[Note to Readers: In the spirit of Nick Turse's article below on
truth-telling and civilian deaths in war, TomDispatch would like to direct
your attention to a recently published paperback, Winter
Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations,
a powerful text with words, images, and documents from the spring 2008 hearings
in Washington, D.C., at which American veterans of Bush's two occupations spoke
out about the dark side of the wars they fought.]
By October 2005, when American casualties in
Iraq had not yet reached 2,000
dead or 15,000 wounded, and our casualties in Afghanistan were still modest
indeed, informal "walls" had already begun springing up online to honor the
fallen. At that time, I suggested that "the particular dishonor this administration
has brought down on our country calls out for other 'walls' as well." I imagined,
then, walls of shame for Bush administration figures and their cronies – and
one (in words) that November. By now, of course, any such wall would be
full to bursting with names that will live in infamy.
That October, we at TomDispatch also launched quite a different project, another
kind of "wall," this time in tribute to the striking number of "governmental
casualties of Bush administration follies, those men and women who were honorable
or steadfast enough in their government duties," and so often found themselves
smeared and with little alternative but to resign in protest, quit, or simply
be pushed off the cliff by cronies of the administration.
Nick Turse led off what we came to call our "fallen legion" project with a
of 42 such names, ranging from the well-known Army Chief of Staff Gen.
Eric Shinseki (who retired after suggesting to Congress that it would take
"several hundred thousand troops" to occupy Iraq) and Richard Clarke (who quit,
appalled by how the administration was dealing with terror and terrorism) to
the moderately well-known Ann
Brown, and John Brady Kiesling (three diplomats who resigned to protest
the coming invasion of Iraq) to the little known Archivist of the United States
John W. Carlin (who resigned under pressure, possibly so that various Bush
papers could be kept under wraps). By the time Turse had written his second
fallen legion piece that November, and then the third
and last in February 2006, that list of names had topped 200 with no end
Today, to its eternal shame, the Bush administration has left not just its
own projects, but the nation it ruled, in ruins. No wall could fit its particular
"accomplishments." Turse, who recently wrote for the Nation magazine
"A My Lai a Month,"
a striking exposé of a U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in Vietnam that
slaughtered thousands of civilians, returns in the last moments of this dishonored
administration with a fitting capstone piece for the honorably fallen in Washington.
Think of it as the last of the "fallen legion," a memory piece – lest we forget.
"We Killed Her… That Will Be With Me the Rest of My Life"
Lawrence Wilkerson's lessons of war and truth
by Nick Turse
Nations in flux are nations in need. A new president
will soon take office, facing hard choices not only about two long-running
wars and an ever deepening economic crisis, but about a government that has
long been morally adrift. Torture-as-policy, kidnappings, ghost prisons, domestic
surveillance, creeping militarism, illegal war-making, and official lies have
been the order of the day. Moments like this call for truth-tellers. For Truth
and Reconciliation Commissions. For witnesses willing to come forward. For
brave souls ready to expose hidden and forbidden realities to the light of
Lawrence B. Wilkerson is such a man. He came to national prominence in October
2005 when – having left his post as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin
Powell earlier in the year – he laid bare some of the secrets of the Bush White
House as he had experienced them. He had been inside the halls of power as
the invasion and occupation of Iraq took shape. In Bush's second term, on the
outside, he found that he had had enough. The American people, he thought,
had a right to know just how their government was really working, and so he
them this vision of the Bush administration in action: "[S]ome of the most
important decisions about U.S. national security – including vital decisions
about postwar Iraq – were made by a secretive, little-known cabal. It was made
up of a very small group of people led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld."
In the years since, Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel, has not been reticent,
when it came to "the militarization of America's foreign policy" and the practice
rendition (the kidnapping of terror suspects and their deliverance into
the hands of regimes ready and willing to torture them).
Nor, earlier this year, did he shy away from testifying
before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights,
and Civil Liberties about how, in 2004, while still at the State Department,
he had compiled "a dossier of classified, sensitive, and open source information"
on American interrogation and imprisonment practices at Abu Ghraib prison in
Iraq that yielded, he said, "overwhelming evidence that my own government had
sanctioned abuse and torture."
"We have damaged our reputation in the world and thus reduced our power,"
he told the panel in closing. "We were once seen as the paragon of law; we
are now in many corners of the globe the laughing stock of the law."
