VN-E31: Dennis Stout
Podcast (VN-E31): “We killed every animal, every person” – Dennis Stout
Vietnam Series Podcast, Episode 31:
Dennis Stout served in the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. For months in the spring of 1967, he observed systematic and coordinated atrocities committed by U.S. combat troops. Finally, Dennis risked his own life to report these war crimes, making him the first American soldier to do so.
“In the spring of ’67 we were sent into a valley, which was declared a free fire zone, and they said that we should kill everything in the valley. We killed every animal, every person, burned all the houses, chopped down the fruit trees, and put a box of poison down the wells. And so we came in sweeping through the valley killing absolutely everyone, no matter what age.”
Banner and audio photo of Dennis Stout by Mike Hastie
“Out of 350 guys, I was the only one that would not shoot children. Everybody else did it. I just thought it was wrong. And I’m not Christian. I’m an atheist but I just felt that killing children was wrong and I refused to do it.”
Vietnam Full Disclosure
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.
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Dennis Stout: In the spring of ’67 we were sent into a valley, which was declared a free fire zone, and they said that we should kill everything in the valley. We killed every animal, every person, burned all the houses, chopped down the fruit trees, and put a box of poison down the wells. And so we came in sweeping through the valley killing absolutely everyone, no matter what age.
Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist Podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist Podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This podcast features veteran Dennis Stout. Dennis served in the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. For months in the spring of 1967, he observed systematic and coordinated atrocities committed by U.S. combat troops. Finally, Dennis reported these war crimes, making him the first American soldier to do so.
Matthew Breems: Dennis, I’m looking forward to hearing your story of activism today. Why don’t you start off by giving us a little bit of an overview of your growing-up years and how you found yourself in the middle of the Vietnam conflict?
Dennis Stout: In our family, we feel that every male member owes a debt of service to the country. I was always told when I was growing up that when you grow up, there will be a war for you. And sure enough, there was Vietnam. When I enlisted and wanted to be a helicopter pilot, but I had to choose a secondary, so I chose a paratrooper. So I wound up going to Vietnam as a paratrooper, an infantryman. And just about a month after being in the war, it was pretty obvious that we were losing. Every month the enemy got more people, more ammunition. At first they could only hit us with two or three rounds of mortars, and they would have to break contact when we were in a gunfight with them, because they were running low on ammunition. And then in just a few months they were able to shell us once with 54 rounds of mortar, and they could sustain a battle for like five hours. So it was obvious we were losing.
Dennis Stout: And before I went to the war, I tried to learn some Vietnamese, because I felt that I shouldn’t be shooting people I couldn’t talk to. And I didn’t learn a lot of Vietnamese, but just a couple hundred words and some phrases, which was way more than American soldiers knew. I think this meant that I always saw the Vietnamese people as human, and they were never ever referred to as human by the army. They were just called all the racial smears that you can do. And twice I heard them called “indigenous personnel,” but otherwise they were never referred to as human.
Matthew Breems: Was that coming out from your higher-ups in the army, like the generals—
Dennis Stout: Oh, of course. Well yeah, and the entire— all of the propaganda back then was all about these people being alien, not feeling any sorrow when their children are killed. That they fanatically charge our guns and things like that. Just completely false things. And that they were fighting for communism. When I got to talk to them, a lot of the peasants didn’t know anything. They didn’t know communist from capitalist or anything. They just wanted to raise their rice, raise their children, and be left alone. And of course nobody left them alone. So in the spring of ’67, we were sent into a valley which was declared a free-fire zone, meaning all the friendlies had been cleaned out, and anybody in that valley was either an enemy or a sympathizer and therefore they could be killed. And we were given a lecture by our colonel not to consider these people as civilians, that they were enemy or active enemy or supporters. And they said that we should kill everything in the valley.
Dennis Stout: We killed every animal, every person, burned all the houses, chopped down the fruit trees, and put a box of poison down the wells. And the people there had been, a lot of them had been moved out by the South Vietnamese Army, but they were taken to these terrible refugee camps. So most of them escaped and went back home to do their farming again. And so we came in sweeping through the valley, killing absolutely everyone, no matter what age. And out of 350 guys, I was the only one that would not shoot children. Everybody else did it. I just thought it was wrong. And I’m not Christian. I’m an atheist but I just felt that killing children was wrong and I refused to do it.
