Winter Soldier Investigation

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The Winter Soldier Investigation was a media event intended to publicize war crimes and atrocities by Americans and allies in Vietnam, while showing their direct relationship to American administration and war policies. This 3-day gathering of American Vietnam War veterans, civilians and media took place in Detroit, Michigan, from January 31-February 2, 1971, and was organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. 109 Vietnam veterans and 16 civilians gave testimony about war crimes they had committed or witnessed during the years of 1963-1970. Journalists and film crews recorded the event, and a transcript was later read into the Congressional Record.

Note: The public domain status of the below text is unclear. According to The Sixties Project, the transcript is copyrighted, though it has been reproduced elsewhere. Inquiries should be made to the copyright owner regarding the public domain status of this document and any contained excerpts.

Opening statement excerpt[edit]

In an opening statement at the beginning of the three day hearing, William Crandall stated:

...We went to preserve the peace and our testimony will show that we have set all of Indochina aflame. We went to defend the Vietnamese people and our testimony will show that we are committing genocide against them. We went to fight for freedom and our testimony will show that we have turned Vietnam into a series of concentration camps.
We went to guarantee the right of self-determination to the people of South Vietnam and our testimony will show that we are forcing a corrupt and dictatorial government upon them. We went to work toward the brotherhood of man and our testimony will show that our strategy and tactics are permeated with racism. We went to protect America and our testimony will show why our country is being torn apart by what we are doing in Vietnam...
It has often been remarked but seldom remembered that war itself is a crime. Yet a war crime is more and other than war. It is an atrocity beyond the usual barbaric bounds of war. It is legal definition growing out of custom and tradition supported by every civilized nation in the world including our own. It is an act beyond the pale of acceptable actions even in war. Deliberate killing or torturing of prisoners of war is a war crime. Deliberate destruction without military purpose of civilian communities is a war crime. The use of certain arms and armaments and of gas is a war crime. The forcible relocation of population for any purpose is a war crime. All of these crimes have been committed by the U.S. Government over the past ten years in Indochina. An estimated one million South Vietnamese civilians have been killed because of these war crimes. A good portion of the reported 700,000 National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese soldiers killed have died as a result of these war crimes and no one knows how many North Vietnamese civilians, Cambodian civilians, and Laotian civilians have died as a result of these war crimes.
But we intend to tell more. We intend to tell who it was that gave us those orders; that created that policy; that set that standard of war bordering on full and final genocide. We intend to demonstrate that My Lai was no unusual occurrence, other than, perhaps, the number of victims killed all in one place, all at one time, all by one platoon of us. We intend to show that the policies of Americal Division which inevitably resulted in My Lai were the policies of other Army and Marine Divisions as well. We intend to show that war crimes in Vietnam did not start in March, 1968, or in the village of Son My or with one Lt. William Calley. We intend to indict those really responsible for My Lai, for Vietnam, for attempted genocide … You who hear or read our testimony will be able to conclude for yourselves who is responsible. We are here to bear witness not against America, but against those policy makers who are perverting America.

Senator Hatfield urges Congress, State Department and Defense Department to act[edit]

On Monday, April 5, 1971, Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon made the following address on the Senate Floor:

