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Did Vietnam create a generation of serial killers?

Vietnam War re-enactors
Re-enactors of the Vietnam War Society wear uniforms and equipment of US riflemen of the Vietnam War | Image: Combatcamerauk /

How are serial killers made? It’s a question that’s fascinated criminologists, psychologists and true crime buffs for decades.

Are murderers born? Is ‘evil’ innate? Could there even be a ‘killer gene’...? Or are serial killers created by their environments; by abuse, trauma and neglect? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum, at the midway point between nature and nurture?

Eminent researchers in the field currently seem happier to explain the behaviour of violent sociopaths by referring to that third option. As it stands, the thinking is that lived experience triggers behaviour in those predisposed to it. Basically, serial killers are born with the propensity to kill, but are only ‘activated’, in essence, by a catalyst. Generally, it’s childhood abuse or - surprisingly frequently -pre-adolescent head trauma.

There is something else that some experts believe is capable of triggering serial murder - war.

The link between war and serial killing

The Motown singer Edwin Starr pretty much nailed it in the 1970s when he told us how war is good for absolutely nothin’. He failed to mention in the song that it may be useful for one thing, though… the creation of a generation of callous killers.

True crime writer Dr. Peter Vronksy explored the link between war and serial murder in his 2018 book Sons of Cain. In it he points out that 82% of US serial killers in the 20th century were active between 1970 and 1999. They grew up in the 1940's and '50s, a time where so many American families were decimated by the trauma and loss caused by the Second World War. It’s his conclusion that the aftereffects of war can trip murderous intent in those that may be inclined to it.

There’s some evidence to suggest that people directly affected by war can be pushed towards violence when they return home too. While it would be unfair to flippantly generalise all Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferers as would-be murderers, unsupported war veterans with the condition have been shown to commit violent crimes more often than other members of society.

Journalist and writer David Philipps followed a battalion of soldiers returning from Iraq (many of whom had PTSD) in his 2010 book Lethal Warriors. In it he claims that ‘the per-capita murder rate for this small group was a hundred times greater than the national average.’

Infamous serial killers who served in ‘nam

War dehumanises. To make effective killers, armed forces need to make their charges believe it’s okay to take another person’s life. Once you instill that into someone, it’s very difficult to undo it. It’s also not in the interests of any squadron or unit to do so. So they rarely bother.

The Vietnam War was one of the most complicated, bloodthirsty, controversial and deranged conflicts in modern history. It was also one of the least justifiable. American soldiers were programmed to kill an enemy on the other side of the world that posed them, their country and their family no risk whatsoever. The slaughter of those they killed weighed heavy on their consciences indeed.

The list of US soldiers to return from Vietnam only to go on to become serial killers in their homeland is not a short one. This list is by no means comprehensive either:

  • Arthur Shawcross aka ‘The Genesee River Killer’
  • Joseph James DeAngelo aka ‘The Golden State Killer’
  • Gary Ridgway aka ‘The Green River Killer’
  • William Bonin aka The Freeway Killer'
  • Randy Kraft aka 'The Scorecard Killer'
  • Leonard Lake
  • Gary Lewingdon
  • Ronald Gene Simmons
  • Joseph Ernest Atkins
  • Kenneth Lee Boyd
  • Gary Bradford Cone
  • James Floyd Davis
  • Phillip Carl Jablonski
  • James Rodney Johnson
  • James Allen Kinney
  • Leonard Marvin Laws
  • Darrell Mease
  • Michael Andrew Nicholaou
  • Gary Lee Roll
  • Morris Solomon Jr.
  • Russell Wayne Wagner
  • Ward Weaver Jr.
  • Dan White
  • Marvin Bieghler
  • David Livingstone Funchess
  • William Mentzer
  • Larry Wayne White
  • John Dwight Canaday
  • David Knotek
  • Jeffrey Don Lundgren
  • Roy Lewis Norris

Every single one of the men above was trained by the US armed forces - both physically and psychologically - to kill. Every single one fought in Vietnam. Every single one killed multiple times on their return.

While it’s true that some of the Vietnam vets may have had a ‘killer instinct’ and been tempted by the notion of a state-sanctioned licence to kill, many told police when apprehended that their crimes were the result of their experiences during combat. It’s arguable, of course, that this is merely a useful excuse. The points stands, however, that they each took on board some pretty heavy education in the ‘art’ of murder. Learning not only how to kill, but how not to care.

The Phoenix Program

Orchestrated covertly by the CIA, The Phoenix Program was the USA's attempt to destabilise and destroy the Viet Cong via unscrupulous methods such as torture and targeted execution. More than 25,000 Vietnamese men, women and children were captured, tortured and killed in a bloody and mostly secretive campaign which has since been described as 'a civilian assassination program' by its ardent critics.

Described in jarring detail by Douglas Valentine in The Phoenix Program: America's Use of Terror in Vietnam, these kidnaps, torture sessions, rapes, assassinations, bombings or sometimes even village burnings were mostly carried out by South Vietnamese forces. But highly trained US soldiers were often involved too. In either supervisory or in more ‘hands on’ ways.

The mental scarring on young men taken from the farms and cities of America and coerced into carrying out and/or witnessing truly despicable acts of evil on their fellow man must have been considerable.

Arthur Shawcross, who killed 11 sex workers in New York state on his return from Vietnam, has claimed in taped interviews to have worked in the program. It’s also widely thought that Richard Ramirez's cousin Mike (who effectively 'mentored' Richard in killing) was also involved. Further concrete details are sketchy, as is the case with most good CIA operations.

Raging for 20 years, finally coming to an end in 1975, The Vietnam War was a bloody mess that saw millions die and the United States politically humiliated. It also irreparably damaged the psyches of many of the men called up to fight in it.

Did it create a generation of serial killers, though? It’s a bold claim. Perhaps the fact that the deadly activity of America’s ‘golden generation’ of serial killers peaked just a few years after the war ended is a coincidence. Then again, perhaps it’s not.

It’s worth bearing in mind that it won’t just have been those fighting in Asia that were subjected to the war. People back home were watching the horror unfold on news bulletins, becoming desensitised to extreme violence. Could that have been enough to trigger any dormant serial killers...?

For the sake of the future of humanity, let’s hope not.