The Policing and Policy Problems of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence, unlike other attacks on civilians, highlights the unique gender and racial factors that sometimes led the military to address assaults that took place during raids or combat operations while largely ignoring attacks near military posts or cities as unrelated to the war. The proximity of soldiers and civilians created conditions in which soldiers could perpetrate isolated attacks on local women, and the failure of the US military to prosecute the crimes further drove a wedge between the allied societies. Even more than the brothel and bar girl industries, sexual violence and coercion provided ammunition for anti-American and RVN press. While publicly protested in Vietnam, attacks on South Vietnamese civilians remained largely invisible to the American public. The My Lai massacre brought the subject of attacks against civilians to light in the American collective consciousness, but that coverage failed to lead to broader coverage of sexual violence, primarily perpetrated against women, by soldiers on all sides, in all areas touched by the war. Furthermore, the acts called the ideological justifications for the war into question and placed the allied governments at odds over how to manage conflicting sexual and social mores. The US Code of Military Justice prohibited rape, and leadership warned troops of the detrimental effect such acts had on America’s image abroad, but officers rarely pursued courts-martial for accused soldiers. While relatively few assaults took place in comparison to consensual relationships, those that did occur serve as vivid reminders of how the actions of individuals in war threaten the perception and goals of the institutions they represent.
US military record keepers did not consider assaults taking place in the rear echelon instances of war rape, leaving highly publicized attacks like that in My Lai among the few in which rape is named in the official prosecution records. This distinction on the American side held little meaningful value for the Vietnamese public. Comparing prosecution records with restricted day-to-day police records reveals that scholarly estimates regarding rape during the war are skewed too low and are too focused on combat rape. Perpetrators committed rape outside the field of combat in domestic and social surroundings, weakening relationships with their civilian allies. The disconnect between occurrences of violence and the likelihood of prosecution created a climate of distrust between the local public and the military, providing ammunition for opposition movements. Whether in the field or behind the lines, sexual violence enabled anti-American groups to portray their enemy as ruthless and insincere in their propaganda campaigns. Uncovering the regularity of rear echelon sexual assault helps us understand the Vietnamese response. Combat-related attacks constituted only one form of civilian-targeted violence. Lovers’ spats turned physical; drunken soldiers mistook bar hostesses for prostitutes; men refused to pay sex workers for their services; peer pressure led soldiers to join in on crimes of opportunity; and in some cases, perpetrators deliberately planned and executed rape. Distinguishing combat troops from the larger number of soldiers stationed in the rear echelon, as Meredith Lair argues, helps reveal the boredom and expectation of entertainment common to many GIs, who struggled to come to terms with their role in the conflict.1
Scholars have examined sexual violence during the Vietnam War by exploring postwar representations or situating the accounts as proof of a military culture of unchecked violence.2 The scholar Nicola Henry contends that “rape has the curious and somewhat paradoxical status of being considered both an ‘unspeakable’ and ‘inevitable’ crime.”3 The unspeakable nature of rape provided an excuse for not discussing sexual violence and its impact on war, much as with the similar disregard of prostitution, and the situation is certainly not unique to Vietnam.4 Ineffective or nonexistent record keeping from the military and local governments left records of victims’ stories limited, censored, tangential, or outright silenced.5 A lack of easily corroborated evidence meant a lack of truth to many, an uphill battle for prosecutors, and the risk of public humiliation or retaliation for accusers. Victims faced additional barriers to obtaining a fair trial, including the language barrier, and the lack of Vietnamese jurisdiction in cases involving American soldiers further encouraged silence.6 When engaged, studies of sexual violence return these traumatic but significant stories to the collective memory of war while providing another mechanism for understanding the conflict. In the case of Vietnam, they unveil American and Vietnamese fears, priorities, and social beliefs.7
Scholars typically describe three levels of sexual violence in conflict.8 In the first type, troops engage in seemingly random and largely unplanned acts known as “rapes of opportunity,” in which the perpetrator acts when presented with the prospect. Second, “rapes of practice” account for troops who engage in rape as a response to patterns of peer or leadership pressure. Rapes of practice are not always premeditated or calculated but are used as a form of stress release or a means of bonding among soldiers in the absence of expected repercussions. Formalized war rape, or the intentional targeting of civilians for rape as a tactic for winning militarily, is typically described as “rape as a strategy.”9
Nick Turse has described the brutal acts of Americans in Vietnam, from murder to rape, as part of a broader strategy of “deliberate policies.”10 Applying the term “strategy” to sexual violence carries a specific connotation identifying the crimes as a carefully planned dehumanization tactic to forward war goals, or as a means of ethnic cleansing. While there is little evidence proving this level of planning in Vietnam, the attacks went beyond simple crimes of opportunity.11 The evidence, however, points to a middle ground where rapes unquestionably occurred during combat operations, but, for the most part, officers did not issue direct orders in a systematic way.
Rape as “practice” best fits the pattern in which the perpetrators blamed their behavior on peer pressure and an accepting culture rather than on carefully planned strategies to eradicate local populations.12 Still, Vietnamese as well as American and other foreign troops perpetrated a noteworthy number of crimes, and individual attacks by soldiers outside combat zones, especially those near military instillations and in cities, contributed to the perception of widespread systematic violence. Sexual violence linked to harassment, sexual slavery, or rape differs from prostitution, which some would also classify as structural violence.13 The Vietnamese press reported stories of women and girls sold into prostitution against their will, and the overarching power dynamics inherent in most service and sex work opportunities create questions, but the evidence on this topic remains too limited to incorporate a detailed analysis here.14 Focusing on documented acts of varying types of assault, as well as the theme of sexual violence in propaganda and cultural representations, uncovers rape as a persistent issue—a practice—during the war.
