Review: Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves. The Real American War in Vietnam (2013)

No regular reader of Insurgent Notes will be surprised by anything in this book, which portrays more vividly than most the take-no-prisoners barbarism of which the American capitalist class and its military are capable. Its subject is the war “that so many would like to forget, and so many others refuse to remember.” Younger readers, who did not live through the decade when the Vietnam War was tearing American society apart, will certainly get a better sense of that period, which already ended almost 40 years ago. The US Army, the Department of Defense and successive American presidents have collaborated to cover up and suppress the memory of the war crimes Turse recounts, essentially of a My Lai[1] massacre almost every day from 1965 to 1975. Turse takes his title from a routine command that led to thousands of “search and destroy” missions.

Turse’s book neither raises nor settles any politically “cutting questions” for today. We review it because historical memory is also part of the revolutionary movement.The book itself has an interesting history. Turse was a student in public health when he became interested in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), and decided to study it in the case of Vietnam vets. His research took him to the Pentagon, where an archivist pointed him casually to some forgotten boxes, collecting dust. He opened them and found the documentation of what became this book, thousands of atrocity stories the Pentagon had collected and meticulously filed while relegating them to the usual oblivion of the United States of Amnesia. Much of what he recounts was never reported in the mainstream media, or even in the rather marginal alternative media of small presses and the “underground” newspapers of the “sixties.” Turse’s book is also the account of a handful of courageous whistleblowers, GIs who witnessed and sometimes themselves participated in atrocities, and who were subsequently ignored, harassed, threatened, calumnied or who on occasion received a bullet in the back of the head from “friendly fire” in combat for attempting tomake known what they had seen and done. Turse also tells how these stories underwent Hegel’s three stages of scandalous innovation, from 1) total silence and suppression to 2) furious denial to 3) “old hat,” “what everyone always knew” with stage 2) being astonishingly short. The revelations about My Lai actually made coverage of smaller everyday atrocities more difficult to publish, as the media was thereafter only interested in bigger stuff.

Only five years after the Viet Cong swept into Saigon in 1975, inflicting the largest debacle (to date) ever sustained by an American military effort, the election of Ronald Reagan, his “morning in America” and Cold War II somehow “rebranded” Vietnam as a “noble cause,” after which scholars and veterans began to “recast the war in rosier terms.” In the teeth of such blatant historical revisionism, Turse’s book is one sustained attempt to recapture the truth about Vietnam. The Pentagon’s mania for quantification of everything connected with the war, from air sorties to total tonnage of bombs dropped—many times greater than in World War II—was best known for the steady stream of “body counts” released to the American media. This technocratic impulse somehow never extended to the total Vietnamese dead, with a probable final count of 3.8 million Vietnamese military and civilian combat deaths. An additional 58,000 Americans were killed. These figures still leave out the Vietnamese wounded and maimed, estimated at 5.3 million people, many of them women and children.

Turse’s discovery of these forgotten archives led him to a years-long series of investigations and interviews, among them with several hundred vets as well as with Vietnamese survivors in remote villages. One of these vets was Jamie Henry, who for years attempted to break through the silence surrounding atrocities and war crimes, and was left to “twist in the wind.” Henry himself had no idea that there were detailed documents about some of the episodes he had experienced. Many other documents had been “disappeared.” But enough was there to show that massacres of civilians were “widespread, routine and directly attributable to US command policies.” Further hundreds of thousands were killed by 500-pound bombs from air force planes or 1,900-pound shells launched from Navy ships. This “real war,” says Turse, “barely appears at all in the thousands of volumes written about Vietnam.”

The direct perpetrators were usually 18-and 19-year-old GIs and Marines, barely out of adolescence, given automatic weapons, grenades and flame throwers, and thrust into a totally foreign terrain where they knew nothing of Vietnamese society, history, or the language; a terrain full of booby traps and occasional sniper fire. They had gone through weeks of dehumanizing, brutal basic training where a couple of perfunctory hours at most were devoted to regulations on treatment of civilians and to the definition of war crimes. Vietnamese were only referred to with racist (“gook,” etc.) epithets.[2]

Young women were commonly gang-raped. Massacre was made inevitable by a system where officers’ promotions depended on the body count, whose figures were fed into the Pentagon’s computerized “techno-war”[3] and used to pressure the lowly grunts to increase “productivity” and “output.” Numbers were ramped up by the view that “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.” By that criterion, many dead women and even children were counted as Viet Cong. Whole regions were “pacified” by saturation bombing and artillery fire, aimed at driving the civilian population into squalid camps and “relocation centers,” far from villages where their families had lived for generations. The aim of such “pacification” was to deprive the Viet Cong of recruits and material support.

