Lawrence Wilkerson’s Lessons of War and Truth
by Nick Turse
Nations in flux are nations in need. A new president will soon take office, facing hard choices not only about two long-running wars and an ever-deepening economic crisis, but about a government that has long been morally adrift. Torture-as-policy, kidnappings, ghost prisons, domestic surveillance, creeping militarism, illegal war-making, and official lies have been the order of the day. Moments like this call for truth-tellers. For Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. For witnesses willing to come forward. For brave souls ready to expose hidden and forbidden realities to the light of day.
Lawrence B. Wilkerson is such a man. He came to national prominence in October 2005 when — having left his post as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier in the year — he laid bare some of the secrets of the Bush White House as he had experienced them. He had been inside the halls of power as the invasion and occupation of Iraq took shape. In Bush’s second term, on the outside, he found that he had had enough. The American people, he thought, had a right to know just how their government was really working, and so he offered them this vision of the Bush administration in action: “[S]ome of the most important decisions about U.S. national security — including vital decisions about postwar Iraq — were made by a secretive, little-known cabal. It was made up of a very small group of people led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.”
In the years since, Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel, has not been reticent, especially when it came to “the militarization of America’s foreign policy” and the practice of extraordinary rendition (the kidnapping of terror suspects and their deliverance into the hands of regimes ready and willing to torture them).
Nor, earlier this year, did he shy away from testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties about how, in 2004, while still at the State Department, he had compiled “a dossier of classified, sensitive, and open source information” on American interrogation and imprisonment practices at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that yielded, he said, “overwhelming evidence that my own government had sanctioned abuse and torture.”
“We have damaged our reputation in the world and thus reduced our power,” he told the panel in closing. “We were once seen as the paragon of law; we are now in many corners of the globe the laughing stock of the law.”
Wilkerson has spent most of his adult life in the service of the United States government as a soldier for 31 years, including military service in Vietnam; as a special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; as the Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College; and finally, from 2002 to 2005, as chief of staff to Powell at the State Department. His most vital service to his country, however, has arguably been in the years since.
Wilkerson has become a blunt truth-teller, and of all the truths he has told, there is one that’s especially personal and painful; one that, after so many years, he could have kept to himself, but decided not to. It’s a story, now decades old, of truth, consequences, and a dead little girl. It is no less timely for that, offering essential lessons, especially to U.S. troops engaged in seemingly interminable wars that have left countless civilians, little girls included, dead.
“I fault myself for it to this day”
Testifying before that congressional subcommittee in June, Wilkerson stated:
“In Vietnam, as a first lieutenant and a captain of Infantry, on several occasions I had to restrain my soldiers, even one or two of my officers. When higher authorities took such actions as declaring free fire zones — meaning that anything that moved in that zone could be killed — and you came upon a 12-year old girl on a jungle path in that zone, it was clear you were not going to follow orders. But some situations were not so black and white and you had to be always on guard against your soldiers slipping over the edge.
“As their leader, it was incumbent upon me to set the example — and that meant sometimes reprimanding or punishing a soldier who broke the rules. In all cases, it meant that I personally followed the rules and not just by ‘breaking’ the so-called rules of engagement, as in the designated free fire zone, but by following the rules that had been ingrained in me by my parents, by my schools, by my church, and by the U.S. Army in classes about the Geneva Conventions and what we called the law of land warfare. I had been taught and I firmly believed when I took the oath of an officer and swore to support and defend the Constitution, that American soldiers were different and that much of their fighting strength and spirit came from that difference and that much of that difference was wrapped up in our humaneness and our respect for the rights of all.”
Almost two years earlier, fellow reporter Deborah Nelson and I met with Wilkerson at a Starbucks outside of Washington, D.C. We hunkered down in the back of the coffeehouse, while, amid the din of barista-speak and the whir of coffee machines, Wilkerson told us about his service in Vietnam: How he flew low and slow — often under the tree-tops — as a scout pilot for the infantry, in a OH-6A “Loach” Light Observation Helicopter, operating in the III Corps region well north of Saigon. During his 13 months in Vietnam, Wilkerson logged more than 1,000 combat hours, without ever being wounded or getting shot down. His troops — he oversaw 300 men by the end of his tour — used to call him “the Teflon guy” for good reason.
But two moments during his time in Vietnam did, by his own account, stick with him. They are, in fact, indelibly ingrained in his memory.
One occurred when, as a young lieutenant, he got into verbal battle with an infantry battalion commander — a lieutenant colonel — on the ground in Tay Ninh Province. He was in the air leading his platoon when the ground commander came in over the radio, declaring the area his helicopter was over a free fire zone.
Ubiquitous during the war, free fire zones gave American troops the authorization to unleash unrestrained firepower, no matter who was still living in an area, in contravention of the laws of war. The policy allowed artillery barrages, for example, to be directed at populated rural areas, Cobra helicopter gunships to open fire on Vietnamese peasants just because they were running in fear below, or grunts on the ground to take pot shots at children out fishing and farmers working in their fields. “Cobra pilots and some of my colleagues in the Loach platoon treated that as a license to shoot anything that moved: wild boar, tigers, elephants, people. It didn’t matter,” Wilkerson told us.