Rape as Practice
The South Vietnamese drew attention to violent attacks by foreigners on local women during the early months of escalation. In October 1965, just months into the surge of American troops, the English-language Saigon Post reported on a rape committed by a “foreigner.”15 Then in December, the paper ran a story on a rape by a Frenchman alongside two separate accounts of jealous Americans who attacked female hostesses in local bars. One of the Americans reportedly beat the woman because she refused to have sex with him.16 The reports of rape do not appear to have garnered significant attention from US audiences and sparked only minor distrust of Westerners in South Vietnam, although accusations of sexual violence seem to have proliferated in Saigon.17
Political and legal norms of the 1960s shaped how the public processed accounts of rape and sex crimes during the Vietnam War.18 Since reports of rape supported antiwar activists’ portrayals of soldiers as immoral, it makes sense that their publications discussed the topic far more than other sources. Those who held views more sympathetic to the war found it easy to discount the claims.19 The lack of prosecutions for rape as a war crime meant a lack of recognition by the public. The first conviction did not occur until the 2001 International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia found Serbian forces guilty of the crime of systematic rape during the Bosnian War.20 Americans in Vietnam did not systematically use rape as a weapon of war in the same way we see in later conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda.21 The paucity of prosecutions and sources has relegated the history of rape in Vietnam to little more than a mere footnote in most published histories of the war.22 When rape is discussed by scholars, it tends to be either in passing, lumped into the category of mass atrocities, as all-out lies meant to defame US troops, or as a calculated strategy of war directed against civilians rather than in the more applicable category of crimes of practice, indicating decentralized attacks that affected military-civilian relations in various ways.23
Despite the shortcomings in wartime reporting of the crimes, awareness of and punishment for rape did increase during the mid-twentieth century. For instance, in 1965, Vietnamese newspapers ran stories about how the government of the Philippines, home to a large American base and former colonial holding, had increased the punishment for rape, raising possible jail time for perpetrators to life in prison in the hope that more victims would come forward to report attacks. Philippine officials estimated that five or more rapes occurred per day in the country but that only 20 percent of those attacked reported the crimes to police. The government extension of the penalty to a life sentence marked a considerable increase from the previous twelve- to twenty-year sentences.24 At least on paper, the Philippine government prioritized the creation of safe places for its citizens as part of the growing international concern over sex crimes. From the American perspective, however, few outside the antiwar movement recognized the realities of wartime sexual violence in Vietnam until the fallout over My Lai brought American-instigated atrocities to US television screens.
Despite numerous accusations within the Vietnamese media, very few cases came to the attention of the authorities. Unlike charges brought against South Vietnamese perpetrators, accusations of sexual violence against American servicemen typically came as claims of gang rape involving multiple perpetrators.25 Those cases account for the majority of the convictions. By the end of the war, the US Army had court-martialed just thirty-eight men for rape and five for combined rape and assault, yielding twenty-four convictions for the former and three for the latter.26 Related cases of assault with the intent to commit rape, attempted rape, carnal knowledge or statutory rape, and sodomy or attempted sodomy round out the released official Army numbers to eighty-six tried and fifty convicted. Arrests for sodomy likely referred to the then illegal engagement in homosexual activity between soldiers, whether consensual or otherwise, further skewing conviction numbers.27 Records for US Air Force bases in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand from 1965 to 1973 show only two trials of servicemen for rape, returning one conviction and one lesser sentence.28 The US Navy and Marines likewise reported far lower numbers than the army.29
In presenting their defense against the charges, accused groups and individuals placed the blame for their actions on the culture and nature of warfare. Some referenced fear of locals and frustrations over an inability to distinguish the enemy from allies and civilians. Others claimed to have been responding to the pressure of group behavior and a fear of punishment from their units if they abstained from the attacks. Soldiers were informed about the risks of prostitution and venereal disease during their training, but the military did not provide similar instruction to discourage rape.30
In addition to the atmosphere of tension, American perceptions of Vietnamese women also contributed to what Susan Brownmiller called the “exaggerated masculine-feminine dynamic” in times of war “that lent itself readily to rape.”31 In the controversial, and often challenged, testimony of Vietnam Veterans Against the War about alleged war crimes during the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation, several veterans recalled rape as a regular occurrence. The testimonies reflected a much larger problem than that captured in court records. Corporal Christopher Simpson testified that rape was “pretty usual over there,” echoing similar claims made by the soldiers interviewed by Brownmiller.32 Simpson continued: “You’ll be out in the bush and you’ll meet women out on the trails. And the Marines over there, just like the Army and the Navy, are human. But they just don’t go about it the right way—they might stick a rifle in a woman’s head and say, ‘Take your clothes off.’ That’s the way it’s done over there. Cause they’re not treated as human beings over there, they’re treated as dirt.” Testimony often harked back to training that inculcated fears of women and their ability to hide weapons and intelligence in their body cavities.
One soldier reflected that dehumanizing, and even de-sexing, the enemy in order to combat these fears allowed the men to engage in more brutal actions toward civilians. He recalled: “In regards to women in Vietnam, first of all, you get this feeling sometimes when you’re over there that you don’t even think of their sex. This is really disgusting. You don’t even think of them as human beings, they’re ‘gooks.’ And they’re objects; they’re not human, they’re objects. The general rule was a Vietnamese who is dead is confirmed Viet Cong and one who is living is a Viet Cong suspect. And that’s the way it was.”33 This mental distancing, whether forged in training or through the psychological impact of their war experiences, formed the central component of many of the accused GIs’ defenses.
While defendants in the highly publicized cases of rape at My Lai or Hill 192 justified their behavior with claims of fear or an inability to control their actions in the heat of battle, the cases of rape that resonated most with the Vietnamese public took place behind the front lines.34 Media coverage of combat atrocities and sexual violence in the field publicized through events like the Winter Soldier Investigation put pressure on the Nixon administration to react to specific events, which overshadowed the daily realities of sexual violence in Vietnamese cities. The accusations of, and arrests for, rape in military police daily records indicate not only that the number of rapes that occurred in Vietnam far exceeded the number of convictions but also that the crimes were not always reflexive reactions by frightened soldiers to perceived threats in the heat of battle. Rather, the drunken rape of a bar girl or the attack on a “hooch” maid became increasingly common occurrences for military police to manage.
Although rape was never used as a war strategy to eradicate the Vietnamese population, the regularity of the sexual attacks created a significant strategic obstacle for the United States in Vietnam. For Nixon and MACV, keeping instances of rape quiet, or better yet eliminated from the record, represented a vital priority for deflecting the negative repercussions in the press and the persistent hostility on the ground. The lack of US reporting on attacks in the cities versus those in the field resulted in a very different perception of military-civilian attacks among the American versus the Vietnamese public. The separation between city and field attacks in the American mind failed to resonate with many in Vietnam, who saw or heard about attacks more frequently. Links drawn by anti-American media to America’s French colonial predecessors further exacerbated the threat to the United States’ fight for “hearts and minds” in Southeast Asia. To keep Vietnamization on track, Nixon’s advisors pressured him to act.
