“Logically, if you grow up here and you are open minded, you go to college and never come back. If you like it here, which means that you are happy living in the same house, with the same people and ideas as the generation before, then you stay. If you stay, you marry someone just like you. It’s like inbreeding.” 

– G.P.Ching 

I am sure that there is no more exciting place for camping within the USA than it is the hidden pearl of West Virginia, especially during the autumn season. The golden brown colors of the woods and the eternal mystery of the Appalachian Mountains have turned this area into one of the most beautiful in America. This is not just an attractive  tourist statement but a fact. If we consider all tips about West Virginia, we will immediately decide to move to live there and to feel the sense of adventure in the nature for a whole year and not just for a holiday time. Lindy Point Overlook is definitely the heart of the Mountain’s rich offer but we will not forget The New River Gorge Bridge and the breathtaking picture from the bridge which melts into the thousands vibrant colors and senses. While we are eating memorable  Pepperoni rolls, typical West Virginian delicate, we will maybe think to look for a famous  Glade Creek Grist Mill or paradise in  Elakala Falls, but we will also try to capture the glorious shine of The Big Bear Lake in some of our mountain bike’s attempts. After all, open road on the Highland Scenic Highway is something which will remind us of the nature’s pure beauty and intact and wild innocence.
 Like the moon, this image has also two sides.One is a dark one, covered by legends, veiled by myths, camouflaged by local fears and  unrevealed for years. The story of inbreeding, which is not only linked to rural parts of West Virginia but also with the Eastern Kentucky.
The inter-marriages in one community is the phenomena what has hit all societies and countries, during the history and social and cultural development but it is eliminated through the urban and  progressive efforts of the community and immigration in and out. The inbreeding as itself followed all  countries  and even the royal families but the main point was on keeping blood line pure and safe from the insiders as well as the wealth of the home or dynasty:“Perhaps the most famous example of the perils of inbreeding is King Charles II, the last of Spain’s Hapsburg rulers.The result of 200 years of intermarriage, Charles’s tongue was so large that he could barely speak, and his infamous Hapsburg jaw was so pronounced that he was unable to chew.” Then, there is Monomotapa of Zimbabwe and the practice of incest.Legendary Cleopatra VII was married to both of her brothers and Princess Nahienaena in Hawaii was in so deep love with her own brother since the childhood. In that period of time, 19th century, the incest was taken as a privilege for a royal family. The ancient Incas Empire hasn’t been immune on inter-marriages. In public, incest was prohibited but the noble had practiced and justified by concerns for the power.Maria I of Portugal married her uncle Pedro in 1778 and their son Joseph married Maria’s sister, Benedita.   Elisabeth of Austria, King Rama V, Princess Victoria Melita and :”Queen Victoria is well known as a prolific matriarch who believed that intermarriage between European royalty could guarantee peace.” The antique Rome and  Greece share also the shame of inbreeding but history tried to connect this incest web with the royal aspirations and drives for power. The ordinary people in ordinary houses also had their own primitive ways to deal with inter-marriages and taboo of incest. Some of they still do.
The horror film “Wrong Turn” from 2003, has opened the book of horror for West Virginia reputation. The group of hikers are lost in the West Virginian woods and they fell into the traps of cannibalistic mountain people, who are disfigured due the long line of incest tradition within the generations. Rob Schmidt, the director of the movie and Alan B. McElroy, the writer of the story haven’t thought that this horror will change the whole perception about the West Virginia and West Virginians. Inspired by the movie, just one year later,  Abercrombie & Fitch released the T-shirt with a map of the Appalachian state and the words “It’s all relative in West Virginia.” and then the problem was there. People who enjoyed to camp in Appalachian Mountains gave up because of the possible hillbillies from the woods and their sadistic ideas of torture. Nobody really solved the mystery but the inbreeding in this area is older than any Schmidt’s movie about wrong turn.
 Back in 1880s and 1890s, explorers and writers like  Mary Noailles Murfree and John Fox Jr. have been fascinated by Appalachia and local customs. The isolated life  of those communities was something which impressed those researchers so they shared their impressions by the rest of America. Missionaries who reached the far away closed communities also have written and reported about the high level of poverty and ignorance as well as about the wide spread practice of inbreeding among the family members. Through the 19th century, the lack of transportation and the natural obstacles  kept the people oriented  to each others and closed for new comers. The main reason for inter familiar marriages and breeding is the absence of those from outside part of the world, intruders. In 1980, scientist  Robert Tincher came out with the study “Night Comes to the Chromosomes: Inbreeding and Population Genetics in Southern Appalachia” based on 140 years practice of inbreeding.:”He concluded that inbreeding levels in Appalachia  are neither unique nor particularly common to the region when compared with those reported for population elsewhere or at earlier periods in American history.”
Today, West Virginia has strict anti-incest laws and if you expect to see the mountain facial  monster described in the Wrong Turn episodes, you will be disappointed  when you meet one of the friendliest  people ever. What is really happening in some of the  farms deeply hidden in the Appalachian dark woods, that is just a matter of imagination and something nothing only usual for this region but for every isolated place on the Earth. The attractive folklore of West Virginia takes responsibility for the science fiction expectations when it comes to the story telling. The Mothman monster has a worldwide popularity also achieved through the movie “The Mothman’s Prophecies” and also covered by Appalachian’s enigma. The creature Snarly Yowl from Harpers Ferry, the Braxton County Monster, the White Creature and the Grafton Monster are just some of the names from the urban legends from the West Virginian hills. The deeper we go there, the deeper is the darkness we are facing with…but at the end of the day, it is just a perspective which could be changed by rational scientific explanations. Inbreeding in the isolated communities is an outcome of the closed farm living and absence of diversity so the blood line stays within the one family, without the mixing of genes which cause the genetic deformations in the long period of time.
The same problem is in the Eastern Kentucky, also well known for isolated life of the locals.The scientific reports inform us that inbreeding in Eastern Kentucky dates back to 1750, when first settlers were start coming:“Many families were secluded from surrounding towns which then forced them to inbreed. They did not know the mental and physical effects it would have on their children. Inbreeding mainly consisted of cousins marrying cousins, and occasionally brothers and sisters would get married (this was not as common). As time went on and more people moved to Kentucky, more towns evolved and inbreeding became less common. The percentage of inbreeding in Kentucky had dropped 18% from 1870 to 1930, and then there was a plateau in numbers from 1930 to 1950. Since the 1950’s the numbers have continued to gradually drop each decade. So not all communities is Eastern Kentucky have families that inbreed within their communities like everyone seems to assume. Laws were passed in the late 19th and early 20th century which made  marriages, and inbreeding to the first cousin level within family illegal in the bulk of the United States.Nevertheless there are still at least four known communities in Eastern Kentucky that do have families that have inbred children. One particular county still has quite a high inbreeding rate of 95%. These particular children have been reported with severe medical problems.” So the inbreeding as a problem itself today should be considered under control, even in the rural communities which are strongly encouraged to open themselves for the outside’s influence and radiation of new ideas, people and blood. There is no chance that the goverment and the cultural and social authorities can stop every single chance for inter-marriages or incest nowadays, especially in the isolated regions but the effort must be made through the education and active social contribution.
There are no monsters from the woods but only the unhappy people who wait to be discovered and helped. The enlightenment is the only force which is able to stop any regression and  back-warded customs but the problem must be addressed properly and without mystification. Only man can hurt another man, scary creatures are afraid of us and our ugliness.



