If you were looking at a thousand men walking around on a football field, dressed very much alike, jeans and T-shirts with no markings, could you tell the Democrats from the Republicans, or the registered independents from the ones simply not registered to vote?
Neither could the smartest people in the Pentagon from the early 1960s through 1975 tell the communist North Vietnam army regulars from their Viet Cong brethren or from the people who sided with the Saigon government or from those who just wanted to live their lives in peace.
Worst of all was Robert McNamara, secretary of Defense during the early years of the Vietnam War, 1961–1969, under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, because his mindset arguably still prevails in military planning to this day.
McNamara fully expected that people fighting in their own country for the right to choose their own form of government would, at some point, in the face of America’s incredibly powerful and diverse array of weapons, simply give up.
He and the presidents he served believed they could not put ground troops into North Vietnam, which might inspire the neighboring communist Chinese government to send its troops to the North’s defense. That would delay surrender and cost more American lives.
According to Nick Turse, author of the new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, they focused on a belief in a “crossover point”: “the moment when American soldiers would be killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace.” To McNamara, the obsessive Harvard Business School graduate, it was the only rational choice for the communists to make.
McNamara and his war managers made no real attempt to sort out the combatants on either side from the civilians. They who could not tell the good guys from the bad guys planned to wait until the bad guys said they would surrender. McNamara apparently had no plan, no point at which his president could claim victory.
He and others in the administration should have considered that more fully. They did not. As a result, McNamara based his war plan on one statistic — body count — in the “friendly” half of the country, South Vietnam.
How could anyone know the crossover point was within reach unless he kept count of the enemy dead? Turse says McNamara and his “war managers gave little thought to what their strategy might mean for Vietnamese civilians.”
Far from McNamara’s spacious office in the Pentagon, in the field, the “boonies” of Vietnam, body count translated into two phrases: “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” and “If it’s dead and it’s Vietnamese, it must be VC (Viet Cong).”
This is what their strategy looked liked: On March 16, 1968, following orders, the men of Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry, went to the coastal hamlet of My Khe 4, and did not encounter any enemy forces as they approached. As they peered through heavy brush and trees at the edge of the village, the soldiers saw only civilians — mostly women, children, and old men — going about their chores.
Not bothering to attempt to determine who was a friendly and who was hostile, the company commander had his two machine gunners pour preparatory fire into the hamlet. When the gunners stopped firing, the Americans entered the enclave.
The first men in sprayed the area with rifle fire, even without specific targets in their sights. Troops threw grenades into bunkers without checking for occupants and shot people who came out of other bunkers. Villagers were shot while trying to run to safety; one woman and two children were shot at close range; one infantryman shot a Vietnamese boy — a baby, according to a witness — at point-blank range. Soldiers set fire to the huts. By the count of one American, 155 people were murdered.
In his report, the unit commander specifically stated that no women or children were among the dead. He said the enemy body count was 38.
The massacre in My Khe 4 is probably not the one you remember from March 16, 45 years ago.
When word finally got out about the atrocities of March 16, 1968, they focused on a village near My Khe, the place known as My Lai. More than 500 unarmed women, children, and old men were murdered. A woman who came out of her home with an infant in her arms was shot; as the baby fell to the ground, another soldier killed the small child with his M-16 rifle.
In the midst of the carnage, the troops stopped to eat lunch.
Before their four hours in My Lai ended, the troops also raped women and young girls, mutilated the dead, burned the houses, and fouled the area’s drinking water.
Apparently, in just another day of winning hearts and minds, they had to “destroy the village to save it” from the Viet Cong.
Oh, yes: the “enemy” dead? A reported 128. It is difficult for strategists to know when they are near that crucial crossover point when so many of the numbers their officers in the field send up the chain of command to them are bogus.
Nick Turse’s book is valuable for at least three reasons.
First, the detailed accounting of the results of his research through thousands of military files, court-martial proceedings, interviews with former American soldiers and dozen of survivors in Vietnam, demolishes the Pentagon’s propaganda that somehow My Lai was a one-off aberration not nearly matched by any other military unit in Vietnam. Brutality, deceit, and coverups by commands from platoons up through those of theater commanders are commonplace, tolerated, and, yes, often rewarded with promotions.
A mid-1990s study by Harvard University determined that nearly 3 million Vietnamese — combatants and civilians — were killed during America’s military misadventure in that nation.
For anyone who clings to the tissue-thin mantra that the United States adheres to a man-made “just war” theory of combat, Kill Anything That Moves is a wake-up call to get real. Off the battlefield, in a nation of 19 million people, an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese women — roughly one for every American soldier in the country — had to become prostitutes to survive economically. That alone should be an incentive for mothers not to send their boys off to war. And knowing how so many troops treat the women they encounter in combat ought to discourage mothers and fathers from ever letting their daughters enlist.
Second, it exposes by implication the stupidity of the mindset which gripped the Pentagon and successive administrations for a dozen years, which never even paused to consider the very real possibility that their crossover-point grand strategy was flawed.
