A book I read over the weekend absolutely blew my mind. It’s one of those types of books that shakes your world view about something, in this case the U.S. government’s war in Vietnam. It is an absolutely shocking book. It is entitled Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse.
Most every one of us has been ingrained with the notion that the massacre of innocent, defenseless women, children, and old people at My Lai at the hands of U.S. Army Lt. William Calley and the men in his unit was an aberration. U.S. officials were outraged by the massacre, we have repeatedly been told, and that’s why they went after Calley in a criminal prosecution.
Not so, says Turse. In his carefully researched and documented book, Turse details how Calley’s massacre at My Lai wasn’t an aberration at all. Instead, it was part of an intentional policy of death and destruction that was orchestrated and condoned by the U.S. government.
Turse’s detailed research, which is footnoted throughout the book, is based on court-martial records, official investigative reports, and personal interviews with soldiers and Vietnamese citizens. In fact, when I finished the book on my Kindle, there was still somewhere like 30 or 40 percent left to read. It turned out that most of the balance consisted of the footnotes in the book.
The official government policy was that U.S. soldiers were prohibited from intentionally targeting and killing civilians. That was after all, what the Geneva Convention provided. Thus, the official rules of engagement were that soldiers could only kill combatants.
It was all a charade. The official policy was simply a way to protect the higher-ups whenever atrocities were discovered, such as in Calley’s case. The higher-ups could say, “We never authorized or condoned such things. Just look at our rules of engagement.” That enabled them to get off the hook as war criminals. Keep in mind, after all, that every U.S. general officer is familiar with the case of Tomoyuki Yamashita, the World War II Japanese general who was prosecuted, convicted, and hanged by the U.S. government for failing to prevent war crimes by the men under his command.
But the reality was that the higher-ups were actually encouraging the mass killing of civilians. It was done in a sophisticated way to ensure that the higher-ups were protected from criminal liability in the event the massacres were discovered.
While the higher-ups had their rules of engagement, at the same time they judged the troops by how many people they killed. That’s where the infamous “body count” came into play. Lower-grade officers knew that their promotions were based on how many bodies their units produced, and enlisted men were rewarded with things like beer or extra recreation time for bringing in more bodies.
Needless to say, hardly anyone asked any questions when the bodies were brought in or reported, even when the number of weapons seized was miniscule compared to the number of people killed.
It turned out that the troops, in order to please their superiors, were going into villages and killing defenseless people in masse, including unarmed women, children, and elderly people. Even worse, there were many instances of rape and subsequent murder of young women in the villages. The troops also torched villages to ensure that they could not serve as bases for supporting the Viet Cong.
Oftentimes, the Viet Cong would ambush the troops or use snipers to kill them. Rather than engage U.S. units in direct battle, however, they would then escape into the jungles after the ambush or sniping attack. The troops, who had just lost one or more of their comrades, would go ballistic and wreak their wrath on people in the nearest village. The notion was that the villagers were undoubtedly supporting the Viet Cong anyway.
To ensure that the troops had no crisis of conscience over the killings, the Pentagon indoctrinated them with the mindset that the Vietnamese people in general were nothing but “gooks” or “dinks” — i.e., subhuman people who didn’t place the same value on human life as Americans do. When Turse visited Vietnam in search of some of the villages where massacres had taken place, the villagers showed him memorials that actually named the villagers who had been massacred by U.S. troops decades before, indicating that they did in fact place as high a value on the lives of their loved ones as Americans do. There was also the deep emotional pain expressed by some of the survivors who spoke to Turse about the massacres.
Whenever there were complaints about the atrocities from U.S. soldiers who had returned from Vietnam, the Pentagon’s strategy was to have them investigated and sometimes even prosecuted. But the charges would ultimately be dismissed or the accused would end up getting a light sentence. The message was obviously, “Keep building that body count. If things go wrong, we have your back.”
Indeed, Calley, whose unit cold-bloodedly murdered 104 civilians, ultimately ended up serving less than four years on house arrest. He was even pardoned by President Nixon. At his trial, Calley stated:
I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children. That were all classified the same, and that’s the classification we dealt with over there, just as the enemy. I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the order that I was given and I do not feel wrong in doing so.
As Turse documents, that was the standard mindset among the soldiers who were doing precisely what Calley was doing. In fact, the title of the book is based on what many U.S. soldiers believed was their mission — to kill anything that moves, including unarmed women, children, and old people.
When I reached the Epilogue in Turse’s book on my Kindle, I was surprised because there was still about 40 percent left to read. It turns out that the balance of the book is composed mostly of Turse’s detailed footnotes.
This book is a game-changer for the Vietnam War. No one can read it and ever view that war in the same way again. Every American owes it to himself to read Kill Anything that Moves.