Dennis Stout: I had a good kill record with enemy. I mean, I killed a fairly high number of those. But again, with them, after I would shoot someone, if he was carrying a rucksack— A lot of them didn’t—they just carried a small bag or something. If they were carrying their full rucksack, after I killed them, I’d go through it and find their letters. They kept them in a plastic bag like we did. And I would translate them as best I could and found out— I wanted to find out who I had killed. The first guy had letters from his sisters that are saying, “Well we hope you’re not near the fighting; we hope there is food to eat.” And the second one had letters from girlfriends, multiple, and wow, I could’ve gotten along with this guy just great.
Dennis Stout: Anyway, I just had a different view of them. So on this operation of killing all these people in this valley— By the way, it was the same valley where later Mỹ Lai occurred, but it was further up the valley, and the valley is called by the Americans the Sông Bé because the Sông Bé River runs through it, but the locals call it the Modo. And we worked our way up that valley killing everyone.
Dennis Stout: At one point the guys captured a 16-year-old girl, and they beat her and raped her for two nights, and then took her outside the perimeter and told her to run so they could shoot her. Because anyone who ran was automatically an enemy. And she wouldn’t run. So they backed up and threw a grenade at her feet and killed her and then finished her off by shooting her. And I just couldn’t, I couldn’t put up with anything like that anymore. Well the next day I wound up walking by myself through a small patch of jungle to a highway, and then walking up that highway to the base camp of the 25th Infantry—I was with the 101st Airborne—up to their base camp to report the war crimes, and I tried to but they wouldn’t accept any report. So then I tried going up the chain of command to my sergeant major, and he told me to keep quiet. And then I went to the captain, and the captain told me to shut up or I’d get a lot of good people in trouble. And then a major said that if I didn’t keep my mouth shut, I wouldn’t come back alive from the next operation. And they made two attempts to kill me. And then I’ve been told that Westmoreland— General Westmoreland, who was the overall commander, then ordered them not to kill me because it would bring more attention to my report.
Dennis Stout: So I got through the year and went home. Was stationed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, got out, and when I got out of the army, I went straight to Arizona State University. And I was the first combat soldier to join the antiwar movement at Arizona State. And I was joining it because I wanted to stop the war! My friends were still being killed there and I wanted to end the war. It was obviously lost already. I didn’t see any point in continuing it.
Dennis Stout: And anyway, so I went ahead and was in the antiwar movement and became one of the campus organizers. And then I was repeatedly harassed and threatened by the FBI and interrogated by the CIA, and they were being very blatant about things. They went to my boss and told him to fire me. And he was a very conservative Republican here in Arizona, but when I saw him he said, “I don’t do what the federal government tells me to. You still have a job.” Then I was supposed to be getting my educational benefits through the VA program, and I didn’t get any of the benefits for 10 months. And then I received a check for all 10 months at one time. So I put it in the bank and began writing checks to pay our bills, our family bills, and all of the checks bounced.
Dennis Stout: So I went to the banker and he took me aside. He was a young guy and he said, “All I can tell you is, when people come in here with a federal badge, I do whatever they tell me to.” So they were purposely trying to screw that up. And I found out later from one of the people who came to question me that what they were doing was called a burnout: They try to destroy every aspect of your life. They had a woman call my wife and say that I was really in love with her and I didn’t want to be with my wife, and just trying to mess with my personal relationships. They attack every part of your life, trying to distract you enough that you can’t be effective.
Matthew Breems: So were they trying to stop your activism? Were they feeling that your activism was very effective, and they were trying to stop that? Or was this still in retaliation for the war crimes that you communicated or that you reported?
Dennis Stout: Well, both. I mean, the war crimes had marked me as a traitor and things, so I think they were just following up on that. And I don’t think I was that effective on campus. I mean, for a long time on the campus at a peace demonstration, the most people we could get to turn out would maybe be 150 people — until Kent State. When the students were killed at Kent State, that night, spontaneously, tens of thousands of students joined in a march, and those of us who were supposed to be leading it had no idea what to do with them. So we led them around the campus and then downtown to block intersections, because we had never seen that many people before.
