Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Deborah Nelson's "The War Behind Me"

Deborah Nelson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist currently at the University of Maryland College of Journalism as the Carnegie Visiting Professor. Her Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting is for a series that exposed widespread problems in the federal government's Indian Housing Program. She won an AAAS Science Journalism Award for an investigation into the death of a teenager in a gene therapy experiment.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes, and reported the following:
The War Behind Me is based on the Pentagon’s once-secret collection of reports on war crimes committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. While not a complete accounting, the declassified archive represents the largest compilation to surface thus far. There are hundreds of substantiated allegations--murders, massacres, torture, rapes, assaults, mutilations and cover-ups. The Army quietly declassified the archive in 1990, but it remained largely unnoticed until recent years, when a handful of scholars and journalists learned of its existence. One of the scholars was Nick Turse of Columbia University, who researched the records for a dissertation and then contacted the Los Angeles Times, where I was the Washington investigative editor. We teamed up to investigate the archive’s origins, contents and fate. We entered the information into a database, tracked down scores of veterans, traveled to Vietnam and published a series on our findings in the Times in 2006. The series focused on the records. But the book goes beyond the documents to reveal what we discovered during our interviews and travels. Indeed, the heart and soul of the book are the conversations with suspects, survivors, whistle-blowers, officers and men up the chain of command to the White House. In that sense, page 99 truly is representative. Nick and I are interviewing Larry Wilkerson at a Starbucks in Northern Virginia about a year after he resigned as chief of staff for then Secretary of State Colin Powell and became a critic of the Iraq War. Wilkerson recalls his experiences with “free-fire zones” in 1969-70 while a helicopter unit commander in Vietnam. Free-fire zones were swaths of countryside declared off-limits to civilians and treated by some soldiers, in Wilkerson’s words, “as a license to shoot anything that moved--wild boar, tigers, elephants and people.” Civilians were supposed to be warned but often didn’t get word or ventured across the invisible line of demarcation to forage for food. If you turn to page 99, you’ll read the first of two anecdotes about Wilkerson’s battles with superiors over their orders to open fire in free-fire zones. All but five lines on the page are in Wilkerson’s distinctive voice. Throughout the book, I tried to give people a respectful space to tell what happened in their own words. One of Wilkerson’s accounts has a happy ending and the other not, illustrating the importance of strong leadership on the front lines and its limits against deleterious policies from above.
Read an excerpt and learn more about the book and author at the official The War Behind Me website.

--Marshal Zeringue