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Revisiting Vietnam

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Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse (Metropolitan Books, 2013), 386 pages.

The Vietnam War polarized Americans in the 20th century like no other event, dividing the people as no war had since the so-called Civil War a century earlier.

Even though Vietnam was thousands of miles away, had not attacked the United States, and was no threat to the United States, many Americans supported going to war there. Even after all the protests, riots, civil unrest, and campus uprisings, many Americans still wanted the war to continue. Even as the toll of dead and horribly wounded American soldiers climbed into the tens of thousands, many Americans still favored sending more troops to Vietnam. And even after the release of the Pentagon Papers, the Kent State shooting, and the My Lai massacre, many Americans still supported the war effort.

Yet opposition grew fierce, spawning demonstrations of protest not often seen in modern America.

Passion over the war has not fully abated. To this day some conservatives maintain that if only the U.S. military had dropped more bombs, shot more bullets, flown more sorties, planted more mines, thrown more grenades, employed more attack helicopters, sent more troops, or killed more communists, we would have “won” the war. After all, did not Ronald Reagan say the Vietnam War was “a noble cause”? The critics have not gone away either.

Nick Turse, the author of the powerful and provocative new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, is an award-winning journalist and historian, the managing editor for TomDispatch.com, and a fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of the informative work The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (2008). His latest is one of the most important books about the Vietnam War ever written.

There is no dismissing Turse as some wild-eyed liberal who still hasn’t gotten over U.S. involvement in Vietnam. His investigation is groundbreaking, his research pain-staking, his documentation meticulous, and his evidence irrefutable. His conclusions are shocking.

My Lai

The title of the book is not Turse’s opinion of the conduct of U.S. troops during the war. It comes from the words of Captain Ernest Medina of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, the commanding officer of the operation that will be known forever as just My Lai. In March 1968, Charlie Company soldiers visited the village of My Lai and killed everything that moved, including chickens, pigs, cows, water buffalo, and hundreds of unarmed civilians. As described by Turse,

They gunned down old men sitting in their homes and children as they ran for cover. They tossed grenades into homes without even bothering to look inside. An officer grabbed a woman by the hair and shot her point-blank with a pistol. A woman who came out of her home with a baby in her arms was shot down on the spot. As the tiny child hit the ground, another GI opened up on the infant with his M-16 automatic rifle.

Over four hours, members of Charlie Company methodically slaughtered more than five hundred unarmed victims, killing some in ones and twos, others in small groups, and collecting many more in a drainage ditch that would become an infamous killing ground. They faced no opposition. They even took a quiet break to eat lunch in the midst of the carnage. Along the way, they also raped women and young girls, mutilated the dead, systematically burned homes, and fouled the area’s drinking water.

Previous to this, soldiers from Charlie Company had “beat up a villager on a bicycle, assaulted children, and set upon an unarmed woman.” Soldiers kicked the woman to death “and emptied their magazines in her head.” One soldier, Lt. William Calley, became the low-level fall guy and was the only soldier convicted in connection with the massacre. He was paroled after serving just 40 months.

To this day the official position of the U.S. government, as well as those who still defend the war, is that the My Lai massacre was an isolated incident, the work of a few bad apples. Turse debunks the lie that My Lai was a “one-off aberration, rather than part of a consistent pattern of criminality resulting from policies set at the top.” “Atrocities,” says Turse, “were committed by members of every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed without the rest of the division — that is, every major army unit in Vietnam.” The whole war was a series of My Lais; the whole war was a crime.

The “ubiquity of atrocity”

Turse did not set out to write about U.S. war crimes in Vietnam. As a graduate student researching posttraumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans, he stumbled on “the first clues to this hidden history almost by accident.” While he was looking through documents at the National Archives, an archivist directed him to the records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. Turse describes it as “a secret Pentagon task force that had been assembled after the My Lai massacre to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” Turse recognized instantly that the records, “which included more than 300 allegations of massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations, and other atrocities that were substantiated by army investigators,” documented “a nightmare war that is essentially missing from our understanding of the Vietnam conflict.” Reading the files gave him a sense of the “ubiquity of atrocity” that took place during the war.

But Turse’s research didn’t end there. He tracked down more information about “little-known or never-revealed” Vietnam War crimes at the National Archives, submitted Freedom of Information Act requests, made trips to Vietnam, and interviewed on the phone and in person countless generals and top civilian officials, Vietnam veterans (both witnesses and committers of atrocities), and Vietnamese victims. Naturally, Turse was unable to communicate with the 58,195 veterans whose names appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., or the millions of Vietnamese who perished during the conflict.

The format of the book is straightforward. There is an introduction, seven chapters, a brief epilogue, notes, acknowledgments, and an index. Two eight-page sets of photos enhance the book. The 86-page section of notes is one of its strengths.

