By Gary Kulik
Mr. Kulik, the former editor of American Quarterly, served in Vietnam
as a medic in the 4th Infantry Division, and later in the 61st
Medical Battalion (Dustoff) in 1970-71.
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
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
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.