Nixon, Rape, and My Lai
Despite a handful of rape reports that reached American newspapers in 1967, sexual violence against civilians received little attention in the United States until 1969 with the reports of the mass atrocity in My Lai village. Even then, the coverage only occasionally mentioned the rapes that occurred there. News of My Lai and its cover-up broke in reports from Seymour Hersh more than a year after members of the Twenty-third Infantry Division perpetrated atrocities against women, children, and the elderly.35 Supporters and detractors of the war struggled over how to handle the disturbing images from My Lai, viewing the incident as an unforgivable violation, an unfortunate anomaly, or both.36 By the time Americans learned about the attacks, most citizens had a firm opinion on the war and found ways to spin the controversy as needed to bolster their side.37 Enlisted soldiers facing prosecution accused “the Army machine” of “rolling over” them in an effort to obtain a quick conviction while retaining high-ranking army lawyers for officers.38 In Washington, knowledge of the atrocities placed the issue of rape and mounting civilian casualties on Nixon’s desk and forced the administration to negotiate the problems within the context of weakening public support.39 For the administration, sexual violence represented just one component of the rising tide of noncombatant casualties.
In September 1969, President Nixon received a notification warning him that the fallout of a US massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai jeopardized America’s interests and its reputation. Two months later, and twenty months after the massacre, the American public learned about the events for the first time.40 In November, the American people opened their morning papers to read Hersh’s introduction to the atrocities. “Lt. William L. Calley Jr., 26,” he began, “is a mild-mannered, boyish-looking Vietnam combat veteran with the nickname of ‘Rusty.’ The army says he deliberately murdered at least 109 Vietnamese civilians.”41 Months of interviews with the soldiers provided Hersh with an arsenal of evidence on the massacre in the Son My region of central Vietnam, home to the hamlet of My Lai, the name colloquially used for the mass killings. For weeks, national papers printed his stories on the front page. The public read the uncomfortable words of soldiers who told Hersh that the killings were “deliberate” and “point blank murder.”42 As the weeks passed, more interviews with soldiers revealed more details of GIs stalking women to beat and kill them, punching and beating children to death, and rape as part of the operations procedures for the day.43 Then for nearly a year, he reported, American and Vietnamese military familiar with the incident participated in its cover-up.44
Nixon’s advisors worried about the diplomatic, military, and political consequences. Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard informed the president in a memo that “publicity attendant upon such a trial could prove acutely embarrassing to the United States. It might well affect the Paris peace talks, and those nations opposed to our involvement in Vietnam will certainly capitalize upon the situation. Domestically, it will provide grist for the mills of antiwar activists.”45 Packard estimated that the members of Charlie Company had killed “possibly 100” unarmed civilians at My Lai, but as the reports continued to come in, the numbers grew.46 Vietnamese sources estimated roughly five hundred people killed, nearly all believed to be noncombatant women, children, and elderly civilians.47
Weeks later, after seeing color images from the massacre showing the partially stripped bodies of murdered women, children, and infants, Senator William Fulbright lamented at a joint meeting of the Senate and House armed services committees, “This incident can cause grave concern all over the world as to what kind of country we are.”48 Time magazine published his comments on December 5, the same day Life magazine first brought the color images to newsstands and their long-standing centrality to the public memory of the war.49 In one photo, readers saw a group of women and children huddled together just moments before their murder. In the text, they learned that the combat photographer Ronald Haeberle and reporter Jay Roberts witnessed several soldiers assaulting and attempting to rape the thirteen-year-old girl seen in the photo trying to re-dress herself, only to be attacked by her mother. Immediately after the photo was taken, soldiers gunned down the group.50 Other images show women in various states of undress, further indicating acts of rape and assault at the massacre. Illustrating the confusion over how to present the jarring news to the American public, the piece in Time ran under the headline “MY LAI: An American Tragedy.” The political tragedy may well have been American, but the human tragedy was most certainly Vietnamese.51
At a press conference four days after the publication of the color images, and less than a month after Hersh’s first report appeared, a journalist asked General William C. Westmoreland, recently promoted to army chief of staff, whether he thought the news coverage of the massacre was excessive.52 Westmoreland replied that the reports were “rather complete,” but also that “much of this information is hearsay,” and regardless of the accuracy, the constant attention in the media might threaten the official investigation.53 Seven years later, in his memoir, Westmoreland addressed My Lai far more directly than he could during the investigation, calling it “the conscious massacre of defenseless babies, children, mothers and old men in a kind of diabolical slow-motion nightmare that went on for the better part of a day, with a cold-blooded break for lunch.”54 His careful public response to an ongoing investigation contrasts sharply with his reflections a few years later. In the moment, however, he toed the line on the massacre as he struggled to maintain control of the narrative of a war that had grown more bloody following the January 1968 Tet Offensive.
Prior to My Lai, little exists in the presidential records relating to rape in Vietnam. In a rare mention in 1967, the Johnson administration received a compliment from South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu, who told the embassy that he wanted his people to remember how much better off they were under the Americans than under the French.55 With opponents quick to label the US presence colonial, it benefited both Johnson and Thieu to distinguish the Americans’ behavior from that of the French.56 In his attempt to flatter his allies and dampen concerns, however, Thieu overlooked the very real repercussions that acts of rape and social disruption had on the morale of civilians.
