This week in Hot Type I’m discussing Deborah Nelson’s The War Behind Me, a new book about atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnam and documented in archives that for two decades the army kept secret. 

One of the intriguing characters Nelson came across in the archives was “Concerned Sgt,” a whistle-blower who after My Lai began writing anonymous letters to army brass. “I am a US GI now in Germany, and I worry a lot about Vietnam, and the wrong we are doing there to the Vietnamese people, and to Gis like myself,” said the first of his three letters. “I know I have information about things as bad as My Lay [sic], and I don’t want to tell my congressman for fear I will hurt the Army. ”Concerned Sgt” reminded me of the anonymous cop who in 1989 wrote three letters to the People’s Law Office with inside information about police commander Jon Burge. Unlike the army, the People’s Law Office seriously followed up.

But even though the Reader’s John Conroy brought police torture forcefully to Chicago’s attention with a series of articles that began in 1990 and continued for the next 17 years, the idea that Chicago police tortured suspects, many of them innocent, remained unabsorbed into Chicago’s civic understanding of itself. So it has gone with America and the unprocessed fact of American war crimes.

Yet we’ve known without knowing. Vietnam was the only war in American history whose heroes were its POWs – those hapless warriors whose positions were overrun, who got lost in the bush, or whose planes crashed. The careful deference that Barack Obama paid John McCain as an American hero hadn’t been enjoyed in earlier presidential campaigns by John Kerry, George McGovern, George H.W. Bush, or Bob Dole, all of them combat veterans. McCain wouldn’t have been such a hero if he’d simply fought the war; instead, somewhat like the country itself, he became its hostage.

Three names kept coming to mind as I read The War Behind Me: Jon Burge, James Bond Stockdale, and Bill Ayers. Stockdale won a Medal of Honor for his conduct as a POW. But what had he done? He’d attempted suicide to keep a secret — his knowledge, because he’d been in the air that night, that the Tonkin Gulf incident that led to the congressional resolution authorizing the war was a sham. Years later I wrote him about that. He replied, “Your insistent question, about why I did not notify the American people about the documentary inaccuracies behind the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (that is to say, the absence of an attack on the Maddox and Joy on the night of August 4th, 1964) seems to ignore the practicalities of what a person in my position could do.” (The emphases are his.)  “I was on active duty, out of the country, a voice in the wilderness. There was no problem with my conscience. I had done the right thing. I had reported ‘no boats’ to my ship, and my ship had accurately forwarded my report to the right office in Washington, at the highest priority. It was received there 12 hours before the ‘reprisal’ at Vinh occurred.

“There are still people in Washington who put out government documents insisting that I (and dozens of other eye witnesses) are wrong — and when pressed, hide behind ‘highly classified, unavailable sources’ — all of which I know to be B.S. — that prove that they were right after all. . . . There are some very big names who are fighting for their lifelong reputations over this one. . . . Insiders say there will not be a free flow of truth on this until the last of them are in their graves.”

So there’s our war — authorized under “false pretenses” (Stockdale’s phrase) and fought with criminal perversity. Say what you will about the violent, obnoxious, and ineffectual Weathermen, they were a “resistance” with something to resist. Yet it’s Bill Ayers who’s told that until he apologizes he isn’t entitled to the useful life he leads now. He moved on more successfully than the country did.