An American Atrocity

A novel by

Mike McCarey


An American Atrocity

A novel by Mike McCarey

Is war something you can control with rules?

Captain Jeff Connors, a prosecutor, asks himself the following questions about the rules of war:


“Killing unarmed prisoners, however, clearly violated the established rules of war. But were there really ‘established rules of war,’ rules generally followed by most combatants? Or were these so-called rules an elegant but empty façade, a pretense used to make war seem more humane and acceptable? Most of my days in Vietnam were not spent in the field, but behind a desk. Did that prevent me from seeing a larger reality: that these so-called rules of war were a myth, a charade important to the philosophers, politicians, and newspaper columnists who analyzed and discussed war, but irrelevant to those who actually fought it?”  Chapter 8.

During an interrogation, Corporal Kruzansky, a witness to an atrocity, says the following about the rules of war:



“The rules of war?”Kruzansky repeated. “What kind of rules are those, Captain? A friend of my family was killed here in 1966. He was an FO—a forward observer, someone who goes out into the bush and calls in artillery strikes on enemy targets. Well, an FO is supposed to get out of the area as soon as the first shell hits, because the enemy knows that someone’s directing the strike, so they start looking for him right away. Well, this family friend calls in a strike, but the artillery guys can’t hit the target. They keep missing, and he keeps adjusting them back to the target. By the time the target was hit, the Viet Cong were all over the area, and they got my friend. They didn’t kill him outright: they gouged out his eyes and cut little chunks of flesh out of him until he bled to death. At the end, they cut off his nuts and stuffed them in his mouth. That’s how the recovery team found him, anyway. Tell me—was that a violation of the rules of war? Was someone supposed to blow a whistle and call a foul when the VC were cutting off my friend’s nuts? And what was supposed to happen then? How do fouls get enforced in this game?”


Tears formed in the corners of Kruzansky’s eyes. Obviously, the victim was more than a friend of the family: it was someone Kruzansky deeply admired.


“I’m sorry about your friend,” I said.


“Yeah, I’m sorry, too. But that’s the way war is. It isn’t a game with rules—it’s who can cause the most pain for the other side. It’s anything goes. At division headquarters, where people sit around discussing war, you can pretend it’s something different. But out here in the bush, there isn’t any pretend. War is what it has always been: it’s brutal, it’s show no mercy, it’s cutting someone’s balls off and stuffing them down his throat.”  Chapter 8.

Colonel Jack Harman, the First Marine Division’s senior legal officer, says the following when told of Kruzansky’s views about the rules of war:

“There will always be men who feel that way. But in combat, gratuitous brutality from one side only invites gratuitous brutality from the other. The men who ultimately pay the price for the ‘anything goes’ approach to warfare are the men who do the fighting—men like Kruzansky. It’s for their benefit that we have laws protecting prisoners. And these laws aren’t some recent brainchild of ivory tower philosophers. They’re based on thousands of years of experience with warfare. A consensus has grown out of that experience—prisoners should be treated humanely, human life should be respected, war should be no more brutal than the circumstances require.”   Chapter 9.

Defense counsel Kyle Roberts offers the following about the rules of war:


“In September 1864, General William Sherman and his union army occupied the City of Atlanta. Sherman was about to torch the city. City officials pleaded for mercy. Do you know how Sherman answered those pleas? He said, ‘War is cruelty, and it cannot be refined,’ and then he burned Atlanta to the ground. I hate to say it, but that son-of-a-bitch was right. War is brutality in its purest form, and it can’t be refined. And you can’t expect men who have just survived a battle that killed almost half their numbers to act like choir boys!”  Chapter 12. 

Should U.S. forces follow the rules of war when fighting an enemy that ignores them?

In a letter to his wife, Captain Conners writes:


“Harman pulled me back to reality with a stern lecture about the need to follow the rules of war, even when fighting an enemy that does not. I have now come to a deeper understanding of that position: we don’t follow those rules out of some duty to the enemy, but out of a duty to ourselves. We follow them to keep from becoming monsters, killing to take revenge, killing for the thrill of taking human life, torturing to hear screams of agony. Once you go down that road, you may never find your way back. I’ve always understood the argument for protecting human life, but somehow I lost sight of its overriding importance.”

Chapter 19.

In combat, you need to have the back of the men you’re fighting with.

