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False Atrocity Tales from the War in Vietnam

In 1968, Terry Whitmore, a Marine who had been wounded by North Vietnamese mortar fire at Con Thien and was recuperating in Japan, boarded a plane that took him to a press conference in Moscow and then on to Stockholm where he made his new home. He was a deserter.

Mark Lane, the author of the thoroughly discredited Conversations with Americans, soon found him. Whitmore told him that his unit, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, had wiped out an entire ville in Quang Tri – more than 400 men and women -- in the fall of 1967. That wasn’t all. Somehow, and inexplicably, all the children had been gathered separately. A Marine officer ordered the children killed – that is, murdered. If Whitmore spoke the truth, the men of Bravo 1/1 committed a war crime every bit the equal of the massacre at My Lai.

Neil Sheehan, who was no supporter of the Vietnam war, wrote a devastating review of Lane's work in the New York Times Book Review. He found that Lane had interviewed men who had never served in Vietnam and who had otherwise lied about their service. Sheehan had been in contact with two officers from Whitmore’s unit who denied Whitmore’s story.

His review had no effect. Doubleday, a then distinguished New York publishing house, chose to publish Whitmore’s own account, Memphis-Nam-Sweden, in 1971. In it, Whitmore retold his story, in a more exculpatory moral registry, contradicting the bravado he displayed for Lane. In this account, however, he claimed that his company commander was the officer who ordered the murder of those children. He did not name him, but anyone with sufficient curiosity could have.

The book might well have died a quiet death, but in 1997, the University of Mississippi Press chose to reprint it and it remains on its list as “one of the finest memoirs of the Vietnam experience.” Jeff Loeb wrote a fawning afterword to the reprint. When I called Loeb and asked him had he ever doubted Whitmore’s tale, he answered “no comment.”

Whitmore’s tale has enjoyed a long, strange life. It played out again in the election of 2004 when the Swift Boaters effectively used a scene from the film Winter Soldier to discredit the Winter Soldier Investigation, and John Kerry’s role in it. In that scene, one former Marine assigned to Bravo 1/1 in 1968 had heard rumors about that ville wiped out in Quang Tri. Another former Marine, Scott Camil, said he had been there. We burned down the village, he said, and killed “everybody.” But he had forgotten about it, he said, and would have to be reminded while on stage. But he never testified to it, either on stage, or in a later deposition. He detailed instead a grotesque tale of war crimes committed on Operation Stone, an operation that had taken place months earlier in the southern part of I Corps, a claim that others he served with contradicted and has never been corroborated. The Swift Boaters attacks were often dishonest and dishonorable, but in this instance they deftly skewered Camil and his unreliable memory.

After a year’s investigation, I can now report what happened in Quang Tri in the fall of 1967. There is no evidence that Camil was there. Whitmore likely was there. He had pieces of the story right. There was a war crime. A young lance corporal, who could not distinguish between a legal and an illegal order, shot an unresisting, unarmed, and unnamed woman in the back, in front of children that were likely hers. He and his company commander were court-martialed. I tell the story in “War Stories:” False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers – What Really Happened in Vietnam, published this fall by Potomac Books.

The difference between one murder and 400 is not a matter of exaggeration. Whitmore lied, and the University of Mississippi Press should do the right thing and withdraw the book from its list.

My anger at Whitmore and those who credulously believed him is in no way a defense of the behavior of those soldiers and Marines who committed war crimes in Vietnam. But if we cannot distinguish between the true and the false – then it’s all noise, and we lose the ability to mourn for a single, unnamed woman who did not deserve to die that morning in Quang Tri. More than that, those who believed that American war crimes defined the war in Vietnam, must now acknowledge that not every war-crime story can be believed.