Ronald O. Kaiser’s Herbert’s War—a brief review

By Chris J. Magoc, Professor of History, Mercyhurst University

One might view Ronald O. Kaiser’s Herbert’s War as part personal memoir, and part deservedly panegyric biography of his childhood friend, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert, the most decorated enlisted serviceman of the Korean War.  Kaiser’s engrossing tale underscores one overarching truth: his friend Tony Herbert was the quintessential American soldier of duty, valor, service to country, and above all, honor and integrity.  If Hollywood ever determined to make a Vietnam War movie about an American soldier of high virtue and moral rectitude, Herbert’s story would be it, and Kaiser’s book would be the basis for the screenplay.

But that would likely never happen.  For as Kaiser also makes all clear—and this is the real story here—Tony Herbert’s distinguished military career was derailed when he had the audacity to report war crimes he witnessed in Phu Mhy province in the central highlands of South Vietnam in 1969 as commander of 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade.  Herbert’s lifelong pal since their shared childhood in the southwestern Pennsylvania coal-patch town of Herminie, Kaiser had a front row seat to Anthony Herbert’s protracted legal and personal battle with U.S. military officials—first, to see that the American officers who he saw engage in the torture and the serial execution of South Vietnamese civilian detainees be held accountable. When he reported the incidents to General John W. Barnes, commander of the 173rd and Col. Joseph Ross Franklin his deputy, Herbert was suddenly relieved of command and his service record—theretofore a model of decorated valor and stellar leadership—suddenly was tainted with a terribly damaging efficiency report.  In just a matter of weeks, Tony Herbert had earned enormous respect from the men under his command, along with more honors: a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, an Air Medal, and an Army Commendation medal.  He was wounded fourteen times in fierce combat operations.  But suddenly this star-spangled soldier faced not only abrupt career termination, but also, as Herbert protested up the chain of command, what Kaiser rightly characterizes as “character assassination.”

So begins “Herbert’s War,” one that resulted in the suicide of Major Carl Hensley, assigned in 1971 to head “Herbert’s Task Force” within the Army’s Criminal Investigation (CID), responsible for investigating alleged war crimes in Vietnam.  But as Kaiser tells us, the timing of Herbert’s effort to seek justice for those responsible for atrocities in the 173rd could not have been worse.  For in the fallout from the My Lai Massacre the Secretary of Defense had moved to take tight control over the investigation of alleged war crimes in Vietnam.  Drawing on Nick Turse’s remarkable Kill Anything That Moves and other recent scholarly works on Vietnam war crimes, Kaiser makes clear the overriding objective of what was a raft of post-My Lai inquiries: to quash them.  Orchestrated from on high—including, as Kaiser notes, the direct involvement of commanding General William Westmoreland in Herbert’s case—the mission was to contain any further public relations damage to the U.S. national security establishment at a time when the military could ill afford it, given the increasing unpopularity of the war and the rising tide of antiwar activity within the ranks of the military itself.  Thus by a number of accounts reported convincingly by Kaiser, when Major Hensley dove deep into the horrors reported by Herbert, he not only found them truthful, he discovered how widespread they were.  Subsequently suppressed by his CID superiors, Hensley became severely depressed and began seeing a psychiatrist.  Ultimately the pain of what he had learned was more than he could bear and he took his life on April 15, 1971.  As Kaiser recounts with chilling detail, this horror was followed by a swarm of “Army investigators . . . on the scene within a few hours. They literally ransacked the house, confiscating numerous documents and papers, searching high and low for something.”

Kaiser, we learn, served as invaluable counselor and support for the long and winding legal tale that comprises the balance of Herbert’s War: an epic battle with CBS’s 60 Minutes.  A story well-covered in a mostly supportive media at the time, the orchestrated hit-job on Tony Herbert conducted by the venerable news magazine and its star Mike Wallace is recounted here afresh with verve.  We get from Kaiser an insider’s view of the defamation lawsuit filed by Herbert against Wallace et al, one that wound on for more than a decade and involved the highest court in the land.  What could have been a laborious legalistic slog instead often reads like a buddy road movie.  Overall it is a story of heroic perseverance in search of truth against the mighty fortress of a military-industrial-media complex determined to keep a lid on the monstrous, epidemic crimes of an indefensible war.

Portions of this tale were recounted by Herbert himself in his 1973 memoir, Soldier.  But Kaiser provides not only many additional details but an invaluable perspective to this important history.  He does not come at this story without a predisposition to further honor his warrior friend.  But with nothing to gain by embellishing, and contextually well-grounded in the historical scholarship of the war that informs the unvarnished personal narrative and his relationship with Herbert, Kaiser immeasurably enriches our understanding of the character, the inner moral compass of Tony Herbert.  The overarching question that hangs over this story: how could an American hero like Tony Herbert, who in February 1969 (assuming he survived Vietnam) could have been headed for a comfortable, rewarding late-career position as a Pentagon bureaucrat and then retiring with full military honors and a nice pension—how and why would he put all of that at risk?

Ron Kaiser succeeds in answering that question and more, doing what his friend was never able to fully do for himself, that is to reveal the righteous heart of a soldier trying to attain the impossible: to rectify an immoral war the United States was destined to lose, particularly when the only measures of progress were arithmetical (body count, body count, high kill ratios, as Nick Turse and others have made clear), all the while undermining the essential goal to win the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese people.  Tony Herbert was trying to right the direction of a fatally flawed war the only way a soldier of honor could: on the ground where he fought, where he saw actions he simply could not abide and that he surely knew were destroying any chance Americans had of winning the war in Vietnam.

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