Undoubtedly, American soldiers have covered themselves with glory throughout American history. From the Revolutionary War to the present campaigns in the Middle East, numerous stories of individual American military heroism are uplifting and inspirational. But Americans have not always conducted themselves honorably on the field of battle. Atrocities against defenseless civilians, racist genocide and dishonesty at the highest levels of American military leadership have also been perpetrated in a manner that would be decried as shameful and dishonorable if it was inflicted by an American military enemy or upon the American people. Americans have not always held themselves to the same standards that they have frequently demanded from other nations.
General William T. Sherman famously said that "War is hell." Sherman's un-romanticized perspective on combat and warfare is the type of rationalization that allowed his soldiers to wantonly kill their fellow Americans and destroy their property in a manner that probably was not a military necessity. For every Audie Murphy and Nathan Hale, Americans have also had to grapple with the legacies of William Calley and Henry Wirz.
War is hell, and Americans have, at times, been guilty of involvement in war crimes and despicable behavior that is shocking and disappointing. While this is not typical, it has forced Americans to occasionally confront the reality of a double standard. Based on the incidents and individuals described in this list, it is clear that the phrase "truth, justice and the American Way" evinces nothing more than a comic book mentality that has no basis in reality.
15 The My Lai Massacre And What Most Americans Don't Realize About The Incident
In early 1968, American troops in Vietnam's Quang Ngai province repeatedly suffered casualties from mines and booby traps in an area they designated as a Vietcong stronghold known as "Pinkville." It was decided that approximately 100 men of "Charlie Company" of the Army's 23rd Infantry Division would engage what they believed to be Vietcong hiding in the Son My area of the province including a hamlet known as My Lai. Soldiers were told that any villagers were either Vietcong or Vietcong sympathizers and they were ordered to kill them and destroy all structures and livestock.
Early on the morning of March 16, Charlie Company helicoptered into the Son My area and, despite zero resistance, began indiscriminately shooting anyone they encountered. Men, women and children were systematically rounded up and shot with machine guns and grenade launchers. Homes were burned, any residents shot to death as they emerged from the flames. But American soldiers did not just kill and destroy at My Lai. In the above photograph taken by a US Army photographer, Ronald Haeberle, the woman on the right is buttoning up her blouse. In his testimony during the official investigation of the My Lai incident, Haeberle stated that soldiers "started stripping her, taking her top off." The older woman in the photo was able to stop this sexual assault by scratching, kicking and fighting off the soldiers involved in attacking the girl, presumably her daughter. Haeberle and another journalist's presence most likely caused the soldiers to cease this particular sexual assault.
Haeberle also testified that within seconds of him walking away, the entire group pictured above was massacred with an M-60 machine gun. That hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were killed at My Lai has been acknowledged by the US government, what is not as widely known is that at least twenty acts of forcible rape, (much worse than what befell the woman above) also occurred with some victims as young as ten years old. The US military would initially officially describe the encounter as a normal combat mission in which 128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians were killed.
The US Government would not even investigate My Lai, until a serviceman sent information about the killings to thirty different members of Congress. 26 soldiers would eventually face charges over the massacre, only one, Lt. William Calley, would be convicted. Initially sentenced to life, he spent three and a half years in home detention and was eventually pardoned by President Richard Nixon.
14 The Wounded Knee Massacre
Fourteen years after Custer's defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, most Lakota were living on reservations in present day South Dakota, provided by the US Government. Many of these Native Americans chafed at the rigidity of the reservation system and in mid-December it was feared that Chief Sitting Bull would attempt to escape from the Standing Rock Reservation with a large group of Lakota. When Indian Agency police attempted to arrest Sitting Bull, a gunfight broke out and the Lakota chief was killed.
Hoping to surrender in a peaceful environment, Chief Spotted Elk (derisively dubbed Big Foot by American soldiers) attempted to seek refuge at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. His band of approximately 300 men, women and children were intercepted by 500 members of the Seventh Cavalry who escorted them to an encampment at Wounded Knee Creek.