Dennis Stout: Anyways, so after that I was threatened by the local police, and I hadn’t committed any crime at all. Was never charged or arrested, just threatened. So I decided to leave, and I wanted to get out of the United States. But then I found out I couldn’t get a passport. My wife and I were going to immigrate to New Zealand, and New Zealand wanted us there, but I couldn’t get a passport. I had been put on a list of Agents of Foreign Powers and for eight years I was on that list. It gave them the right to go through my mail, to tap my phone calls, to interrogate everyone. Even people I went to high school with were questioned, trying to find something negative about me.
Dennis Stout: Every year some agent would be sent to do what they called a field workup on me. Just a series of questions. And it’s like they had to do it. And then the last guy to investigate me, I wound up getting to know him pretty well, and he told me about all this burnout thing they were doing and how that goes down and what happens, you know, on those things, and put off and put off doing this field workup. And then finally he told me he had to turn something in, and what did I want? And so I said, “Well”— I kind of parroted the Vietnamese guy, said, “I want to do my business, raise my kids, and be left alone.” And he said, “Well, I’ll see what I can do about that.” And after that I wasn’t bothered.
Dennis Stout: But then when the book came out, The Only Thing That Moves, about our unit, part of it is about our unit in that valley. When that book came out, I was interrogated for 10 hours by two agents. They were just making accusations and trying to get me to say things. But this has happened so many times that when they told me they were recording the conversation, I took out my recorder and said, “Well, so am I.” That was the last time I was interrogated, and that was about four years ago, I guess. And I decided to get away from that. So a friend had some land in Hawaii, and he wanted me to go with him and help frame his house, you know, put up a structure. I went over there for two weeks, but I liked it, so I wound up staying for 18 years. I sent for my wife and daughters, they joined me there, and in Hawaii being that far separate from mainland, we were still doing some antiwar things.
Dennis Stout: Nuclear subs would come into our harbor, and we organized flotillas to block the nuclear subs from coming into the harbor. Even got our local county council to pass the resolution against nuclear weapons in the islands. The woman who ran Alcoholics Anonymous and I started the first women’s crisis shelter on the island, and we started the first 24-hour hotline.
Dennis Stout: But my activism then went into just more antiwar things and with Veterans For Peace. And when the draft was still on, I was doing draft counseling. If someone wanted to go in the military, I was giving them advice on what to do and not do, but also trying to talk people into other things. Like if it was some young guy looking for adventure, I would suggest that they join a fire-fighting group for the summertime fighting forest fires, or getting into the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is basically non-violent. And so I would do different things as part of my draft counseling, not simply anti-military but just trying to make sure that people didn’t wind up making a commitment that they would really later regret. So I’d been counseling, and now our Veterans for Peace group gets invited to high schools and over to the university a couple of times a year and to a community college to come in and talk about whatever, mostly about history and about the war and about the veterans’ experience because that’s changed a lot.
Dennis Stout: When I came back and I was discharged, in ’68, there was no such thing as PTSD, and I was just going crazy! And they didn’t want to admit something like that happened, because it would make the war look bad. So all of these efforts were made not to admit that people were having mental problems, and it was all because they didn’t want the war to look bad. They didn’t want to seem like it did any lasting damage.
Matthew Breems: Well, it’s really bad PR.
Dennis Stout: Yes it is. Especially those damn people that keep coming back in the coffins, it just looks bad. That’s why they don’t show it anymore. Now they won’t allow anybody in coffins to be shown—it might discourage people from supporting war!
Matthew Breems: These people in the coffins are ruining this whole war we got going on here.
Dennis Stout: Really! There was a lot of things that— in our unit, you couldn’t be crazy unless you killed another American. Anything else you did was not crazy. We had a guy on our unit, and he had grabbed a baby out of the mother’s arm and chopped its head off to take a necklace off of it. And that was not considered insane. He had said he’d killed at least 200 civilians, and it was kind of in a contest with Sergeant Doyle. Sergeant Doyle had also killed at least 200 civilians. They were kind of in a contest to see how many people they could kill. And that was not wrong. That was not prosecuted. In fact, after I reported the war crimes, the CID, which is the Civil Investigation Division, it’s a part of the Army, like the detectives, and they investigated my charges and found things I didn’t even know about that had happened, AND they got 11 signed confessions from the guys that beat and raped and killed that girl, and there were no prosecutions, because that’s not wrong when Americans do it. When Americans do that sort of thing, it doesn’t get prosecuted.
Matthew Breems: The report you made of the war crimes, were you able to see the effects of that in a positive way?
