David's Reviews > The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes

The War Behind Me by Deborah  Nelson
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Apr 24, 09


Depressing but important investigative work on war crimes committed by US in the Viet Nam war, as well as the apparently cursory efforts to prosecute those crimes and extensive efforts to cover them up. Lots of it involved review of documents obtained by FOIA, but she also did some interviewing of Army higher-ups and went to Viet Nam and interviewed people there about what they had witnessed.

Besides the obvious point that people will do incredible acts in extreme situations, the other point that came through clearly was the pernicious effect of official emphasis on the "body count" as a metric for how we were doing in the war. Enemy is elusive? Can just kill civilians, say their weapons got lost, and secure a high body count.

Clearly most of the time the stakes are not as high as this, but "you get what you count and reward" seems to be a broadly applicable point. If you give baseball players high salaries for hitting home runs and ignore defense, you get a team full of steroid-addled sluggers. If you judge and compensate teachers per standardized test scores, you get teaching to the test, test prep rallies, etc. And if you judge army units by body counts, you get troops decapitating civilians.

My rating of the book is a compromise. Subject matter and investigative digging = 5 stars. Writing = 1 star. Not a graceful stylist in general, but my main quibble in this respect was the excessive focus on her and her process (" so I asked him if.....and he said that.....and then we drove to.....where I met with ......who said....."). High point was when she obtained an important but lengthy document and described in some detail how her partner sent it to her, as well as the tidbit that "I printed it out and read it" before proceeding to say what it revealed. Really? You printed it? Why didn't you just read it on the screen? Do say more........
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