Whatever the split between political considerations and military ones in determining why the United States could not keep South Vietnam from falling into communist hands, one fact is inescapable. Despite the so-called peace accords signed by the North Vietnamese and the United States in 1973, in 1975 the Americans were the ones scrambling off the roof of their embassy in Saigon into helicopters to avoid being captured or killed.
The crossover point may well have been the sight of Gen. William Westmoreland — in his neatly pressed fatigues — holding a press conference on the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in January 1968, as the Tet offensive raged around him, claiming the attack was “just a diversion.” Yes, though not as the commanding general meant. At that moment, Viet Cong were on the attack in Hue, at the northern end of the country, three other major cities, 35 of the 44 provincial capitals, 64 district cities, and 50 other locations around the country.
Or the crossover point may have been the day during the Tet counter offensive when Americans “back in the world” first saw the still photo and news film in which South Vietnam’s national police chief walked up to an unarmed, bound prisoner on a Saigon street, leveled his revolver, and shot the prisoner in the head.
Third, Turse recounts what happened after every atrocity committed by American troops: it was always denial, coverup, falsification of reports, destruction of records, dismissal of most charges, token verdicts, and lying to the media, the public, and Congress.
Today, the government’s first responses are still lies and deceit: George W. Bush’s administration — most notably Colin Powell at the United Nations — lied America into war with Iraq. Barack Obama’s first press secretary, Robert Gibbs, has admitted that when he first took the job in 2009, he was ordered never to acknowledge that a drone program even existed.
The lying and deceptions continue to this day.
Neither do policymakers ever consider the inevitable, long-term consequences of the plans they put in place.
The estimated 3 million civilian and combatant Vietnamese deaths were echoed more than 15 years later in the hundreds of thousands of deaths of Iraqi civilians — most of them elderly or very young — from 1991 to 2003 as a result of American sanctions. American forces also destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure — especially power plants, and water- and sewage-treatment facilities.
American troops in Vietnam used a variety of methods of torture, including the equivalent of waterboarding, in an effort to get information. Perhaps the most extreme technique was to take several prisoners up in a helicopter, demand information, and when none was forthcoming, one of the prisoners was thrown out of the chopper in “the long step” method to get the others to talk.
Twenty-five years later, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding, were common in the several nations that accepted U.S. prisoners in the so-called war on terror because they had a history of using them on their own political prisoners.
The backstory for Vietnam fits an all-too-familiar theme: The United States provided arms, training, and other aid to a Vietnamese communist named Ho Chi Minh because he and his forces helped the United States fight the Japanese while, during World War II, Vietnam was also known as part of French Indochina.
The Japanese surrendered in 1945, but the United States continued to support the French colonialists, eventually picking up almost 80 percent of the tab for the ever-more-bitter war against the communist Vietnamese. After the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (arguably also the Americans’ first defeat in Vietnam), the French and communists agreed to treat Vietnam as two temporary “placeholder” nations to be reunited after a 1956 election.
The United States feared, however, that Ho Chi Minh would win a democratic election and reunite Vietnam under communist rule. Suddenly, the former ally was the enemy. Fearful of that possibility, the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon picked up where its French partners had left off, now fighting Ho and the communists.
What were U.S. officials afraid of? Were the Vietnamese going to attack America’s west coast in their sampans — which could not hold enough food and fuel to make it across the Pacific? Were they going to conquer America by burying punji stakes in the beaches of southern California and the Jersey shore? Would they sneak into the United States from Mexico and Canada, and swoop down the slopes of the Cascades on their bicycles to trap Americans between the mountains and the sea?
Fear saturates American military operations. Drones are used to kill “suspected” terrorists from afar; then to kill the “first responders” — the people who come to help the wounded; and then to attack the funeral processions. In Vietnam, most of the civilians killed — including infants — were listed as enemies.
The Pentagon has now defined all males in the Middle East and north Africa between the ages of 15 and 50 as hostile forces. Better to lie to diminish the number of civilian dead, apparently, than to admit to too much “collateral damage.”
As March 16approaches, the current military trial of Army PFC Bradley Manning for releasing thousands of military documents to WikiLeaks serves to remind us that the U.S. government’s determination to deny, hide, and cover up its horrid behavior has not abated one bit since Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to the media during the Nixon administration.
Even as their lies continue, their fear grows.
Now any four-year-old who takes a water pistol to daycare is apt to be greeted with a SWAT team in full riot gear. At airports, TSA agents grope and molest wheelchair-bound elderly women and their colostomy bags and little girls with spinal bifida.
Grope ’em all, don’t sort ’em out.
After 60 years of a standstill there, when will North Korea reach its crossover point?
Is Vietnam any less communist today because of the 58,000 Americans and the 3 million Vietnamese who died there?
Saddam Hussein has been dead for a decade. Is Iraq now a peaceful nation?
The Obama administration assures us its military killed Osama bin Laden months ago. Shouldn’t the United States then have left Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Amid the protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the Kingston Trio transformed Pete Seeger’s question, “When will they ever learn?” into a popular folk song. In Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse strongly suggests that for one U.S. presidential administration after another, the answer is still, Not yet.