Mr. President, the moral sensitivity of the Nation has been aroused by the conviction of Lt. William Calley. More clearly than before, this incident has focused the fundamental moral questions that our Nation must confront regarding our conduct in Indochina.
The Department of Defense said in its recent statement relating to the Calley conviction:
The Department of the Army has had a moral and legal obligation to adopt a continuing policy of investigating fully all substantive allegations or violations of the laws of war involving American personnel. Every allegation of misconduct on the battlefield -- regardless of the rank or position of the person purportedly responsible -- must be thoroughly explored.
There has recently been brought to my attention testimony relating to the policy and conduct of American forces in Indochina which has grave and very serious implications. The testimony is given by honorably discharged veterans who had served in Vietnam, and was conducted by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Three days of testimony were conducted in Detroit, Mich. on January 31, February 1, and 2 of this year. This group, which represents 11,000 veterans, plans to send several thousand to Washington the week of April 19 to petition Congress for full congressional hearings.
I, of course, have no way of ascertaining the veracity of all the testimony given, and I am not in agreement with certain of the statements and judgments made by those who testified. However, I believe that the allegations made by these Americans, who served their country in Vietnam, are so serious and so grave that they demand the full study by the appropriate committees of Congress as well as by the executive branch.
The testimony and allegations raised by the experience of these veterans includes charges regarding: the torture and murder of suspects and prisoners of war captured by Americans and South Vietnamese forces; the wanton killing of innocent, unarmed civilians; the brutalization and rape of Vietnamese women in the villages; military policies which enabled indiscriminate bombing and the random firing of artillery into villages which resulted in the burning to death of women, children and old people; the widespread defoliation of lands of forests; the use of various types of gases; the mutilation of enemy bodies, and others.
A recurrent theme running throughout the testimony is that of institutionalized racist attitudes of the military in their training of the men who are sent to Vietnam--training which has indoctrinated them to think of all Vietnamese as "gooks" and subhuman.
Further, the thrust of the reports made in the 3-day testimony is that such actions were the consequence of reasonable and known policy adopted by our military commanders and that the knowledge of incidents resulting from these policies was widely shared.
Several of the allegations made in this testimony would place the United States in violation of the Geneva Convention and other international agreements relating to the conduct of war which have been ratified by our Government.
Therefore, the necessity for investigating fully these alleged actions, and all evidence that bears on our actions in Indochina and the international agreements we have ratified cannot be overstated.
  • Therefore, first I ask unanimous consent that the testimony presented by over 100 honorably discharged veterans in Detroit be placed in the Congressional Record. I realize that the testimony is very lengthy, but its full force and content must be made available so that it can be read and judged on its own merits.
  • Second, I will transmit this testimony to the Department of Defense and the Department of State and urge, in accord with its stated policy, that the evidence and allegations it contains be fully investigated.
  • Third, I urge the appropriate committees of the Congress to conduct hearings on the policies governing the use of military force in Indochina and their relation to international agreements our country has ratified.
  • Fourth, I recommend consideration be given to forming a special commission that would investigate in full these matters and would provide a forum to assess the moral consequences of our involvement in Indochina to us as a Nation and a people.
We as a Nation must find the proper way to honestly confront the moral consequences of our actions, and to corporately turn ourselves from the thinking and the policy that has degraded our moral posture and to recognize that out of contrition and self-examination can come a genuine rebirth of the ideas we hold as a people.
The testimony that follows and the steps I have advocated are presented with this hope. I ask unanimous consent to have the testimony printed in the Extensions of Remarks.

Guenter Lewy on the Winter Soldier Investigation, America in Vietnam[edit]

From pages 316-317

"Another organization active in airing charges of American atrocities in Vietnam was the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), which was founded in 1967; by 1970 it was said to have 600 members. From 31 January to 2 February 1971, the VVAW, with financial backing from actress Janes Fonda, convened a hearing, known as the Winter Soldier Investigation, in the city of Detroit. More than 100 veterans and 16 civilians testified at this hearing about "war crimes which they either committed or witnessed"; some of them had given similar testimony at the CCI inquiry in Washington. The allegations included using prisoners for target practice and subjecting them to a variety of grisly tortures to extract information, cutting off the ears of dead VCs, throwing VC suspects out of helicopters, burning villages, gang rapes of women, packing the vagina of a North Vietnamese nurse full of grease with a grease gun, and the like."
"Among the persons assisting the VVAW in organizing and preparing this hearing was Mark Lane, author of a book attacking the Warren Commission probe of the Kennedy Assassination and more recently of "Conversations with Americans", a book of interviews with Vietnam veterans about war crimes. On 22 December 1970 Lane's book had received a highly critical review in the "New York Times Book Review" by Neil Sheehan, who was able to show that some of the alleged "witnesses" of Lane's war crimes had never even served in Vietnam while others had not been in the combat situations they described in horrid detail. Writing in the "Saturday Review" a few days later, James Reston, Jr., called "Conversations with Americans" "a hodgepodge of hearsay" which ignored "a soldiers talent for embellishment" and a "disreputable book." To prevent the Detroit hearing from being tainted by such irregularities, all of the veterans testifying fully identified the units in which they had served and provided geographical descriptions of where the alleged atrocities had taken place."
"Yet the appearance of exactitude was deceptive. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon was impressed by the charges made by the veterans and inserted the transcript of the Detroit hearing into the "Congressional Record." Furthermore, he asked the commandant of the Marine Corps to investigate the numerous allegations of wrongdoing made against the Marine in particular. The results of this investigation, carried out by the Naval Investigative Service, are interesting and revealing. Many of the veterans, though assured that they would not be questioned about atrocities they might have committed personally, refused to be interviewed. One of the active members of the VVAW told investigators that the leadership had directed the entire membership not to cooperate with military authorities. A black Marine who agreed to be interviewed was unable to provide details of the outrages he had described at the hearing, but he called the Vietnam War "one huge atrocity" and "a racist plot." He admitted that the question of atrocities had not occurred to him while he was in Vietnam, and that he had been assisted in the preparation of his testimony by a member of the Nation of Islam. But the most damaging finding consisted of the sworn statements of several veterans, corroborated by witnesses, that they had in fact not attended the hearing in Detroit. One of them had never been to Detroit in all his life. He did not know, he stated, who might have used his name."
"Incidents similar to some of those described at the VVAW hearing undoubtedly did occur. We know that hamlets were destroyed, prisoners tortured, and corpses mutilated. Yet these incidents either (as in the destruction of hamlets) did not violate the law of war or took place in breach of existing regulations. In either case, they were not, as alleged, part of a "criminal policy." The VVAW's use of fake witnesses and the failure to cooperate with military authorities and to provide crucial details of the incidents further cast serious doubt on the professed desire to serve the causes of justice and humanity. It is more likely that this inquiry, like others earlier and later, had primarily political motives and goals."