The Vietnamese could not prosecute American soldiers for crimes. The 1950 Pentalateral Agreement identified Americans as diplomatic guests, and during the war’s escalation the signatories failed to update the language to provide the Vietnamese with more leverage in the relationship. The United States also did not see a reason to draft a structured Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which establishes rules between Department of Defense entities and a host country, feeling that it applied better to peacetime. Significant for their potential importance as a buffer between the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, SOFA documents, in part, define legal jurisdiction over the crimes of soldiers.57 Without a SOFA, and cooperating on the basis of rules designed for a few dozen American advisors serving a different government in 1950, local law enforcement found it had little recourse in the event of a crime. That is not to say that GIs didn’t risk punishment, but the US government had significant leeway in how it responded to accusations. American commanding officers told soldiers to follow Vietnamese laws and cooperate with Vietnamese police, but they also let GIs know that the 1965 MACV directives subjected soldiers only to the regulations in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the army’s Code of Conduct.58 The language of the documents allowed the military to limit the scope of prosecution, so it could try accused soldiers under the codes for crimes like murder and rape while avoiding a trial for war crimes.59
Prior to My Lai, few on the American side recognized a problem with the uneven relationship. With regard to the examination of rape and sexual violence during the Vietnam War, My Lai marked a watershed moment that forced more diligent attention from the executive branch. For Nixon, the atrocity and cover-up represented yet another remnant of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency that cast a long shadow over his own Vietnam policies. Initially, Nixon’s advisors even suggested keeping the president out of the proceedings as much as possible to distance him from the events. As the war dragged on and negative press grew, the president could not ignore the impact of violent attacks on civilians.
Nixon ordered his staff to collect as much information as possible despite recommendations from advisors that he not engage with the civilian casualty problem.60 While Johnson had similar concerns that violence against civilians hindered the battle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, revelations from events like My Lai forced Nixon to face the issues. His team pushed the narrative that the massacre represented an anomaly in the midst of a good war.61 Domestic tragedies threatened that message early on. Disappointed with the absence of fallout from the attacks and the death of a protester at Kent State University, one letter writer to the Wall Street Journal hoped, “Perhaps the tragedy in Kent, Ohio may shock the nation’s conscience as the tragedy in My Lai did not and we will realize that the way to stop killing is to stop.”62 The concern over managing My Lai as a public relations problem seemed to be having some impact as the war continued.
The aftermath of the massacre was impossible to ignore, however, if only for the shocking lack of accountability. Days before the color photos appeared in Life, becoming some of the most iconic images of the war, reports from servicemen claiming to have witnessed similar attacks had already started reshaping the public’s perceptions of America’s behavior in Vietnam. On December 2, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger received a memorandum noting the president’s concerns over a report that highlighted the deaths of women and children. In the report, an “infantryman” claimed to have seen his unit commit war crimes that resulted in “60 dead bodies—women, children and maybe a few old and decrepit men.” The witness continued that he had observed “at least 100 Vietnamese lying in rice paddies shot—women taken for intercourse and then shot.”63 Whether those soldiers could claim they had feared for their lives or not, the use of rape as punishment for women far exceeded any condonable actions against enemy forces under their military codes. Nixon requested that Kissinger have the Department of Defense compile a list of any other cases that he might expect to see reported in the coming days. In the reports that followed, sexual violence represented a central theme, as it was in the case just recounted.
As an intimate violation of a civilian, rape represented a particularly difficult crime to justify in the heat of battle, and the question whether or not a soldier had attempted to intervene against the crime was used as a barometer of his willingness to participate in an atrocity. Lieutenant William Calley of the First Platoon of Charlie Company, whose soldiers committed the majority of the crimes at My Lai, claimed during testimony that he had not discriminated between the killing of men and women until he stepped in to stop the “molesting” of a female villager.64 Calley’s testimony illustrated that he was aware that the rape and subsequent execution of women and girls during massacres represented particularly heinous crimes.65 While intimate violence went against the UCMJ and international laws of war, accused soldiers could claim that they had responded out of fear that the victim was working as a covert operative for the North Vietnamese.66 The likelihood that all of the women and girls who suffered rape, sexual assault, or the threat of rape in combat or interrogation scenarios were working covertly for enemy forces was low, nor would it justify sexual violence as punishment if they had been. In the case of Calley’s intervention to stop a sexual assault at My Lai, his leadership role in the attacks indicates that he should have been able to end the targeting of women. His testimony, however, conflicted with that of other soldiers collected at an army-directed inquiry led by Lieutenant General William L. Peers.
The witnesses who gave statements on rape varied from those who denied its occurrence altogether to others who dismissed the crimes as rumors or the actions of a few. Other witnesses, when informed by the interrogators that they suspected atrocities might have occurred and were “also looking at a situation where numerous, not just one or two, but numerous, women were raped,” opted to seek legal counsel rather than respond. Many witnesses pointed to other well-known cases in which courts-martial for rapes had occurred, including the rape and murder of two NLF nurses, rather than discuss what they had seen at My Lai.67 Private First Class Leonard Gonzales testified that he had seen piles of naked women and girls, murdered when they refused to have sex with another private. He made his way through the village with another young girl—he estimated she was sixteen—who had been molested in order to try to keep her alive.68 Despite the numerous claims and corroborating testimony provided during the inquiry, the courts tried only twenty-six men, primarily on murder charges, and handed down a conviction only against Calley. Separating him out in this way made him a martyr in some circles and a representation of evil in others.69
Preparing for further potential scandals, the Department of Defense compiled the report Nixon had requested on other war crimes or accusations of war crimes committed by Americans. The documents noted investigations and charges against 213 men, including sixty-six officers.70 According to the records, the military had previously convicted nine of twenty-nine men on charges that involved rape, sodomy, or attempted rape, including the rape of children.71 Two of the rape cases listed were still pending trial when the report was presented to Nixon. One of these encompassed at least five counts of gang rape and murder in a massacre estimated to have taken seventy civilian lives.72 At the time of the report, a court had acquitted one officer of intent to commit rape and “commission of a lewd act on the body of a Vietnamese girl, under 16 years of age.”73 The new attention to violence against civilians resulted in more publicity for cases directly discussing sexual violence.
