Remembrances of Battles

The former National Guardsman's voice was low and raspy on the phone, and I could barely hear him. Still, I heard enough to be shocked: A gunner in his squad had been awarded a Bronze Star for his courage during a battle near Baghdad in 2005 and had later appeared on the cover of a national magazine. Yet the man was apparently no hero: He had shot and killed at least two wounded prisoners shortly after the battle. The other soldiers in the unit also knew about the murders but had remained silent because, as one soldier told me, if the story got out, "that would have put a stink on the squad."

Several weeks later, I was sitting in the living room of another National Guardsman's house in a small Kentucky town with two of the soldiers from the squad. One was chewing wintergreen tobacco and wearing a T-shirt that said, "May God have no mercy on my enemies because I sure as hell won't." They offered me a soda, and I put a tape recorder on the couch -- the conversation became awkward and uncomfortable. Everyone in the room knew the stakes: If a soldier witnesses a crime and stays silent, he can face charges in a military court for not reporting it. One man pulled hard at his beard. "I got nothing to hide," he told me. The other mumbled, "I'm trying to cover myself up."

Did the gunner in their squad commit murder? Or had the soldiers lied about what he had done and then changed their minds? The murky account belonged to a growing collection of stories about war crimes alleged to have taken place during U.S. combat. As historian Gary Kulik explains in his new book, "War Stories": False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers -- What Really Happened in Vietnam, a peculiar narrative emerged during Vietnam, "the first war in which men had lied about committing war crimes that they had not committed." Though they may not have witnessed or participated in atrocities against civilians, their tales of war suggested they had.

The experience of soldiers during combat and how they deal with their memories when they come home, whether they have witnessed war crimes or just wartime carnage, is a troubling issue. The shootings at Fort Hood underscore the painful nature of combat memories and how they continue to cause waves of suffering back in the United States. 

The controversy over wartime memories and their effects on soldiers and veterans is highly charged, as people argue over the meaning and veracity of these recollections. Some soldiers have been accused of lying about crimes and misdeeds that occurred in Iraq, such as Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp, whose accounts of the cruelty of American soldiers in The New Republic came under attack from the right. However suspect individual accounts may be, there is overwhelming evidence that American soldiers committed horrific acts against civilians in Iraq.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal brought this to light in 2004, and a November 2006 survey conducted by the United States Army Medical Command showed that Marines in certain military units -- those who had been in close contact with people who had been killed in Iraq and had handled the dead bodies -- said they had lashed out at civilians: Twenty-six percent said they had damaged private property, and 16 percent said they had physically assaulted civilians.

Still, not every American soldier acts out during wartime, despite the claims of former military psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who helped lead the anti-war movement in the 1970s and said that the horror of the battlefield instilled widespread psychological trauma among Vietnam veterans. Many on the left were quick to embrace "'false atrocity' stories" told by soldiers, Kulik writes. As part of the Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971, men spoke of war crimes during hearings in Detroit, which were filmed for a documentary. Yet these accounts were filled with lies, according to Kulik, who contends that "only one war crime testified to at the [Winter Soldier Investigation] has been confirmed." The real purpose was "not to indict individuals for war crimes, but rather the U.S. government."

Kulik makes it clear that while the veracity of wartime stories is important, the truth is also hard to determine. That is the case whether these stories are told by veterans who were relating atrocities on film, as in Winter Soldier, or by soldiers who were accusing another member of their squad of murder, as the National Guardsmen in Kentucky have done.

The story of the Kentucky soldiers only highlights the difficulty in piecing together recollections of war and separating the real truth from brutally remembered fragments. There is no doubt that awful acts were committed and seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam. A desire to right history or to see justice served may push veterans who saw war crimes to speak. But those who were in no way involved with atrocities against civilians may also feel a need to bear witness: Soldiers may be motivated by guilt for participating in combat, driven by jealousy of troops perceived as heroes, or broken by the stress of battle.

The military homecoming, whether from Vietnam or Iraq, has been laced with hurt and anger, and for this reason some of the veterans may have exaggerated the crimes that they witnessed. But Kulik is right to point out that war is not about therapy and that the truth does matter -- for the individuals, the nation, and above all, for the people who have been harmed. To be cavalier about the facts is a travesty, because, as Charles Krohn, author of The Lost Battalion of Tet, says, "the least we owe the dead is the obligation to be honest."