On this occasion, the battalion commander ordered Wilkerson and his unit to engage in “recon by fire” — basically firing from their helicopters into brushy areas, tree lines, hootches (as Vietnamese peasant homes were known) or other structures, in an attempt to draw enemy fire and initiate contact. Knowing that, too many times, this led to innocent civilians being wounded or killed, Wilkerson told the ground commander that his troops would only fire on armed combatants. “To hell with your free fire zone,” he said.
A “trigger-happy” Cobra pilot under his command then entered the verbal fray on the radio, siding with the battalion commander. With that, as Wilkerson described it that day, he maneuvered his own helicopter between the Cobra gunship and the free fire zone below. “You shoot, you’re gonna hit me,” he said over his radio. “And if you hit me, buddy, I’m gonna turn my guns up and shoot you.”
The verbal battle continued until, as Wilkerson recounted it, he caught sight of movement below. “There was nothing there but a hootch with a man, probably about seventy [years old], an old lady, probably about the same age, and two young children.” When he informed the battalion commander and the Cobra pilot, Wilkerson recalled, “that calmed everybody down, ’cause they realized that, had they shot rockets into that house, they probably would have killed all those people.”
A similar situation played itself out with much grimmer consequences in a “semi-jungle, rice paddy area” in Binh Duong province. Once again, a ground commander declared the area a free fire zone, and this time Wilkerson didn’t immediately tell his crew to disregard the order. “I fault myself for this to this day,” he told us.
About 15 minutes later, as his helicopter broke from the jungle over a road, an ox cart they had spotted earlier came into view. “Before I said anything, my crew chief let off a burst of machine gun ammunition. And he was a very good shot. It went right into the wagon.” By the time Wilkerson ordered him to cease fire, it was too late. “The long and short of it was there was a little girl in the wagon and we killed her. And that will be with me the rest of my life.”
Even without direct clearance from Wilkerson, the helicopter crew chief was just carrying out U.S. policy as it was laid down at the command level — a point Wilkerson emphasized as he discussed his Vietnam War experience with the congressional subcommittee in June. In doing so, he also offered one of the essential truths of the Vietnam War: that following the U.S. military’s “rules of engagement” could mean violating the laws of war and the basic tenets of humanity.
“Where the skeletons are buried…”
In a recent follow-up interview by email, Wilkerson reflected on the quality of moral outrage and on the value of the willingness to confront authority — in Vietnam and, decades later, in Washington.
“I was always sort of a maverick in that sense, bucking authority when I thought that authority was mistaken, particularly if it were an ethical mistake,” he wrote. “I believe that one of the reasons Powell kept me around for 11 years of directly working for him was that unlike most people around him I would tell him what I thought in a nano-second — even if it went counter to what I believed he thought.”
While Vietnam may have contributed to Wilkerson’s urge to speak out, the primary impetus for his public comments and writings since 2005 has been the Bush administration itself. “I felt the incompetence, the deceit, and certain actions of the administration were actually hurting the nation, diminishing our real power in the world at a time when we needed all we could get.”
Wilkerson acknowledges that those who spoke out against the Bush administration did so at their peril. “People have families to consider, positions, salaries, livelihoods. So these are not easy matters — particularly when increasingly in our republic we have stacked the deck ever higher in favor of those in power.” As a kind of whistleblower (even out of power and out of the government), Wilkerson certainly exposed himself to potential retaliation. Unlike former CIA official Valerie Plame, among others, however, he sees no evidence that he was targeted.
Wilkerson self-deprecatingly suggests that he was spared because “I’m a small potato in the greater scheme of things and therefore few people listen to or heed my ramblings.” But he notes another possible reason as well. “Those in power likely believe that I’m still close to Powell — and they very much do fear him as he knows where many of the skeletons are buried.”
Since Wilkerson came forward in 2005, whistleblowers of all stripes have surfaced — from veterans who testified on Capitol Hill in May about violence perpetrated against Iraqi civilians, to high-level insiders willing, in the closing days of a lame-duck term, to go on record about internal battles over domestic spying.
Wilkerson doesn’t consider his recent disclosure of his role in the death of a Vietnamese girl analogous to his later acts as a Bush administration truth-teller, but he acknowledges the value of making her killing public.
“It wasn’t truth-telling in the sense that it wasn’t known before. The battalion commander on the ground knew it, the troops knew it, my crew knew it — indeed, it went into intel [intelligence] reports as far as I know. But in the larger sense, yes, it adds to the wealth of literature and information that is in the public [realm] now… In short, there is ample evidence available to the public of the hell that war is, of the carnage, destruction, ruined souls, and devastation.”
Revealing such experiences, Wilkerson hopes, will be especially useful for today’s troops. “I believe young GIs should read as much as possible about what others have done in previous wars, particularly ‘to keep our honor clean,’ as the Marine hymn goes.”
In speaking out about his Vietnam experience, Wilkerson has, indeed, added to the long record of civilian suffering as a result of America’s wars abroad — offering a stark lesson for U.S. troops yet to be deployed overseas. And for troops who have already served in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has set an example of the ways in which they can continue to serve the United States by speaking out about all aspects of their service, even the dark portions that Americans often don’t want to hear.
The only question is: Will they have the courage to follow in his footsteps?
Copyright 2008 Nick Turse
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of TomDispatch.com. His work has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. His first book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, was recently published by Metropolitan Books. His website is Nick Turse.com.