  1. First, thank you so much for shedding light on this topic. Again, the writing of the author is mesmerizing and the reader is rivited from beginning to end!

    Having driven through West Virginia and the Appalachian mountains, I can avouch for the veracity of the picture with the dense green trees and the arroyo at the bottom !

    In fact, at one of my favorite restaurants here in Michigan, I got to know an older gentleman originally from West Virginia. He told me how mining was the only job there when he was growing up and how his father wanted him to be a miner. His father took him to the mines with him one day to show him what it was like to work in mines. He told me how his hands were full of soot and how much he disliked it.

    He then told me he decided to run away and join the military to get away from that life ! This is in line with what the author is mentioning herein regarding the seclusion and isolation of West Virginia and West Virginians !

    Hopefully, with the new and modern era in the U.S. in general, and in West Virginia in particular, inbreeding will come to an end !

    Thank you again for your wonderful and enlightening article!

    Liked by 1 person

    McNamara’s Folly
    In 1966, the U.S. war in Vietnam was heating up rapidly, and President Lying Lyndon Johnson and his moronic Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, were faced with a problem of their own making: The Armed Forces needed more and more troops for the war zone, but there was a shortage of men who were considered fair game for the military draft. There were plenty of men of draft age (18-26) in America, but most of them were unavailable. Many were attending college, using student deferments to avoid the draft. Others had found safe havens in the National Guard and Reserves, like Trump, which by and large were not sent to Vietnam. Still others were DISQUALIFIED because they scored poorly on the military’s mental and physical entrance tests.

    How could the Gringos, LBJ and Mac round up enough men to send to war? They realized that they would anger the vote-powerful middle class if they drafted college boys and if they sent National Guardsmen and Reserves to Vietnam. So instead they decided to induct the DISQUALIFIED low-scoring men, whom Johnson referred to (in a secret White House tape) as “second-class fellows”.

    On October 1, 1966, McNamara launched a program called Project 100,000, which lowered mental and physical military standards. Men who had been unqualified for military duty the day before, were now deemed qualified. By the end of the Vietnam war, McNamara’s program had taken 354,000 substandard men into the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy, Among the regular troops, these men were often known as “McNamara’s Morons” or “The Moron Corps”.

