertible, the next in Grossmann’s white Chevy convertible — and on weekends, sharing heady conversation and wooing girls. The two like-minded Southerners had each taken stands against segregation, while worrying about the bomb, totalitarianism, and the “containment” of Communism. They were impressed that Kennedy had forced the Russians to stand down in the Cuban missile crisis. The same, both believed, could happen in Vietnam. On arrival in Saigon, Russo wrote Grossmann that the Vietnamese “are going to have to get used to it. We’re going to have to be the policemen for a while.”

Russo found himself at the epicenter of American intelligence-gathering in Vietnam. RAND’s Saigon villa became the requisite “prestige stop” for anyone with an interest in the war. By day, it served as a command center; at night, it hosted dinner parties for visiting luminaries, high-ranking figures in the military, the CIA, and members of the press. Goure was the star attraction. In that initial critical period of massive escalation, he provided the perfect mix of optimistic analysis and an engaging personality and so became the “go to” intelligence man in town.

Though Goure wrote research memoranda, RAND’s usual stock in trade, it was on the briefing circuit that he truly shone. His message, reported directly to Westmoreland,the top military commander in Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and others at the Pentagon, was unambiguous: the Vietcong were losing their resolve in the face of U.S. military might, especially airpower. Goure quickly established himself as the Air Force’s best pitchman.

It’s hard to overstate his influence. McNamara was so enamored of his message that, on first hearing him in June 1965, he offered to up the M&M budget on the spot from $100,000 to $1,000,000. As one analyst later quipped, the secretary of defense “lapped up Goure’s analysis like good scotch.” Journalists repeated his claim that the Vietcong were heading for defeat as the daily body count became a staple of war coverage.

Russo, who attended some of Goure’s Saigon briefings, remembered how he liked to brag that RAND had “the best damned intelligence in Saigon.” It would take some time for Russo to realize that his boss’s prescription for military success didn’t match the data.

The Cadre from Cu Chi

Intent on answering McNamara’s question about what made the Vietcong tick, Russo focused on his interviews with enemy prisoners. With full access and a small team of Vietnamese interviewers under his supervision, he visited detention sites all over South Vietnam, including the CIA’s National Interrogation Center in Saigon. Of all the interviews he conducted, the one with that cadre from Cu Chi would most deeply challenge his assumptions about Vietnam. He kept a copy of it, which he published in the left-leaning magazine Ramparts in October 1972, and spoke about it whenever he could, including at his Pentagon Papers trial.

He never knew the prisoner’s name; he was identified in the transcript only as AG132. Over the course of two days in May 1965, Russo sat in his cell listening to his views on Vietnamese history, the political forces at play in his country, and Vietcong organizing strategy and tactics. When the cadre blamed the Americans for the deaths of women and children, Russo took a new tack, initiating what he called a “friendly chat” about world politics, the American role in Vietnam, and the civil rights movement in the U.S.

“Even though I don’t know first hand what it means to be burned out, pillaged, and raped, I grew up knowing it had happened to my ancestors,” Russo would later say.  While there is no record of how Russo described his personal history to that cadre, his comments to me years after in private interviews and public conversation provide a window onto what he might well have said. Unemployed and with time on his hands in 1990, Russo held daily court at the Boulangerie, a cafe on Main Street in Santa Monica, just blocks from the RAND Corporation. There, he regaled a small audience with old stories and political analysis.

With a twinkle in his eye, he would say that the short answer to why he got involved with the Pentagon Papers was that the British had burned his hometown of Holland, Virginia, to the ground. He was proud to call it a hotbed of sedition.

While he liked to portray himself as the descendent of America’s first revolutionaries, his Civil War heritage was harder to reconcile. Race was the first issue to challenge his personal worldview. Russo attended a segregated high school and then hung out with black friends he had met working at the local golf course.  By the time he got to Virginia Polytechnic, the battle over court-mandated school integration had engulfed the state, with Senator Harry F. Byrd leading the segregationist charge. When Russo got Lionel Hampton to play for a school dance he organized, the university dean, anticipating that a black musician would attract a mixed crowd, demanded that the audience be segregated. Russo defied the order and black and white attendees packed the event.

“We integrated Burrus Hall,” Russo would say.  “I see that as my first political act.  We stood up for justice.”

He had a way of telling and retelling the stories that were most important to him, so I suspect that he told the Cu Chi cadre of his own experience with civil rights in the South. And perhaps, even under those circumstances — and even through a translator –made the prisoner laugh, as he had a way of telling a spirited tale.

Whatever he said, it appeared to affect the cadre as he hoped it would for he scribbled in the margin of his notebook, “The chat proved to be very successful and the subject’s attitude changed visibly.” Their talk then turned back to the situation at hand and the cadre accused the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies of blocking the election, agreed upon in the 1954 Geneva Accords that ended the French War, an election which would almost assuredly have brought Communist leader Ho Chi Minh to power and reunified Vietnam. A group of schoolteachers from his village, AG132 told Russo, had been imprisoned simply for writing a petition demanding those elections and peace.

The prisoner added that local government officials were, in his opinion, directed and controlled by the Americans who had the same intentions as the French colonialists before them. “The concrete evidence,”said the cadre, “makes the Americans identical to the French. But much more clever.”  He summed the situation up this way: “The aims of the Americans are very nice. They fight for freedom and equality. It is very nice to talk about a free world, but I have not seen any good deeds. All I saw was evil.”

