On June 28, 1998, The New York Times ran an op-ed piece with the title “Memories of Wars Never Fought.” Written by Joe Sharkey, the article caught my eye because I had just finished a book on war and public memory. My research had taken me into the study of how groups of people remember major events like wars and how easily the boundary between memory and fantasy can be crossed. Sharkey’s article told about a story recently aired on the Cable News Network (CNN) and published in Time magazine claiming that the U.S. Army had secretly used nerve gas in 1970 to attack a group of its own soldiers who had defected to the North Vietnamese. As the title of Sharkey’s piece implied, the New York Times was skeptical of the CNN story.
I was more than skeptical. Indeed, my first thought was that the story was a hoax, something like the article that Alan Sokal published in the cultural studies journal Social Text in 1996. Sokal, a physicist, wrote a parody of the academic field known as literary criticism that was loaded with postmodern jargon in order to demonstrate that some of America’s leading intellectuals would publish nonsense if it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions. I thought some clever individuals had managed to “put one over” on the CNN reporters in the same manner. Perhaps the reporters themselves were implicated in the prank. In a few days, I was sure, someone, maybe even one of the tricksters, would step forward to reveal their mischievousness.
From Blockbuster to Just Busted
But the CNN broadcast was not a hoax. Entitled Valley of Death, the story was about Operation Tailwind which had actually been carried out in September of 1970. It was a secret mission into Laos conducted by U.S. Special Forces, popularly known as Green Berets. The troops were under the command of the Army’s Studies and Observation Group (SOG), which was responsible for covert operations in Southeast Asia. This much of the story was true. But critics said that the parts about nerve gas and defectors were not true. Investigations, including one by CNN itself, found the story to be “insufficiently supported by the facts.” About a month after its broadcast, CNN retracted the story, apologized to its viewers, and fired its producers, April Oliver and Jack Smith.
After the firings, “the story” became about Oliver and Smith and how the CNN version of Tailwind had been produced. We learned that Oliver, then 36, was primarily responsible for the show, the older Smith having been added to the project late to enhance its credibility. The bedrock of Oliver’s research was her sources, the veterans of Operation Tailwind. Investigators had zeroed in on their testimony, the methods Oliver had used to obtain it, and the way she had assembled the pieces for the story that aired. The focus on journalistic practice was appropriate. In many ways, journalists are keepers of the public record so it is important that they gather their information honestly and report the facts responsibly. Those principles apply to investigative reporters like Oliver no less than those who give us the daily news.
But my interest in Valley of Death was different. At the time, my book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam was just being released by New York University Press.Research for the book had given me a new appreciation for how unreliable personal memories are and what a powerful effect myths and legends have on memories about war. Stories of soldiers being spat on when they returned from Vietnam seemed to have been the products of imagination. I argued that these stories were mythical in the sense that they appeared to help people deal with a difficult period of history in which the United States lost its first war.
The spat-upon veteran stories helped construct an alibi for why we lost, namely, that we were defeated on the home front by liberals in government and radicals in the streets, not by the Vietnamese.
The failure of Valley of Death to self-destruct as a hoax made me more interested in it. I doubted that Oliver’s careless use of sources or her violation of ethical standards, both charged by her detractors, was the whole story. It was perfectly possible, I thought, that Oliver had reported what she had been told, taking only such license with her material as is usual for her profession. My hunch was that the problem lay, not with how she used her sources but with the sources themselves. From my own research I knew that mens’ 30-year-old memories of any war are problematic and that memories of the Vietnam War were especially questionable because of the heavy distortion of its history in film and literature. This particular story, moreover, was loaded with Rambo-like heroics and the political and technological exotica of defectors and nerve gas that I thought more likely to have converged in someone’s imagination than in an obscure base camp in Laos.
