Sunday, June 30, 2013

A New Look at the Vietnam War: Nick Turse's "Kill Anything that Moves"

Once again, I was swearing off war books, but someone told me to read a new book about the war, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse, and I did. It is frightening and sobering -- and I've read a lot about the Vietnam War. Reading it reminded me of viewing the Holocaust film Shoah. Like filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, Turse interviewed eyewitnesses, perpetrators/soldiers, and surviving victims -- and the results are impressive and overwhelming.

Based on Turse's doctoral dissertation -- and painstakingly researched and sourced, though very readable -- this book has a central thesis: The American way of war in Vietnam resulted in mass killings of civilians in South Vietnam. The My Lai massacre was but one example of thousands of days of misery visited upon the people of Vietnam. The conditions that made war crimes possible were created at the highest levels of government and military command.

Now, 40 years or so from the wind-down of the war, Turse's observations might seem matter-of-fact.  We all know how horrible Vietnam was (though usually we think of U.S. soldiers, not Vietnamese civilians), but what this book details is the pervasiveness of wanton murder of unarmed civilians throughout the course of the war.

Ultimately, it was policies and politics that drove the carnage. By early 1971, Telford Taylor, a retired army general who served as chief counsel at the Nuremberg trials, said in a nationally televised interview that Westmoreland might well have been prosecuted for war crimes. A field general, Julian Ewell, and his executive officer Ira Hunt were the primary proponents of pushing "body counts," which led to indiscriminate civilian killing in the populous Mekong Delta in late 1968 and 1969 -- in an operation called Speedy Express. Unarmed civilians were subject to artillery fire, helicopter attacks, and ground troop invasion. Civilians were shot for running from the approach of soldiers. The dead were inevitably counted as Vietcong, but consider one fact uncovered by a team of Newsweek reporters: Ewell's division reported killing 10,899 enemy troops, yet it recovered only 748 weapons. At one point 699 "guerrillas" were killed, but only 9 weapons captured. These non-correlative numbers indicate widespread killing of unarmed civilians.

Did the U.S. military care? In fact, Turse draws heavily on declassified documents from the Pentagon's War Crimes Working Group, which was set up in response to My Lai. Turse explains: "The group did not work to bring accused war criminals to justice or to prevent war crimes from occurring in the first place. Nor did it make public the constant stream of allegations flowing in from soldiers and veterans. As far as the War Crimes Working Group was concerned, these allegations were purely an image management problem..."

The policies and the cover-ups are what's central here. While Turse rightly lauds reporters like Seymour Hersh (whose writing broke the My Lai story), he also notes that the press sat on or effectively killed stories. (And hey, the New York Times hasn't reviewed this book, which seems unbelievable.) In 1972, Newsweek's Saigon bureau chief Kevin Buckley wrote, in part, "Four years here have convinced me that terrible crimes have been committed in Vietnam. Specifically, thousands upon thousands of unarmed, noncombatant civilians have been killed by American firepower. They were not killed by accident. The American way of fighting this war made their deaths inevitable." This lead was killed and the article watered down, and Speedy Express is now hardly known.

While Turse focuses on leadership, policy, and cover-ups, he also carefully documents atrocity after atrocity. There is the West Point colonel who hunts Vietnamese from his command helicopter, the decorated sergeant whose wildcat team kills and mutilates civilians, the personnel who routinely torture, and on and on. Turse looks at sexual crimes and South Vietnam prison conditions as well.

Many hard facts and figures back up Turse's points. Did the U.S. have a plan to help the people of Vietnam, so they would turn from communism (or nationalism or patriotism)? One telling figure: In 1967, USAID's total medical budget to support health programs in Vietnam equaled 0.25% of the total U.S. spend in the nation.

So, where does this leave us? Turse makes clear that we have not adequately assessed Vietnam -- and that failure continues to haunt our foreign policy and military.


Anonymous said...

You do Turse's terrifying and powerful history justice, Doug.

Hanoi John said...

A New Look at the Vietnam War: Nick Turse's "Kill Anything that Moves"??????


“Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam” is a new book (ACTUALLY NOT SO NEW) about Vietnam with an old story line of exaggerated war crimes charges.

See “The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes” be Deborah Nelson, Publication Date: October 28, 2008
Book Description: In 2005, Deborah Nelson joined forces with military historian Nick Turse to investigate an extraordinary archive: the largest compilation of records on Vietnam-era war crimes ever to surface. The declassified Army papers were erroneously released and have since been pulled from public circulation. Few civilians have seen the documents.

One reviewer writes about Deborah Nelson’ book:

“You can read original documents created by the Army CID investigators who interviewed the Winter Soldier participants here:

When Nelson and Nick Turse published the basis for this book in the LA Times, I was left to wonder, "Where's the rest of the story?" They had access to the same CID documents I did, yet they totally forgot to mention that 11 of the Army Winter Soldier witnesses repudiated their testimony when questioned by CID and virtually all the rest stonewalled the investigators, some in outrageously arraogant, if not ridiculously comical, terms. And, the Army only investigated about half of the witnesses from the Winter Soldier Investigation in the first place, because half of them made no substantive allegations of criminal wrong doing at all, just badmouthed the military and the country, and several could not be found at all - which does not prove that those several were frauds, but does make you wonder.

Only one of the Winter Soldier stories investiagted by the Army CID in the 1970s proved to be based in fact - that of Jamie Henry. So, when reading this book, keep in mind what you read with your own eyes in these CID documents.

What happened at the Winter Soldier Investigation had nothing to do with whatever happened, or did not happen, in Vietnam. It was a stand alone propaganda exercise, having little to do with facts or the truth.

To extrapolate, from the several hundred crimes committed over a dozen years during a conflict involving three million U.S. soldiers during a viscious unconventional war, to this blanket libel against the United States, is a crime in itself against both history and our country. But propagandists don't have scruples about the truth. Their pre-set agenda determines all.”

Doug Levin said...

Hanoi John -- Thanks for your comment, sort of. Maybe my headline should've been "A New (to me) Look..." In any event, I've seen the Winter Soldiers documentary, and I knew (from reading this book) that a lot of this had been covered in NY Times articles by Nelson and Turse (he has an oblique acknowledgement to her, so my guess is that they had a falling out). I guess it was the distillation in one place. It's also fair to say that many Americans served with honor and compassion. Turse also doesn't pull punches concerning the Vietnamese treatment of Vietnamese (and Americans). Still, the contemporaneous comments from the Newsweek reporter and the archival work in the War Crimes Working Group and so on are all pretty compelling.