US forces in Vietnam used weapons “designed specifically to maim and incapacitate people, on the theory that horribly wounded personnel sapped enemy resources even more than outright killing.” These included fragmentation munitions, “unleashing small fragments—tiny pellets and razor-sharp flechettes—that did immense damage to human bodies.” The Pentagon never gave up its belief that this “technological prowess” would triumph over “poorly armed guerrillas in an agrarian country.” Financing all this was ultimately the more than $1 trillion (in 2012 dollars) the United States spent on the war. The equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs used during the war was actually dropped more on South than on North Vietnam in the “most lopsided air war ever fought.” The Strategic Air Command launched 126,615 B-52 combat sorties, the majority of them over South Vietnam. Smaller fighter plans dropped 400,000 tons of napalm. Still others dropped cluster bombs containing thousands of lethal ball bearings. The United States “expended close to 30 billion pounds of munitions in Southeast Asia over the course of the war.” More than 70 million liters of herbicides, above all Agent Orange, were sprayed on forests and on 4.8 million Vietnamese. When the Viet Cong’s January 1968 Tet offensive blew away the perennial American prediction of victory close at hand, the United States responded with bombings of “great swaths of cities and towns.” “We had been trying for years to get them to come out in the open so we could slaughter them, and we slaughtered them…I’ve never seen so many dead people stacked up,” was one US commander’s comment.

In such circumstances, “what went on in Vietnam’s killing fields often stayed there…no one could bear to read a full listing of every village burning, hamlet bombing, cold-blooded massacre…in press accounts, military documents and personal testimonies.” One Marine offered his explanation of how many of these atrocities occurred: “You got an angry 18-year old kid behind the gun and he’s just seen his buddy getting killed. And he’s not gonna have no remorse for who’s on the receiving end of that 60 caliber machine gun.” And indeed it is hard enough to read through the “litany of atrocities” recounted by Turse himself.

Systematic bombing of the countryside and “search and destroy” missions on the ground, as indicated, drove millions of Vietnamese peasants into shanties on the edge of every city and town. One US commander had a policy of unleashing 1,000 rounds of artillery fire for every single hostile round. Major ideologue and then Harvard professor Samuel Huntington opined that this “forced draft urbanization and modernization (sic)” could well be the answer to wars of national liberation.” For Huntington, the “urban slum…often becomes for the poor peasant a gateway to a new and better way of life.”

In these conditions of modernization, infant mortality in Saigon rose to 36 percent, and crowds of refugees volunteered for urban garbage collection in order to have first crack at the “edibles” that turned up there. 500,000 Vietnamese women turned to prostitution. Children became beggars, pickpockets and thieves. In newly captured areas, the Americans occasionally attempted the campaign to “win the hearts and minds” of villagers whose homes had just been ransacked and destroyed, and who had been herded into cow pens. One old man stood up in such a session and asked if this destruction was how Americans were going to help the Vietnamese people. He was promptly arrested as Viet Cong.

Occasional compensation was paid to families for members killed in some of these raids; the going rate was $35 per adult killed, half that for a child. Civilians were also run down daily by jeeps, trucks, tanks and armored vehicles. For some GIs driving the vehicles, this was called “gook hockey.” Many collected Vietnamese body parts for souvenirs. Yet another feature of modernization was the maintenance of official military brothels within base camps. Rape and gang rape, often followed by murder, was an everyday occurrence in both country and city. Torture as well was “routine in Vietnam’s massive incarceration archipelago.” One American officer said “…you’ve got to understand that this is an Asian country, and their first impulse is force…. Only the fear of force gets results. It’s the Asian mind.”

American intelligence personnel worked with South Vietnamese counterparts and often supervised while the latter tortured and killed. In one training program, an instructor said “If the prisoner is not disposed to talk voluntarily, it is hardly the time or place to be concerned with the Geneva Conventions.” In the infamous Con Son Prison, 10,000 inmates were kept in tiny “tiger cages,” often for years, inducing permanent grotesque physical deformities. Two US Congressmen were taken surreptitiously on a tour of Con Son and wrote a scathing report on conditions there; their congressional committee reduced it to an innocuous paragraph in a 70-page report.

