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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Deborah Nelson: The War Behind Me

deborah-nelson-the-war-behind-me.thumbnail.jpg[ Welcome Deborah Nelson, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and Host Professor Robert Steck – bev]

Deborah Nelson’sThe War Behind Me

“Henry peered over a short hedge, where women and children huddled as Carter and others took aim. Soldiers dragged a naked teenager from a hooch. ‘She was brought out by two guys, and she was thrown into the pile … There were babies in there too … She was just thrown on the pile and they started shooting.’

“A farmer shot on the way home from market, a man on his bicycle, three farmers in a field, teenage brothers fishing peacefully on a lake, (all killed by American soldiers ) – there are hundreds of such reports in the war-crime archive, each one dutifully recorded, sometimes with no more than a passing sentence or two, as if the killing were as routine as the activity it interrupted.”

As Deborah Nelson makes clear in passages like the above, (from her new book The War Behind Me,) chronicling a seemingly endless accumulation of war crimes can become monotonous. The evil can come to seem, in Hannah Arendt’s term, “banal”, and one is reminded of Stalin’s cynical observation that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.

But it is no small part of the genius of Nelson’s book that she never lets the horror hide in the statistics. She never allows the banality to obscure the blood. Instead, Nelson constantly and relentlessly digs beneath the surface statistics to pull into the light of day what lies beneath — the complicated and dense web of victims and executioners, soldiers and civilians, ground-pounders in the bush and starched Generals in the Pentagon, courageous whistle blowers who tell the truth, and bureaucratic cowards who cover it up.

Nelson’s book raises such profoundly troubling questions in such a powerful way that its painful puzzles continue to pop up in readers’ minds long after they have turned the last page. Secondary explosions. Throughout her extraordinary book Nelson trains a cool, clear and carefully calibrated eye on realities that are as heated as napalm, as murky as the Mekong River, and as intense as a firefight. We are deeply in her debt.

Her method is simple and straightforward. She and Vietnam Scholar, Nick Turse, found out that at the time the Army launched its inquiry into the massacre at My Lai, it also launched a second inquiry into other war crimes. That second inquiry was headed up by a team of officers who worked entirely in secret for more than five years. The team assembled nine thousand pages of evidence chronicling a wide and hideous range of events when American soldiers perpetrated murders of civilians, committed atrocities, and in other ways systematically violated the laws of war and of the Army Field Manual.

Nelson and Turse set out to make their way through this staggering accumulation of reports which added up, in the words of one witness, to “a My Lai a month.” Most of the incidents in the nine thousand came to light because of ‘whistleblowers’ who wrote letters describing the crimes to political and military leaders, describing the event and naming the perpetrators. After studying those files Nelson went to whatever lengths necessary to find and interview all the protagonists: whistleblowers, perpetrators, investigators, and, in a trip to Vietnam, surviving victims and the families of murdered victims. As one might surmise, there is no lack of drama in these encounters, perhaps especially those who are politely asked about atrocities they committed decades earlier. Drama reveals character, and I was especially intrigued by one former soldier who, confronted with overwhelming evidence of his commission of war crimes thirty years earlier, responded over and over, with increasing heat to Nelson’s questions: “WHY DON’T YOU GET A REAL JOB!!”

Toward the end of her book Nelson interviews a few upstanding retired generals who worked both while in Vietnam and later to prevent atrocities in Vietnam and, later, to try to learn the lessons that might prevent them from occurring in any future war. One of those generals, John Johns, is convinced that whenever American troops deploy against enemies who are mixed in with the civilian population. Atrocities and war crimes are inevitable.

Throughout, however, Nelson casts herself as a discoverer of facts, asking questions rather offering answers. The questions she poses are so compelling and consequential that today’s on-line discussion should be especially lively.

[As a reminder, please be respectful of our author and host, and take off-topic discussions to the previous thread. -bev]

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Robert Steck

Robert Steck