On the morning of December 29, 1890, this detachment surrounded the Lakota encampment, deploying four automatic Hotchkiss guns, and began attempting to disarm the natives. When a Lakota warrior refused to turn over his weapon and a gunshot ensued, a chaotic gunfight erupted, initially between any still armed natives and the cavalry troopers. No match for the firepower of the US military, unarmed Lakota, especially women and children attempted to flee. They were pursued and shot down in cold blood, the exact number is still disputed but ranges from 150 to 300 Lakota.
Twenty-five US troopers were killed, many by friendly fire when the Hotchkiss guns opened up. The Lakota dead were ultimately buried in a mass grave, twenty Medals of Honor would be awarded by the US Military for actions during the slaughter.
13 The Destruction of Dresden
On February 13, 1945, British and American airmen began Operation Thunderclap, a full scale incendiary bombing attack upon the German city of Dresden. Unlike many other German cities, Dresden had little industrial or military value and was avoided as a target of Allied bombing based on its medieval beauty and cultural significance. But, under the theory that eliminating shelter for large numbers of population would accelerate a logistical nightmare and humanitarian crisis, Dresden was ultimately targeted.
Over three days, 2,400 tons of explosives and 1,500 tons of fire bombs were dropped on the mostly wooden city. This precipitated a condition known as a "firestorm", an inferno that burned with such intensity that it literally sucked oxygen out of the atmosphere.
Casualty figures have always been controversial but figures ranging from 25,000 to 35,000 deaths have been proposed by recent studies. To put that number in perspective, 40,000 people were killed in the Nagasaki A-Bomb attack. In 1969, Kurt Vonnegut, A POW who witnessed the bombing, wrote the anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, using the destruction of Dresden as a central theme.
12 The Pat Tillman Affair
On April 22, 2004, US Army Ranger Pat Tillman was killed while on a mission with fellow Rangers in a remote part of Afghanistan. Tillman was a former professional football player who decided, post 9/11, to enlist in the military rather than continue a lucrative NFL career. His death, occurring at the height of the Iraq war and the scandals concerning behavior in the Abu Ghraib prison, was exploited by the Bush administration and the US military who deliberately lied about the circumstances of his death to capitalize on Tillman's heroic image and bolster sagging support for the "Global War on Terror."
Whether or not Pat Tillman's death was a tragic "friendly fire" incident or something more sinister will probably never be determined. What is indisputable is that the conduct of all of those involved in the incident, ranging from his fellow servicemen all the way to the Oval Office was a shamefully deliberate act of deception and manipulation.
It would take years for disclosure of the fact that Tillman was killed by three bullets in the forehead, fired from a distance of approximately ten yards. Against regulations, Tillman's body armor and uniform were immediately burned and destroyed. Although most military personnel up the chain of command that lead to General Stanley McChrystal, knew within 24 hours that Tillman was killed by his own comrades, the Army posthumously awarded Pat Tillman the Silver Star, his fabricated citation noting that Tillman was "caught between the crossfire of an enemy near ambush, Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire as he maneuvered his fire team to a covered position from which they could effectively employ their weapons on known enemy positions."
General McChrystal signed off on this citation, despite knowing that it was false. He even sent a memo to four of his superiors warning them to limit Presidential comment on Pat Tillman because it was likely a friendly fire incident. It would be six weeks before the Tillman family was even informed that this was a possibility. Lt. General Philip Kensinger attended a May 3 nationally televised memorial service for Tillman, consoling the Tillman family while knowing that he was killed by friendly fire. The Tillman family would not be informed by the military of these circumstances but by a telephone call from an Arizona Republic newspaper reporter. To this day, the Tillman family believes that this entire incident was completely choreographed at the highest levels of government and possibly even involved deliberate murder.
11 The Confederate Hell of Andersonville
In 1864, the Confederate government decided to move most of its Union prisoners from the Richmond area to a remote location near Andersonville, Georgia. 45,000 POW's eventually were sent to this facility, a hastily constructed, open air stockade, surrounded by a fence of fifteen foot tall pine logs. Guard posts were situated along the stockade, with orders to shoot to kill any man who crossed into the Dead Zone, a strip nineteen feet from the wall itself.
The location was thrown together with little logistical preparation, the only water for most of the inmates was a branch of a nearby creek that flowed through the center of the encampment. This quickly became fouled and unsanitary as it also served as the only plumbing and bathing option for the POW's. By August of 1864, 33,000 men were being housed in a facility originally designed for 10,000.