In 1971 a Vietnamese newspaper published details about another US unit in South Vietnam referred to by Vietnamese civilians as the “Pig Division.” Other units knew this division as one that committed acts of rape against village women during their raids. The investigation was turned over to MACV’s inspector general, who compiled a report. Those who had made the accusations of rape were not available to testify, and inspectors set up plans to talk to them at a later date. Final reports concluded that only three men in the unit should be punished directly, but that the rest of those who had been present should receive more training on how to work with civilian populations, long seen as the key to winning the war.74
The “Pig Division” represents one of several cases in which war crimes were charged, including numerous recorded accusations of rape. A different report delivered to Nixon listed cases against marines from January 1 to March 14, 1967, more than a year prior to the My Lai incidents. Ten of the fourteen cases mentioned referenced rape or attempted rape among the charges. Two of the cases referred to the kidnapping, gang rape, and premeditated murder of a young woman in the case that became known as “the incident on Hill 192,” the subject of the 1989 film Casualties of War. The story first broke in a 1969 report by Daniel Lang in The New Yorker and was later recounted in a book by Lang.75 Commenting on the guilty verdicts reported to Nixon, marginal notations alongside several of the rape accounts indicate that the United States Court of Military Appeals later dropped the charges, the sentence was reduced by half, petitions had been submitted, or some cases were simply “denied” with no further explanation.76 These reports indicate that the tallies of eighty-six charges and fifty convictions for rape in army court-martial records for the duration of the war are certainly far too low to provide an accurate representation of the role of sexual violence in the Vietnam War.77
Policing Rape in Vietnam
In histories of the war, the scope of the atrocities committed at My Lai and in other villages overshadow accounts of rape that happened away from regions of combat. Even studies outside the American perspective focus on attacks in the field. Heonik Kwon’s work on Republic of Korea soldiers who systematically murdered Vietnamese civilian women and mutilated their bodies illustrates how the problem of sexual violence extended beyond American soldiers.78 The dramatic accounts deserve historical attention and scrutiny, but they fail to tell the whole story.
The Department of Defense did not even bother including individual cases of rape that occurred in the cities when they compiled their list of other war crimes similar to “the Calley Case.”79 Yet throughout the cities in South Vietnam, GIs committed rape against civilian women “unrelated to war-time activity” on a regular basis.80 This unquantifiable distinction between cases investigators presented in their official records to the president and those they viewed as unconnected to the war present a striking contradiction. Sexual violence in the rear echelon could not so easily be considered a response to fear or an act of retaliation in the same way that perpetrators justified combat rapes. The cases were more commonly linked to single perpetrators preying on women they knew or waitresses they expected would provide sexual services.
Few military police records directly confirmed rape, noting that the staff were unable to verify the accounts of women who made the accusations. Regular responses to accusations of attacks or assault, however, point to something larger. Oral histories from former military police at the Long Binh Jail, north of Saigon note that they held GIs for rape but could not comment on prosecution.81 Guards were troubled by the knowledge that most of the men they held in the jail, no matter the crime, would later be released and sent back into the field.82 In addition, without formal prosecution or court-martial records, and with the police blotters restricted to researchers on account of the sensitive information they contain, the records are difficult to substantiate. Cases occur consistently throughout the available records, which span nearly four years of police reports from 1967 to 1970 in the cities and villages of Dau Tieng, Di An, and Lai Khe. I examined many of these desk blotters at the US National Archives before they were recalled on account of FOIA restrictions on names and personal information.83 I therefore do not include any personal information on those accused or the specific dates of the events. The cases in the files nevertheless point to widespread rape and assault in South Vietnam.
Regular reporting of the accusations in the blotters indicated that military police found the claims to be believable enough to record, as well as matters of legitimate concern. Police blotters generally contained very little information, left gaps, and, as initial reports, attempted to avoid drawing any conclusions as to guilt. Still, they offered enough details to depict a framework of violence against women that loosely corroborates narratives in antiwar publications. Some of the reports describe violent attacks but do not directly mention sexual assault or rape. Other cases suggest that bystanders interrupted perpetrators before they could complete acts of sexual violence. Together, persistent attacks on women illustrate a culture of inter-gender violence that created tension for officials and soldiers working to maintain a positive relationship on both sides. In addition to the records that do exist, studies also show that victims struggled to take their stories to police, resulting in vast underreporting of assault and rape.
Within the police records, some reports directly pinpoint sex as the underlying aim of the crimes’ perpetrators, while others leave the nature of the offense unstated. An assault on a Vietnamese hostess in the latrine at the back of the Bamboo Inn in Di An, a bar near the military installation of Bien Hoa outside Saigon, reflects the imprecise nature of most reports concerning solider-perpetrated attacks.84 According to the reports, soldiers hearing a scream amid the haze of heat and alcohol at the Bamboo Inn nightclub in August 1969 were startled by a commotion coming from the back door and ran toward the sound. When they arrived at the latrine in the rear, they found a woman bleeding from a head wound and saw a fellow American fleeing on foot across the street. The men managed to detain the perpetrator and held him until US military police arrived. The MPs transported both the victim and the perpetrator, an army private, to the First Infantry Division medical center, where doctors treated the woman with stitches and monitored the private until he could sober up.85 The MPs on staff forwarded the case to the army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID), but I could find no further mention of it.86 The police account does not address the motivation for the attack, but the secluded and gendered nature of the crime suggests sexual violence. The difficulty of navigating interpersonal violence, distrustful attitudes toward Vietnamese women who interacted with Americans, and a general reluctance to prosecute soldiers likely drove the military leadership to discount the incident.
In September 1969, MPs apprehended a different army private for assaulting a female employee who worked for the First Battalion, Eighteenth Infantry. The officers kept their report short, noting only a disagreement over money the private owed to a housekeeper. The location of the attack, “adjacent to supply room,” again points to the seclusion of the woman and hints at a possible sexual exchange.87 The report fails to mention whether or not the soldier raped the victim or simply refused to pay her for sex, leaving the case as another example of violence directed toward a civilian woman with no attempt to record the underlying cause or full details.
In a separate entry, a GI the military police specifically identified as a “negro soldier” forced a woman through a hole in a fence by pointing his M16 at her.88 Her struggle angered her attacker, who discharged his weapon. The guards of the neighboring village opened fire in response to the shot, and in the ensuing confusion the woman managed to escape. Again, any mention of the purpose of the crime is absent in this first report, but the inclusion of the detail about the soldier’s aggressive interaction with the woman raises questions about his intentions. The lack of detail in the records of assaults against women illustrates a broader absence of interest in understanding why these crimes took place, and perhaps reflects a lack of concern over their repercussions. In most of the reports, it appears that onlookers or military police interrupted scenarios in which perpetrators would have committed more bodily harm.