    Military leaders – from Westmoreland, the commanding general in Vietnam, to lieutenants and sergeants at the platoon level – viewed McNamara’s program as a disaster. Because most of the Project 100,000 were mentally and physically incompetent and it was next to impossible to train them, ESPECIALLY for the SLAUGHTER FIELDS OF VIETNAM.

    A total of 5,478 of McNamara’s Morons were killed in Vietnam. Their fatality rate was THREE (3) times as high as that of other GIs. An estimated 20,270 were wounded and many were permanently disabled.


    McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War, by Hamiliton Gregory

    Joseph L. Galloway – McClatchy Newspapers

    In the wake of the death of one of the main architects of the Vietnam War, former Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara — old, gray, frail and full of his 93 years of living — many have rushed to examine and weigh his life and times.
    The more charitable, politicians for the most part, have declared that at least McNamara, three decades after his war and Jack Kennedy’s war and Lyndon B. Johnson’s war ended so badly, had confessed to errors and apologized in his 1995 book

    His acknowledgement that he’d known what the U.S. government was doing in Vietnam was wrong but for 30 years couldn’t bring himself to publicly admit that truth, could hardly comfort the parents, children, widows, siblings and friends of the 58,249 young American men and eight young American women who were killed in his war.
    Nor were they much comfort to the huge number of Vietnamese — some say two millon, others three million — who were killed in the war an unbelieving McNamara still prosecuted vigorously and defended strongly.

    He was a charter member of what LBJ derisively called the “You Harvards,” and David Halberstam profiled in The Best and The Brightest — the bright young wizards JFK brought to Washington to help us stand astride the world.

    But the ink was barely dry on the pages of those McNamara memoirs before a New York Times editorial writer, on April 12, 1995, dismissed McNamara’s apologies and confessions as entirely irrelevant:

    “His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers. The ghosts of those unlived lives circle close around Mr. McNamara. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the Infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”
    Amen, brother.

    While McNamara was confessing and apologizing he conveniently left out a detail, a damning little detail. They say the Devil is in the details, and he certainly lives in this one.

    Who out there remembers Mr. McNamara’s — he was the ultimate bean-counter who knew the cost of everything but the worth of nothing — Project 100,000?

    If nothing else, Project 100,000 surely guarantees that Judgment Day and eternity will not be very comfortable for Mr. McNamara, now arriving on Track 12.

    Beginning in 1965 and for nearly three years McNamara each year drafted into the military 100,000 young boys whose scores in the mental qualification and aptitude tests were in the lowest quarter — so-called Category IV’s. Men with IQ’s of 65 or even lower.

    They were, to put it bluntly, mentally deficient. Illiterate. Mostly black and redneck whites, hailing from the mean big city ghettos and the remote Appalachian valleys.
    By drafting them the Pentagon would not have to draft an equal number of middle class and elite college boys whose mothers could and would raise Hell with their representatives in Washington.

    The young men of Project 100,000 couldn’t read, so training manual comic books were created for them. They had to be taught to tie their boots. They often failed in boot camp, and were recycled over and over until they finally reached some low standard and were declared trained and ready.

    They could not be taught any more demanding job than trigger-pulling and, so, all of them were shipped to Vietnam and most went straight into combat where the learning curve is steep and deadly. The cold, hard statistics say that these almost helpless young men died in action in the jungles at a rate three times higher than the average draftee.
    McNamara’s military even assigned the Project 100,000 men special serial numbers so that anyone could identify them and deal with them accordingly.

    The Good Book says we must forgive those who trespass against us — but what about those who trespass against the most helpless among us; those willing to conscript the mentally handicapped, the most innocent, and turn them into cannon fodder?
    I can only hope that the last voices Robert S. McNamara heard before he was gathered into the darkness at long last were those of the poor boys in the Infantry, the poor boys of Project 100,000, the poor victims of Agent Orange, the poor Vietnamese farm families whose lives and the very land itself were torn apart by millions of tons of bombs rained on them by the best and the brightest.

    Save your tears for them. Bob McNamara certainly doesn’t deserve them.

    Joseph L. Galloway – McClatchy Newspapers

    “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” —Clarence Darrow (1857 – 1938)

    Well, the aptly named Robert Strange McNamara has finally shuffled off to join LBJ and Dick Nixon in the 7th level of Hell.

    McNamara was the original bean-counter — a man who knew the cost of everything but the worth of nothing.

    Back in 1990 I had a series of strange phone conversations with McNamara while doing research for my book We Were Soldiers Once And Young. McNamara prefaced every conversation with this: “I do not want to comment on the record for fear that I might distort history in the process.” Then he would proceed to talk for an hour, doing precisely that with answers that were disingenuous in the extreme — when they were not bald-faced lies.
    Upon hanging up I would call Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam and run McNamara’s comments past them for deconstruction and the addition of the truth.

    The only disagreement I ever had with Dave Halberstam was over the question of which of us hated him the most. In retrospect, it was Halberstam.

