Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
18 April 2011
Review by Kelly E. Crager, Texas Tech University
War without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam
By Bernd Greiner
Trans. Anne Wyburd and Victoria Fern. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2009. Pp. 518. ISBN 978-0-300-16804-4.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 20th Century, Vietnam War, Ethics Print Version

America's involvement in the Vietnam War has been marked by various controversies too numerous to mention. In War without Fronts,[1] historian Bernd Greiner (Hamburg) addresses war crimes and atrocities committed by American forces against both Vietnamese communists and innocent civilians. He contends that the extent of such atrocities has been grossly—and purposely—underestimated: they were not tragic, isolated incidents but utterly pervasive acts that "can be neither described nor comprehended with the customary rhetoric about brutality common to all wars" (12). The spectacular scale of atrocities in Vietnam resulted from many factors, including weak presidential leadership, a lack of accountability among the American military elite, and poor field grade and junior officers, who tolerated their soldiers' "overstepping the limits ... [as] a means to calm their rage and need for revenge" (19-20).

Indeed, according to Greiner, US military and political leaders encouraged both implicitly and explicitly the attitude necessary to commit barbaric acts in Vietnam. Unable to formulate an effective strategy to counter the enemy's guerrilla warfare, American military planners and the "masters of war in the White House" (13) fought a conventional war by default—a futile struggle of attrition and body counts certain to radicalize American troops in Southeast Asian jungles and rice paddies. The United States engaged in classic asymmetrical warfare "because they [did] not accept any front lines, they regularly, if not systematically, extend[ed] the area of operations to the civilian population and [shrank] as little from attacks on individuals as from group massacres.... A strategy with ground rules like this included murder and massacre and when necessary would be translated into action which literally had no bounds, and excluded no object in the natural or social environment.... The American conduct of the war in Vietnam seamlessly carried on this succession" (13, 34-35). Thus, the massacres at My Lai and Son Thang, to name but two, were direct corollaries of faulty American strategy in Vietnam. Greiner asks: "Why did the political leadership itself see no exit options?" He cryptically responds that "the oft-quoted references to ignorance, self-deception and wishful thinking are inadequate explanations" (18), leaving readers to imagine other, more sinister reasons.

Since the atrocities occurred where the war was actually fought, incompetent and stubborn leadership in the Pentagon and White House only partially explains such actions. Greiner cites careerist and "disinterested" officers (19) whose sole motivation was promotion in the Cold War American military. Because enemy body counts were their only gauge of success or failure, these officers or "kings in the field" received "wide discretionary powers and [had a] corresponding tendency toward autonomous, if not autocratic, decisions" (19), openly encouraging their men to disregard established rules of engagement and kill wantonly. Other officers, including noncommissioned officers, were "unqualified" and often overmatched by the communist enemy, their own disgruntled and often hostile troops, and the chaotic conditions of jungle warfare. Thus, American troops in the field, essentially leaderless during their bizarre odyssey of combat, often protected and empowered themselves through indiscriminate killing, rape, and torture. Rules of engagement "were open to opposite interpretations" and seen "more as recommendations than obligations," effectively giving soldiers "an operational carte blanche" (96-97).

As shocking as the atrocities themselves were the military's efforts to ignore and cover them up. The selectivity of official military records indicts those involved. "Any attempt to search military reports for evidence would be completely pointless" since after-action reports "were without exception drawn up in the certainty that striking contradictions and inconsistencies would not come to light—not even subsequent deliberate falsifications" (14). Vietnamese records, too, prove problematic because of Vietnam's deference to its "trading partner," the United States. Even on those exceedingly rare occasions when American personnel were investigated for crimes or brought before courts-martial, the systemic weaknesses of the military judicial system all but guaranteed their crimes would go unpunished. Greiner cites significant examples, devoting considerable space to the massacre at My Lai and the subsequent trials of Lt. William Calley and Capt. Ernest Medina, as well as the crimes committed during Operation Speedy Express and the controversial Phoenix Program.

How soldiers are trained and conditioned to behave reflects directly upon the society they are drawn from. The American public responds to crimes committed in wartime with disappointment, anger, disbelief, and even disillusionment. It wants know why such terrible events occurred and how to keep them from happening again. Any scholarly work on this topic should be founded on broad, unbiased research and present its findings in a measured, non-sensationalist manner, taking due account of differing arguments. Emotionally charged and politically driven rhetoric can have no place in sound analytical history.

Greiner fails to meet these standards. In trying to frame unassailable arguments, he simply dismisses the legitimacy of views contrary to his own. When he states that war crimes in Vietnam cannot be understood by comparing them to those committed in other conflicts, he robs the reader of the proper context in which to make sound judgments. War and combat are so extremely divergent from the experiences of peace and security as to constitute their own distinct environment. It is misguided to think we can fairly and rationally analyze human behavior without considering its moral setting.