Corporal Kruzansky explains to a prosecutor why he won’t testify against another member of his squad who is accused of murdering Vietnamese civilians:



“My old man was a Marine,” he said. “He served with the First Division in World War II. When I’m on leave, the first night I’m home, we sit up all night drinking this cheap beer he buys. Early in the morning when he’s half-smashed, he starts telling war stories. He gives me this same speech he’s given me maybe ten times before. He says, ‘Guys like you and me, Rudy, we make this country work. We make its steel, run its factories, build its roads; and we fight its wars. But when high class, educated people think of us, they don’t see us as individuals—we’re workers or enlisted men to them. They think if this guy Kruzansky goes down, hell, we’ll get a replacement just as good. Like you open a machine that’s broke, take out the bad part, throw it away, put in a new part, close it up, and it works like new. To them, guys like us, we’re expendable—that means we’re like throw-away people. That’s the way it is at the mill, and that’s the way it is in combat. That’s why you got to stick by your buddies. If you get shot and need savin’, it won’t be some officer who runs out under enemy fire to drag you back to cover. No, it’ll be one of your buddies that saves you, probably some guy whose last name ends in “ski,” and whose ol’ man works in a mill somewhere. But you have to prove to your buddies that you’re worth savin’. You have to earn their respect. That’s why the dumbest thing you could ever do in a combat zone is sell out one of your buddies.’ Chapter 8.

How far should an officer go to protect his men?

 Captain Mike Hatch gives an example of how far he would go to protect his men:


“Suppose there’s a company of Marines that sends out a patrol every day, and this patrol keeps taking sniper fire from a ville they pass by. Suppose the casualties start adding up. Suppose the company commander goes to the village chief and says, ‘You have to stop this or identify the VC in your village so we can stop it. If nothing changes, there might be a terrible accident one day soon, like an artillery battalion blowing away half your village because they got the wrong coordinates for a strike. And if the sniping continues, another accident might take out the other half of your village.’ Suppose the sniper fire continues, and one day artillery fire wipes out part of the village. Then the hostile fire stops, either because the artillery strike kills the VC or because the village chief finds the courage to cut a few VC throats. You understand what I’m telling you?”


“I think so. How frequently does that type of thing happen?”


“It happens. Men in the field expect their officers to protect them. They aren’t willing to take casualties indefinitely without someone dealing with a problem. And when your life is on the line, you don’t exactly have a lot of patience.”

“I suppose not. But killing women and children with an artillery strike? That’s pretty hard to justify.”


Hatch recoiled at my comment: “You think the lives of Vietnamese women and children, who might be helping the VC plant mines and booby traps, are worth more than the lives of American Marines? Not in my book they aren’t. An officer has to protect his men. If that requires doing some unpleasant things, things you wouldn’t want to write home about, that’s too damn bad. The safety of your men comes first.” Chapter 14. 

Killing civilian non-combatants: does it really depend on who gives the order?

Defense counsel Kyle Roberts says that the massive attacks on civilian populations by Americans during WWII undercuts the case against his client:


“Your concern for civilian casualties is admirable, truly admirable, and I respect you for it,” McGrath responded with a sarcasm that belied his words. “But there’s a little problem with your position: you represent a government that has repeatedly made war on innocent civilians. During World War II, American bombers incinerated Dresden, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima—cities with no significant military targets— for the sole purpose of killing so many civilians—mostly old men, women, and children, by the way—that Germany and Japan would lose their will to fight. Our leaders decided that winning the war with the fewest American casualties was worth the lives of over 100,000 German and Japanese civilians. But now, you’re calling it murder when DeLoria kills three men you say were civilians, even though DeLoria reasonably believed they were enemy soldiers who threatened him and his men. I don’t know what you Northerners would call that, my friend, but back home in Alabama, folks would say ‘why, that’s plain old hypocrisy.’ Chapter 7.

Should the Code of Military Justice, which now requires courts to sentence those convicted of premeditated murder to life imprisonment or death, be amended to give court-martial panels discretion to impose lesser sentences if they believe those sentences would better fit the crime committed?

During a conversation with Jeff Conners, Kyle Roberts says:


“If DeLoria is convicted of premeditated murder, the court will have to sentence him to either life imprisonment or death. Even if the court believes DeLoria’s judgment was impaired because of the previous night’s attack, even if it’s convinced DeLoria thought he was killing NVA soldiers, even if it believes DeLoria should be sentenced to no more than five years, it will only have those two options: life or death. Does that make any sense to you?”