Despite the general ambiguity in cases of “assault,” overt charges for rape and attempted rape yield a troubling glimpse into military-civilian relations during the war. A twenty-eight-year-old cleaning woman who worked in the Dau Tieng camp was the victim of an attempted rape by two soldiers stationed on the base in October 1969. While she was cleaning a room, two PFCs approached her and offered her money. Aware that accepting money from an American would lead to an expectation of sex, she refused. Likely frustrated, the first soldier threatened to hit her if she did not take the money, forcing her to accept the cash. After he handed her the money, the soldier proceeded to proposition the maid for sex, but again she declined. The soldier and another PFC closed the door behind them, and the second solider helped him cover the woman’s mouth and hold her legs out. Before they could complete the rape, a third soldier entered the room, perhaps hearing the altercation. He broke up the assault and allowed the maid to escape. The actions of this unidentified third soldier made the detailed report possible. Within hours of the report’s being filed, the police noted in the margins that the facts of the case had changed. Alongside the original write-up, an officer scribbled, “I’ll get the true picture for you.”89 The records do not include a follow-up to the report, and no further accounts exist.
The threat of physical harm if a woman refused to consent to sex recurs throughout the police blotters. In one instance of alleged assault, a service member asked a woman for a “short time,” referring to a sexual encounter that would not involve the entire night. The woman reported to police that she refused the offer, but the man would not let her go. He placed a knife to her throat and attempted to restrain her. She told the police that she eventually escaped from the man, but the report does not make clear whether the soldier raped her before she could do so.90
Even direct allegations of sexual assault include few details. For instance, one report states only that an army specialist raped a woman at seven in the morning inside the noncommissioned officers’ club at Di An.91 According to another, military police encountered a woman with wounds to her arm and buttock, but it provides no more detail to explain her side of the story.92 It is unclear why this report failed to mention any possibility of rape, but a similar case of a wounded Vietnamese woman two years prior resulted in a medical exam to determine if she had been assaulted. In the earlier case, a shirtless American dragged the victim into a bunker, where he choked her and ripped off her clothing before robbing her. The report noted “no sign of an entry or an attempt.”93 Both reports include only a few lines noting minor details of the encounters which help distinguish a location but little else.
As in the courts-martial that followed My Lai, UCMJ struggled to present evidence that would prove crimes of rape. Women found few allies and struggled to confirm their stories. The blotters offer little to help trace the cases forward or uncover their outcome in court. To judge from the total reported numbers of convicted rapes, few ever went beyond the initial reports. Without jurisdiction provided by a SOFA, victims could not press charges, and the military seemingly did not pursue most of the cases reported to military police.
Despite efforts by Nixon and his administration to monitor and prevent sexual violence, cases continued to occur on a regular basis after the 1968 massacres dropped from public attention. Perpetrators who did face charges blamed the stress of the war and the perceived inability to distinguish good from evil in Vietnam. In reality, the lack of discipline, in addition to heavy drinking, expectations of sex, and embedded racism, appear to offer more likely reasons underlying the majority of attacks behind the front lines. In the rapes happening at the base and city levels, the women often knew the men, either as employers whose hooches they cleaned every day or as regular patrons at the local bars and clubs where the women worked. Sexual violence in Vietnam cannot be understood simply as a repercussion of the combat that unfolded on the battlefield or in the interrogation room. Rape, like prostitution, became part of the American image of Vietnamese women, who faced the threat not only in the villages many had fled from but in the cities where they came to seek protection as well.
The Vietnamese Response to Rape
The introduction of an official US military presence in Vietnam after 1965 brought increased scrutiny of the Americans’ actions from the Vietnamese. In October 1965, just months into escalation, the Saigon Post reported on sexually violent attacks by Americans against houseworkers in a short, matter-of-fact item titled simply “Rape.”94 The disapproval of wide-scale prostitution and relationships between Vietnamese women and American servicemen created a certain amount of unrest, but blatant harassment, rape, and rare instances of murder far outweighed the other interactions when it came to skepticism toward the Americans’ stated altruistic intent to protect the Vietnamese people from communism. While the number of sexual violence cases appears relatively low compared to consensual relationships, they carried more weight.
In the culture of prolonged war, Vietnamese civilian women feared rape not just from Americans but from diverse perpetrators.95 Studying attacks by US soldiers alone fails to provide a complete picture of the risks faced by those who found themselves physically or financially vulnerable. Women, particularly those living in small villages or alone in cities, remained cautious toward all soldiers. They recalled or reported attacks committed by North Vietnamese and NLF fighters, South Vietnamese men, and allied troops from the Republic of Korea, in addition to Americans.96 To keep their daughters safe, many families sent them to the cities and away from the front lines. The presence of Americans in and around cities, however, increased their interactions and thus their risks. As the stories recounted in the previous section illustrate, maids and bar workers bore the brunt of rear echelon attacks.
In communications with his allies, South Vietnamese president Thieu expressed frustration with the antiwar sector’s preoccupation over what they saw as the negative impact of the American presence. In his opinion, the people should remember that the French treated them far worse than their current allies. Speaking with Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in 1967, he said that he wished the Vietnamese would “think of the difference between the tremendous amount of rape, rowdyism, arguments, drunkenness when 10,000 French were here, as compared with how little of this kind of thing there is with 400,000 Americans.”97 Lodge appreciated this “very sincere, very real and wholly unsolicited compliment” and felt that the Department of State should take it as a win. Still, the focus on social disruption overshadowed the humanitarian efforts of building schools, digging wells, and caring for orphans. Lodge failed to recognize that regardless of Thieu’s willingness to downplay the scope of the social problems, opponents of the allied operations would care little that the Americans impacted Vietnamese life relatively less than the French. By the 1970s, Thieu had begun to take the threats seriously and increased the penalty to capital punishment for crimes such as rape and forced prostitution, but by that point the antiwar movements had lost faith in his leadership.98
In antiwar media, sexual violence against civilian women represented one of the key components undermining American interests in Vietnam. By painting all US servicemen in a negative light and equating them to rapists, the reporting performed two simultaneous actions. First, the image of Americans as abusers of women likened them to an imperial occupation, not to aid workers. In 1968, one anti-American organization in South Vietnam published a pamphlet provocatively titled “Crimes Perpetrated by the US Imperialists and Henchmen against South Viet Nam Women and Children.” This report cited hundreds of rapes by Americans beginning as early as 1965. The document argued that the political goals of the United States had overtaken its moral responsibilities, stating, “It is due to such Machiavellian designs that South Viet Nam women and children have become the biggest victims of war in terms of the number of deaths as well as the physical and moral sufferings inflicted on them.”99 The foregrounding of women and children in the anti-American narrative proved particularly compelling in recruiting supporters to the cause.