Historical evidence adduced in War without Fronts is another matter. To his credit, Greiner carefully consulted the records of the US Army's Vietnam War Crimes Working Group as well as of Lt. Gen. William R. Peers's investigation of the My Lai massacre and trial.[2] But he applies an uneven standard to his sources, virtually disallowing most official US military records while accepting other sources of doubtful veracity. For example, he repeatedly cites testimony given during the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation with little indication of the highly-questionable motives or proven falsehoods of many of those who testified.[3] In general, Greiner simply rejects American military records that might cast doubt on his thesis, while endorsing those that support his position. He devotes three pages to a list of anti-communist forces' atrocities compiled by the Provisional Revolutionary Government Information Bureau—the propaganda arm of the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong—asserting that "It cannot be proven from the divisional files that in this phase of the war [1968-71] American units were carrying out massacres in I Corps Tactical Zone but it would be premature, if not negligent, to dismiss out of hand the reports published by the NLF [National Liberation Front] or the North Vietnamese Communist Party about atrocities and war crimes as enemy propaganda and deliberately misleading" (249). He exhibits little compunction in accepting at face value communist reports filled with unsubstantiated, purely propagandistic statements. This is not to deny that some American units deliberately misreported the number of civilian deaths—they almost certainly did—but one should apply the same standard of skepticism to all sources.

Unsupported sweeping generalizations abound. For example, Greiner states that in Vietnam there was an "unspoken rule of thumb ... [that] troops without a permanent commitment to norms of warfare tend to be dominated by violent ringleaders" (87), who encouraged violent acts against civilians or injured enemy soldiers. A number of questions arise: who exactly followed such an "unspoken rule of thumb?" Just what "norms of warfare" are meant? How did "violent ringleaders" dominate some soldiers? There can be no answers to these questions without looking at each individual case, which Greiner blithely fails to do. Referring to the motivation of American service personnel in Vietnam, he writes that many had volunteered for military service only to avoid the draft and certain deployment to Vietnam (114), while the thousands of others who joined out of a sense of duty, patriotism, or other reasons were "gullible young men … treading in their fathers' footsteps and wanting to emulate or even surpass them" (123).

Greiner repeatedly uses charged words and unnecessarily provocative, emotional language. American soldiers were "zombies" (135), "terrorists" (144), "cannon fodder" (112), and "cowardly marauders" (13), willing to talk about their participation in war crimes because they were "returning home as losers, wanting to rid themselves of the stigma of defeat" (21). Soldiers suffered from a "rage at their own army" (131). "Violating women was regarded as an unofficial Standard Operating Procedure among jungle warriors" (159). In the wake of the Tet Offensive of 1968, "The unprepared US Armed Forces had disgraced themselves and could only retake [cities and towns] at the cost of civilian casualties" (182). In a final indictment of American society, he adds: "[Vietnam veterans] were to be sure of returning to a society which did not punish, but rewarded, them for their service to the community" (349). Many Vietnam veterans would disagree.

Finally, Greiner is simply wrong about very many aspects of the Vietnam War, both large and small. Of IV Corps Tactical Zone, he writes, "in the provinces near the capital Saigon the fighting was over a symbolic presence and a claim of both sides to be in control" (15). But Saigon was in III Corps Tactical Zone and the fighting in both zones was immensely more than "symbolic." In writing of the capacities of B-52 bombers, Greiner pointedly mentions—purely for the shock value—that they were capable of carrying atomic warheads. He misunderstands the concept of "soft targets" in warfare, noting that their existence "implies a brutalized military strategy" (35) and wrongly states that the Americans' "superior weapons were useless in the jungle" (36). American commanders saw no value in capturing prisoners of war, according to Greiner, because "what mattered was the body count" (56). He writes of "search and destroy" missions as a "strategy," and makes the outrageous claim that the American "objective was to lure as many North Vietnamese soldiers as possible to the South to annihilate them there" (56). The sheer volume of such errors of fact is most distressing in a purportedly scholarly work.

Greiner provides a touch of unintended irony when discussing pacification in Vietnam: "A factual basis was not important to the critics of pacification and accordingly there was no question of discussion, but rather a barrage of emotionally charged verdicts" (59). One may reach the same conclusion about his efforts in writing this book. It is true that American service personnel committed atrocities in Vietnam. Some were prosecuted and punished for their actions. Without question, many brutal crimes were purposely downplayed at all levels and many more never even came to the attention of military authorities and the American public. Dedicated, dispassionate researchers will uncover more information about this terrible, but very real, side of warfare. Sensationalistic and contentious works like War without Fronts obscure vital truths but sometimes offer a point of departure for serious historians seeking a better understanding of the Vietnam War and of the human condition in general. Only in that light can I recommend this book.

[1] German original: Krieg ohne Fronten: Die USA in Vietnam (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2007).

[2] See Peers, The My Lai Inquiry (NY: Norton, 1979).

[3] See Gary Kulik, "War Stories": False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers--What Really Happened in Vietnam (Washington: Potomac Books, 2009) 119-56.

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