“I didn’t write the law. My job is to enforce it.”


“I thought your job was to see that justice is done? Last month, the Third Division prosecuted a sergeant for killing a Vietnamese farmer after a member of the sergeant’s squad stepped on a mine and blew himself up. The farmer, who was working in a nearby rice paddy, didn’t warn the Marines about the mine. He stood there and watched a Marine get blown to pieces. Obviously, the farmer knew where the mine was buried so he didn’t step on it himself. The defendant got so pissed off at this farmer that he wasted him. At trial, the defendant came up with some bullshit story about the farmer reaching for a weapon when the Marines approached, but the court didn’t buy it. They convicted him of premeditated murder. The evidence also showed the sergeant was an outstanding leader, always looking out for his men, always on top of things. The senior officer on this court-martial was this crusty old colonel who knew he wouldn’t be making general. During sentencing, the military judge instructed the court that they had to sentence the defendant to either life or death.


“Well, when this colonel heard those were the only options, he went nuts. He said hell would freeze over before he’d sentence this fine NCO, who had admittedly made a serious mistake, to either life or death. Then, he and the judge got into a heated argument—and I mean a heated argument. Finally, this colonel walked out of the courtroom, went to the commanding general, and said he would not sentence the defendant to anything unless the general gave him his word that the sentence would be cut to two years confinement after the trial was over. And the general agreed. You have to admit, that old son of a bitch knew how to inject common sense into the legal system and get justice done.”


Roberts had a valid point: the law required that anyone convicted of premeditated murder be sentenced to death or life imprisonment no matter the surrounding circumstances. This made no sense to me. Crimes committed during or immediately following intense battles are often complicated affairs, and framing an appropriate sentence for such crimes requires a sophisticated understanding of human nature and the limits of human endurance. Courts-martial panels need flexibility in framing sentences that fit such crimes, but unfortunately, in prescribing the authorized punishment for the crime of premeditated murder, the Uniform Code of Military Justice does not allow for such flexibility. Chapter 12.      

Combat imposes stress on non-combatants as well as combatants.
Linda, a Navy nurse, explains why she doesn’t think she will be able to successfully complete her tour of duty in Vietnam:


"I work in the hospital’s trauma unit, the first place wounded are brought. Today, a Marine
lieutenant was brought in with a massive abdominal wound. Vital organs were destroyed.
It took continuous blood infusions to keep him alive, but the blood was flowing out of him almost as fast as we were pumping it in. He was conscious, and he kept telling me he didn’t want to die—that his wife had just given birth to their first son and that his family needed him. He pleaded for me to save him, but there was nothing the doctors or I could do except give him a shot of morphine, hold his hand, and wait for him to die.”


“I don’t want to sound callous, but this is a war zone. Surely, you expected to treat men that would die in the hospital.”

“Yes, of course, and there are many we save, but,” her voice trailed off as she looked away. “It’s like this,” she said while turning back to me. “The medevacs are so fast now. They get wounded to the hospital so quickly that guys with massive wounds—wounds that we can’t address medically—often come to us alive and conscious. Response times weren’t so fast in other wars, and men with these types of wounds never made it to the hospital. They died waiting to be medevaced. But now, some get to the hospital hoping and begging to be saved. All I can do is hold their hands and comfort them until they die. I actually hope they will die quickly, so they won’t have time to tell me about their lives and dreams. Their last words stick in my mind after they die. I probably will hear those words for the rest of my life. I feel so guilty when there’s nothing I can do. It’s horrible! I can’t make it through another seven months of this.” Her voice broke as tears ran down her face. Chapter 10.

Reconciling combat culture with an individual's value system.
In a letter to his wife, Captain Conners muses about the culture of a combat zone:
The troops refer to the United States as "the world," as if Vietnam were an alternative world. It's their way of recongnizing that a combat zone has its own culture and morality.

Every person who comes here has to figure out how his values fit into this new culture—and more importantly—how to resolve the conflicts. I didn’t figure that out soon enough: my instincts were to suppress my understanding of right and wrong and to defer to men in the field who knew more about combat than I did. Those were mistakes that almost got me into serious trouble. Harman likes to say, “Don’t blindly trust your instincts—they don’t all originate with the angels.” I am becoming a firm believer in his homespun psychology.  Chapter 19.