The second result was that the propaganda forged a sense of fear in Vietnamese civilians, who came to feel they were not able to trust Americans. Within a month of the massacre at My Lai, a village chief notified US military officials in the region about the attack in the hope of getting this information forwarded and receiving answers about the “insane” attacks.100 NLF advocates used the massacre to build hatred toward the Americans, whom they described as “pirates” and “Imperialists.”101 Calling the attack “the most barbaric killing in human history,” an NLF notice highlighted assaults against women, charging, “Pregnant women were raped and killed.” In the short document, the rapes were described in more graphic detail than the deaths. For instance, one recollection stated, “Nguyen, 12 years old, after being raped, was bayoneted in the vagina and rest of her body.” Another witness reported, “Phan Thi Mui, 15 years old, was raped and then burned to death in a rice bowl.”102 While the text identified the targets as “women,” the ages indicate that the rapists failed to distinguish between adults and children. The focus on girls and pregnant women added layers of vulnerability to an already sensitive topic. These accounts of brutality would only have compounded the fears that already existed among Vietnamese women concerning the possibility of rape by soldiers.
For women in Vietnam, rape motivated participation in the antiwar effort. Stories of rapes filled the pages of publications for women. Interviewed by the anti-American Liberation News Services, for example, Huyn[h] Thi Kien recounted an incident in which soldiers took an eight-months-pregnant woman, strapped her to a bed, and raped her to death. Once she had died, according to Huynh, the soldiers used a knife to cut her unborn child out of her belly and left the baby to die as well. She described them departing the scene with no remorse. Walking away, the soldiers viewed what they had done “and they laughed,” she wrote.103 While it is impossible to attest to the authenticity of the account, the publication of her story contributed to the horror and concern that led to an increase of female participation in the antiwar effort. American antiwar proponents also picked up the story, which they used to illustrate the plight of Vietnamese women. In another example, the Women’s Committee to Defend the Right to Live claimed that a story about the rape of a mother and daughter sparked mass women’s protests in 1970 and encouraged more women to engage in group activism in Saigon.104 As a political tool, sexual violence alarmed and disgusted women, motivating them to speak out and act against the Americans, the war, or both.
Trauma and Memory
Trauma plays an integral part in autobiographical and fictional accounts, shaping both Vietnamese and American memories of the war. Memorials and official sites of public remembrance present less consistent stories, however. Themes of prostitution, dating, or marriage to American service members are largely absent from the Vietnamese public memory of the war, while the rape of civilians receives little or no mention in American memorials.105 In contexts removed from the rooted political implications of memorial sites, soldiers and artists depict sexual trauma more openly in their cultural representations. Scholars, writers, and politicians with backgrounds in both nations struggle over how to capture the legacy of violence against civilians, and particularly women and girls, through literature, film, and art.
In recent attempts to capture the conflicting nature of how we remember war, Vietnamese and Vietnamese American authors have begun to evoke the horrors of the war through fiction. Works from Nguyen Phan Que Mai and Ocean Vuong provide fascinating new fictionalizations of the war years and their aftermath.106 Viet Tranh Nguyen, historian and novelist, argues in his study Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War that “all wars are fought twice,” once in the moment and again in memory. He notes that Vietnam in particular suffers from an identity crisis over how the conflict is remembered as both the Vietnam War and the American War.107 Nguyen’s assessment advances the idea that through the representations of the past in fiction, nations find meaning and ways to move forward. Throughout his academic study, Nguyen addresses portrayals of rape in fiction, illustrating how prevalent the theme has been over time.
In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer, Nguyen unravels the role of trauma in the construction of memory as a central theme. The portrayals of rape in the novel center on two parallel moments when an unnamed protagonist struggles to reconcile history, memory, and fiction. While working as a covert agent, the protagonist is invited by an American film director to serve as a movie consultant to lend authenticity to the film, but when the movie is released, he finds that his voice has been largely overlooked in favor of a more marketable narrative. The movie itself includes a rape scene, filmed with no background music to emphasize the brutality of the attacks against the woman, Mai, by a “VC quartet.”108 Watching the film in a theater, the protagonist is struck by how mothers in the audience who let their children watch brutal war scenes shield their eyes from the rape. The two accounts of rape in the book reflect how both sides villainized the other, with women’s bodies serving as a universal victim. Nguyen’s protagonist reflects on why events played out as they did and fixates on “if” statements, suggesting among a long list that “if we forgot our resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play, if we had not fought a war against each other, if some of us had not called ourselves nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists,” then perhaps the trauma could have been avoided.109 But his list of “ifs” reaches back to the formation of man and woman and light, suggesting the futility of the exercise. When the protagonist is captured and interrogated, the point for his interrogators, and for the novel itself, is that the rape did occur. Remembering, coming to terms with, and debating how to either punish or memorialize traumatic events both on and off the battlefield constitute one of the most difficult aspects of postwar reconciliation.
Other Vietnamese cultural representations also highlight the centrality of crimes against society. The story “The Last Survivor of the Jungle of Laughter” illustrates the struggles of North Vietnamese female fighters living in the jungles. The author strives to show how sexual violence framed warfare for women. She writes: “The events of legends didn’t happen in this place. They couldn’t counterattack the enemy because they had to reserve the last bullets for themselves, to avoid rape.”110 Women could fight for their side, but they also had to take measures to protect themselves in ways their male counterparts did not. A television series based on the text received a critical reception for perverting the story into a popular drama that undermined the significance of female fighters and their contributions.111 While the show portrayed the women and their sexuality as central to the memory of the war, the adaptation did not depict their efforts as central to victory and diluted the harsh realities of their experiences in what proved to be a controversial interpretation of the original story meant to make it more palatable to television audiences.
Public war memorials in Vietnam also focus on the roles and the suffering of women during the conflict. Statues at the My Lai massacre site, for example, embody the duality of strength and suffering in Vietnamese remembrance. In one, the sculptor portrays a mother who survived the attacks on the village surrounded by dead or dying bodies. She stands tall and stoic with a fist raised resiliently in the air while holding her dead infant, who lies slack across her other arm. A second statue illustrates the theme of broken innocence, portraying a young civilian woman wearing an ao dai at the moment when she is shot down by an unseen perpetrator. As she falls to her knees, only in death does she allow her murdered infant to fall from her arms. While the act of rape is not memorialized here, the emphasis on women as targets illustrates their centrality to Vietnamese memory of the massacre and the war more broadly.
