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Originally published Friday, December 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Vietnam war-crimes exposé holds lessons for today

"The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes" by Deborah Nelson is the author's exposé of Vietnam-era village massacres of civilians by U.S. soldiers. Nelson discusses her book at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Deborah Nelson will discuss "The War Behind Me," 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or

As news of war crimes by U.S. personnel reverberate from Iraq around the world, journalist Deborah Nelson demonstrates, using the Vietnam War for her template, how such lethal behavior can escalate until it is out of control.

A former Seattle Times reporter, Nelson is one of the most experienced, talented investigative journalists alive. But earlier in her career, she never expected to use her investigative skills on something as quasi-historical as Vietnam War village massacres of civilians during the late 1960s and early 1970s led by American soldiers.

Nelson, now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, became involved in the reporting resulting in her book "The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes" (Basic Books, 296 pp., $26.95) during 2005, while serving in the Washington, D.C., bureau of the Los Angeles Times. The path to her remarkable book-length exposé looks like this, in short:

• In 1969, journalist Seymour Hersh published a story about something that became known as the My Lai massacre, named after a hamlet in Vietnam. The U.S. military was still deeply committed to fighting the Southeast Asian war when Hersh's exposé about American troops slaughtering Vietnamese civilians reached the headlines. The U.S. Army investigated, acknowledging four months later both the magnitude of the massacre and the cover-up.

• In secret, the Army began a broader inquiry into other alleged war-crime episodes throughout Southeast Asia. The secret inquiry lasted five years, resulting in a file of about 9,000 pages connecting Americans to atrocities. The inquiry led to no public accounting, no major prosecutions of the perpetrators.

• In 1990, Kali Tal, founder of a small-circulation journal about the 1960s called "Vietnam Generation," learned about the closed archive. She requested access from the National Archives and Records Administration. After waiting about a year, she received access. The material turned out to be stunning in its revelations; Tal wrote a brief account in the journal to inform other potential researchers. She did nothing more, however, and the boxes of documents returned to their archival home.

• A decade after Tal's perusal, Cliff Snyder, employed at the National Archives, mentioned the documents to a visiting military historian, Nicholas Turse. He contacted the Los Angeles Times, where he ended up meeting Nelson. "We joined forces soon afterward to investigate the long-buried crimes," Nelson says in the introduction to her book.

To narrate the story of what she and Turse discovered, Nelson uses herself and her research partner as characters. As a result, readers will learn a great deal about the internal processes of investigative journalism. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became famous in the 1970s for their White House scandal expose and a book partly built around their day-to-day reporting. Nelson's book is not exactly patterned after "All the President's Men." To some extent, however, the admirable effect is the same.

After reviewing the archival files carefully, Nelson and Turse began tracking down the military veterans who reported allegations of atrocities and those who allegedly conducted the killing in Vietnamese hamlet after Vietnamese hamlet.

Nelson, with a well-deserved reputation as a master interviewer, explains how she persuaded some of the frightened and resentful veterans to talk openly. (Disclosure: Nelson has been active as a volunteer in a group called Investigative Reporters & Editors. I directed that group as its paid employee from 1983 to 1990. Although Nelson and I are not social friends, I have spoken with her about professional matters numerous times.)

The stonewalling by some veterans and the confessionals by others make for fascinating reading.

Nelson opens the book with a confessional from Jamie Henry, involved in a massacre on Feb. 8, 1968. Henry, with lots to lose, had reported to U.S. military officials the killings of 19 unarmed Vietnamese. Henry received an honorable discharge from the Army the year after the massacre, then moved on in life as best he could at age 20. He had never seen the full investigative file until Nelson handed it to him nearly 40 years later.

During her research, Nelson also traveled to various Vietnamese hamlets, including the one where Henry's unit spilled blood, to picture the scenes and locate survivors.

At the end of her account, Nelson provides an accounting of "war-crime investigations compiled by Army staff during the Vietnam War." Although the book shows that investigators did not learn about all the massacres, the list of substantiated mass slayings nevertheless tops 60. More than 124 deaths were confirmed, Nelson writes; hundreds more were alleged.

The recounting, Nelson says, comes at an important time "when, having failed to address the past, we're hell-bound to repeat it."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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