Historian and author Nick Turse unearths how the U.S. military’s savage policies brutalized countless Vietnamese civilians
In March 1968 U.S. infantry troops of the Army’s Americal Division massacred 500 Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children, in the village of My Lai. The military described the massacre as an anomaly, an aberration, the result of a few bad apples in the ranks, and the mainstream media embraced that explanation.
In 1971, decorated Navy veteran (now Secretary of State) John Kerry testified before the U.S. Senate that such atrocities in Vietnam were not “isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” Kerry told of veterans who “relived the absolute horror” of what their country made them do. He said that veterans had described instances in which “they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown [sic] up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.”
The military dismissed Kerry’s testimony at that time, but his contentions are confirmed now in historian Nick Turse’s meticulously researched new book “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam” [Metropolitan Books, $30]. The book is based on more than a decade of research sparked by Turse’s discovery of papers from the Pentagon’s “Vietnam War Crimes Working Group.” He then interviewed more than 100 veterans and dozens of civilian survivors in Vietnam.
Turse details dozens of cases of torture, rape, kidnapping, forced displacement, beatings, arson, mutilation, executions and massacres carried out by U.S. troops. He concludes, as Kerry suggested decades ago, that these atrocities that killed or wounded so many Vietnamese civilians were the result of policies dictated by the highest levels of the government and the military. The devastation culminated in the deaths or injuries of 7.3 million Vietnamese civilians out of a population of 19 million. And these are the people usually ignored and left out of the story told to Americans, the story absent from movies like “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now.”
“Kill Anything That Moves” has been widely praised for its groundbreaking research, original findings and vivid writing based on primary documents and accounts from U.S. veterans and Vietnamese survivors. Author Chris Hedges wrote that it is not only one of the most important books ever written about the Vietnam conflict, but it also provides readers “with an unflinching account of the nature of modern industrial warfare. It captures, as few books on war do, the utter depravity of industrial violence.”
Turse is the associate editor and research director of the alternative media site TomDispatch.com. His other books include “The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyber Warfare” and “The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives.” Turse received the Ridenhour Prize at the National Press Club in April 2009 for his investigation of mass civilian slaughter by U.S. troops in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta during Operation Speedy Express.
You were born in 1975 — the year Saigon fell and the war ended for the U.S. Did you have a personal connection to [it] that sparked your interest on the PTSD study or the war?
No. I didn’t have any relatives that served in the war. I just happened to be a historian on the medical school campus in the School of Public Health [at Columbia].
Working on [a] study [about] post-traumatic stress disorder was some of the best training I could have had, because I was able to read through and listen to thousands and thousands of interviews with Vietnam vets that were done in the late 70s and early 80s. I also talked to hundreds of Vietnam vets, and I interviewed for this book between 100 and 200 veterans.
How did the book come about after you found the documents from the War Crimes Working Group?
I worked with the documents and then freelanced with the Los Angeles Times for a year and a half on a project to take some of the marquee cases from the files, and I co-wrote a series on them. That project allowed me to travel and meet veterans who had been witnesses or perpetrators in the case files I had. And the Los Angeles Times sent me to Vietnam for the first time. Over and over, I’d go to a village and try to find people from a particular case, a specific spasm of violence. But what they told me again and again was what it was like to live for 10 years under bombs and shells and helicopter gunships and how they had to negotiate their entire lives around the war. I realized this was really the story of the war, and it was a story that was missing from much of the literature. And I thought about what it must have been like to live in that state of fear and
apprehension for all those years. That’s what I wanted to get.
How did Vietnamese survivors respond to your questions?
As an American, I expected animosity when I first went, and it turned out to be the very opposite. I was always warmly greeted, and I was amazed at how open people were with me and how understanding they were. I would ask them about the most horrific events imaginable and the most horrible days of their lives, and I’d ask in four or five different ways about the same thing, again and again, to make sure I was getting the story right.
They would bear with me, a stranger who just showed up one day. They were willing to walk that hard road with me and, afterward invariably, I’d be thanked. It was always hard for me to wrap my head around it. They expressed amazement that there was an American who knew about their hamlet, wanted to know their story, and would travel half way around the world to listen to them.
You describe a range of responses to your concerns from U.S. veterans, from refusals and reluctance to enthusiastic sharing.
Yes. It was across the spectrum. Some veterans would slam down the phone receiver or shut the door in my face, but that was the exception and not the rule. Most people were willing to talk to some degree. Some veterans I talked to had confessed to crimes, and they were unrepentant. But other veterans had a great deal of remorse. Something that always stays with me is a veteran I talked with in a marathon phone session for four or five hours.