    When McNamara published his first book — filled with those distortions of history — Halberstam, at his own expense, set out on a journey following McNamara on his book tour around America as a one-man truth squad.

    McNamara abandoned the tour.

    The most bizarre incident involving McNamara occurred when he was president of the World Bank and, off on his summer holiday, he caught the Martha’s Vineyard ferry. It was a night crossing in bad weather. McNamara was in the salon, drink in hand, schmoozing with fellow passengers. On the deck outside a vineyard local, a hippie artist, glanced through the window and did a double-take. The artist was outraged to see McNamara, whom he viewed as a war criminal, so enjoying himself.

    He immediately opened the door and told McNamara there was a radiophone call for him on the bridge. McNamara set down his drink and stepped outside. The artist immediately grabbed him, wrestled him to the railing and pushed him over the side. McNamara managed to get his fingers through the holes in the metal plate that ran from the top of the railing to the scuppers.

    McNamara was screaming bloody murder; the artist was prying his fingers loose one at a time. Someone heard the racket and raced out and pulled the artist off.
    By the time the ferry docked in the vineyard McNamara had decided against filing charges against the artist, and he was freed and walked away.

    PROJECT 100,000

    At various times in its history, the US military has recruited people who measured below specific mental and medical standards. During the Vietnam War, “McNamara’s Moron’s” as they were called, were barely literate, or could not read or write, or did not speak English. They were underweight, or obese, were too short, or semi-blind, or missing fingers. In basic training, they often could not tie their shoes, button their uniforms, and march in drills. Many failed at physical exercise, at tossing hand grenades, could not quickly assemble weapons, or smartly shoot at moving targets.

    These clearly unqualified men were deliberately sought by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who in 1966 required more troops but did not wish to alarm the middle class. Under Project 100,000, pitched as a way path out of poverty, service entry standards were drastically lowered. In addition to men of low intellect, tens of thousands of other inferior men were inducted, including criminals, misfits, even men physically disabled.

    Men in the Moron Corps scored near the bottom of the Armed Forces Qualification Test. But Project men were enrolled in basic training with normal recruits, and held to normal standards. Unable to keep up, they were often demeaned and humiliated by other trainees, drill sergeants and officers. In Kubrick’s 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket” the slow thinking, thumb in mouth, pants round his knees Private Pyle struggles to keep up with his platoon.

    It is an image of pure degradation, and accurately depicts how Project 100,000 men were treated.

    Project men who failed Basic training were sent to Special Training Units, only to endure increased physical and emotional harassment, and punishing physical demands.

    Altogether, 354,000 substandard men were drafted–many sent directly into combat. In time, sergeants and officers, even General Westmoreland, called Project 100,000 a disaster. The low IQ soldiers were incompetent in combat, putting themselves and their comrades in danger.

    Inevitably, their death toll was appallingly high.

    Hamilton Gregory has written

    “McNamara’s Folly, The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War”, a compelling, fast paced, factual and first person account of Project 100,000. Two excerpts follow:

    “Drill Sergeant Stoner told one incident that seemjim-nabors-as-gomer-pyleed straight out of Gomer Pyle, but actually happened while he was checking recruit’s two pair of boots for correct fit by having them stand on a footlocker, which was place outdoors. ‘One recruit I was inspecting appeared on my footlocker wearing two right boots. I couldn’t believe it! I yelled at the private: “You idiot! What in hell are you doing wearing two right boots?’ He replied “Sir, thee must have been a mix up and the private was issued two right boots, sir!’ I immediately got right into his face and screamed ‘Private, get your dumb ass back inside and get the other boots and get back here right away. Do you understand me?’ ‘Sir, yes sir!’ and off he went to the Quonset hut. Moments later he was back. He jumped up on the footlocker, this time wearing two left boots. In a very exasperated voice he said, ‘Sir, the privates’ other two boots were two left boots, sir!’ ”

    “In his first day at basic training, Peter Tauber saw a company pass by, running in step as a drill sergeant calls cadence. Twenty yards behind them a whale of a recruit stumbles donofrio-modine-emeryforward, lurching to keep up, falling further behind. On his tail is a small slight drill sergeant. The fat boy runs a jagged route, spinning to his right and his left as he goes, his head lolling from side to side, drooling and wearing an expression of imminent death. From time to time, he closes his eyes, as if to pray for a merciful tumble. Fifty yards past us he falls. We can hear the sergeant yelling at him as he wallows on the ground. But the fat boy, who must weigh what two of us do, just lies there. The sergeant yells some more and tires to pull him up. The next thing we hear is a scream. The sergeant is standing over the fallen boy and is kicking him in the stomach and backside, sometimes prodding, sometimes letting go with a field goal kick. Screaming sobs fill the air, wails of torture and pain. The sergeant takes off his pistol belt and begins to whip his prey. The boy holds up his hands to protect his face and the sergeant kicks them away. The boy pleads then cries and screams for the sergeant to stop, but the sergeant keeps beating him. Eventually the sergeant relents and lets the trainee get up and rejoins his platoon.”