Dennis Stout: No, there’s nothing. At that time, they kept saying they weren’t even investigating. When at that time they said all those [inaudible 00:18:28] things were behind enemy lines, and they could not investigate. When actually they were, by just questioning the people who were there. But they told me they couldn’t investigate, and for years they put that up. Until two reporters— Well, actually the Toledo Blade newspaper wrote a series of articles, and they wrote those articles based on the war crimes I had reported. And the investigation of them had been done, and the guy who was the chief investigator, we know he did investigate war crimes. His father had been an SS officer in Germany during World War II, so he was very opposed to war crimes. So he was a fellow investigator, and he was very frustrated that none of these were ever prosecuted. So when he was dying of stomach cancer, he gave his files to his daughter, and the daughter worked for the Toledo Blade newspaper.
Dennis Stout: They wrote this series of 14 articles in the Toledo Blade. I called the newspaper and they said, “Oh, there you are! We’ve been looking for you.” That wound up becoming a book called “Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War,” so that started this whole other cycle of investigations and things of these war crimes. I hadn’t made any effects through those years of writing letters to all my members of Congress and trying to get attention. Nothing had happened. But as soon as these two reporters published this stuff in the newspaper, the investigation was reopened again. Again, trying to get recommendations for prosecution and signed confessions, and there was absolutely nothing done. So I often feel like a failure in that. I tried and tried to bring this to American people’s attention, but really people don’t care. I mean, a few people do, but the government doesn’t care. Nobody wants American soldiers prosecuted for war crimes, and so nothing has been done!
Matthew Breems: In your experience, most of the members of your unit were pretty normal boys growing up in pretty normal American homes. What happens to them that brings them to a place where they’re willing to commit these atrocities?
Dennis Stout: Well, they were ordered to. And there was reward— there were rewards for doing it. They would get promotions and they would get praise and— See, the motivation behind it started at the top. It started with McNamara, the defense secretary who had been with the World Bank before, and as a banker he felt if everything could be reduced to numbers, he could solve a problem. ‘Cause when he took over a failing bank, he could adjust the interest rates or he could adjust the dividends and the loans, and he could make it a success. So he felt he can do that with the war. So he established a thing called “body count,” whereby the success of different functions, the air raids, or infantry operations and things were judged on how many enemy bodies there were. ‘Cause his first theory was that if we were killing more of them than they were killing of us, we were winning.
Dennis Stout: Then he realized they had a much larger population, so that wouldn’t work, so he changed it to, if we’re killing them faster than they can replace their people, then we’re winning. So he made this body count as the way that officers were judged for promotion. And when you do that, then of course they’re going to do whatever it takes to get promoted. Well, officers really react to something if you tell them that they’re going to get a promotion out of it. The whole thing got perverted, but it meant that any officer that was coming up for a promotion, they had to show a lot of body count.
Dennis Stout: So when we had a new colonel, and we got a new colonel every 45 days, because there were so many West Point officers that were paratroop qualified, and infantry, to get promoted, they had to serve in combat within an infantry paratroop unit, and there were very few units. There were only three battalions in our group, and then the battalion of the 173rd Airborne, so each colonel would only have 45 days and then be rotated out. It was called “getting his ticket punched.” He’d go in and get punched that he was a combat officer, and then as part of the report, it would be what body count he had generated while he was there.
Dennis Stout: So we’d be out in the field, and as the colonel was near the end of his tenure, we would get a radio call that’d say, “The colonel’s numbers are light.” So every little group, every platoon, had to round up 10 or 15 people and shoot them in order to bring the colonel’s numbers up so they could get their next promotion. And the colonels that we got were hand-selected by General Westmoreland because he wanted them promoted to general. So they would come down, serve 45 days with us, and once they had this ticket punch, then they were in line to be promoted to general. And so there was all this pressure to get dead people to fill up the numbers.
Dennis Stout: So all farmers, everybody were [rounded] up and shot. And I think the people who did it became monsters. And when they say, “Oh, we know a veteran, but he doesn’t talk about it,” I’m going, “Well, he probably became a monster and he can’t un-monster himself, and he can’t ever forgive himself.” Nobody else is going to hold him responsible. I mean, the American people aren’t going to hold him responsible. He’s not going to be charged with any crimes, but he won’t forgive himself because he became a monster. And I think that’s one of the things that saved me was, I— although I did kill people, I didn’t become a monster. And I think that’s what kept me from going totally crazy. I couldn’t become a drug addict or an alcoholic because I had two daughters and— So I didn’t become a monster, but still there was a lot of guilt for allowing things to happen, or not stopping them—or surviving! Gosh, I was one of 12 out of 170 people to survive, and one of 8 out of 119, and now it’s like, how often can you do that?
