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Interview with Richard Moser: Was Kerry Right About Vietnam Atrocities?

Much has been made recently of the Winter Soldier investigation, at which Vietnam veterans claimed they had been involved in -- or heard of -- war crimes and atrocities. To find out more about the investigation and the accuracy of John Kerry's testimony about it before the Senate in 1971, we turned to Mr. Moser, the author of The New Winter Soldiers: Gi and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era (Rutgers University Press, 1996). HNN caught him with him by phone as he was preparing to move from Washington DC to New Jersey.

HNN: The Wall Street Journal last week said that John Kerry made allegations that were never proven about atrocities in Vietnam when he testified before the Senator Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. Do you agree?

Moser: I can't speak directly to John Kerry's allegations of war crimes and atrocities. What I can speak to is the question whether war crimes and atrocities were committed in Vietnam. The answer to that is very clear. Yes, indeed, war crimes and atrocities were committed in Vietnam.

The simple fact is that war crimes have occurred in every war. That is a clearly proved part of the record and I'd like to see anyone prove otherwise. Attempts to suggest there were no war crimes in Vietnam is part of an ongoing attempt to sanitize war in general. And of course it begs the question of what a war crime is.

What people don't know is that as far back as World War I we hit a historic crossroads where more civilians died in conflicts than soldiers. That was true as far back as World War I and it's been true of every single conflict since. So if war crimes are the killing of civilians in war then war crimes have occurred in every war since World War I. In Vietnam it was particularly egregious. The best estimates are that somewhere around fifteen civilians were killed for every combatant. So that was a very lopsided ratio.

I don't want to say that all wars are the same because the possibility for war crimes to occur increases when war is unjust and by that I'm talking about historically debated reasons of what makes wars just and unjust. Wars that are fought with an overriding clear moral purpose are not considered unjust in the historical debate -- mostly those are wars of defense that are considered legitimate. Wars of aggression, wars of preemption are not considered legitimate wars. Wars are not legitimate if they could be avoided by other means, diplomatic, economic, what have you. And wars where one side has a preponderance of power, overwhelming military power. No matter what the justification, if one side has overwhelming military power compared with the other it is not a just war because it implies that other means could have been used to solve the problem.

So if you put that together, if you are fighting in an unjust war the possibility for war crimes and atrocities increases dramatically. And this is the situation we had in Vietnam and I have to say it's returning today in some regards in Iraq. So in an atrocity-producing situation -- an unjust war -- you are much more likely to have everyday kinds of people not able to resist the tendency toward committing atrocities. And that happens because what's viewed as the conventional way that war is fought with clear combatants falls apart. You are fighting people and cannot distinguish between friends and enemies, between civilians and combatants. And in a situation like that the tendency is to take actions against everyone. And that occurred to some extent in Vietnam and is occurring to some degree in Iraq today. So once you are in that situation then these things happen frequently.

In Vietnam there's no doubt that we have war crimes. The most famous of course is My Lai, but there's a whole series of them. And these are documented. The courts martial -- the military's own records, are archived here in Washington. So a lot of those have been very clearly documented over time. And recall Bob Kerrey's recent revelation of his own involvement in killing civilians in Vietnam-that was what a year, a year and a half ago. .

Am I saying every soldier was involved in this? Of course, not. But there was a pattern of abuse of violence. That's one reason why we see so much traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans and will see among Iraq veterans. PTSD is triggered by exposure to abuse of violence and high-stakes betrayal -- situations where soldiers feel they were betrayed. They were sent on a mission they thought was a lofty one, a good one and then they found out that the mission was very confused, murky, as war often is. And they are putting their lives on the line for what is no longer clear. They were exposed to the abuse of violence. And that was true in Vietnam.

There is no doubt there was a pattern of abuse of civilians and war crimes and atrocities in Vietnam. You only have to look at the Iraq prison scandals to see how it gets repeated, particularly when one side has this disproportionate power over the other. You give someone enough power over someone else in the end there will be a percentage of people who abuse their power.

Let me give you a key source or two. One of the key figures to read on this Telford Taylor. He was the principal prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials for the United States after World War II. He wrote a book called Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, in which he discussed the issue of whether Vietnam should be judged by the same standards and is in the same category as the Nuremberg Trials. He gives a very dispassionate look and in the end he says he's not sure. It's an open question. In a way his very neutrality is quite damning, isn't it, because here's a man who is very intimate with what war crimes are and he said it's an open question.

HNN:There has been mention made of the Winter Soldier investigation. Kerry referred to it in his Senate testimony. What was this?

Moser: This was in 1971. It was an attempt by a group of soldiers organized under the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) to let the American public know about the brutality and viciousness of the war in Vietnam. And so a group of soldiers got together [in Detroit] -- about 100 or so people -- gave testimony about so-called war crimes in South Vietnam in which soldiers reported on either things they were directly involved in or had heard about. That was the cause of much of the speculation, of course, about whether these people were speaking the truth. Without making a judgment about any particular allegation, there is no doubt that the kinds of things these veterans testified to fit a pattern that we can prove using other sources.

HNN: Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" interviewing Senator Kerry said that the Winter Soldier investigation has been discredited. Has it?

Moser: I have never seen a documented investigation of that analysis that discredits it. I have never seen it. If it exists, I'd like to hear it, I'd like to see it. What you hear people say is that they weren't really veterans, which they say about the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in general. It's total malarkey. Not that there weren't a few poseurs in the ranks, oh that's true, I don't care who you look at, any group. But basically there has never been a scholarly work done that discredits the individuals in that investigation or the allegations that they made.

HNN: John Kerry in the same interview seemed to distance himself from his testimony in 1971. Does he have any reason to do so other than politics?

Moser: At the Senate hearing Kerry said people said that they had witnessed atrocities, that these men claimed that they had participated in war crimes. He never himself claimed to have witnessed a war crime or been a party to one.

So his testimony was accurate. People claimed that war crimes occurred. So there's no real reason to distance himself from that other than he might feel that it's a hot political issue. As far as the record, no. But of course the nuances, the truth and the history get lost in the symbolic fray of an election year. And the nuance was that he was reporting what other people had said. And other people did say it. He was reporting truthfully.

HNN: Why is it that historians have not pursued an investigation of the Winter Soldier investigation?

Moser: Good question. I can tell you this. My book, The New Winter Soldiers, was published in 1996. It was the first serious scholarly look at soldier anti-war dissent in Vietnam. There have been a number of other things that have come out since. But in general the problem with soldiers protesting the very war they had fought in is that it was clearly jarring to peoples' understanding of the United States and what it stood for, of our high moral values, of our special moral role in the world, and here was something that seemed to set all that on its head. And so I think people had a hard time making sense of it. And so even though this story [about the Winter Soldier investigation] was a well-known story in the seventies, it was really forgotten during the eighties that there had been this huge movement of veterans.

And it was huge. They spoke for almost half the veterans as best we can figure, that half the veterans opposed the war. (That's more people by the way than opposed the war on college campuses, I must point out, in terms of percentages.) And I think it was too jarring to fit into the narrative of American history. Part of my work is to put the narrative in what I hope is a creative way, which is to say that when soldiers are sent to do a job that is in conflict with the best of American values that in that situation dissent becomes patriotic. In my view the New Winter Soldiers -- the Vietnam Veterans Against the War -- held up the best of American military traditions and political traditions. The war they were sent to fight was an unjust war, unworthy of America's best traditions and values. Even I had to struggle to fit what they did into the narrative of American history and I ended up turning the narrative upside down and envisioning these anti-war protesters as in fact the most patriotic heroes of the period.

HNN: Thank you.

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