    Project 100,000 was highlighted in a 2006 op-ed in The New York Times. Kelly M. Greenhill, a former Wesleyan and Tufts assistant professor, writing in the context of a contemporary recruitment shortfall, concluded that :

    “Project 100,000 was a failed experiment. It proved to be a distraction for the military and of little benefit to the men it was created to help.”

    Less understated, Joe Galloway, a war correspondent who won a Bronze Star with V in Vietnam for carrying wounded men to safety at the battle of Ia Drang, wrote a column shortly after McNamara died. Entitled “100,000 Reasons to Shed No Tears for McNamara” he wrote that Project 100,00 men were,

    “to put it bluntly, mentally deficient. Illiterate. Mostly black and redneck whites, hailing from the mean big city ghettos and the remote Appalachian valleys.”

    “By drafting them the Pentagon would not have to draft an equal number of middle class and elite college boys whose mothers would raise hell with their representatives in Washington. The young men of Project 100,00 couldn’t read…They had to be taught to tie their boots. They often failed (in basic training), and were recycled over and over until they finally reached some low standard and were declared trained and ready.”

    “They could not be taught any more demanding job than trigger-pulling, so most of themarmy-firing-range went straight into combat where the learning curve is steep and deadly. The cold, hard statistics say that these almost helpless young men died in action in the jungles a rate three times higher than the average draftee…The Good Book says we must forgive those who trespass against us–but what about those who trespass against the most helpless among us, those willing to conscript the mentally handicapped, the most innocent, and turn them into cannon fodder?”

    To learn more about this sad and shameful chapter of America’s war in Vietnam, read Hamilton Gregory’s excellent book.

    Excerpts by permission of the author.

    McNamara’s Folly



    On January 21, 1971, a Vietnam veteran named Charles McDuff wrote a letter to President Richard Nixon to voice his disgust with the American war in Southeast Asia. McDuff had witnessed multiple cases of Vietnamese civilians being abused and killed by American soldiers and their allies, and he had found the U.S. military justice system to be woefully ineffective in punishing wrongdoers. “Maybe your advisors have not clued you in,” he told the president, “but the atrocities that were committed in Mylai are eclipsed by similar American actions throughout the country.” His three-page handwritten missive concluded with an impassioned plea to Nixon to end American participation in the war.1 The White House forwarded the note to the Department of Defense for a reply, and within a few weeks Major General Franklin Davis Jr., the army’s director of military personnel policies, wrote back to McDuff. It was “indeed unfortunate,” said Davis, “that some incidents occur within combat zones.” He then shifted the burden of responsibility for what had happened firmly back onto the veteran. “I presume,” he wrote, “that you promptly reported such actions to the proper authorities.” Other than a paragraph of information on how to contact the U.S. Army criminal investigators, the reply was only four sentences long and included a matter-of-fact reassurance: “The United States Army has never condoned wanton killing or disregard for human life.”2 This was, and remains, the American military’s official position. In many ways, it remains the popular understanding in the United States as a whole.

    Today, histories of the Vietnam War regularly discuss war crimes or civilian suffering only in the context of a single incident: the My Lai massacre cited by McDuff. Even as that one event has become the subject of numerous books and articles, all the other atrocities perpetrated by U.S. soldiers have essentially vanished from popular memory. The visceral horror of what happened at My Lai is undeniable. On the evening of March 15, 1968, members of the Americal Division’s Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, were briefed by their commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, on a planned operation the next day in an area they knew as “Pinkville.” As unit member Harry Stanley recalled, Medina “ordered us to ‘kill everything in the village.’” Infantryman Salvatore LaMartina remembered Medina’s words only slightly differently: they were to “kill everything that breathed.” What stuck in artillery forward observer James Flynn’s mind was a question one of the other soldiers asked: “Are we supposed to kill women and children?” And Medina’s reply: “Kill everything that moves.”3 The next morning, the troops clambered aboard helicopters and were airlifted into what they thought would be a “hot LZ”—a landing zone where they’d be under hostile fire. As it happened, though, instead of finding Vietnamese adversaries spoiling for a fight, the Americans entering My Lai encountered only civilians: women, children, and old men. Many were still cooking their breakfast rice. Nevertheless, Medina’s orders were followed to a T. Soldiers of Charlie Company killed. They killed everything. They killed everything that moved. Advancing in small squads, the men of the unit shot chickens as they scurried about, pigs as they bolted, and cows and water buffalo lowing among the thatch-roofed houses. They gunned down old men sitting in their homes and children as they ran for cover. They tossed grenades into homes without even bothering to look inside. An officer grabbed a woman by the hair and shot her point-blank with a pistol. A woman who came out of her home with a baby in her arms was shot down on the spot. As the tiny child hit the ground, another GI opened up on the infant with his M-16 automatic rifle. Over four hours, members of Charlie Company methodically slaughtered more than five hundred unarmed victims, killing some in ones and twos, others in small groups, and collecting many more in a drainage ditch that would become an infamous killing ground. They faced no opposition. They even took a quiet break to eat lunch in the midst of the carnage. Along the way, they also raped women and young girls, mutilated the dead, systematically burned homes, and fouled the area’s drinking water.4