Changing perceptions of veterans[edit]

As noted by author Gerald Nicosia in his history of the Vietnam veterans movement Home to War,

Winter Soldier heralded a significant change of opinion in the American public toward the Vietnam veterans -- not only in terms of a new willingness to hear their side of things, but also in the amount of respect and credibility they were accorded. Over a dozen members of Congress endorsed the hearings. South Dakota Senator George S. McGovern, who would challenge Richard Nixon in the 1972 Presidential race, and Congressman John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan called for full Congressional investigations into charges leveled by the veterans at Winter Soldier; and Berkeley's radical black Congressman Ronald Dellums offered the veterans office space in Washington, where they could repeat their charges within a stone's throw of the House Armed Forces Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Perhaps most striking about Winter Soldier was the great humility of all involved. These men, who deserved to be honored for the courage it took to bare their pain and to assume responsibility for actions their country had asked them to perform -- even as they had already been honored (at least minimally, with medals and citations) for risking their lives in the performance of those deeds -- now came before the world in an attitude of profound apology. On the last night of Winter Soldier, several carloads of veterans drove across the border to Windsor, Canada, to meet with a delegation of Vietnamese students in exile, who had been denied visas by the Canadian government to come to Detroit for the hearings. These American veterans signed their own symbolic "people's peace treaty" with the Vietnamese there. As Jan Barry recalls, the gesture was intended as a means of embracing the people they had harmed, of asking forgiveness for those they had killed.
Despite the leftist orientation of many of its sponsors, Winter Soldier did not come off as an attack on the United States. What the veterans insisted over and over was that America knew better than to do the things it was doing in Vietnam. They pointed out that search-and-destroy missions, free-fire zones, the relocation of people into strategic hamlets (which were enclosed by barbed-wire, and hardly more congenial than a concentration camp), defoliation of agricultural land, and B-52 pattern-bombing raids against undefended villages and populated areas (which refused to distinguish between combatants and civilians) were all in violation of codes and treaties which the United States had previously signed or accepted: the Rules of Land Warfare, the Geneva Conventions and Accords, and the Nuremberg Charter.
In effect, the veterans were asking America to listen to its own much-touted morality, and to begin to practice what it had spent two centuries preaching. At the same time, though, the veterans were careful to point out that the war crimes the United States was committing in Vietnam did not stem from the misconduct of individual soldiers -- which the government had tried to establish by scapegoating Calley and a handful of his fellow officers -- but resulted rather "from conscious military policies... designed by the military brass, National Security Council, and major universities and corporate institutions, and passed down through the chain of command for conversion into Standard Operational Procedures (SOPs) in the field.

While no one involved with the Winter Soldier Investigation, and subsequent Senate hearings, ever accused "all" servicemen of misconduct - it was made evident the problem had grown beyond "isolated incident" status. The problem was perceived by the participants as epidemic, and was seen as ignored and even condoned by leaders at all levels in the military and government. Winter Soldier was the culmination of efforts to bring national attention to this situation, and to expedite the end of America's participation in the Vietnam conflict.

Steve Pitkin's recollection[edit]

In August 2004, Steve Pitkin stated in a sworn affidavit that "John Kerry and other leaders of that event pressured me to testify about American war crimes, despite my repeated statements that I could not honestly do so. One event leader strongly implied that I would not be provided transportation back to my home in Baltimore, Maryland, if I failed to comply. Kerry and other leaders of the event instructed me to publicly state that I had witnessed incidents of rape, brutality, atrocities and racism, knowing that such statements would necessarily be untrue." Pitkin did give testimony, but not about war crimes or atrocities. Pitkin is shown in the Winter Soldier film, as well as the Going Upriver film. Pitkin has subsequently admitted his recollections were flawed, and has re-issued an affidavit now reflecting a different date of discharge from the Army, different people traveling with him to the Winter Soldier event, and different circumstances under which he joined the VVAW. Pitkin was not among the summary of scheduled participants which was given to the press at the start of the event. Pitkin testified during the third panel of the third day; the section reserved for any remaining veterans that wanted to speak, but were not scheduled. Veterans speaking during this panel were instructed to be brief, as there were several volunteers yet very little time remaining.