Legends and Grist
Never having heard even rumors of U.S. defectors holed-up in Laos, I wondered if that part of the story was a new version of the “Legend of the Lost Command,” stories told about troops that went out on a mission and were never heard from again. Were they lost? Had they been killed? Captured? Did they defect? Should we go look for them? The legend, most often set in World War I, was revived as a Vietnam war story in the 1987 movie Eye of The Eagle, in which the lost unit defects and is then hunted down by a journalist and the Eagle Team of “good” soldiers.
The nerve gas part of the story also seemed highly imaginative. Again, it seemed odd that, twenty-five years after the war, I was hearing about the use of nerve gas for the first time. I wondered if it was just coincidence that a report about nerve gas use in Vietnam would surface seven years after the nation had obsessed over the possibility it would be unleashed by Saddam
Hussein against U.S. troops during the Persian Gulf War. And was it just coincidence that the gas allegedly used on the operation was Sarin, a name that was practically unheard of before a mysterious Japanese cult used it to attack a Tokyo subway in 1995? I also knew that the popular film Jacob’s Ladder, released in the fall of 1990, was a story about U.S. soldiers in Vietnam who were victims of a mysterious chemical agent used by their own forces. How much of the public’s willingness to believe the CNN story was due to its having heard “something like it” before, that 11something” being the story line of the film? For that matter, did these elements of political and popular culture predispose the CNN journalists themselves to believe elements of the story they might otherwise have been more skeptical of?
As fascinating as these questions were, my initial interest in them stemmed from their relevance to my work on the myth of spat-upon veterans. How, I wondered, might an examination of Valley of Death shed some additional light on the relationship between popular culture and memories of war. I thought an article-length piece extending my analysis to this new case might be warranted but I did not see it as a whole new terrain to be explored. That changed in August 1998 when I was being interviewed about The Spitting Image by Kathy Forest, a reporter at KGNU radio in Boulder, Colorado.
Ms. Forest asked me what I thought of the CNN Tailwind story. I told her that the parts about gas and defectors had initially struck me as the stuff of myth and legend and I was not surprised that the story had fallen apart. “Well, I think its true,11 she said. When I asked why, she answered that the story was based on a book called Spite House. I had not heard of the book but I took some notes and told her I would look for it. A few days later, at Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica, California I saw Spite House stacked on the front counter and bought it.
Spite House is a page-turner written by Monika Jensen-Stevenson, a journalist who, with her husband William Stevenson, has previously written Kiss the Boys Goodbye: How the United States Betrayed Its Own POWs in Vietnam, a book that helped foster the idea that there might still be POWs languishing in jungle prisons and that the U.S. government had abandoned all efforts to retrieve them. Spite House went a step further and alleged that the U.S. military actually had “hunter-killer teams” assigned to track down and assassinate U.S. soldiers who had disappeared from their units during the war. The book used as an example the case of Robert Garwood, a former Marine who returned from Vietnam years after the end of the war.
Claiming he was a defector, the military “hunted” Garwood for years when, according to Jensen Stevenson, the authorities knew all along he was a POW. The possibility that Spite House was true meant that some of the POWs the U.S. claimed were still being held by Vietnamese communists had actually been hunted down and killed by their own government. If that was so, why did the government fear its own POWs so much that it would rather have them dead than home alive? And, was it possible, then, that Tailwind’s targets were not defectors at all but, like Garwood, actually POWs that the government did not want the American public to know about?
Journalists and Their Suspension of Disbelief
Now I was hooked–but hooked by the implications, not the substance, of the Spite House-T ailwind connection. One implication was what it said about the political and cultural origins of the Tailwind story. Spite House is a political fantasy–built on a certain amount of historical fact, for sure, but a fantasy nonetheless. It’s a kind of “campfire story” that expresses something deeply meaningful to the people who tell it and believe in it. It is the elements of conspiracy and governmental betrayal of its own people, common to both Spite House and Tailwind, that point toward right-wing political culture as the wellspring of both stories.