With virtually no provisions, filthy conditions, brutal treatment and inadequate medical care, prisoners began dying by the thousands. One prisoner stated, "Since the day I was born, I never saw such misery." In only 14 months of operation, 13,000 men died and at the end of the war, the camp commandant, Henry Wirz, was arrested, tried and hanged for his conduct, the only Civil War combatant convicted of war crimes.
10 The Execution Of The "San Patricios" During The Mexican War
In 1846, the US declared war on Mexico. In what became known as the Mexican War, Mexico was invaded by a far stronger military force. A large contingent of the invasion consisted of Irish immigrants who fled famine conditions in their homeland and quickly signed up as recruits. As Catholic immigrants, they were subjected to hostility and racism at the hands of Protestant officers. Aware of this situation, the Mexican government actively recruited deserters, emphasizing a common religion, an unjust invasion and higher wages.
Enough men deserted to form two companies of approximately 100 soldiers. Commanded by John Riley, this force was called the "San Patricios" or "St. Patrick's." These men would fight at three different battles leading up to the climatic action at Churubusco in August of 1847. Hunkered down in a convent fortified with artillery, the San Patricios three times tore down the white flag of surrender, understanding the consequences of capture by the Americans. They finally surrendered after running out of ammunition and brutal hand to hand combat. 35 San Patricios were killed and 85 were captured, the prisoners immediately charged with desertion during a time of war.
Because some of these captives deserted before war was officially declared, including John Riley, they were branded with the letter "D" and flogged. 50 men were condemned by military tribunal and hanged, the largest mass execution in US military history. While a prisoner, John Riley wrote to a friend in the US: "Be not deceived by a nation that is at war with Mexico, for a friendlier and more hospitable people than the Mexicans there exists not on the face of the earth."
In addition to the numerous plaques, statues. and postage stamps that were created in Mexico, in gratitude to the San Patricios, the Mexican government erected a statue of John Riley in his hometown of Clifden, Ireland.
9 US Army Violated International Law By Using White Phosphorus in Iraq
In December of 2004, a task force consisting of American and British troops launched Operation Thunder Fury, an offensive against the Iraqi insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. The subsequent fighting produced the most contentious military combat experienced by American troops since the Tet offensive during the Vietnam conflict. Because Fallujah was essentially sealed off before the offensive, Iraqi civilians estimated at approximately 40,000 people were unable to flee. By the end of this operation on December 23, it was estimated that as many as 2,000 "insurgents" had been killed and another 1,500 captured. 800 civilians were also killed.
European media quickly began alleging that the US military had deployed white phosphorus in the fighting. White phosphorus is similar to napalm in that it is utilized in shells and grenades and causes horrific burns and powerfully damaging explosions. It is banned by international convention against both civilian and military targets. Initially, the US military denied using white phosphorus but was forced to backtrack when an Army published artillery journal bragged that it was used in Fallujah against combatants in certain circumstances. The Pentagon then claimed that the weapon was not illegal because it was not a chemical weapon despite its own publications criticizing the use of white phosphorus and declaring such use to be against the "law of land warfare."
Two thirds of the 50,000 structures in Fallujah were either damaged severely or destroyed during Thunder Fury. It seems unlikely that white phosphorus, known for its destructive capability, was not used during this process. The UK government was internationally sued in 2010 as a result of a massive increase in birth defects in Fallujah, believed caused by chemical weapons deployed during Thunder Fury. Such lawsuits against the US military are blocked by US immunity laws and the US boycott of the International Criminal Court.
8 American Imperialism and the Philippine-American "War" of 1898
During the Spanish-American War, Filipinos were engaged in their own war for independence from the Spanish. When the US government signed a treaty with Spain, ending this conflict in 1898, the Filipino government was shocked to find out that the US had no intention of granting independence, instead it seized the Philippines as an American colony. Not surprisingly, hostility soon broke out between the two entities, with the Philippines actually declaring war on June 2, 1899. The US military responded to any Filipino resistance with astonishing savagery. One soldier wrote to a US Senator:
"At any time I am liable to be called upon to go out and bind and gag helpless prisoners, to strike them in the face, to knock them down when so bound, to bear them away from wife and children, at their very door, who are shrieking pitifully the while, or kneeling and kissing the hands of our officers, imploring mercy from those who seem not to know what it is, and then, with a crowd of soldiers, hold our helpless victim head downward in a tub of water in his own yard, or bind him hand and foot, attaching ropes to head and feet, and then lowering him into the depths of a well of water till life is well-nigh choked out, and the bitterness of a death is tasted, and our poor, gasping victims ask us for the poor boon of being finished off, in mercy to themselves."