By the end of the interview, AG132 had confronted every issue that would later prove troublesome to Russo, including the indiscriminant bombing campaigns, the use of chemical defoliants, and torture.

The cadre’s analysis clearly unsettled the young American, who saw himself as a liberator, not an occupier. In an interview with filmmaker Peter Davis, he would later acknowledge how disturbed he was when the prisoner insisted that the Vietnamese hated the Americans and admitted that he then tried to defend his country, to show that “everything about America wasn’t bad.”

“He was very disdainful of me, but I was fascinated by him,” Russo said.  By the end, “I had a great deal of admiration for him. He recited a poem for me. It was very moving to hear him recite this poem right in the middle of this interrogation room in a jail where I knew people had been tortured, if not killed.”

AG132, Russo later testified, had been tortured on multiple occasions. Historical research, including the work of Alfred McCoy, an expert on CIA torture practices, buttresses Russo’s statements about the brutal treatment of Vietcong prisoners. McCoy, for instance, quotes a military intelligence veteran who told a 1971 House subcommittee that, during his 18-month stint in Vietnam, not a single Vietcong suspect had survived the interrogations he witnessed.

Russo’s interview with AG132 took place only three months after he landed in Saigon. Though he would return to it again and again in the ensuing years, some time would pass before he became convinced that he was actually on the side of the aggressor.

His wife remembers him still defending U.S. intentions in Vietnam in the spring of 1965. By that summer, however, Russo and other RAND analysts were questioning their boss’s methodology and intentions. They still found themselves reaching conclusions nearly identical to those of Zasloff and Donnell: that the Vietcong represented peasant aspirations and weren’t likely to be bested by air power or any other kind of U.S. military action.

On a sweltering June day in 1965, Russo and Goure were together when word came in that the most powerful bombers in the U.S. arsenal, B-52s, had been approved for use in Vietnam. Russo knew airplanes and understood full well the kind of destruction B-52s would bring with them. For Goure, the decision was advocacy put into action and he would extol the B-52’s power to destabilize the enemy in his next report. In it, he was careful to note that civilians should be warned of such bombings by leaflets dropped in advance of a raid to insure against any popular backlash.

A month later, Russo would meet an old man at a detainment center clutching one of those warning leaflets. His village had been warned, just as Goure had said, but the bombers came a day early, wiping out nearly all of its inhabitants. “Why?” he cried.  It was a moment Russo would not forget.

Breaking the Enemy

Torture hadn’t been part of the job description when Russo signed on at RAND.  Of the first victim he met, he said, “I never will forget. He was washed out, looked very sad. He told the translator that he had been hung up by his thumbs and that they beat him real bad. They thought he had thrown a bomb,” though he proclaimed his innocence.

“That was one of the first interviews that I did. It was very sobering. I saw that a person could be broken badly.” The interview tape then goes silent for more than a minute as Russo struggled to regain his composure.

He reported the incident to the American captain who was his contact there only to experience the first of many official brush-offs when it came to torture. Russo said prisoners were tortured “as a matter of course” and reported specific forms of abuse including men being hung by the feet or thumbs, waterboarding, electric shocks to the genitals, and solitary confinement in “a dark cell, a dark, dank, dirty — very dirty cell.”

It is no accident that the torture methods he documented are strikingly similar to those revealed in the December 2014 Senate torture report. Vietnam was the first testing ground for what historian McCoy termed a new paradigm in the practice of torture developed by the CIA. The Agency had launched a multi-billion dollar research program on human cognition in search of techniques to protect U.S. forces in the event of capture by the Soviets. Finding that a potent combination of sensory deprivation and “self-inflicted pain” was more effective than centuries-old methods of physical torture and produced profound psychological regression in their test subjects, the CIA applied the same techniques to enemy interrogation. While they emphasized destruction of the psyche, physical brutalization was also employed. In Vietnam, this included electric shocks, beatings, rape, and the deaths of prisoners in “pump and dump” procedures, named for the process of pumping detainees for information and then dumping their bodies. Russo was witnessing the beginnings of what would become institutionalized CIA torture practices that would span four decades and four continents.

When asked about torture performed by Americans, Russo said a “CIA man” at the National Interrogation Center in Saigon told him in great detail on numerous occasions about the Agency’s torture techniques, including in one case the hanging of a man by his feet while a “piano wire noose was slipped around his genitals.” The CIA operative, he said, grinned as he told him that the prisoner never talked.

Russo documented every instance of torture he encountered. He later wrote that the interview reports were full of “embarrassing stories of atrocities and crimes against humanity” and he argued bitterly with Goure over his boss’s order to “sanitize” the interview transcripts by removing all mention of abuse. Though Russo defied the order, Goure controlled the final drafts.

Then there was the torture paper that Ellsberg has repeatedly said was the first to document American complicity in the routine use of torture and one of three papers that would ultimately get Russo fired. That document was either squashed in internal review or it remains classified, presumably buried somewhere in the think tank’s archives.

There is no reliable information on how much of RAND’s Vietnam-era work still remains off limits to the public. The think tank responded to a 2013 request of mine for Russo’s and other missing reports by saying that the “documents you have requested have not been cleared for public release and are not available.”

