Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Winter Soldier Returns

Many will already have read of Jessie McBeth, the young imposter who attempted to pass himself off as a former Army Ranger. McBeth had a number of stories of atrocities that supposedly occurred in Iraq.

This caused a number of people to think of the Winter Soldier investigation of 1971, in which John Kerry was a participant.

The remarkable thing about the accounts of that event is that you can pick from one of two completely different accounts depending on your political affiliations. Either the WSI was a gathering of over 100 veterans who were carefully selected and screened for authenticity by the organizers or it was a pack of lies told by people many of whom were imposters, not even veterans.

And looking back now, 30 years later, it's hard to be certain of which account is the most accurate. Clearly, some of the participants were fake including the fellow who wrote the book that inspired the whole thing and the principle organizer of it, a veteran who exaggerated his status and participation in events in Vietnam. But it's still possible that many or most of the rest were legitimate.

By one account, the Naval Investigation Service (NIS) attempted to track down and interview soldiers who testified at the WSI, and this resulted in refusals to grant interviews. In some cases it was discovered that the veteran who supposedly was there at the WSI was not there at all.

Others reject that account on the basis that no record of this Naval investigation that took place after the WSI can be found. The man who recounts the story, however, is a respected historian and Professor Emeritus, now probably up in his 70's, who says that he no longer has the documents he based his account on, now almost 30 years after he wrote the book. (Indeed, if I were asked to produce the the notes and source material for stuff I published just 15 years ago I couldn't do it.)

Moreover, it's a little difficult to believe that there was no investigation of the WSI allegations by the military. The claim being made frequently during the 2004 campaign was that there were such investigations and they could find no evidence to substantiate the WSI allegations. The anti war types claim that about 30 of the veterans testified to the NIS about atrocities. (So there must have been an NIS report, right? If so, it's apparently still classified.)

In any case, you've got the right-wingers with one account of the WSI with annotations and references and left wingers with a completely opposite account, also documented, and both sides discount the others' account as "propaganda." And it's been over 30 years now.

What is most likely the most balanced analysis that I've read was from a veteran who was there for 3 years and saw no evidence of atrocities, but he admits with so many men, so many guns, so much conflict, so much pressure that some of that is going to occur. He said that people in different units in different parts of Vietnam probably had completely different experiences. The WSI probably accurately recounts some incidents or experiences but it does not reflect the experience of most veterans who were there. Just as in this conflict there is a tendency on the part of anti-war people to try to generalize these events to the whole military and make exaggerated or false claims in an effort to bring the war to an end.