The atrocities that took place in Vietnam are generally thought of as aberrations, with the My Lai massacre seen as the exception in an otherwise honourably fought war. There were allegations otherwise, however, as far back as the 1960s, and now there are a number of accounts of more extensive war crimes. Bernd Greiner's book is a definitive addition to the list, and no one reading it can harbour further illusions over this terrible issue.
His scholarship is meticulous. A German historian, he has relied heavily upon official archives in assembling a painstaking analysis of the barbarity that engulfed the US military. At the start he sets out the fundamental problem: in an asymmetrical war with a conventional invading army opposed by guerrillas, civilians risk becoming expendable. The army cannot readily distinguish between combatants and non-combatants and is tempted to kill both. Civilian murders can be added into totals for enemy combatants killed, in order to demonstrate results. This is all in the guerrillas' interests, too, because it serves to demonise the invaders.
Massacres took place before and after My Lai and became uncomfortably close to the norm. In designated "free fire zones", GIs fired on unarmed peasants including infants and babies, and routinely dropped grenades into bomb shelters. The troops collected grisly mementoes – fingers, ears and private parts – and huge numbers of women were raped. The Viet Cong egged on the Americans by sniping from inside hamlets and constructing fortifications in them.
In the light of Greiner's magisterial exposition, Apocalypse Now begins to resemble mundane documentary. Have the lessons been learnt? Unlikely. We have further asymmetrical conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our opponents have every interest in fomenting atrocities, while the young men of today's US army are not demonstrably different in outlook from their forebears. Neither are the politicians controlling them.Reuse content