Making Russo’s missing torture report public, if it still exists, would provide eyewitness data supporting the burgeoning body of evidence that CIA torture practices have a long and sordid history beginning in Vietnam.

Trouble with the Data

Goure had fabricated his data to emphasize the efficacy and importance of air power and his analysts knew it. At the RAND villa, an open split developed, with Russo leading the group who wanted to expose their boss. He and his roommate, analyst Douglass Scott, spent long nights discussing “what to do about Leon.” Finally, with a third analyst, Russell Betts, they wrote the head of RAND’s Social Science department in the spring of 1966 about the improprieties they had found in Goure’s research methodology.

A succession of three RAND envoys came to Saigon to investigate and by summer a controversy raged on both sides of the Pacific. Russo and Scott had been particularly incensed that Goure signed their names to a February 1966 memorandum that again cited the benefits of air power, which was increasingly targeting rural villages, and proposed that the refugee crisis offered “a major opportunity to pacify” the population. It also pointed out that the chemicals that came to be known as Agent Orange could control movement of the population while also denying food to the guerillas. Russo and Scott fought to get their names removed without success. Around the time their whistleblowing letter hit Santa Monica, Goure amplified his arugument, proposing that the U.S. adopt a deliberate program to generate refugees.

Meanwhile, Goure’s prescriptions for success were being passed up the chain of command. The president’s phone records show McNamara using the February report to offer encouragement to Johnson that the American counterinsurgency operation was working. Influential Washington columnist Drew Pearson would capture Goure’s effect on the president in his famous May 1966 comment: “For the first time [he] sees light at the end of the tunnel.”

At this point, RAND’s leadership knew that Goure’s data, relied upon by both the Pentagon and President Johnson, was questionable at best and decided to pull Goure from the M&M study. The think tank couldn’t, however, get rid of him. He had secured his position with a direct line to the White House through National Security Adviser Walt Rostow, a hawk, architect of Vietnam policy, and staunch Goure supporter. Thanks in part to him, President Johnson, who reportedly sometimes carried a summary of Goure’s conclusions in his pocket for discussions with journalists, would continue to ride a wave of optimism in this period.

Though Russo never let his wife in on his conflict with Goure — he was, Gibbs said, too conscious of his secrecy oath to disclose such problems — she saw a changed man when he visited her in Bangkok on leave in November 1965.He wasmorose and withdrawn. When they returned to Santa Monica at the end of his first tour of duty in September 1966, Russo set to work at RAND headquarters trying to counter the most pernicious aspects of what he’d witnessed. Off work, he took to the hills of Topanga Canyon on his motorcycle, leaving Gibbs home alone. They would soon divorce.

Outside of RAND, the flaws in Goure’s analysis would gradually be noted. Westmoreland expressed his first doubts in late 1965 and McNamara began to worry when the general upped his request for new ground troops to 410,000 that winter. In February 1966, the secretary of defense confided to a few journalists that “no amount of bombing can end the war,” though he continued to maintain a façade of confidence in the war effort.

The bombing levels were by then unprecedented in the history of air power. From March 1965 through November 1968, Operation Rolling Thunder unleashed 800 tons of munitions a day on North Vietnam, a total of a million bombs, rockets, and missiles. Even more bombs were dropped in the South with estimates ranging from seven million to eight million tons of them, not to mention 70 million liters of defoliants, as well as napalmand other anti-personnel weapons.  Then, of course, there was the massive bombing of neighboring Laos and later Cambodia.

Yet victory never came into view. Instead of drawing down, the administration only intensified the air war, sidelining the doubters, including — as he grew ever more disillusioned — McNamara himself. In August 1967, he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the air raids had not broken Vietcong morale and that, short of the “virtual annihilation of North Vietnam and its people,” the air war could not succeed. Johnson quickly forced him out of the administration. At his farewell luncheon, a Johnson aide reported that the secretary of defense’s voice broke and there were tears in his eyes as he spoke of the futility of the air war. Later, he would acknowledge more than two million Vietnamese deaths. 

Knowing the cause was lost, McNamara had by then ordered the production of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history that he hoped would avert future such disasters.

The Second Tour of Duty

Back in Santa Monica, Russo wrote a critical evaluation of the Motivation and Morale Study, which is still classified. He was also drafting an argument against the defoliation program, already in its sixth year, when, in September 1967, he was called back to Vietnam for a six-month tour of duty.

He found Saigon changed — Americanized, overrun with prostitution and corruption, expensive and dirty. Goure at least was gone, removed from the M&M crew in April by RAND’s new president Henry Rowen, who had been at that Zasloff and Donnell debriefing years earlier.

Once again, Russo felt hopeful that fact-based intelligence could rule the day. His cost analysis of defoliation, written in what he called “RAND systemspeak,” showed that while the chemicals sprayed did little to deprive revolutionary forces of food, they were having a profoundly destructive impact on the civilian population.  He estimated that for every pound of food that defoliation denied a guerilla, 100 pounds were denied to civilians. But when he got his moment to brief Westmoreland’s scientific advisor on the subject, he was dismissed in under 15 minutes. Frustrated but undeterred, he set to work disproving a RAND socio-economic study that claimed widespread peasant support for the U.S. backed South Vietnamese army. Again, his work would not be well received.