The fact that journalists would find either of these stories credible also captured my interest. What did it imply about the fired CNN producers who bought into something as culturally marginal as a far-fetched conspiracy like this? Perhaps, I thought, they simply did not see this subtler dimension of the story. Or, if they did see it, maybe they were too naive to grasp its implications. But April Oliver was an experienced professional with an established reputation in the news business, not a cub reporter. Jack Smith, her back-up, was even better credentialed. More likely, I thought, they saw everything there was to see in Tailwind, sub-plot and all, and they believed it because, well, they believed it. The possibility that the right-wing, anti government message embedded in this story might have appealed to the journalists themselves became, for me, one of the most enticing aspects of the CNN/Tailwind affair.
In the ensuing months, Oliver mounted a spectacular defense of the story and a formidable legal response to her firing by CNN. But as additional documentation came out and we learned more about how Oliver had done her research, the strength of her position seemed to erode. The question that was soon on everyone’s mind and not a few pundit’s lips was: how could this have happened? How could a story so laden with the makings of myth and legend have been produced by seasoned journalists and aired by CNN, the nation’s leader in television news? The situation seemed paradoxical: journalists, whose profession is steeped in a culture of rationality, enraptured by the irrational. How could it be?
My own answer to the question entailed a challenge to its premise, namely, that the rational and the irrational are separable understandings of how humankind knows its world.
Classical philosophers demarcated those ways of knowing, or epistemologies, in their effort to distinguish modernism from pre-modernism. But more recent scholarship, sometimes referred to as postmodernism, questioned whether real-life approaches to the world are that firmly bounded. The inter-penetration of the rational and irrational may be more of a constant even in the later stages of modernism than we commonly wish to admit.
With that in mind, I approached the ‘How could it be?’ question, not as a paradox, but as a question whose answer was self-evident once modernist epistemological assumptions were qualified. It was, I suspected, precisely the elements of myth and legend in the story that made it irresistible to April Oliver and her colleagues. The task that a research project could accomplish, then, would be to set those elements in relief, reveal their deep-seeded roots in Western culture, identify the organizations and individuals that link them to Oliver’s sources, describe the events of the post-Vietnam War period that provided a context for the resonance of Tailwind’s themes, and reconstruct the biographical trajectory that predisposed her to believe the story. That is the study I set out to do.
Revelation in The Valley of Death
This study does what other interpretations of Valley of Death have not done: pursue alternative explanations for where the story comes from and critically explore why April Oliver and her colleagues believed it. Four streams feed into the creation of Valley of Death. One, of course, is the actual history of Operation Tailwind (it really happened at the time and in the place reported by CNN) and other documented wartime events that comprise a formidable amount of grist for the story. A second stream is formed by the flow of memories of the men who were on Operation Tailwind or missions like it. That stream, however, merges with a third stream coming out of popular culture. Veteran memories, we know from other studies, is very problematic and especially susceptible to the influence of film, literature, and oral history. The nature of the story told by CNN, moreover, makes thirty-year-old memories particularly suspect. The defectors and nerve gas in Valley of Death, the two “blockbuster” elements in the story, are almost certainly products of screenwriter and novelist imaginations. The fourth stream feeding into the story is formed by the confluence of political and religious culture. One of this study’s most important findings is that stories of this type–hunter-killer teams in search of defector/POWs–were popular among a conspiricist-minded community of ultra-Right wing activists and many of the story’s most active raconteurs were fundamentalist Christian preachers. Among those preachers are several Vietnam veterans, one of whom, Robert Van Buskirk, was a major source for Valley of Death’s producer, April Oliver.
Fear of the unknown is one of the purviews of religion and when the fears are about government, Christians of the prophetic stripe answer the call. When Peter Arnett introduced Robert Van Buskirk he made a passing reference to Van Buskirk being a “born-again Christian” with a jailhouse ministry. Jim Cathy, one of the two other Tailwind Veteran who testified on-camera about having seen “longshadows” in the camp attacked by the commandos, was introduced to CNN viewers while he was reading aloud from the Bible. Peter Arnett’s voice-over identified him for viewers as a Baptist preacher.