Since the war’s end, American representations in literature and film have perhaps captured better than written histories the prevalence of gendered violence during the conflict. As with accounts of prostitution, filmmakers have used rape to drive the plot or add layers of horror to Vietnam War films. Attacks against noncombatants became a common plot device to reinforce the narrative of an unjust war. Often, the hero-protagonist attempts to save those in distress at the risk of personal harm. Gina Weaver argues that these representations, starting in the 1980s, also served as pushback against the women’s movement and portrayed the soldiers as victims themselves. She describes the films as following a “veteran-as-victim paradigm” that has “smothered American recognition of Vietnamese trauma” and prevented a deeper understanding of the trauma of soldiers.112 The good soldier seeks a balance between ethics and survival by fighting against the men he thought he could trust. The exchange of—or refusal to exchange—money for sex on film often exemplifies a specifically masculine behavior that tempts men to commit immoral actions in the confusion of war.
Popular memory about how soldiers and local women interacted in Vietnam tends to privilege one of two polar images in which encounters either were devoid of violence or, conversely, were riddled with attacks revealing American soldiers as uncaged animals. Novels and films from the early and mid-twentieth century romanticized sex in colonial Saigon as a social-climbing enterprise in which peasant girls could live charmed lives in the service of their foreign boyfriends.113 Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and the works of Harry Hervey depicted Vietnamese women as ornamental characters living on the fringes of a man’s conflict. Vietnam War films of the postwar era, like Full Metal Jacket, shifted focus to show women burdened with desperation but no less willing to serve a foreign population.114 Other victims simply find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, targeted for their bodies. Oliver Stone’s 1987 Platoon highlights a village massacre scene in which only one soldier remains morally grounded amid the chaos and stops his comrades from raping young girls, while the other men are motivated by fear or frustration.115 This moment reportedly mirrors a similar autobiographical moment from Stone’s own experience as a soldier in Vietnam.116 Based on the events of the incident on Hill 192, Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989) offers one of the rare cultural representations that address gender-based violence as a main focus by portraying the story of frustration-riddled soldiers who kidnap, rape, and murder a young woman, Phan Thi Mao. The film presents wartime intimacy as a perceived right and necessity for the soldiers, creating the conflict that sets up the kidnapping scene.117 Whether premeditated or in the heat of the moment, rape as a plot device allowed these largely antiwar films to illustrate the difficulty of maintaining one’s humanity during war.118 In each case, however, the lives and morality of the soldiers take precedence over the experiences of the women. Accounts of violence in memoirs, in fiction, or on film cannot capture the complex repercussions triggered by the events in the personal lives of individuals or the public affairs of nations. Just as wars are fought on multiple fronts, attackers perpetrated sexual violence in diverse ways.
In cultural representations of war, including accounts of sexual violence, the complexity of the encounters as they occurred throughout the conflict remain largely lost. Both Vietnamese and American representations have struggled to come to terms with attacks on civilians, and especially rape. Authors and filmmakers have worked to distinguish individual decision making from groupthink and actions from ideologies, but the results tend to yield a focus on perpetrators over victims. The persistence of themes of trauma, however, demonstrates their importance to war memory and prompts closer historical examination of the events depicted through fiction.
In addition to its effects on the war’s image abroad, rape, like other forms of sexual encounters between Americans and Vietnamese civilians, took on a more significant place in the public’s perception of the war during the Nixon administration. Because of the timing of My Lai and other massacres in 1968, Nixon was forced to deal with sexual violence in ways that the Johnson administration had not. In the months and years that followed, the administration supported congressional inquiries and confidential reports in order to learn about the climate they faced and what they could expect. Nixon’s de-escalation policies provided a distraction for the American public, who already had plenty of reasons to disapprove of the conflict.
Rape presented a difficult policing challenge for leadership on the ground in Vietnam. Perpetrators in combat areas complained that access to consensual sex was limited away from the cities or expressed fears that women might be the enemy. Sexual violence in the heat of battle thus represented a masculine culture of warfare demonstrated through acts of lashing out against perceived threats. For all intents and purposes, Lieutenant William Calley became the face of the My Lai massacre to the American public as few other cases were ever tried, and none so publicly. He provided a target for their anger, and in the United States the case centralized front-line rape and murder. On the heels of receiving a sentence of life imprisonment, and at the beginning of the public discourse on war rape, Nixon worked to reduce Calley’s sentence to ten years. In 1974, under Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, the secretary of the army went further and pardoned Calley, closing a door on the event that unleashed a national debate on war violence.119 In fact, these crimes happened regularly and in all areas of the country, but they never received the same level of attention. Most cases of rape against civilians were never reported. Those discussed in this chapter offer only a glimpse of a multifaceted problem as old as war itself. In the broader scope of war and sexual violence, it would be nearly thirty years before the first conviction of anyone for rape as a war crime.120
Vietnamese women feared rape from all sides during the war, in or out of combat zones. Whether the men entering their villages were members of the North Vietnamese army, NLF, ARVN, or United States military, the potential for rape was always present. Nor was it exclusive to village settings. Although reports of massacres seem to suggest that being distant from cities encouraged more gang rape and brutal treatment, urban women also faced heightened risks of sexual violence. It remains important to note that most soldiers never took part in rapes. Men like Major Hugh Thompson Jr., who filed early reports of the massacre at My Lai, and PFC Robert Storeby, who told command about the incident on Hill 192, risked their lives by speaking out about the crimes.121 Still, countless acts of sexual violence took place throughout the war against civilians, both women and men.
The focus on frontline rape misses the complexity of the violence and its impact on the Vietnamese public in a way that is just as myopic as the perspective of film representations focused on perpetrators and hero figures. The lack of complete reports further erodes our ability to obtain the full facts of the attacks that took place. It remains clear, however, that the realities of war and the aggressiveness of training on all sides put civilians at risk. For the United States, the publicized coverage of sexual violence as an American tactic late in the war served to further undermine the war effort in the eyes of the public, particularly among those already associated with the antiwar community.