Wilkerson has spent most of his adult life in the service of the United States
government as a soldier for 31 years, including military service in Vietnam;
as a special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; as the
deputy director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College; and finally, from 2002
to 2005, as chief of staff to Powell at the State Department. His most vital
service to his country, however, has arguably been in the years since.
Wilkerson has become a blunt truth-teller, and of all the truths he has told,
there is one that's especially personal and painful; one that, after so many
years, he could have kept to himself, but decided not to. It's a story, now
decades old, of truth, consequences, and a dead little girl. It is no less
timely for that, offering essential lessons, especially to U.S. troops engaged
in seemingly interminable wars that have left countless
girls included, dead.
"I Fault Myself for It to This Day"
Testifying before that congressional subcommittee in June, Wilkerson stated:
"In Vietnam, as a first lieutenant and a captain of Infantry, on several
occasions I had to restrain my soldiers, even one or two of my officers. When
higher authorities took such actions as declaring free-fire zones – meaning
that anything that moved in that zone could be killed – and you came upon a
12-year-old girl on a jungle path in that zone, it was clear you were not going
to follow orders. But some situations were not so black and white, and you
had to be always on guard against your soldiers slipping over the edge.
"As their leader, it was incumbent upon me to set the example – and that
meant sometimes reprimanding or punishing a soldier who broke the rules. In
all cases, it meant that I personally followed the rules and not just by 'breaking'
the so-called rules of engagement, as in the designated free-fire zone, but
by following the rules that had been ingrained in me by my parents, by my schools,
by my church, and by the U.S. Army in classes about the Geneva Conventions
and what we called the law of land warfare. I had been taught and I firmly
believed when I took the oath of an officer and swore to support and defend
the Constitution, that American soldiers were different and that much of their
fighting strength and spirit came from that difference and that much of that
difference was wrapped up in our humaneness and our respect for the rights
Almost two years earlier, fellow reporter Deborah
Nelson and I met with Wilkerson at a Starbucks outside of Washington, D.C.
We hunkered down in the back of the coffeehouse, while, amid the din of barista-speak
and the whir of coffee machines, Wilkerson told us about his service in Vietnam:
How he flew low and slow – often under the treetops – as a scout pilot for
the infantry, in a OH-6A "Loach" Light Observation Helicopter, operating in
the III Corps region well north of Saigon. During his 13 months in Vietnam,
Wilkerson logged more than 1,000 combat hours, without ever being wounded or
getting shot down. His troops – he oversaw 300 men by the end of his tour –
used to call
him "the Teflon guy" for good reason.
But two moments during his time in Vietnam did, by his own account, stick
with him. They are, in fact, indelibly ingrained in his memory.
One occurred when, as a young lieutenant, he got into verbal battle with an
infantry battalion commander – a lieutenant colonel – on the ground in Tay
Ninh Province. He was in the air leading his platoon when the ground commander
came in over the radio, declaring the area his helicopter was over a free-fire
Ubiquitous during the war, free-fire zones gave American troops the authorization
to unleash unrestrained firepower, no matter who was still living in an area,
in contravention of the laws of war. The policy allowed artillery barrages,
for example, to be directed at populated rural areas, Cobra helicopter gunships
to open fire on Vietnamese peasants just because they were running in fear
below, or grunts on the ground to take pot shots at children
out fishing and farmers working in their fields. "Cobra pilots and some of
my colleagues in the Loach platoon treated that as a license to shoot anything
that moved: wild boar, tigers, elephants, people. It didn't matter," Wilkerson
On this occasion, the battalion commander ordered Wilkerson and his unit to
engage in "recon by fire" – basically firing from their helicopters into brushy
areas, tree lines, hootches (as Vietnamese peasant homes were known)
or other structures, in an attempt to draw enemy fire and initiate contact.
Knowing that, too many times, this led to innocent civilians being wounded
or killed, Wilkerson told the ground commander that his troops would only fire
on armed combatants. "To hell with your free-fire zone," he said.
A "trigger-happy" Cobra pilot under his command then entered the verbal fray
on the radio, siding with the battalion commander. With that, as Wilkerson
described it that day, he maneuvered his own helicopter between the Cobra gunship
and the free-fire zone below. "You shoot, you're gonna hit me," he said over
his radio. "And if you hit me, buddy, I'm gonna turn my guns up and shoot you."
The verbal battle continued until, as Wilkerson recounted it, he caught sight
of movement below. "There was nothing there but a hootch with a man, probably
about 70 [years old], an old lady, probably about the same age, and two young
children." When he informed the battalion commander and the Cobra pilot, Wilkerson
recalled, "that calmed everybody down, 'cause they realized that, had they
shot rockets into that house, they probably would have killed all those people."