Russo left Saigon just as the Tet Offensive, a vivid demonstration of the enemy’s resilience, began to unfold on January 30, 1968. He said he could see wrecked planes beneath him as he passed over Danang Air Base.

It’s likely that he wrote the missing torture report in the early months of 1968, a period when the CIA’s use of torture expanded dramatically under the notorious Phoenix Program.

During Russo’s stint in Vietnam, the CIA actually oversaw three separate operations that employed torture: its own interrogation centers, 40 provincial interrogation centers run by Vietnamese with CIA training and supervision, and a training program that schooled 85,000 Vietnamese police in torture techniques, part of a worldwide operation. Russo left Vietnam shortly after the Agency brought the three operations under one counterinsurgency umbrella. The Phoenix Program, designed to destroy the “civilian infrastructure” of the National Liberation Front, would be one of its major operations.

William Colby, the chief of “pacification” in Vietnam who would later become the CIA’s director, informed a House Operations Subcommittee in July 1971 that the Phoenix Program had killed 20,587 Vietcong suspects. Other sources quote figures as much as four times higher. Russo’s paper had done nothing to stop the carnage.

In May 1968, the new head of RAND’s economics department fired him. Associates were told to keep their distance from him during the six-month grace period he was given to find other employment. Ellsberg was the only RAND associate who argued for his reinstatement.  

Meanwhile, though relieved of leadership of the M&M, Goure held onto a job at RAND, even returning to Vietnam in 1968 as head of a new study of enemy infiltration rates. He would finally leave in 1969 to become the director of Soviet studies at the University of Miami. There, he would contribute his “expertise”to another front in the war against Communism: Cuba.

In fact, Goure’s “best damned intelligence” had proved to be an intelligence debacle for the ages. After Ellsberg and Russo took the Pentagon Papers public, Russo was eager to expose one thing that mammoth document hadn’t: how a single think tank under contract to the government and far from the public eye, along with its highly touted expert in counterinsurgency warfare, had disastrously affected policy from behind the scenes.

His two Ramparts exposés (one aptly titled “The RAND Papers”) and his testimony at his trial were generally ignored by the mainstream media. Goure’s reputation remained remarkably unsullied and he would continue to be a player in the formulation of foreign policy. In 1980, for example, he was invited onto a panel of advisers to presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan. In 1991, by then the director of Soviet studies at Science Applications International Corporation, he participated in an International Security Council round table discussion of future Russian military policy. Past and future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was in attendance.

Much of his work, however, was conducted in the shadows. He died in 2007. Stanford University holds the Goure Papers collection, a testament to his enduring legacy. Anthony Russo would not fare so well.

Charged With Espionage

“Russo weeps as he tells jury about change in views on war,” read the New York Times headline on the 66th day of the Pentagon Papers trial when Russo told the story of the Cu Chi cadre to the jury.

He had already published the cadre interview in Ramparts. Now, he again turned to the Vietcong prisoner who had come to symbolize for him all that was wrong with U.S. policy in Vietnam. As he would confide to filmmaker Peter Davis, the memory of that prisoner never left him. He was convinced that if other Americans met their enemy, if he could give that enemy a human face, the public would fully abandon Washington’s efforts to destroy them.

He compared the depersonalization of the Vietnamese to the Nazi depiction of the Jews. “If you don’t know who the Vietnamese people are, it is much easier to be racist.  It’s much easier to kill them.  This really is a lesson from World War II. Racist attitudes made it possible to manifest hatred and to undertake the extermination campaigns. Well, this really is what the United States is doing in Vietnam. The United States is exterminating the Vietnamese. And the United States couldn’t do this, no American, no human being could do this, if he really knew who the Vietnamese are.”

In the trial’s aftermath, Russo would be progressively marginalized, his claims about the M&M study ignored or written off as the ravings of a leftwing radical. But in its heady days, he reveled in his whistleblower role. Ten months after it began, prosecutor David Nissen’s case was in shambles. Revelations that the government wiretapped the defendants had resulted in a Supreme Court-ordered stay and then mistrial in its first round. And it had only got worse.

Soon enough, the press revealed that President Nixon’s right-hand man, John Erlichman, had introduced presiding trial judge William Byrne, Jr., to the president in his home and had discussed his possible appointment as FBI director — a clear impropriety in the middle of an espionage case. And then it hit the news that convicted Watergate conspirators G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, Jr., had burglarized the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

On April 30, 1973, just days after the first news of that burglary, which tied the Pentagon Papers case to Watergate, a set of dominoes lay on the prosecution table. Each domino was labeled — Hunt, Liddy, Erlichman, Byrne, and so on — the last domino had Nixon’s name. It was Russo’s prank.

On May 1st, Erlichman’s domino fell when the news broke that he had admitted to the FBI his knowledge of the break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.  On May 2nd, the last domino did indeed fall.  It was revealed that President Nixon had been informed of that break-inat least a week before the court knew about it.

On May 11th, Judge Byrne dismissed all charges against Ellsberg and Russo.

Postscript: Validation by RAND

Seventeen years later, Russo told me that a single realization had changed his mind about the war. He had, he said, been misinformed about the Vietcong. “They were not the enemy we were told they were.”

I asked what had most surprised him in his interviews with Vietnamese prisoners.

“The extent to which they cared about principle,” he answered. “The extent to which they had legitimacy, every reason in the world to be fighting. They were very admirable and very likeable. Very likeable. Natural friends of Americans.”