    There were scores of witnesses on the ground and still more overhead, American officers and helicopter crewmen perfectly capable of seeing the growing piles of civilian bodies. Yet when the military released the first news of the assault, it was portrayed as a victory over a formidable enemy force, a legitimate battle in which 128 enemy troops were killed without the loss of a single American life.5 In a routine congratulatory telegram, General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, lauded the “heavy blows” inflicted on the enemy. His protégé, the commander of the Americal Division, added a special note praising Charlie Company’s “aggressiveness.”6 Despite communiqués, radio reports, and English-language accounts released by the Vietnamese revolutionary forces, the My Lai massacre would remain, to the outside world, an American victory for more than a year. And the truth might have remained hidden forever if not for the perseverance of a single Vietnam veteran named Ron Ridenhour. The twenty-two-year-old Ridenhour had not been among the hundred American troops at My Lai, though he had seen civilians murdered elsewhere in Vietnam; instead, he heard about the slaughter from other soldiers who had been in Pinkville that day. Unnerved, Ridenhour took the unprecedented step of carefully gathering testimony from multiple American eyewitnesses. Then, upon returning to the United States after his yearlong tour of duty, he committed himself to doing whatever was necessary to expose the incident to public scrutiny.7

    Ridenhour’s efforts were helped by the painstaking investigative reporting of Seymour Hersh, who published newspaper articles about the massacre; by the appearance in Life magazine of grisly full-color images that army photographer Ron Haeberle captured in My Lai as the slaughter was unfolding; and by a confessional interview that a soldier from Charlie Company gave to CBS News. The Pentagon, for its part, consistently fought to minimize what had happened, claiming that reports by Vietnamese survivors were wildly exaggerated. At the same time, the military focused its attention on the lowest-ranking officer who could conceivably shoulder the blame for such a nightmare: Charlie Company’s Lieutenant William Calley.8 An army inquiry into the killings eventually determined that thirty individuals were involved in criminal misconduct during the massacre or its cover-up. Twenty-eight of them were officers, including two generals, and the inquiry concluded they had committed a total of 224 serious offenses.9 But only Calley was ever convicted of any wrongdoing. He was sentenced to life in prison for the premeditated murder of twenty-two civilians, but President Nixon freed him from prison and allowed him to remain under house arrest. He was eventually paroled after serving just forty months, most of it in the comfort of his own quarters.10 The public response generally followed the official one. Twenty-five years later, Ridenhour would sum it up this way. At the end of it, if you ask people what happened at My Lai, they would say: “Oh yeah, isn’t that where Lieutenant Calley went crazy and killed all those people?” No, that was not what happened. Lieutenant Calley was one of the people who went crazy and killed a lot of people at My Lai, but this was an operation, not an aberration.11

    Looking back, it’s clear that the real aberration was the unprecedented and unparalleled investigation and exposure of My Lai. No other American atrocity committed during the war—and there were so many—was ever afforded anything approaching the same attention. Most, of course, weren’t photographed, and many were not documented in any way. The great majority were never known outside the offending unit, and most investigations that did result were closed, quashed, or abandoned. Even on the rare occasions when the allegations were seriously investigated within the military, the reports were soon buried in classified files without ever seeing the light of day.12 Whistle-blowers within the ranks or recently out of the army were threatened, intimidated, smeared, or—if they were lucky—simply marginalized and ignored. Until the My Lai revelations became front-page news, atrocity stories were routinely disregarded by American journalists or excised by stateside editors. The fate of civilians in rural South Vietnam did not merit much examination; even the articles that did mention the killing of noncombatants generally did so merely in passing, without any indication that the acts described might be war crimes.13

    Vietnamese revolutionary sources, for their part, detailed hundreds of massacres and large-scale operations that resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, but those reports were dismissed out of hand as communist propaganda.14 And then, in a stunning reversal, almost immediately after the exposure of the My Lai massacre, war crime allegations became old hat—so commonplace as to be barely worth mentioning or looking into. In leaflets, pamphlets, small-press books, and “underground” newspapers, the growing American antiwar movement repeatedly pointed out that U.S. troops were committing atrocities on a regular basis. But what had been previously brushed aside as propaganda and leftist kookery suddenly started to be disregarded as yawn-worthy common knowledge, with little but the My Lai massacre in between.15 Such impulses only grew stronger in the years of the “culture wars,” when the Republican Party and an emboldened right wing rose to power. Until Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the Vietnam War was generally seen as an American defeat, but even before taking office Reagan began rebranding the conflict as “a noble cause.” In the same spirit, scholars and veterans began, with significant success, to recast the war in rosier terms.16 Even in the early years of the twenty-first century, as newspapers and magazines published exposés of long-hidden U.S. atrocities, apologist historians continued to ignore much of the evidence, portraying American war crimes as no more than isolated incidents.17 But the stunning scale of civilian suffering in Vietnam is far beyond anything that can be explained as merely the work of some “bad apples,” however numerous. Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process—such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam. And as Ridenhour put it, they were no aberration. Rather, they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military. * * *