The introduction sets the stage for the book. It contains a description of the My Lai massacre, some basic history of how the U.S. government entangled the country in the war, casualty figures, an account of how the book came to be written, and enough chilling information to conclude that My Lai “was an operation, not an aberration.” The seven chapters that follow all seem to run together. This is not a criticism of Turse; it’s just that the “daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam” was

murder; beatings; torture, including waterboarding and electric shock; rape, including gang rape; sodomy; forced displacement; home burnings; specious arrests; planting of weapons on dead civilians; imprisonment without due process; corpse mutilation; killing and raping of children; point-blank executions; mass killings; dehumanization and humiliation of civilians; repeated aerial bombing and artillery fire on rural populations; aerial spraying of defoliants that wiped out crops; slaughter of animals; using people for target practice; running down civilians with jeeps and trucks, including deliberately crushing people with armored vehicles; destruction of food supplies; sexual exploitation, abuse, violence, and slavery; forced drownings; prisoner abuse and executions; defecating in houses; taking body parts as trophies and souvenirs; mounting Vietnamese heads on poles; lashing corpses to U.S. vehicles; dropping corpses from helicopters.

Turse provides the different names, dates, and places, but the “atrocities were of the same type, the horrors of a similar magnitude, the miseries of the same degree.”

Origins of a murderous mentality

A number of things Turse discusses contributed to the philosophy of “kill anything that moves.” Three of them took place before a soldier even stepped foot in Vietnam. Basic training emphasized that obedience to commanders was paramount. It was also there that the endless chants of “kill, kill, kill” were uttered and the dehumanization of the Vietnamese as gooks, dinks, slopes, and slants began. Turse mentions the 1971 testimony of Major Gordon Livingston before members of Congress about the ease with which Americans killed Vietnamese: “Above 90 percent of the Americans with whom I had contact in Vietnam treated the Vietnamese as subhuman and with nearly universal contempt.”

Once soldiers arrived in Vietnam, the body count was viewed as the most important measure of success. This was the view from the Pentagon on down through the chain of command. It led to the strategy of shooting first and asking questions later. “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC,” became the rule of thumb. Incentives were provided for “grunts” to produce dead bodies: R&R, medals, badges, extra food, extra beer, permission to wear nonregulation gear, and light duty. It is no wonder that some Americans racked up personal body counts of over a thousand. There were even body-count competitions between different units, with prizes at stake.

Rules of engagement

And then there was the “mere-gook rule,” which meant that “all Vietnamese—northern and southern, adults and children, armed enemy and innocent civilian—were little more than animals, who could be killed or abused at will.”

Other factors included ineffective rules of engagement that “allowed troops to invent almost any rationale to justify killing.” There were established “free-fire” zones where “you could not be held responsible for firing on innocent civilians since by definition there were none there.” Turse cites a U.S. Senate study which “acknowledged that by 1968 an estimated 300,000 civilians had been killed or wounded in free-fire zones.” Fancy new military technologies that were designed to maim and incapacitate people and were easy to use encouraged GIs to fire their weapons for the thrill of it. The sheer volume of the munitions expended is mind-blowing — close to 30 billion pounds over the course of the war. It’s a wonder there is anything left of Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1968, “thirty-two tons of bombs per hour were dropped on the North.” And more bombs were actually dropped on South Vietnam — America’s ally. Turse maintains that “the amount of ammunition fired per soldier was twenty-six times greater in Vietnam than during World War II.” Between 1965 and 1972, “U.S. and South Vietnamese aircraft flew 3.4 million combat sorties in Southeast Asia.” Turse also mentions the dropping of 400,000 tons of napalm, 379 million M-34 white phosphorus grenades in 1969 alone, and 70 million liters of herbicidal agents like Agent Orange.

U.S. soldiers who raised objections about atrocities were sometimes intimidated or killed. When detailed, reliable atrocity allegations were made known, the military “often tamped down the reports, suppressed investigation findings, or dragged out the cases for as long as possible.” Nevertheless, in 1966, Marine Corps Lieutenant General Lewis Walt sent a secret communiqué to two top generals: “I am greatly disturbed, as I am sure you are, by the number of serious incidents involving allegations of felonies by Marines against Vietnamese civilians.” And in 1971, an official army investigation of the “Torture of Prisoners of War by U.S. Officers” noted that “violations of Geneva Conventions were ‘widespread’ and that torture by U.S. troops was ‘standard practice.’”

In a victory statement at the end of the Gulf War, George H. W. Bush said, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” Perhaps this is so, but the criminal legacy of Vietnam can never be “kicked.” Turse says that “there have been more than 30,000 nonfiction books published on the Vietnam War since the conflict began.” His indispensable book must be placed at the top of the list.

This article was originally published in the October 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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