As for his participation in the release of the Pentagon Papers, he summed up his reasons in a single sentence: “It would have been un-American not to do it.”

Russo died in 2008 before RAND verified his claims about the Motivation and Morale Study in an extensive history written by Mai Elliott (herself a former M&M interviewer and interpreter) under contract to RAND and published in 2010. Her book, RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era, forms a fitting sequel to the Pentagon Papers, with a carefully documented tale of how intelligence can go terribly wrong.

Elliott’s book validates nearly all of Russo’s claims. It confirms, for instance, that Goure did act as a pitchman for the air war, selling a prescription for military success that didn’t faintly match the data at hand. It details Goure’s outsized influence on policymakers and Russo’s claim that evidence of torture by U.S. forces and allies was systematically removed under Goure’s orders. She even quotes former RAND President Gus Shubert’s admission that the assignment of Goure to the Motivation and Morale Study appeared to represent collusion between his RAND predecessor and the Air Force, which he termed a “disgrace.”

In the end, Elliott, and by extension RAND, corroborate and elaborate on nearly every claim Russo made in his 1972 Ramparts articles. Only one of Russo’s charges was rejected: that the think tank was complicit in war crimes.

Never one to mince words, Russo called the M&M a “whitewash of genocide” and “a justification of genocide cloaked in the mantle of RAND social science,” accusations that echoed growing popular sentiment for war crimes trials and that must have held terrible personal resonance for a man whose name is there in black and white, attached to the call for the ever greater use of air power, defoliation, and the displacement of rural populations as tools of war.  

Today, Anthony Russo is gone, his report on torture disappeared, and his legacy perhaps doomed to obscurity.  RAND, meanwhile, continues to churn out studies for the military; the Air Force continues to drop bombs and fire missiles from Iraq to Afghanistan, Pakistan to Yemen; the CIA continues to cover-up its torture policies. But Russo’s spiritual descendants, whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning of WikiLeaks fame, John Kiriakou who exposed CIA torture,and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden live on, each putting his freedom on the line just as Russo did. Whether or not any of the whistleblowers of the post-9/11 era knew Russo’s story, they benefitted from a tradition he, Ellsberg, and others of their generation had helped to pioneer.

It’s a testament to the explosive nature of Russo’s revelations that, almost 50 years later, RAND still keeps his report on CIA torture in Vietnam a secret — as the Pentagon Papers might be today if he had not convinced Daniel Ellsberg to make them public. It’s a tribute to Russo that his critical evaluation of the Motivation and Morale Study remains classified as well.

Call it an irony, but Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president who articulated the domino theory that brought Russo to Vietnam, crafted the words that might be most fitting for his epitaph years before he arrived in Vietnam. In his 1961 farewell address, Eisenhower focused on twin internal threats: “the military-industrial complex,” which he first named, and its forgotten corollary: that public policy could become the captive of a “scientific-technological elite.” Russo, who railed against RAND’s secret and deadly influence until his dying day, couldn’t have said it better.

 [Note: Special thanks go to Peter Davis for his use of his interview with Anthony Russo, provided courtesy of the University Archives & Special Collections Department, Joseph P. Healey Library, University of Massachusetts, Boston: Hearts and Minds collection, 1970-1974.]

Barbara Myers is a journalist, educator, and activist. She has written for the Miami Herald and edited and produced multi-media for the San Francisco Chronicle. In the 1970s, she worked with the Indochina Peace Campaign in Los Angeles, where she attended the Pentagon Papers trial and first met the subject of her TomDispatch story, Tony Russo.

How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam? January 18, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in History, Imperialism, Vietnam, War.
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Roger’s note: the United States military policy of massacres and torture did not begin with George W. Bush.  It began with the genocide of the Native Peoples, continued on with the brutality against African Slaves and the imperialist policies that began with the Spanish-American war and continues to this day in the Middle East, Africa, and around the globe.
Published on Friday, January 18, 2013 by Tom Dispatch

A New Book Transforms Our Understanding of What the Vietnam War Actually Was

by Jonathan Schell

For half a century we have been arguing about “the Vietnam War.” Is it possible that we didn’t know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible, but such, it turns out, has literally been the case.

Now, in Kill Anything that MovesNick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth.  Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.

It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality — an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground — had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers — for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.

Yet it would not have been enough to simply accumulate anecdotal evidence of abuses. Therefore, while providing an abundance of firsthand accounts, he has supplemented this approach. Like a fabric, a social reality — a town, a university, a revolution, a war — has a pattern and a texture.  No fact is an island. Each one is rich in implications, which, so to speak, reach out toward the wider area of the surrounding facts. When some of these other facts are confirmed, they begin to reveal the pattern and texture in question.

Turse repeatedly invites us to ask what sort of larger picture each story implies. For example, he writes:

If one man and his tiny team could claim more KIAs [killed in action] than an entire battalion without raising red flags among superiors; if a brigade commander could up the body count by picking off civilians from his helicopter with impunity; if a top general could institutionalize atrocities through the profligate use of heavy firepower in areas packed with civilians — then what could be expected down the line, especially among heavily armed young infantrymen operating in the field for weeks, angry, tired, and scared, often unable to locate the enemy and yet relentlessly pressed for kills?