    1. Charles R. McDuff, letter to Richard M. Nixon, Public Correspondence—White House, M–Z, War Crimes and Other Topics, 1971, Record Group 319, Records of the Army Staff, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel (ODSPER), Records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, Vietnam War Crimes Working Group Central File, National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter cited as NARA), College Park, Maryland, Box 5.

    2. Franklin M. Davis, letter to Charles R. McDuff, in ibid.

    3. Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, Four Hours in My Lai (New York: Penguin, 1993), 381, 97–99; Michal Belknap, The Vietnam War on Trial (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 171.

    4. Seymour Hersh, Cover-Up (New York: Random House, 1972), 3–4; Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai, 111–14, 117, 128–34, 216; Seymour Hersh My Lai 4 (New York: Vintage 1970), 57.

    5. Many detailed works on the My Lai massacre exist. Among the best are Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai, and Hersh, My Lai 4. For a unique and often-ignored account of child victims of My Lai, see Betty Lifton and Thomas Fox, Children of Vietnam (New York: Atheneum, 1972), 100–109.

    6. Hersh, Cover-Up, 27, 165–66.

    7. Committee to Denounce the War Crimes of the U.S. Imperialists and Their Henchmen in South Vietnam, Crimes Perpetrated by the US Imperialists and Henchmen against South Viet Nam Women and Children (Saigon: Giai Phong, 1968), 25; “The American Devils Devulge Their True Form,” attached to Oran K. Henderson, “Report of Investigation (April 24, 1968), 224-04 ROI Concerning Atrocities Committed by Members of C Co. 1/20th Inf, TF Barker, Americal Divison, NARA. Henderson, “Report of Investigation (April 24, 1968)”; William M. Hammond, Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1968–1973 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1996), 223–24. Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai, 215–20, 305–6; Joseph Goldstein, Burke Marshall, and Jack Schwartz, The My Lai Massacre and Its Cover-Up: Beyond the Reach of Law? The Peers Commission Report with a Supplement and Introductory Essay on the Limits of Law (New York: Free Press, 1976), 34–37; Jonathan Unger, “Electric Message,” Far Eastern Economic Review (July 3, 1971), 6–7.

    8. “Pentagon Says Viet Killings Exaggerated,” Washington Post, November 17, 1969; Philip Knightly, The First Casualty: From Crimea to Vietnam; The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 392; Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 219; Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai, 253– 64.

    9. Goldstein, Marshall, and Schwartz, The My Lai Massacre and Its Cover-Up, 3, 317–45; Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai, 307.

    10. Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai, 307, 322–23, 337; “Calley, William Lawes,” in The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, ed. Spencer Tucker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 53.

    11. David L. Anderson, ed., Facing My Lai: Moving Beyond the Massacre (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 56.

    12. Nick Turse and Deborah Nelson, “Civilian Killings Went Unpunished,” Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2006.

    13. Ibid.; John Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009), 10; Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Boston: South End Press, 1989), 158–60; Neil Sheehan, “Should We Have War Crimes Trials?” New York Times Book Review, March 28, 1971; Knightly, The First Casualty, 434–35; Seymour Melman et al., In the Name of America: The Conduct of the War in Vietnam by the Armed Forces of the United States as Shown by Published Reports, Compared with the Laws of War Binding on the United States Government and on Its Citizens (New York: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, 1968), 20–21.

    14. For examples, see U.S. Imperialists’ “Burn All, Destroy All, Kill All” Policy in South Vietnam (Saigon: Giai Phong, 1967); Committee to Denounce the War Crimes of the U.S. Imperialists, Crimes Perpetrated by the U.S. Imperialists; Committee to Denounce the U.S.-Puppets’ War Crimes in South Viet Nam on the U.S.-Puppets’ Savage Acts Against Patriots Detained by Them, “Appendix: U.S.-Puppet Massacres of the Population in South Vietnam (From 1965 to 1969)”; The American Crime of Genocide in South Viet Nam (Saigon: Giai Phong, 1968); A Crime Against the Vietnamese People, Against Peace and Humanity (Hanoi: Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Commission for Investigation of the American Imperialists’ War Crimes in Vietnam, 1966); Wholesale Massacres Perpetrated by U.S. Mercenary and Puppet Troops in South Vietnam in the period between the Son My case (3/68) and the End of 1970; communiqué of the Committee to Denounce the U.S.-Puppets’ War Crimes in South Viet Nam on their Crimes in 1969; Liberation Press Agency (in English), “Document Lists Allied ‘Massacres’ during Nixon’s Tenure,” January 8, 1972.

