As we now find ourselves engaged in yet another Vietnam, I would like to share a letter I just received regarding an often reprinted story I wrote in the 1970s for the Los Angeles Free Press about Lt. Col. Tony Herbert, an officer in Vietnam whose career and life were ruined because he told the truth about what was going on there long before My Lai and other truths about the Vietnamese war were exposed.
I hope this old soldier's letter helps all of us remember the meatgrinder of terror and courage that every man and woman sent into a war faces, regardless of the nation or government that sent him or her. And especially regardless of our political opinions here on the left. Opinion is merely opinion but death is real, whether it be that of an Iraqi child or a teenager from Wheeling, West Virginia with a private's stripes on his camos.
Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert grew up a poor boy in the coal country of West Virginia, and besides becoming the most decorated soldier of the Korean War, he was one of the very first American officers ever to stand up, drive the spear of moral conscience into the ground and tie his leg to it and fight the good fight of truth in the face of a nation's over-hyped patriotism. He was one of the few colonels who was there with and for his men on the ground. And even though the media, the CBS show 60 Minutes in particular, under pressure from the Nixon administration, ruined his life and career, the men who served under him still write me letters today telling of the tremendous moral influence he had upon their lives during those days of horror in places with names like Khe Sahn, Nam Trang and An Khe, places which still scar the memories of once-young men now grown old, and who find themselves trying once more to grasp the meaning of yet another war declared by the rich elites and fought by the rest of us.
The letter I received is below, followed by the article I wrote a couple of decades ago about Colonel Herbert, as published in the Los Angeles Free Press.
Thank you for responding to my letter and if it isn't a bother, I would like to relay to you a story about Col. Herbert.
In late December 1969 and early January 1970 I was an RTO for an FO team attached to 2/503 INF. It might have been Alpha Co. We had moved from LZ English to An Khe and then to an old firebase to the north of An Khe where we stayed for a few days before moving out and up a river valley. This river valley was fairly wide at the bottom and went up into the clouds (it was the rainy season) and the higher we went the denser became the fog. We were supposed to be hunting an NVA battalion which none of us thought was very smart, a company against a battalion. Must have been dreamed up by the REMF's (rear echelon motherfuckers) at An Khe. Anyway, we were several days up this river valley in the rain and fog when the point man took spring a loaded bamboo booby trap point in his belly below the belly button.
We went past him and set up security the way we were supposed to and give the medic a safe place to work. While the medic worked on him the CP RTO called for a dust-off that seemed to take forever. We could hear the prop way down the river valley, very faint, pop pop pop pop pop coming and going on the wind. The pilot said over the radio that it was too socked in, our guy said get 20 feet over the river and come on up, it's clear for 20 feet right over the river, no bushes, no trees, get 20 feet over the river and come on up; it's clear all the way. The pilot said he was going back and the pop pop pop pop pop faded away.
We sat there thinking what now? We can't carry him and run from the NVA too. Then the radio squelched up said that the bird was coming back and after a few minutes we could once more make out the pop pop pop of an approaching slick. This time there was no fading away or going back. It took a while but the bird came up that wet assed valley 20 feet up off the water just the way we had said to and then suddenly there it was. Big, noisy and blowing air all over the place as usual and right over the river. There was no landing on that riverbed but we had located a meadow just up the hill and so we took the wounded man there and popped smoke and the pilot came to the meadow. This meadow was about 30 feet deep and about three feet too small for that helicopter and the meadow floor was a sloped hill so there would be no landing there either but he could hover low enough, probably, so down through that hole in the trees he did come straight down. The main prop was chopping leaves in front and the tail rotor was chopping leaves in back and there was so much moisture in the air that it was condensing into rain under the main rotor and the tips were trailing brilliant streaks of white vapor corkscrewing down and bits of leaves driven by the wind were sticking to our faces as we passed the wounded man up.
The bird couldn't get any lower and it still wasn't low enough. Col. Herbert was hanging out of the bird below the skids while someone inside held his belt. Finally, after several tries someone managed to push the man's bicep just right and the colonel caught his wrist and hauled him up like a piece of rope and fell back to the deck with him while others inside grabbed on and helped. That bird went straight back up through those trees until it was clear and turned and was gone as though it had never been there. Through the whole thing we all stood there under that bird while it chopped leaves and saw it through and nobody moved until the bird was gone.
We heard later that Lt. Col. Herbert had listened to the earlier radio traffic when the pilot copped out and was waiting at the pad when he got back. Oops. We heard that Colonel Herbert climbed aboard and told the pilot to get his ship in the air and came looking for us and this is the honest truth. It happened just that way. I was on the ground there and I saw it with my own eyes and that is one of the stories about Col. Herbert which has passed out of my mouth in bars. I feel like an honored man to have gotten to see that and to have served under Lt. Col. Herbert.