A similar situation played itself out with much grimmer consequences in a
"semi-jungle, rice paddy area" in Binh Duong province. Once again, a ground
commander declared the area a free-fire zone, and this time Wilkerson didn't
immediately tell his crew to disregard the order. "I fault myself for this
to this day," he told us.
About 15 minutes later, as his helicopter broke from the jungle over a road,
an ox cart they had spotted earlier came into view. "Before I said anything,
my crew chief let off a burst of machine-gun ammunition. And he was a very
good shot. It went right into the wagon." By the time Wilkerson ordered him
to cease fire, it was too late. "The long and short of it was there was a little
girl in the wagon and we killed her. And that will be with me the rest of my
Even without direct clearance from Wilkerson, the helicopter crew chief was
just carrying out U.S. policy as it was laid down at the command level – a
point Wilkerson emphasized as he discussed his Vietnam War experience with
the congressional subcommittee in June. In doing so, he also offered one of
the essential truths of the Vietnam War: that following the U.S. military's
"rules of engagement" could mean violating the laws of war and the basic tenets
"Where the Skeletons Are Buried…"
In a recent follow-up interview by e-mail, Wilkerson reflected on the quality
of moral outrage and on the value of the willingness to confront authority
– in Vietnam and, decades later, in Washington.
"I was always sort of a maverick in that sense, bucking authority when I thought
that authority was mistaken, particularly if it were an ethical mistake," he
wrote. "I believe that one of the reasons Powell kept me around for 11 years
of directly working for him was that unlike most people around him I would
tell him what I thought in a nano-second – even if it went counter to what
I believed he thought."
While Vietnam may have contributed to Wilkerson's urge to speak out, the primary
impetus for his public comments and writings since 2005 has been the Bush administration
itself. "I felt the incompetence, the deceit, and certain actions of the administration
were actually hurting the nation, diminishing our real power in the world at
a time when we needed all we could get."
Wilkerson acknowledges that those who spoke out against the Bush administration
did so at their peril. "People have families to consider, positions, salaries,
livelihoods. So these are not easy matters – particularly when increasingly
in our republic we have stacked the deck ever higher in favor of those in power."
As a kind of whistleblower (even out of power and out of the government), Wilkerson
certainly exposed himself to potential retaliation. Unlike former CIA official
Valerie Plame, among others,
however, he sees no evidence that he was targeted.
Wilkerson self-deprecatingly suggests that he was spared because "I'm a small
potato in the greater scheme of things and therefore few people listen to or
heed my ramblings." But he notes another possible reason as well. "Those in
power likely believe that I'm still close to Powell – and they very much do
fear him as he knows where many of the skeletons are buried."
Since Wilkerson came forward in 2005, whistleblowers of all stripes have surfaced
– from veterans who testified
on Capitol Hill in May about violence perpetrated against Iraqi civilians,
to high-level insiders
willing, in the closing days of a lame-duck term, to go on record about internal
battles over domestic spying.
Wilkerson doesn't consider his recent disclosure of his role in the death
of a Vietnamese girl analogous to his later acts as a Bush administration truth-teller,
but he acknowledges the value of making her killing public.
"It wasn't truth-telling in the sense that it wasn't known before. The battalion
commander on the ground knew it, the troops knew it, my crew knew it – indeed,
it went into intel [intelligence] reports as far as I know. But in the larger
sense, yes, it adds to the wealth of literature and information that is in
the public [realm] now…. In short, there is ample evidence available to the
public of the hell that war is, of the carnage, destruction, ruined souls,
Revealing such experiences, Wilkerson hopes, will be especially useful for
today's troops. "I believe young GIs should read as much as possible about
what others have done in previous wars, particularly 'to keep our honor clean,'
as the Marine hymn goes."
In speaking out about his Vietnam experience, Wilkerson has, indeed, added
to the long record
suffering as a result of America's wars abroad – offering a stark lesson
for U.S. troops yet to be deployed overseas. And for troops who have already
served in America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has set an example of
the ways in which they can continue to serve the United States by speaking
out about all aspects of their service, even the dark portions that Americans
often don't want to hear.
The only question is: Will they have the courage to follow in his footsteps?
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of TomDispatch.com.
His work has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times,
In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. His first book, The
Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, an exploration
of the new military-corporate complex in America, was recently published by
Metropolitan Books. His Web site is NickTurse.com.
Copyright 2008 Nick Turse