Kerry's former brother-in-law, David Thorne, attended the Winter Soldier investigation. When interviewed about Pitkin's recent statements, Thorne flatly denied Pitkin's charges. "Kerry never forced anyone to testify to war crimes in any way. Kerry went to Winter Soldier to listen to what they had to say and to investigate for himself," Thorne said. Scott Camil, another participant at WSI, filed a separate affidavit directly refuting several allegations made by Pitkin.

Recollection of the testimony of one of the Winter Soldiers[edit]

On September 23, 2004, another veteran recalls:

I testified at the Winter Soldier investigation in 1971. I told the truth and to my knowledge not a single statement has ever proven to be false. I have heard a lot of false claims that the people at winter soldier were not veterans. If so many people were frauds at the Winter Soldier Investigation, why hasn't someone released the names of the vets who falsely testified? Wouldn't this be front page news? Maybe one or two frauds slipped through but I doubt it. The truth of the matter is no one was allowed to testify at the Winter Soldier Investigation unless they had DD214 military separation papers.
For years I tried to tell everyone who was willing to listen, about the official and de facto policies of our government that were against the Geneva Convention. They were in fact war crimes. I testified before Congress, before the U.N. Human rights Commission, at the Winter Soldier Investigation, at public hearings, at the Philadelphia Naval Base Criminal Investigation Department, and at the Pentagon. We spoke out against the POLICIES of our government, that were in violation of US law as well as International law. We never spoke out against our fellow soldiers. After all they were our friends, family members and neighbors. I went to the Naval Criminal Investigation Division and told them if they were interested in pursuing those responsible for the policies that resulted in war crimes, I would give them a sworn statement including pictures of war crimes that I personally took. They said they would get back to me but they never did. No one has ever challenged my statements, nor has anyone ever proven that I have made any untruthful statements. From my experiences as an infantry veteran, I was deeply concerned about my fellow soldiers in Vietnam being killed, or coming home severely injured. I wanted the war to come to an end, so that the destruction and madness in Vietnam would also come to an end. I lost many friends in Vietnam. Some were fellow soldiers and others were friends that I grew up with and knew from an early age. Earlier this year (2/2004), I returned to Vietnam and visited the old base camps and battlefields from my year in Vietnam 35 years ago. It was reassuring and very healing, to experience the peace, that is the reality of today's Vietnam. Almost no one in Vietnam talks about the "American War." To them it is ancient history. It is certainly sad to see so many of the old wounds being reopened and the old debates argued once again. In 1971, the members of VVAW were looking for a way to help put an end to the war, and bring peace to this country, as well as Vietnam. The members of VVAW that I knew were good people, with good hearts, that were trying to do the right thing. I have no regrets about working for peace. I still know many VVAW members today. All of them are very proud of their efforts in working for peace. It's time to put the Vietnam debate behind us. It's time to debate the current issues of today. And, let the chips fall where they may.

Hoa Binh
John Beitzel, Vietnam Veteran
4/21 Infantry, 11th Bde, Americal Division. 1/1969 - 1/1970
Member - VVAW 9/1970 - 9/1971
Winter Soldier - Jan/Feb-1971

Journalist Neil Sheehan on war crimes in Vietnam, from his NY Times review of Mark Lane's book[edit]

"It has always been my understanding that it is the task of the Army and the Marines to kill the enemies of the country when they are ordered to do so. The rub is whom they should kill, when they should do the killing and how they should do it. This is what has torn the nation apart over the Vietnam war."
"The country desperately needs a sane and honest inquiry into the question of war crimes and atrocities in Vietnam by a body of knowledgeable and responsible men not beholden to the current military establishment. Who these men are and how that inquiry ought to be conducted are questions I do not have the space to discuss here, but the need for the inquiry is self-evident. Too large a segment of the citizenry believes that war crimes and atrocities have taken place for the question to be ignored."
"Anyone who spends much time in Vietnam sees acts that may constitute war crimes. One of the basic military tactics of the war, the air and artillery bombardments that have taken an untold number of civilian lives, is open to examination under the criteria established by the Nuremberg tribunal. Is it a war crime? We ought to know. And those professional soldiers who value their uniform would be wise to welcome such an inquiry."
"That the men who now run the military establishment cannot conduct a credible investigation also ought to be self-evident from the Army's handling of the My Lai affair, and the Army is the principal service involved in Vietnam."
"But until the country does summon up the courage to convene a responsible inquiry, we probably deserve the Mark Lanes."