Thank you for allowing this chance to tell this story. You are the closest I've ever been to getting to tell Col. Herbert himself thanks for what he showed me about being a man.
First published in the Los Angeles Free Press, 1977.
Remembering 'Herbert's War'
His decade-long personal war against cover-ups by the U.S. Army made Vietnam battalion commander Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert one of the most controversial figures of the Vietnam War.
By JOE BAGEANT
In 1947 U.S. Army recruitment got an apparent bargain when it signed up a 17-year-old Lithuanian kid from Herminie, Pennsylvania named Anthony B. Herbert. The self-described "big dumb kid from a coal-mining town" in the bloody snows of Korea. Herbert earned a couple dozen medals -- including four Silver Stars out of Korea, three Bronze Stars with a V, six battle stars, four Purple Hearts and the highest military award Turkey has (because he was fighting alongside Turks at the time). He was wounded 14 times -- 10 by bullets, 3 by bayonet, and once by white phosphorus. Harry Truman's America rewarded him with a goodwill tour of Europe, a handshake from Eleanor Roosevelt and the bayonet they'd pulled out of him and shined up.
Two decades later, facing middle age and another war, this time in Southeast Asia, he commanded one of the most highly rated combat battalions in the war, leading its brigade in contacts with the enemy, captured weapons and enemy prisoners taken, as well as the highest reenlistment rate and fewest AWOLs. It was an enviable record by any standard.
Then in 1971 about 20 years into his career, the marriage between Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert and the U.S. Army turned bitter, and the subsequent conflict came to be dubbed "Herbert's War." The issue was Herbert's refusal to ignore atrocities he encountered in Vietnam. Tony Herbert's earlier assignment as inspector general at An Khe in the Phu My province of Vietnam's Central Highlands, practically guaranteed him a degree of unpopularity at the outset. But when he filed reports of American personnel administering water to a VC prisoner, he had made himself some hard-core enemies among fellow officers at brigade headquarters whose enmity would linger for years.
Altogether, Herbert had reported eight separate war crimes, including incidents of, looting, execution and murder. He recalled a particular episode involving some Vietnamese girls: "The area was brilliantly lit by floodlights ... Each of them [the girls] was seated with their hands on a table, palms down." Herbert described the instruments used as a "long springy rod of bamboo split into dozens of tight, thin flails on one end. It was a murderous weapon," he said. "I'd seen it take the hide off a buffalo. When it was struck down hard, the flails splayed out like a fan, but an instant after impact they returned to their order, pinching whatever was beneath."
Herbert says, "War crimes are infinitely easier to overlook than to explain to an investigating committee. Nor do they do much for promotion among the 'West Point Protection Society' of the Army's upper-echelon career men. So when I kept bringing up the matter, I kept on making enemies and getting answers such as, "'what the hell did you expect, Herbert? Candy and flowers?' I reported these things and nothing happened."
Maybe nothing happened in terms of prosecution, but Herbert himself was accused of exaggeration and outright lying in his filed reports. The clincher came in April of 1969 when he was relieved of his command of the Second Battalion, despite its outstanding record under his leadership. Herbert said it took a whole year of dead-end legal actions and $8,000 of his own money before even a few facts began to emerge. "I know now it wasn't just the Army," he says. "It was General Westmoreland in particular. He did everything he possibly could to keep my case covered up because of the heat being placed on the Army from the My Lai case."
Meanwhile, Army intelligence reports verified every single crime and supported Herbert's charges. From a Central Intelligence Division (CID) report dated Aug. 23, 1971 reviewing Herbert's allegations comes the following: " ... technique employed included the transmission of electrical shock by means of a field telephone [used to a Vietnamese girl] a water rag treatment which impaired breathing, hitting with sticks and boards, and beating of detainees with fists." And from CID reports marked FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY: "Herbert's S-3 [non-commissioned officer] witnessed a field telephone in use during interrogation, but no objection was raised" In fact, the soldier involved in the electrical admitted to it in the same report, and another soldier admitted witnessing the water rag. Dozens of official CID docouments substantiated Herbert's statements, but the Army, in conflict with its own documents, insisted that Herbert had "a propensity to lie or exaggerate."
