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A fierce look at the Vietnam War

 kill anything that moves by Nick Turse (384 pages, $25.99)

kill anything that moves by Nick Turse (384 pages, $25.99)

As a person who grew up in the Vietnam War era, I have been waiting a long time for a book like Nick Turse’s, Kill Anything That Moves. In spite of all the books and articles written about the Vietnam War, I do not think we have seen the war as it actually was, in its fullest dimensions. Turse’s book goes beyond anything written to date to present a more honest picture.

I suppose there is some score settling here. I am part of the ’60s generation that hated the war. I spent much time demonstrating in opposition to the war. I see Turse’s book as an implicit vindication of the anti-war movement because Turse carefully documents how the American war led to widespread civilian deaths and a broad pattern of atrocities.

The book brought back so many memories of the period. For those who lived through that time, practically everyone would remember the My Lai massacre, during which American troops methodically slaughtered more than 500 unarmed women, children and old men. Life Magazine ran graphic pictures of the massacre. It shocked the nation yet even My Lai did not lead to a critical reexamination of what we were doing in Vietnam.

Turse shows My Lai was no exception. He shows that American military conduct in Vietnam followed from policies engineered from the top. The policies were criminal. Higher-ups always tried to hide their role or pin atrocities on lower level fall guys. Turse’s book shows how far we are from ever acknowledging the degree of culpability for American criminal conduct.

I suppose for those who dispute Turse’s perspective he could be dismissed as an anti-war partisan. The problem is that Turse relied on records he obtained from a secret Pentagon task force that had been assembled after the My Lai massacre. The army had not wanted to be caught off guard so it had created a War Crimes Working Group that collected hundreds of incident summaries and sworn statements from veterans. Turse discovered the information which had been yellowing in the U.S. National Archives. He also followed up after this discovery, speaking to more than 100 American Vietnam veterans as well as former military war crimes investigators, generals and civilian leaders. Turse writes:

“From them I learned something of what it was like to be twenty years old with few life experiences beyond adolescence in a small town or inner city neighborhood, and to be suddenly thrust into villages of thatch and bamboo homes that seemed ripped straight from the pages of National Geographic, the paddies around them such a vibrant green that they almost burned the eye. Veteran after veteran told me about days of shattering fatigue and the confusion of contradictory orders, about being placed in situations so alien and unnerving that even with their automatic rifles and grenades they felt scared walking through hamlets of unarmed women and children.”

Turse shows that the war was less against the enemy than against the South Vietnamese people. The obsession with body counts, the search and destroy missions, the free fire zones. the B-52 raids, the burning of villages, the use of napalm and white phosphorus, defoliation and Agent Orange, the systematic use of torture, the pacification effort to drive people from their villages – all contributed to turning Vietnam into a depopulated, cratered and blasted wasteland where millions were traumatized, disabled and barely surviving.

Turse points to the absolute contempt and racism Americans had for the Vietnamese people. He quotes President Johnson who called Vietnam “a piddling pissant little country.” Henry Kissinger called North Vietnam “a little fourth rate power.” Turse shows how a culture of violence and remorseless killing was legitimated by explicit racism.

Turse cites the MGR – “the mere gook rule” which held all Vietnamese were little more than animals who could be killed or abused at will. The MGR excused all manner of wanton killing and atrocity. Revenge killings were hardly unusual. Embittered troops would lash out at any Vietnamese to get payback. The dehumanization and mass killing of civilians were a common occurrence. Turse goes into many detailed examples.

It has been much remarked upon by many Vietnam war commentators that it was almost impossible to identify and separate out the enemy from the civilian population. That no doubt contributed to the difficulty in outlining rules of engagement. Turse describes very unpredictable conduct by American troops. One day they could be handing out candy to the people. The next day they could be burning the same villages.

Turse also persuasively shows how war crimes were covered up by top Washington officials. Their strategy was to drag out investigations for as long as possible, intimidate witnesses, hide evidence, and ultimately bury cases. The media was hardly bathed in glory. With the notable exception of Seymour Hersh’s My Lai expose, not much broke through. Turse outlines how war crimes were largely whitewashed. He does note the Winter Soldier Investigation organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in 1971, through which Vietnam veterans heroically and courageously spoke about their Vietnam war experience.

I remember the Russell Tribunal organized in 1966 by Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre. Those proceedings were not mentioned by Turse in his book but they deserve recognition as part of the bearing witness.

Even as a grizzled. somewhat cynical, 60s survivor I found Turse’s book profoundly disturbing. I am reminded of the famous Kafka quote about how what we must have are books which come upon us like ill-fortune and distress us deeply.

Reading this book, it is hard to think we are even willing to look honestly at our own past. Turse’s book is an important contribution to the battle against forgetting and against the politics of impunity.

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