    15. For examples of such books, see Edward S. Herman, Atrocities in Vietnam: Myths and Realities (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1970); Eric Norden, America’s Barbarities in Vietnam (New Delhi: Mainstream Weekly, 1966); Labor Committee for Peace in Vietnam, The Unspeakable War (New York: Prometheus Paperbacks, 1966); Ralph Schoenman, A Glimpse of American Crimes in Vietnam (London: Goodwin Press, 1966); Bertrand Russell, Appeal to the American Conscience (London: International War Crimes Tribunal, 1966); Ronald Dellums, The Dellums Committee Hearings on War Crimes in Vietnam: An Inquiry into Command Responsibility in Southeast Asia (New York: Vintage Books, 1972); John Duffett, ed., International War Crimes Tribunal, 1967: Stockholm, Sweden, and Roskilde, Denmark; Against the Crime of Silence; Proceedings (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970); Richard A. Falk, Gabriel Kolko, and Robert Jay Lifton, Crimes of War: A Legal, PoliticalDocumentary, and Psychological Inquiry into the Responsibility of Leaders, Citizens, and Soldiers for Criminal Acts in Wars (New York: Random House, 1971); Indochina Peace Campaign, Women Under Torture (Santa Monica, Calif.: The Campaign, 1973); Erwin Knoll and Judith Nies McFadden, eds., War Crimes and the American Conscience (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970); James S. Kunen, Standard Operating Procedure: Notes of a Draft-Age American (New York: Avon, 1971); Melman, In the Name of America; Vietnam Veterans Against the War, eds., The Winter Soldier Investigation: An Inquiry into American War Crimes (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972); Sheehan, “Should We Have War Crimes Trials?”; Knightly, The First Casualty, 426–28, 434–39.

    16. “Roots of a War (1945–1953),” from Vietnam: A Television History, PBS, 1983. For examples of revisionist works, see Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); Harry G. Summers Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1982); Mark W. Woodruff, Unheralded Victory: Who Won the Vietnam War? (London: HarperCollins, 2000); B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley, Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and History (Dallas, Tex.: Verity Press, 2000); and Lewis Sorely, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1999).

    17. For examples of evidence of war crimes that emerged in the twenty-first century, see Gregory L. Vistica, “What Happened in Thanh Phong,” New York Times Magazine, April 29, 2001; Vistica, The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003); Michael D. Sallah and Mitch Weiss, “Day 1: Rogue GIs Unleashed Wave of Terror in Central Highlands,” Toledo Blade, October 22, 2003; Sallah and Weiss, “Day 2: Inquiry Ended Without Justice: Army Substantiated Numerous Charges—Then Dropped Case of Vietnam War Crimes,” Toledo Blade, October 22, 2003; Sallah and Weiss, “Witness to Vietnam Atrocities Never Knew about Investigation,” Toledo Blade, November 30, 2003; Nick Turse, “Kill Anything That Moves: U.S. War Crimes and Atrocities in Vietnam, 1965–1973,” PhD diss., Columbia University, 2005; Heonik Kwon, After the Massacre (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006); Sallah and Weiss, Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War (New York: Little, Brown, 2006); Turse and Nelson, “Civilian Killings Went Unpunished”; Deborah Nelson and Nick Turse, “A Tortured Past,” Los Angeles Times, August 20, 2006; Nelson, The War Behind Me (New York: Basic Books, 2008); Heonik Kwon, “Anatomy of U.S. and South Korean Massacres in Vietnamese Year of the Monkey, 1968,” Japan Focus, June 15, 2007; Nick Turse, “War Crimes Hunter: On the Trail of Atrocity in Vietnam,” In These Times, July 28, 2008; Nick Turse, “‘We Killed Her … That Will Be With Me the Rest of My Life’: Lawrence Wilkerson’s Lessons of War and Truth,”, November 23, 2008,; Nick Turse, “A My Lai a Month,” Nation, December 1, 2008; Bernd Greiner, War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam (London: Bodley Head, 2009)


    Not only were low-quality enlisted men sent to Vietnam, but low-quality officers as well. Lieutenant William Calley, convicted in the murder of more than 100 unarmed civilians in the My Lai Massacre in 1968, was one of McNamara’s 100,000 Morons. According to Arnold R. Isaac, the Vietnam war correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, Calley:

    “flunked out of Palm Beach Junior College with 2 Cs, a D, and 4 Fs in his first year and reportedly managed to get through officer candidate school without even learning to read a map or use a compass.”

    Arnold R. Isaac, VIETNAM SHADOWS: The War, It’s Ghosts, and its Legacy (Baltimore, MD) The John Hopkins University Press, 1997) p. 40


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