Slime and Defend, Vietnam style

by Henry Farrell on August 22, 2006

This “Los Angeles Times”:,1,7586489,full.story story (free sub or bugmenot required) deserves more attention than it’s getting.

In early 1973, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams received some bad news from the service’s chief of criminal investigations. An internal inquiry had confirmed an officer’s widely publicized charge that members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade had tortured detainees in Vietnam. But there was a silver lining: Investigators had also compiled a 53-page catalog of alleged discrepancies in retired Lt. Col. Anthony B. Herbert’s public accounts of his war experiences. “This package … provides sufficient material to impeach this man’s credibility; should this need arise, I volunteer for the task,” wrote Col. Henry H. Tufts, commander of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. Now, declassified records show that while the Army was working energetically to discredit Herbert, military investigators were uncovering torture and mistreatment that went well beyond what he had described. The abuses were not made public, and few of the wrongdoers were punished. Tufts’ agents found that military interrogators in the 173rd Airborne repeatedly beat prisoners, tortured them with electric shocks and forced water down their throats to simulate the sensation of drowning, the records show. Soldiers in one unit told investigators that their captain approved of such methods and was sometimes present during torture sessions. In one case, a detainee who had been beaten by interrogators suffered convulsions, lost consciousness and later died in his confinement cage. Investigators identified 29 members of the 173rd Airborne as suspects in confirmed cases of torture. Fifteen of them admitted the acts. Yet only three were punished, records show. They received fines or reductions in rank. None served any prison time.

The LA Times story leaves no doubt that there was a coverup.

In the spring of 1969, about a dozen members of the 172nd MI organized a letter-writing campaign to complain to higher-ups about the abuse, Stemme said. “Next thing we know, we have this major coming up from IG’s office who is Miranda-izing us and asks us if we’re admitting to committing war crimes,” Stemme said, referring to the inspector general. “It was all about us, when this was de facto command policy. It was really scary.” They decided as a group not to give any statements, he said. … Records show that Stemme detailed specific instances of maltreatment, offering names and approximate dates. Yet a case summary produced by the Army chief of staff’s office reported that investigators closed the investigation because Stemme “declined to provide any specific information concerning his allegations.” “I spent hours with these guys,” said Stemme, now 63 and retired from his job as an investigator for the San Francisco public defender’s office. “There was no reason for me to be reticent.”



Patrick S. O'Donnell 08.22.06 at 1:57 pm


This story follows an earlier one:
Civilian Killings Went Unpunished
Declassified papers show U.S. atrocities went far beyond My Lai.
By Nick Turse and Deborah Nelson, Special to The Times
August 6, 2006

If you can’t access it in their archives, I can send it to you as a Word doc. or post it in the comments section.

All the best,


Scott Martens 08.22.06 at 2:14 pm

If a cause is worth killing for, it’s certainly worth lying for. I assume that everything that comes from an official military source – of any country – is as far from the truth as circumstances will tolerate. I presume that if you’re risking people’s lives to win a war, you’re surely prepared to suppress any information that might threaten it. I take it for granted that people who place a price on a human life won’t hesitate to place a price on someone’s reputation.

That’s certainly rational. Arguably, it’s even laudable.

So why is this story a surprise?


Ralph Hitchens 08.22.06 at 2:24 pm

Col. Tufts was apparently instrumental in pursuing the atrocity allegations within the 101st Airborne Division, which became famous as the “Tiger Force” investigation, publicized by reporters from the Toledo Blade. As I recall, Tufts or one of his successors at CID had kept the files after the Army closed out the investigation, and when he died some years later the files were given (on his instructions) to a Toledo Blade reporter, who passed them on to his colleagues Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss, who now share a Pulitzer for the series of articles they wrote. They’ve also just published a book, Tiger Force, summarizing these atrocities.

The problem is that despite abundant first-hand testimony conclusively proving that a large number of civilians and VC prisoners were murdered by the “Tiger Force” platoon, my reading of the book (which included extensive quotes from transcripts of the CID interviews) persuaded me that it would have been near-impossible for the Army to have successfully prosecuted anyone. Read the book; your mileage may vary. But there was a big difference between what everyone knows happened and proving something in a courtroom beyond a reasonable doubt. We may see the same situation in the Haditha case.


Christopher M 08.22.06 at 11:24 pm

I miss the America that used to exist, if only in my young and naive mind.


glenn 08.23.06 at 5:25 am

Christopher, you took the thought out of my (formerly young and naive) mind.


Nell 08.23.06 at 10:13 am

Scott Martens: So why is this story a surprise?

Because it goes against the national narrative about why the country goes to war (to spread freedom and democracy) and what our troops do and how “the system works” in the rare, few-bad-apples cases in which they don’t act honorably.

Those of us who stopped buying that national narrative between 1966 and 1972 thought that the country as a whole had, too. But during the late 1970s and especially the 1980s, it turned out that Americans, indeed, couldn’t handle the truth. The successful politicians were those who restored and maintained the old, flattering story.

Those of us with functioning memories were branded as “anti-American.” Just a bit of discussion on these issues became permissible in the 1990s (for instance, after the files on U.S. involvement in the Pinochet coup and Central American skullduggery were declassified). Then, the September 11 attacks clanged those doors shut again.

So most people are surprised by the L.A. Times story, or pretend to be.

Or they’re not, but they still wish it would go away, and the news of soldiers’ and Marines’ crimes in Iraq with it. Which would explain the lack of attention to the story.


bellatrys 08.23.06 at 10:24 pm

And the [natural, inevitable] followup to it: fun and games with prisoners and electrodes in Chicago.

Did you know there was a statute of limitations on torture here?

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