In some ways, the war was the high point of his life. There were a lot of good times he remembered. But then he quieted down to tell me a story about a GI from his unit. He said they came to a hamlet one day, and they were burning it down. This was standard operating procedure for the unit to drive the Vietnamese from the countryside to break the bond between the guerrillas and the people in the villages.
He said they were burning down the village, and a woman ran out and grabbed this GI by the sleeve and tugged at it and screamed at him obviously because her home was burning down and all of her possessions were going up in flames. He said the soldier pushed her away and took his M-16 and hit her squarely in the nose with the butt of the rifle. He broke her nose. There was blood everywhere. She was screaming and crying. And he said this guy just turned and walked away laughing. Then he paused for a moment and said, “You know that the GI I’m talking about is me.”
I ran into a lot of veterans who had the same experience. They had been living with things they had done as 19-year-olds for 40 years and it had weighed on them considerably.
You conclude that this brutality and the massacre of 500 civilians at My Lai were not the exception but the rule because of U.S. policy. One witness said there was “a My Lai every month.”
I used the records on atrocities like murders and massacres to punctuate the book, but I wanted to get across that the scale of the killing and injury in Vietnam was well beyond what a platoon or company can do and well beyond the scale of single massacres.
The best estimates we have are 2 million civilian dead during the war, and about 5.3 million civilian wounded, using a conservative method of estimation. The U.S. government’s own figure puts the number at 11 million for refugees. So it’s a tremendous amount of suffering, and it comes from U.S. military policy promulgated at the highest levels and through the military high command in Vietnam. And [we used] free fire zones — the opening of huge swaths of the countryside to unrestrained bombing and artillery fire and hunting by helicopter gunship.
As you note, our military ignored the Geneva Conventions and the rules of war that protect civilians.
Training in the Geneva Conventions was generally about an hour, and most of it centered on what to do if you were taken prisoner: name, rank and serial number and that sort of thing. It was not on how you were to uphold the Geneva Conventions by your treatment of noncombatants, whether civilians or prisoners. I cite some studies showing that the junior officers who these American teenagers were supposed to follow had an extremely poor understanding of the laws of war and poor training themselves.
And you note vehement racism that fed the mass killing.
Racism is something I heard about again and again from veterans I talked to. In Vietnam there was the acronym MGR for “mere gook rule.” The idea was that the Vietnamese weren’t real people. They were subhuman: “mere gooks” who could be abused or even killed at will. And some veterans said that from the moment they got to basic training that they weren’t to call them Vietnamese. “You call them gooks or ginks, slants or slopes” — anything to dehumanize them and make it easier to kill Vietnamese.
On top of that, the war was fought using an attrition strategy, which called for high enemy body counts. Veterans said that commanders weren’t discerning about whose bodies were turned in, and there wouldn’t be questions asked.
There was an axiom in Vietnam: “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC [Viet Cong].” The commanders didn’t care in most cases and they didn’t ask questions. As long as it was a Vietnamese body, it was good enough so civilians could be chalked up to the body counts.
You detail a particularly brutal campaign in the Mekong Delta called, “Operation Speedy Express” that was led by General Julian Ewell.
Basically, Julian Ewell had been a World War II hero who had been cooped up for a long time at the Pentagon and as an attaché at the White House. When he finally got a combat command in Vietnam, he resolved to make the most of it.
Ewell was notorious even in an environment where body count was king, and was known as “The Butcher of the Delta.” He even joked about the fact that fellow commanders considered him in a class with Attila the Hun. He demanded bodies, and any of the colonels under his command said he’d constantly berate them for not bringing up the body count. It was no secret that if you didn’t bring in numbers, he would sack you and derail your career. He put them under tremendous pressure, and it filtered down to the field. He removed restrictions about use of heavy firepower on populated areas.
Over the course of Speedy Express, the Ninth Infantry Division reported almost 11,000 enemies killed, but they only recovered 748 weapons: a tremendous disparity.
The story of Speedy Express never got the attention it should have, but I found in the archives that the Army had done their own study because they were so afraid of the story coming out. They wanted to know what really went on.
The Army’s own estimate [was] 5,000 to 7,000 civilians killed during Speedy Express. But, of course, this was kept secret for 40 years, and no one knew during the war.
What can your book teach us about our present military actions and future policies?
My day job is as a national security reporter, and I follow the current wars closely. I think there are some lessons to be drawn from my book or at least some conversations it could start.
America is constantly involved in military conflicts abroad, most recently in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia. It’s important that Americans understand what war is really like for those who live with war every day: namely civilians. Wars cause immense suffering, but the stories of civilians affected by America’s wars rarely make the front pages of newspapers or lead the nightly news.
If Americans are called upon to send their sons and daughters to war, they ought to have a clear idea of what that means for the sons and daughters of people overseas. I hope my book will open a few eyes in that regard and maybe start some conversations along those lines.
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