It wasn’t until reading Spite House and learning that many of the men claiming to have been assigned to hunter-killer missions in Vietnam were today fundamentalist preachers, that I thought religious belief might have played an important role in the origins of the Tailwind story. I noted that Van Buskirk’s book Tailwind, about his role in the raid and his subsequent religious conversion, was published by Acclaimed Books in Dallas, Texas and distributed by International Prison Ministry.
By writing to Acclaimed, I acquired the list of materials it sells. On the list, besides his book Tailwind, was a video, Without a Parade, featuring Van Buskirk’s message about the need for incarcerated Vietnam veterans to accept Christ. I ordered the video and when it arrived I was surprised to find in the package a copy of a small book I had not ordered, World War III and The United States written by W.S. McBirnie, a biblical scholar, radio commentator, and minister of the United Community Church in California.
World War III and The United States presents a synopsis of the biblical visions of the apocalypse and interprets them literally to be foretellings of war between the Soviet Union and the United States. McBirnie predicts that Europe will unite under the threat of U.S. and Russian imperialism and that “the leader of this new Europe is known in the Bible as the Antichrist.” The Antichrist, says McBimie, will use “war, peace, deceit, and his own tremendous personality to bring about World Government.”
The trail leading to Valley of Death is littered with the evidence that it is a story that was cooked in the caldron of radical Christian culture. McBirnie’s sense that someone interested in Van Buskirk’s book Tailwind would also be interested in his tract on the coming of world government and the apocalypse more or less seals the case that, in the minds of radical Christians like him and Van Buskrik, the Tailwind tale told by CNN is a kind of parable to be read as a sign that the end of time is near.
Tailwind’s Apocalytic Subtext
Why CNN’s producers believed this story is more difficult to answer. Why does anyone believe what they do? A subfield of sociology known as sociological phenomenology makes that question its raison d’etre. Essential to the method is the idea that truth is as much in the eye of the beholder as in the situation or event itself. In the case of Operation Tailwind, the phenomenological approach would suppose that April Oliver believed what she did because of the background assumptions and values that she brought into her research as much as what the “facts” themselves suggested to her. Not surprisingly, the phenomenological approach is near heresy among professional journalists who want to believe–and want the rest of us to believe–that they simply “let the facts speak for themselves.” As it turns out, though, Oliver proves to be a strong exhibit for the case that objectivity in journalism is ideology as much as anything else.
Oliver is from a conservative Southern family steeped in military tradition and the paranoid post-Confederacy culture of opposition to “outside interference” from centralized authority in Washington. Her great-great-grandfather was one of the largest plantation owners in the Old South and celebrated Confederate general who became South Carolina’s first post Reconstruction governor after mustering a para-military militia movement against the Union army’s occupation after the war. From this background, Oliver was easily hooked on the fantasies of covert operations while doing research for her senior thesis in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Shortly thereafter, she went to work in the first presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan under the tutelage of Lee Atwater, the infamous master of dirty tricks for the Reagan operation. By retracing the footsteps of Oliver’s research, it becomes apparent that her path was led by her own imagination rather than an informed sense of history.
In pursuit of an answer to why this story was believed, then, I was led, full circle in a sense, back to the question of what was believed. The shocking and disturbing conclusion in this study is that it wasn’t the empirically accessible issues of nerve gas and defectors, per se, that attracted and held April Oliver and others to the Tailwind story. Rather, it was the story’s myth laden subtext about the U.S. government knowingly assassinating its own POWs that snatched Valley of Death’s producers from the realm of reason and ransomed them for their own careers.
Equally shocking is the realization that CNN, at many levels of program management, thought the conspiratorial implications of the story it broadcast would resonate as true with a large number of their viewers. The recognition that they may have been right is a frightening commentary on America’s political culture at the turn of the twentieth-first century.
Jerry Lembcke is emeritus professor of sociology at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA. He is the author of eight books including The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, CNN’s Tailwind Tale: Inside Vietnam’s Last Great Myth, and Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. Lembcke is a Distinguished Lecturer of the Organization of American Historians. He can be reached at email@example.com.