The New York Times Book section reviewed a book by Deborah Nelson about her investigation into war crimes in Vietnam in the archive of the University of Michigan. She points out that here, the archive was used, in a way, not to unfold the cases and sentence those responsible, but for covering up the atrocities committed:

“Get the Army off the front page,” President Richard Nixon reportedly said. Investigations were a good way to do that. A cover-up attracts attention; a crime that is being looked into does not. The military investigations, Nelson argues, were designed not to hold rapists and murderers accountable, but to deflect publicity. When reporters heard about a war crime, they’d call the Army to see if it would provide information. If they suspected a cover-up, they’d pursue the story. If a military spokesman said an investigation was under way, the story was usually dropped.

The researcher makes the point that facts like these are easily hidden from public interest and, maybe even more importantly, that these savage abuses of human rights are inherently linked to an invasion context, despite big words that should lay a moral basis for the actions.

Nelson demonstrates that cover-ups happen in plain sight and that looking for an exclusive can blind reporters to the real story. She also points out that these crimes are endemic to counterinsurgency operations. When troops fight among a civilian population, in conflicts that extend for years, atrocities are almost bound to happen.

In itself, it’s never been the function of an archive to bring its contents in full daylight. It’s there to make sure that someday somebody who can, will. But it makes you wonder about how, with the right set of archivist minds, cases like these could have been brought out on time. And maybe prevented. ‘Cause in the end, that’s where we’d like to head to: to a human rights archive without new assessments to make.

Read the original article at

One thought on “War Behind Me

  1. The bulk of the records discussed in my book, The War Behind Me, actually are housed at the National Archives in College Park, Md. They were compiled by the Army Staff in the early 1970s and declassified around 1990. More information about their history may be found in the excerpt that appears on the book website:

    Additional supporting material came from the Tufts Archive at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library, which is mentioned in the New York Times review.

    Special note: The Vietnam War specialists at the National Archive helped interested scholars and journalists locate and research the collection, known as the "Vietnam War Crimes Working Group." However, National Archives officials withdrew the entire collection from public viewing a few years ago. They said the records had not been properly redacted under the Freedom of Information Act. They have no plan to process the entire collection but agreed to process FOIA requests for individual files. Since then, many files have been re-released through FOIA requests, but a significant portion of the collection has not been processed and remains off-limits to the public. (The University of Michigan collection, which contains a different set of records, is available for public review.)

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