Like a tightening net, the web of stories and reports drawn from myriad sources coalesces into a convincing, inescapable portrait of this war — a portrait that, as an American, you do not wish to see; that, having seen, you wish you could forget, but that you should not forget; and that the facts force you to see and remember and take into account when you ask yourself what the United States has done and been in the last half century, and what it still is doing and still is.

Scorched Earth in I Corps

My angle of vision on these matters is a highly particular one. In early August 1967, I arrived in I Corps, the northernmost district of American military operations in what was then South Vietnam.  I was there to report for the New Yorker on the “air war.” The phrase was a misnomer.  The Vietnamese foe, of course, had no assets in the air in the South, and so there was no “war” of that description.

There was only the unilateral bombardment of the land and people by the fantastic array of aircraft assembled by the United States in Vietnam.  These ranged from the B-52, which laid down a pattern of destruction a mile long and several football fields wide; to fighter bombers capable of dropping, along with much else, 500-pound bombs and canisters of napalm; to the reconfigured DC-3 equipped with a cannon capable of firing 100 rounds per second; to the ubiquitous fleets of helicopters, large and small, that crowded the skies. All this was abetted by continuous artillery fire into “free-fire” zones and naval bombardment from ships just off the coast.

By the time I arrived, the destruction of the villages in the region and the removal of their people to squalid refugee camps was approaching completion. (However, they often returned to their blasted villages, now subject to indiscriminate artillery fire.) Only a few pockets of villages survived. I witnessed the destruction of many of these in Quang Ngai and Quang Tinh provinces from the back seat of small Cessnas called Forward Air Control planes.

As we floated overhead day after day, I would watch long lines of houses burst into flames one after another as troops moved through the area of operation.  In the meantime, the Forward Air Controllers were calling in air strikes as requested by radio from troops on the ground. In past operations, the villagers had been herded out of the area into the camps.  But this time, no evacuation had been ordered, and the population was being subjected to the full fury of a ground and air assault. A rural society was being torn to pieces before my eyes.

The broad results of American actions in I Corps were thus visible and measurable from the air. No scorched earth policy had been announced but scorched earth had been the result.  Still, a huge piece was missing from the puzzle.  I was not able to witness most of the significant operations on the ground firsthand. I sought to interview some soldiers but they would not talk, though one did hint at dark deeds.  “You wouldn’t believe it so I’m not going to tell you,” he said to me. “No one’s ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over, and we’ve all gone home, no one is ever going to know.”

In other words, like so many reporters in Vietnam, I saw mainly one aspect of one corner of the war.  What I had seen was ghastly, but it was not enough to serve as a basis for generalizations about the conduct of the war as a whole. Just a few years later, in 1969, thanks to the determined efforts of a courageous soldier, Ron Ridenhour, and the persistence of a reporter, Seymour Hersh, one piece of the hidden truth about ground operations in I Corp came to light.

It was the My Lai massacre, in which more than 500 civilians were murdered in cold blood by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, of the Americal Division. In subsequent years, news of other atrocities in the area filtered into the press, often many years after the fact. For example, in 2003 the Toledo Blade disclosed a campaign of torture and murder over a period of months, including the summary execution of two blind men by a “reconnaissance” squad called Tiger Force.  Still, no comprehensive picture of the generality of ground operations in the area emerged.

It has not been until the publication of Turse’s book that the everyday reality of which these atrocities were a part has been brought so fully to light. Almost immediately after the American troops arrived in I Corps, a pattern of savagery was established. My Lai, it turns out, was exceptional only in the numbers killed.

Turse offers a massacre at a village called Trieu Ai in October 1967 as a paradigm.  A marine company suffered the loss of a man to a booby trap near the village, which had in fact had been mostly burned down by other American forces a few days earlier.  Some villagers had, however, returned for their belongings. Now, the Marine company, enraged by its loss but unable to find the enemy, entered the village firing their M-16s, setting fire to any intact houses, and tossing grenades into bomb shelters.

A Marine marched a woman into a field and shot her.  Another reported that there were children in the shelters that were being blown up.  His superior replied, “Tough shit, they grow up to be VC [Vietcong].”  Five or ten people rushed out of a shelter when a grenade was thrown into it.  They were cut down in a hail of fire. Turse comments:

In the story of Trieu Ai one can see virtually the entire war writ small.  Here was the repeated aerial bombing and artillery fire… Here was the deliberate burning of peasant homes and the relocation of villagers to refugee camps… Angry troops primed to lash out, often following losses within the unit; civilians trapped in their paths; and officers in the field issuing ambiguous or illegal orders to young men conditioned to obey — that was the basic recipe for many of the mass killings carried out by army soldiers and marines over the years.

The savagery often extended to the utmost depravity: gratuitous torture, killing for target practice, slaughter of children and babies, gang rape.  Consider the following all-too-typical actions of Company B, 1st Battalion, 35th infantry beginning in October 1967:

The company stumbled upon an unarmed young boy.  ‘Someone caught him up on a hill, and they brought him down and the lieutenant asked who wanted to kill him…’ medic Jamie Henry later told army investigators. A radioman and another medic volunteered for the job.  The radioman… ’kicked the boy in the stomach and the medic took him around behind a rock and I heard one magazine go off complete on automatic…’

A few days after this incident, members of that same unit brutalized an elderly man to the point of collapse and then threw him off a cliff without even knowing whether he was dead or alive…

A couple of days after that, they used an unarmed man for target practice…

And less than two weeks later, members of Company B reportedly killed five unarmed women…

Unit members rattled off a litany of other brutal acts committed by the company… [including] a living woman who had an ear cut off while her baby was thrown to the ground and stomped on… 

Pumping Up the Body Count

Turse’s findings completed the picture of the war in I Corps for me.  Whatever the policy might have been in theory, the reality, on the ground as in the air, was the scorched earth I had witnessed from the Forward Air Control planes. Whatever the United States thought it was doing in I Corps, it was actually waging systematic war against the people of the region.