After a Filipino uprising in the village of Balangiga killed close to fifty Americans, US General Jacob Smith was quoted in an interview in the Manila Times:
"I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn: the more you kill and burn, the better you will please me,' and, further, that he wanted all persons killed who were capable of bearing arms and in actual hostilities against the United States, and did, in reply to a question by Major Waller asking for an age limit, designate the limit as ten years of age. ... General Smith did give instructions to Major Waller to 'kill and burn' and 'make Samar (Province) a howling wilderness,' and he admits that he wanted everybody killed capable of bearing arms, and that he did specify all over ten years of age, as the Samar boys of that age were equally as dangerous as their elders."
Although the war officially ended in 1902, it would continue with sporadic guerrilla attacks and uprisings against the US for another decade. In a war that is virtually unknown to most Americans, 4,000 American troops were killed out of 125,000 who served in the Philippines. Estimates of Filipino dead were 34,000 killed in combat and an estimated 250,000 to one million civilians who died from warfare, epidemic and malnutrition. The US did not grant the Philippines sovereign independence until 1946.
7 The Murder of Chief Crazy Horse
Even among the remarkable chiefs of the Lakota, Chief Crazy Horse was unique. Deeply spiritual, he refused all photographs and declined placing his signature on any paper. He was believed to have participated in "Red Cloud's War" in 1866 and was a major factor in the destruction of Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. While Sitting Bull fled to Canada in 1877, Crazy Horse continued to roam through the traditional tribal lands of the Midwest until the summer.
With winter coming and no coherent plan for the future, Crazy Horse agreed to meet with General George Crook at Fort Robinson, Nebraska in September of 1877. But, having already left the fort and federal custody once before, Crazy Horse now faced arrest. Unbeknownst to him, Crook and federal officials thought him to be the most dangerous of the Lakota chiefs and believed him willing and able to ignite another native uprising. It was their intention to arrest him and imprison Crazy Horse in a federal fort in Florida, tantamount to a death sentence.
In the late afternoon of September 5, Crazy Horse, as well as numerous other natives, including his seven-foot-tall friend, Touch the Clouds, appeared at the guardhouse of Fort Robinson, for what the chief thought would be a conference with General Crook, who was not even present. Upon entering the structure, Crazy Horse recognized the bars of the fort's jail and immediately drew a knife in an attempt to escape out of the building's door. Another native hostile to Crazy Horse, Little Big Man, attempted to grab his arms from behind and as Crazy Horse slashed him with a knife, a soldier bayoneted him in the back.
Mortally wounded, Crazy Horse was conveyed to the fort's office. Offered a soldier's cot, he refused, dying quietly on the ground, his father and Touch the Clouds at his side. Upon his death, his father conveyed his body to the vicinity of Wounded Knee, South Dakota and deliberately buried it in a secret grave, its location one of the enduring mysteries of American history.
6 Torture and Prisoner Abuse At Abu Ghraib
Although reports of widespread torture and Iraqi prisoner abuse began circulating as early as mid-2003, it was not until a 60 Minutes report in April of 2004 that included photographs of American military personnel humiliating and abusing prisoners that the Abu Ghraib scandal became a worldwide sensation. American media published memos written by American military officials that authorized the use of techniques developed at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility that included sleep deprivation, forced nudity, verbal and physical intimidation and the use of canines.
Photographs of Iraqi prisoners in various states of distress, shackling, nudity and psychological torture appeared in the American and international media. The individual pictured above, Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, was told that if he fell off of the box he would be electrocuted. He had been detained after he complained to local media that the US military had expropriated his property and were using it to dump body parts and toxic military waste.