Among Herbert's biggest obstacles was that while he was reporting the crimes to his superiors, one of his superiors, Lt. Gen. William Peers, also happened to be supervising Army inquiry into the My Lai cover-up. Worse yet, Peers' right-hand man during the inquiry was J. Ross Franklin, Herbert's main adversary at An Khe, one of those who would be held accountable for the crimes Herbert was reporting.
Herbert felt that the Army's CID seemed paralyzed when it came to investigating his complaints. So he helped them along by filing charges against his former commanding general, John W. Barnes, for dereliction of duty in failing to investigate the alleged atrocities. That same day, March 15, 1971, Herbert also dropped 14 separate charges into Franklin's lap, including corpse mutilation and the electrical of a Vietnamese girl by Army intelligence. Herbert was shuttled off to a mediocre staff position at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where it was hoped he would settle into obscurity. Fat chance. He popped up in Life Magazine, the New York Times and on the Cavett Show. He took voluntary polygraph tests and passed. Herbert says, "Army harassment increased until at last, my family began to show signs of stress from the ordeal." So he chose the warrior's hemlock -- retirement. "On Nov. 7, 1971," he says, I set my own retirement in motion." As the Army watched him transformed into a 41-year-old civilian, it breathed a sigh of relief. Prematurely.
A year after his reluctant retirement Herbert teamed up with New York Times correspondent James Wooten to write the best selling book Soldier (Holt, Reinhart and Winston). It is an autobiographical account documenting his efforts to expose both the incompetence and the atrocities he'd seen in Vietnam. On another level Soldier illustrated dilemmas and asked moral questions about individual rights in an organized professional world—the man versus the self-serving system. Soldier won Herbert a great many admirers both in the media and the public at large.
Then on Feb. 4, 1973, Herbert's reputation was dealt a shattering when CBS's 60 Minutes aired a segment titled "The Selling of Colonel Herbert." CBS correspondent Mike Wallace and producer Barry Lando challenged his credibility, implying that Soldier was fictitious and, most surprising of all, that Herbert himself was guilty of war crimes. Considering that the massive efforts of the Pentagon had failed to discredit any of Herbert's statements, this was baffling indeed. Supporting the CBS allegations against Herbert on the show was Herbert's old nemesis, Lt. Col. J. Ross Franklin who had been relieved of his command Franklin relieved from his command for throwing a Vietnamese body out of chopper (and later went to prison in 1991 to serve a five-year sentence for his role in a securities scam.)
More baffling was the fact that originally CBS producer Barry Lando had originally proposed a pro-Herbert segment. But CBS vice-president for news Bill Leonard shot it down. Lando, who said he totally believed in Herbert, tried again and again was shot down. Then in August of 1972 Lando did an unexplainable about face, suddenly deciding that Herbert had "gone off the deep end," and that his story was now riddled with inconsistencies. Herbert thinks Lando's change of heart came when Herbert turned down Lando's offer to write a book together. Whatever the case, Lando got approval for a CBS story challenging Herbert, rather than supporting him. Herbert said, "Interestingly, at the time CBS was under a lot of heat from the Nixon administration for an earlier broadcast called The Selling of the Pentagon and CBS president Frank Stanton was under subpoena. Around the same time Stanton paid a visit to Nixon White House counsel Charles Colson, who later said in the New York Times that Stanton volunteered to help Nixon and was unusually accommodating. One of the accommodations he made was decreased CBS examination of Nixon speeches." Herbert suspected that he was also discussed at that meeting, especially considering that he had so actively supported George McGovern and had called Nixon a "war criminal."
In January of 1974 Herbert retaliated with a suit against CBS, Mike Wallace and Barry Lando to uncover just how they had decided to run the story. Ultimately, a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in Herbert v. Lando (1979) ruled in Herbert's favor, and he won what had come to be called the "state of mind case." Every major news outlet in the world, joined CBS in an amicus brief on the grounds that it would have a chilling effect on journalism, an effect that has so far failed to manifest itself.
By that time Herbert had earned a doctorate in psychology, and become a police and clinical psychologist. He has since retired from that second career, but the events of "Herbert's War" nevertheless surface from time to time. Writers still come to Herbert with screenplays, producers with movie deals and other offers. "I turn them down," he says. "And if the subject of Vietnam or Korea comes up, I usually change the conversation."
Asked to sum up the whole experience and its meaning, Herbert, now 73 years old, paused, then said: "If you stick by your guns, if you stand by the truth, you win. I feel good about my time in Vietnam and my time in the Army. As my friend, Sgt. Maj. John Bittorie once said, ‘There are two kinds of military reputations. One is official and on paper in Washington DC. The other is the one that goes from bar to bar from the mouths of those who served with you there.' That is the only reputation I ever really cared about."