And so it was, as Turse voluminously documents, throughout the country.  Details differed from area to area but the broad picture was the same as the one in I Corps. A case in point is the war in the Mekong Delta, home to some five to six million people in an area of less than 15,000 square miles laced with rivers and canals. In February 1968, General Julian Ewell, soon to be known by Vietnamese and Americans alike as “the Butcher of the Delta,” was placed in charge of the 9th Infantry Division.

In December 1968, he launched Operation Speedy Express. His specialty, amounting to obsession, was increasing “the body count,” ordained by the high command as the key measure of progress in defeating the enemy. Theoretically, only slain soldiers were to be included in that count but — as anyone, soldier or reporter, who spent a half-hour in the field quickly learned — virtually all slain Vietnamese, most of them clearly civilians, were included in the total.  The higher an officer’s body count, the more likely his promotion. Privates who turned in high counts were rewarded with mini-vacations. Ewell set out to increase the ratio of supposed enemy soldiers killed to American soldiers killed.  Pressure to do so was ratcheted up at all levels in the 9th Division. One of his chiefs of staff “went berserk,” in the words of a later chief of staff.

The means were simple: immensely increase the already staggering firepower being used and loosen the already highly permissive “rules of engagement” by, for example, ordering more night raids.  In a typical night episode, Cobra gunships strafed a herd of water buffalo and seven children tending them. All died, and the children were reported as enemy soldiers killed in action.

The kill ratios duly rose from an already suspiciously high 24 “Vietcong” for every dead American to a completely surreal 134 Vietcong per American.  The unreality, however, did not simply lie in the inflated kill numbers but in the identities of the corpses.  Overwhelmingly, they were not enemy soldiers but civilians.  A “Concerned Sergeant” who protested the operation in an anonymous letter to the high command at the time described the results as he witnessed them:

A battalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day.  With 4 battalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 a month 1500, easy. (One battalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!)  If I am only 10% right, and believe me its lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay [My Lai] each month for over a year.

This range of estimates was confirmed in later analyses. Operations in I Corp perhaps depended more on infantry attacks supported by air strikes, while Speedy Express depended more on helicopter raids and demands for high body counts, but the results were the same: indiscriminate warfare, unrestrained by calculation or humanity, on the population of South Vietnam.

Turse reminds us that off the battlefield, too, casual violence — such as the use of military trucks to run over Vietnamese on the roads, seemingly for entertainment — was widespread.  The commonest terms for Vietnamese were the racist epithets “gooks,” “dinks,” and “slopes.”  And the U.S. military machine was supplemented by an equally brutal American-South Vietnamese prison system in which torture was standard procedure and extrajudicial executions common.

How did it happen? How did a country that believes itself to be guided by principles of decency permit such savagery to break out and then allow it to continue for more than a decade?

Why, when the first Marines arrived in I Corps in early 1965, did so many of them almost immediately cast aside the rules of war as well as all ordinary scruples and sink to the lowest levels of barbarism?  What chains of cause and effect linked “the best and the brightest” of America’s top universities and corporations who were running the war with the murder of those buffalo boys in the Mekong Delta?

How did the gates of hell open? This is a different question from the often-asked one of how the United States got into the war. I cannot pretend to begin to do it justice here. The moral and cognitive seasickness that has attended the Vietnam War from the beginning afflicts us still. Yet Kill Anything that Moves permits us, finally, to at least formulate the question in light of the actual facts of the case.

Reflections would certainly seem in order for a country that, since Vietnam, has done its best to unlearn even such lessons as were learned from that debacle in preparation for other misbegotten wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, however, are a few thoughts, offered in a spirit of thinking aloud.

The Fictitious War and the Real One

Roughly since the massacre at My Lai was revealed, people have debated whether the atrocities of the war were the product of decisions by troops on the ground or of high policy, of orders issued from above — whether they were “aberrations” or “operations.” The first school obviously lends itself to bad-apple-in-a-healthy-barrel thinking, blaming individual units for unacceptable behavior while exonerating the higher ups; the second tends to exonerate the troops while pinning the blame on their superiors.

Turse’s book shows that the barrel was rotten through and through.  It discredits the “aberration” school once and for all. Yet it does not exactly offer support for the orders-from-the-top school either. Perhaps the problem always was that these alternatives framed the situation inaccurately.  The relationship between policy and practice in Vietnam was, it turns out, far more peculiar than the two choices suggest.

It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war. In Vietnam, however, it was not just that the United States was doing one thing while saying another (for example, destroying villages while claiming to protect them), true as that was.  Rather, from its inception the war’s structure was shaped by an attempt to superimpose a false official narrative on a reality of a wholly different character.