His name and photograph appeared in newspapers and he was arrested and interrogated in filthy conditions. His captors demanded that he implicate any combatants involved in resistance to the US occupation and to give them names even if he knew that they were false. When he refused, he was threatened with deportation to Guantanamo and was transported to Abu Ghraib. There he was stripped naked, put in hand and ankle restraints and forced to climb up a winding stairway. When he fell, he was beaten with rifle butts, while a recording of the word "execution" in English and Arabic was blasted at him via loudspeakers. He was detained and subjected to similar abuse for six months until photographs of him and other captives prompted his release. He required six surgeries to correct the physical trauma suffered while a prisoner.
Initially, the US military and President Bush tried to minimize the abuse as atypical but ultimately eleven low level American servicemen and women were court-martialed, convicted and given light sentences, the longest amount served by any defendant was six and a half years, with most serving less than a year or no jail time at all. Janis Karpinski, the CO of the prison was demoted but maintained publicly that she was being scapegoated by higher-ups in the military. No other US Government official ever took responsibility or resigned over the Abu Ghraib scandal.
5 The Korean War Atrocity At No Gun Ri Bridge
It took months before the My Lai massacre came to light during the Vietnam conflict. It would take almost fifty years before any official acknowledgment of similar conduct by American troops during the Korean War. In July of 1950, amidst the chaos surrounding the eruption of North Korea's invasion of South Korea and armed conflict involving the US military, orders were transmitted to front line soldiers to stop any movement of Koreans, civilian or otherwise, making no distinction for the flood of refugees already attempting to flee the North Korean advance.
On July 26, hundreds of such refugees approached soldiers from the 7th Cavalry Regiment, defending a railroad bridge near the village of No Gun Ri. Any refugees, mostly women and children, who approached the American position were killed by infantry or aerial strafing. The incident lasted for three days, with casualties estimated as high as three hundred dead. In 1999, prompted by accounts from Korean survivors and low level American veterans of the incident, three Associated Press reporters published a Pulitzer prize winning article concerning the massacre.
Although the US government announced an immediate inquiry, it was termed a "whitewash" even by one of its congressional participants, merely admitted "tragic" mistakes and offered minimal compensation. Resistance from the American government to accept responsibility for killing innocent refugees by military order prompted Korean allegations that hundreds of similar incidents, especially aerial destruction of civilians, had occurred and that what happened at No Gun Ri was not unusual during the Korean War. Accordingly, US refusal to further investigate No Gun Ri and the issue of civilian deaths during this time period remain an emotional issue in South Korea.
4 American Soldiers in France Were Not All Members Of "The Greatest Generation."
On June 6, 1944, American troops came ashore on the Normandy beachhead in an invasion which is as storied as any in the annals of American bravery. Once they broke out of the D-Day beachhead and swept across France, American soldiers were greeted as heroic liberators, supposedly delivering peace and freedom to the adoring French population.
Unfortunately, some American servicemen actually behaved despicably from the moment they set foot on French soil. Because rapid egress from the D-Day beachheads and quick organization of men and material were critical to the mission, soldiers were explicitly told to not take prisoners. Clearly, some American troops didn't need official encouragement to kill captured or wounded Germans. In his book, "D-Day: The Battle For Normandy," historian Anthony Beevor cites numerous examples of Allied atrocities, including paratroopers killing 30 Wehrmacht soldiers near the village of Audouville-la-Hubert.
If the war in France between Allied soldiers and German troops, especially fanatical members of the Waffen SS, immediately turned vicious, it should not come as much of a surprise. More shocking was the attitude of American soldiers toward the local female population. Rape and sexual assault was so widespread that the civilian populace became outraged and demanded that the US military do something. 153 men were ultimately tried for sexual offenses in France, 29 were actually hanged for rape, mostly black GI's. The French ironically noted that with the Germans, the men had to go into hiding, with the Americans, it was the women.
