This past week found me sorting through my souvenirs from the war in Vietnam as I prepared to transfer my papers and photographs to the Southern Historical Collection of Manuscripts at UNC-Chapel Hill.
There was the beautifully embroidered shoulder patch showing an upraised middle finger from a Navy support unit. There was a song I jotted down one bizarre night at Cua Viet on the DMZ as Doctor Tooth and a banjo band played on as NVA artillery shells hit all around our bunker: "Take the blue star down out of your window; put a gold star up instead; your son got hit with a mortar; and it blowed off his whole fuckin' head; Tough shit, Tough shit; it blowed off his whole fuckin' head."
And some graffiti I copied off a restroom wall in a Saigon bar: "Is the pussy here any good? The worst I ever had was wonderful." And, "I ain't bad, but the bad fuck with me." And, "God is a Chevy dealer in Phoenix and he's not getting involved in this stupid war." And the answer: "All wars are stupid; why do you people pretend Vietnam is the only stupid war ever fought."
And then I came across the torture pictures taken by my naïve roommate, Sean Flynn. I'd forgotten I had the pictures, even as people around me at He's Not Here and various other intellectual salons in Chapel Hill insisted, "Hey, you must have seen the same stuff in Vietnam didn't you?" The same stuff we saw from the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad? Well, no, not hardly. And therein lies a story—or two—about the good and the bad in the U.S. military in Vietnam.
Sean Flynn was, of course, the incredibly handsome son of movie actor Errol Flynn. "Looks like me but better," the father had the grace to say. He'd been in a few rather bad movies himself. And he certainly had the appearance of the worldly sophisticate when he arrived at the tender age of 24 in Vietnam as a freelance photojournalist. But the truth was, Flynn had never worked as a photographer, never been a journalist before and just didn't understand the rules.
Because of his looks and the "swashbuckling" name he carried on from his father, he was a favorite of all the troops. He looked terrific in his tailored fatigues and the GIs all wanted to have their picture taken with him. Not long after he arrived in the country, he went out for an extended period with the Green Berets. They tortured prisoners; he took pictures of prisoners being tortured. But, when the pictures were sent out worldwide by UPI, a minor storm broke loose in the Green Beret camps where he had stayed—a mere ripple, of course, compared to reaction to the Abu Ghraib torture pictures.
And the Green Berets came looking for Flynn in Saigon. We laughed as he dodged his old buddies; and, of course, when they did catch up with him, they just bought him a drink and invited him on another adventure with them. The two pictures that I had saved show one Viet Cong prisoner strapped to an Asian version of the western cross; another one shows a VC suspect being strung upside down for his interrogation. These were routine procedures. In the manuscript for my Vietnam memoir, Two of the Missing, I had mentioned another popular method of attaching a crank telephone with wires to a man's testicles. My editor wrote, "cliché" beside it. "Still smarts," said a Time magazine correspondent who read the manuscript.
Yes, as in all wars, the Americans absolutely did torture prisoners in Vietnam. But, I don't think there was ever anything like the kind of sick sado-masochistic sexual humiliation and torture we saw in Iraq. After all, as John McCain and other former American POWs have tried to explain, we helped write the Geneva Conventions prohibiting the torture of prisoners for very selfish reasons: We don't want other people doing it to our soldiers who end up POWs.
But I remember one moment in a court martial in Danang that made me genuinely proud to be an American, because it reminded me that even in the most stressful conditions, we expect and demand a code of behavior from our men and women in uniform that reflects the best of our society. A group of very young Marines was being tried for having mutilated and tortured several civilians in yet another now forgotten village somewhere north of Danang. The testimony was pretty gruesome as the details unfolded.
The last of the witnesses was a shy young Marine from Brooklyn. His face was flushed deep red with mortal shame and embarrassment at the predicament he found himself in. It was obvious that he was the rat, the one who'd turned on his buddies and reported their atrocities. And the deed had taken its toll.
"Are you presently on medication for depression?" the military prosecutor asked. "Yes," the boy answered, head down. It seemed the boy could not bring himself to face the lineup of officers facing him as the court proceeded. He told how one Vietnamese woman was strung from a little bridge and the Americans kept throwing grenades at her. He told how they strung an old man up with a hangman's noose and then knocked a chair out from under him and then proceeded to stab him again and again. Still, he never looked up, until the prosecutor asked, "Was there anything unusual about your fellow Marines' behavior as they did all this?"
The boy suddenly sat up, ramrod straight, looked the members of the court in the eyes and said: "Yes, sir. They were all laughing."
If I live to be a thousand, I will never forget that moment in a tiny Quonset hut courtroom in Danang. I was proud and pleased that the Marines would take such action against their own troops, within a matter of weeks of the Army's My Lai massacre in another coastal village, it turned out. But what made me prouder still was the outrage felt by this good and decent young American Marine, an outrage so strongly felt he simply could not remain silent about all he had witnessed.
I understand there was one young soldier who felt similar outrage over what he saw at Abu Ghraib and complained to his superiors. He deserves to be the greatest hero of our time. The rest of us are like tired old whores; nothing seems to shock us any more.
Marianne Moore wrote, "I must discover what it is in me that causes war." We should ask ourselves, "What is it in us that caused the atrocities at Abu Ghraib?"