In the official war, the people of South Vietnam were resisting the attempts of the North Vietnamese to conquer them in the name of world communism.  The United States was simply assisting them in their patriotic resistance.  In reality, most people in South Vietnam, insofar as they were politically minded, were nationalists who sought to push out foreign conquerors: first, the French, then the Japanese, and next the Americans, along with their client state, the South Vietnamese government which was never able to develop any independent strength in a land supposedly its own.  This fictitious official narrative was not added on later to disguise unpalatable facts; it was baked into the enterprise from the outset.

Accordingly, the collision of policy and reality first took place on the ground in Trieu Ai village and its like. The American forces, including their local commanders, were confronted with a reality that the policymakers had not faced and would not face for many long years. Expecting to be welcomed as saviors, the troops found themselves in a sea of nearly universal hostility.

No manual was handed out in Washington to deal with the unexpected situation. It was left to the soldiers to decide what to do. Throughout the country, they started to improvise. To this extent, policy was indeed being made in the field. Yet it was not within the troops’ power to reverse basic policy; they could not, for instance, have withdrawn themselves from the whole misconceived exercise.  They could only respond to the unexpected circumstances in which they found themselves.

The result would combine an incomprehensible and impossible mission dictated from above (to win the “hearts and minds” of a population already overwhelmingly hostile, while pulverizing their society) and locally conceived illegal but sometimes vague orders that left plenty of room for spontaneous, rage-driven improvisation on the ground. In this gap between the fiction of high policy and the actuality of the real war was born the futile, abhorrent assault on the people of Vietnam.

The improvisatory character of all this, as Turse emphasizes, can be seen in the fact that while the abuses of civilians were pervasive they were not consistent. As he summarizes what a villager in one brutalized area told him decades later, “Sometimes U.S. troops handed out candies.  Sometimes they shot at people.  Sometimes they passed through a village hardly touching a thing.  Sometimes they burned all the homes. ‘We didn’t understand the reasons why the acted in the way they did.’”

Alongside the imaginary official war, then, there grew up the real war on the ground, the one that Turse has, for the first time, adequately described.  It is no defense of what happened to point out that, for the troops, it was not so much their orders from on high as their circumstances — what Robert J. Lifton has called “atrocity-producing situations” — that generated their degraded behavior. Neither does such an account provide escape from accountability for the war’s architects without whose blind and misguided policies these infernal situations never would have arisen.

In one further bitter irony, this real war came at a certain point to be partially codified at ever higher levels of command into policies that did translate into orders from the top. In effect, the generals gradually — if absurdly, in light of the supposed goals of the war — sanctioned and promoted the de facto war on the population.  Enter General Ewell and his body counts.

In other words, the improvising moved up the chain of command until the soldiers were following orders when they killed civilians, though, as in the case of Ewell, those orders rarely took exactly that form.  Nonetheless, the generals sometimes went quite far in formulating these new rules, even when they flagrantly contradicted official policies.

To give one example supplied by Turse, in 1965, General William Westmoreland, who was made commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1964, implicitly declared war on the peasantry of South Vietnam. He said:

Until now the war has been characterized by a substantial majority of the population remaining neutral.  In the past year we have seen an escalation to a higher intensity in the war.  This will bring about a moment of decision for the peasant farmer.  He will have to choose if he stays alive.”

Like his underlings, Westmoreland, was improvising. This new policy of, in effect, terrorizing the peasantry into submission was utterly inconsistent with the Washington narrative of winning hearts and minds, but it was fully consistent with everything his forces were actually doing and about to do in I Corps and throughout the country.

A Skyscraper of Lies

One more level of the conflict needs to be mentioned in this context.  Documents show that, as early as the mid-1960s, the key mistaken assumptions of the war — that the Vietnamese foe was a tentacle of world communism, that the war was a front in the Cold War rather than an episode in the long decolonization movement of the twentieth century, that the South Vietnamese were eager for rescue by the United States — were widely suspected to be mistaken in official Washington.  But one other assumption was not found to be mistaken: that whichever administration “lost” Vietnam would likely lose the next election.

Rightly or wrongly, presidents lived in terror of losing the war and so being politically destroyed by a movement of the kind Senator Joe McCarthy launched after the American “loss” of China in 1949.  Later, McGeorge Bundy, Lyndon Johnson’s national security advisor, would describe his understanding of the president’s frame of mind at the time this way:

LBJ isn’t deeply concerned about who governs Laos, or who governs South Vietnam — he’s deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ball game of the Cold War. The great Cold War championship gets played in the largest stadium in the United States and he, Lyndon Johnson, is the quarterback, and if he loses, how does he do in the next election? So don’t lose. Now that’s too simple, but it’s where he is. He’s living with his own political survival every time he looks at these questions.”

In this context, domestic political considerations trumped the substantive reasoning that, once the futility and horror of the enterprise had been revealed, might have led to an end to the war. More and more it was understood to be a murderous farce, but politics dictated that it must continue. As long as this remained the case, no news from Vietnam could lead to a reversal of the war policies.

This was the top floor of the skyscraper of lies that was the Vietnam War. Domestic politics was the largest and most fact-proof of the atrocity-producing situations.  Do we imagine that this has changed?

© 2013 Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell is the Doris M. Shaffer Fellow at The Nation Institute, and a Senior Lecturer at Yale University. He is the author of The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. .