3 Sherman's March To The Sea
Sherman's most famous quote about war being hell is true of every invasion suffered since the beginning of mankind. What made Sherman and his famous "March to the Sea," essentially a path of destruction across the state of Georgia and eventually across the state of South Carolina, different was that his desire to pillage and destroy as much as possible was officially sanctioned. His special order to "forage liberally" and destroy any livestock or property that could not be transported made his intention clear. One can almost visualize the general's wink as he cautioned in writing against entering homes or burning structures without a specific order. Numerous homes were destroyed and burned to the ground, the entire city of Atlanta unrecognizable by the time the Union army passed through. One woman described Sherman's "Bummers" as they set upon her property:
"To my smoke-house, my dairy, pantry, kitchen, and cellar, like famished wolves they come, breaking locks and whatever is in their way. The thousand pounds of meat in my smoke-house is gone in a twinkling, my flour, my meat, my lard, butter, eggs, pickles of various kinds – both in vinegar and brine – wine, jars, and jugs are all gone. My eighteen fat turkeys, my hens, chickens, and fowls, my young pigs, are shot down in my yard and hunted as if they were rebels themselves. Utterly powerless I ran out and appealed to the guard.
‘I cannot help you, Madam; it is orders.’ …
As night drew its sable curtains around us, the heavens from every point were lit up with flames from burning buildings. … My Heavenly Father alone saved me from the destructive fire."
Sherman himself certainly never regretted his campaign. He wrote the Union Chief of Staff upon the conclusion of the mission:
"We are not only fighting armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies. I know that this recent movement of mine through Georgia has had a wonderful effect in this respect."
2 The Ongoing Legacy Of American Military Violent Crime on Okinawa
On May 19, 2016, on the Japanese island of Okinawa, former US Marine Kenneth Shinzato was arrested for the brutal rape and murder of a 20 year old Japanese female. This was only weeks after the March rape arrest of a US Navy seaman and a DUI in which a US Naval Petty Officer, driving at six times the legal limit of intoxication, was involved in injuring Okinawa residents in a multi car auto accident. Okinawans are again demanding the shutdown of all US military bases and even the Japanese government has expressed grave concern about the viability of a longterm US military presence.
The Shinzato incident is only the latest violent crime to bring the island to a boiling point. The most high profile crime involving US Servicemen on Okinawa was the 1995 rape of a 12 year old girl by a naval seaman and two marines who were convicted and sentenced to long Japanese prison terms. It is estimated that 500 serious crimes have been committed by members of the military, including 120 rapes, since the island reverted back to Japanese authority in 1972. The US military has maintained a large military presence on Okinawa since its capture in 1945.
1 In 2007 Iraqi Helicopter Attack, US Army Airmen Kill Unarmed Journalists While Laughing
While the US media is currently decrying the Russian government's alleged attempts through Wikileaks to influence the US Presidential election, they were not reluctant to publicize a 2010 Wikileaks released video involving two US helicopter gunships shooting down civilians in 2007, on a Baghdad street, two of whom were Reuters journalists. When Reuters asked the US Government for footage of the incident under the Freedom of Information Act, the US refused to release the material.
Wikileaks then secretly obtained the tape from a source within the US military, believed to be the now imprisoned Chelsea Manning. On the tape, the crews of both helicopters can be heard claiming that the group of men casually standing on a street in civilian clothes are armed insurgents. While some of the men were armed, cameras are clearly visible and the behavior of the Iraqis should have indicated that they were not combatants.
Instead, the gunships fired on the group with three separate strikes. The first attack killed seven men, including 22 year old Reuters journalist Namir Noor-Eldeen. On tape a gunner laughs and yells "Hahaha, I hit 'em." Another shouts, "Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards." When one of the wounded, the other Reuters journalist, Saeed Chmagh, is dragged into a passing van, the helicopters launched a second machine gun attack. "Look at that, right through the windshield," says an airmen while another crew member chuckles.
Chmagh and the van driver were killed, the driver's two children sitting in the front seat were seriously wounded. A third attack launched rockets into a nearby building, killing seven more non-combatant residents. The US military first claimed that all those killed were insurgents and then claimed that the attacks were a response to an ongoing battle, both assertions proven decidedly false by the Wikileaks video.
The US military ultimately absolved the participants in the raid, claiming that since the victims were armed, they could easily be mistaken for insurgents, ignoring the fact that the casual nature of the group and the visible cameras clearly indicated that they were involved in journalism and the armed men were providing appropriate security. In 2013, Chelsea Manning was given a 35 year jail sentence.