Dennis Stout: That’s another thing. The first guys I was in with, almost all of them were killed or badly wounded, and we got total replacements, and then they were started out right away being told that the highest thing you could do is get body counts for the officers. And so that’s what everything was judged by, was how many people you could kill. When I tried to report the war crimes, it caused a stir through the ranks, and everyone was required to attend religious services. But out of 350 guys, only 8 people went, so they formed us up into platoons and marched us to religious services and gave us the command “Stand at ease,” where you have to put your hands behind your back and look at the person talking. And three chaplains got up on a flat-bed truck to lecture to us how these people weren’t human because they had rejected Jesus Christ and therefore they had no soul. And anything we could do to them would not equal the pain they would suffer when they would get to hell. So we should give no thought to their suffering at all. I think that was the same speech given to the Crusaders before the Gates of Antioch and there was no way… Religion hasn’t made any progress at all.
Matthew Breems: Were these like chaplains that were giving…
Dennis Stout: Oh yeah. Chaplains, guys with officer’s bars on, giving us this lecture that these people aren’t human. And that just… Anyway, that was the attitude, that there was no need to concern yourself with these people ’cause they weren’t people. In fact, one of the chaplains said, “They have no more soul than a pig or a cow.” But people were nominally Christian, but they just did what they were told, and if they were told to kill people, they did.
Matthew Breems: So if you had the opportunity to speak to high schoolers right now or college students right now, what is something about the Vietnam conflict that you would really like to pass on to that next generation that you think it’s important that they know when they’re thinking about future conflicts that America might find themselves in?
Dennis Stout: We let the students ask questions, and then we answer their questions because it’s hard to encompass the totality of things, you know, in a 50-minute class period. Most of them have no— You might as well be talking about the Pyrrhic Wars, you know the Romans or something. There’s no… They have absolutely no relationship. In fact, they don’t know what words mean like “the draft.” They have no idea what that would be. When we describe it to them and say, you know, “this is where the government could just send you a letter and you had to go down to this place and be examined and they would take you into the military,” sometimes they’ve reacted by going, “The government can’t do that!” Well actually, they can, yes, and they did.
Dennis Stout: Or there’s concepts that of course they don’t know anything about. It’s not in American culture. The American people must be protected from knowing what war is, or we might not want to go bomb places like Yemen. We might not want to shell places in Syria. You know, we might not want to use our snipers to kill people on the— near Lebanon.
Dennis Stout: It’s like people are protected from actual war. It’s always done as like the French called it, the grand adventure. Well, it certainly is. And it’s hard to duplicate in any other, any other medium. It’s really hard to duplicate war. It is a grand adventure, and— but that’s all that it’s depicted as. It’s not the sorrow; it”s not like the people being terrified back home that their son or father or somebody’s going to be killed. They don’t show the same goodbye of people when you don’t even know if they’ll come back. There’s so much sadness and so much sorrow that they can’t tell the real story of war, or people wouldn’t want to do it, and they wouldn’t want to spend their money on it. You know, when the people say— who are— “We should honor all our veterans,” I go, “No! I don’t think you should honor his memory! He killed over 200 civilians!” And, “Frankly, I don’t think you should honor HIS memory. He chopped that baby’s head off with a machete and killed 200 other people.” I think there are some veterans that shouldn’t be honored.
Dennis Stout: There’s just a totally fake thing about war. There’s so many misperceptions. I just wish people would tell the truth. And if you’re a veteran and you’ve been through this stuff, keep telling the truth, because the American people need to know it. And I don’t know if it will ever get heard, but I feel I have to keep telling the story. I have to keep trying to let people know about the humanity and the suffering on both sides.
Matthew Breems: Dennis, thank you so much for speaking the truth with us here today on the podcast. I really appreciate your time and just the emotional energy that it takes to go back there all over again. So thank you so much. This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the U.S. War in Vietnam, in and out of uniform for many of the courageous individuals featured. This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to executive producer Jeff Paterson. Visit Vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.