US personnel also tortured directly, without South Vietnamese assistance. All this perhaps culminated in the Phoenix program, a counter-insurgency operation aimed at rooting out “Viet Cong infrastructure.” As with other such US military and intelligence programs in Vietnam, “Phoenix was a corrupt, informant-driven enterprise in which a significant number of non-combatants, some completely innocent, were captured, or assassinated—that is, kidnapped, tortured and killed—merely to meet quotas, win bounties or settle grudges.” Turse estimates that over 20,000 people were killed during the Phoenix program, a “program run amok.” Such things were “the very essence of the war: crimes that went on all the time, all over South Vietnam, for years and years.” The scale of suffering was “unimaginable,” and it is “almost as unimaginable…that somehow, in the United States, all that suffering was more or less ignored while it happened, and then written out of history even more thoroughly in the decades since.”

Turse recounts the stories of particularly noxious killers, such as Sergeant Roy Bumgarner, a career soldier who supposedly had 1,500 “KIAs” (Killed in Action) during his seven-year stint in Vietnam. Bumgarner, known as “the Bummer,” was ultimately charged with premeditated murder. One officer after another testified at his trial to Bumgarner’s exemplary military service as a “model combat leader.” He was widely expected to be acquitted under the MGR (“mere gook rule”), but instead was convicted, but “only of unpremeditated murder,” and did not spend a day in jail for his crimes. He managed to re-enlist and even appeared on the front page of the New York Times in 1972 with his arm around a young Vietnamese boy, with an article portraying him as a “lovable fighting man.” Bumgarner, recounts Turse, “killed innocent people simply because they were Vietnamese and then labeled them as enemy dead. He mutilated bodies and planted weapons on those he murdered to conceal his crimes. He instructed subordinates to take part in his misdeeds and then help cover them up. And he trained countless impressionable young men in his methods. The military knew all this and still welcomed his continued service.”

Turse also recounts the exploits of Colonel John Donaldson, whom a colleague described as “obsessed with having a good kill ratio and a good body count,” and who enjoyed strafing peasants from the air in his helicopter. Throughout, Donaldson was “racking up medals at a pace that may have rivaled even his rising body count.”In 1971, Donaldson, by then a general, was charged with six murders. Among his many defenders was the young Colin Powell,[4] who had worked closely with Donaldson for eight months and defended his actions at the trial. Charges against him were dropped “based on mysterious ‘evidence’ that appears nowhere in the files.”Julian Ewell was a World War II hero and by the time of Vietnam a two-star general. Arriving in the Mekong Delta in February 1968, Ewell zealously made the body count “everything,” exerting pressure that reached down to the lowest ranks, if more pressure were needed. For Ewell, it was a competition with other army divisions. He raised the ratio of enemy casualties to US troops killed in combat from 8:1 when he began to 14:1 a few months later. He participated in Operation “Speedy Express,” which dwarfed anything done at My Lai, over a six-month period. The “kill ratio” jumped to 134:1. Dead children and water buffalo were added indifferently to the count. For his trouble in Operation “Speedy Express,” Ewell was promoted to three-star general and became the top US military adviser at the Paris peace negotiations.

Another interesting whistleblower in Turse’s book was a veteran, the “Concerned Sergeant,” who wrote anonymously to the United States commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, in May 1970, offering “eyewitness testimony about an atrocity far larger and more damning” than My Lai, “the mass killing of civilians in the Mekong Delta during Speedy Express, month after month, hamlet after hamlet.” The Concerned Sergeant detailed tactics and named names. His letter “was remarkable for the way it detailed a pattern of criminality far larger than any single incident”; it was about “nobody giving a damn about the Vietnamese.” The Concerned Sergeant pointed the finger at the highest command, even if “it always seemed to be enlisted men and low-level officers who ended up ‘getting into trouble.’ ” General policy had been to assume that anyone who ran was a Viet Cong, and civilians were forced to walk ahead of patrols to set off booby traps. Even these victims wound up in the body count. Mass killings were portrayed as combat by faked reports of weapons captured. The Concerned Sergeant ultimately blamed the constant pressure from above demanding a big body count.The Concerned Sergeant’s letter “created a buzz at the highest levels,” and top officials grudgingly conceded the truth of his charges, but launched no criminal investigation. After a year of inaction from the Pentagon, the Concerned Sergeant wrote to other high-ranking generals, threatening to take his story to Congressman Ron Dellums, a left liberal Democrat elected from Berkeley and Oakland, California, and known for his strong criticisms of the war, or to the New York Times . In response, the army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) did launch an investigation…into the identity of the Concerned Sergeant. They identified him as one George Lewis; before the CID sought him out, however, the Pentagon legal department decided that because his letters were anonymous, they could be “discounted.” Lewis’s letters were declassified and forgotten until Turse discovered them in his research. Lewis had unfortunately died in 2004; it is unknown why he did not follow through on his threats to go public with what he knew. All in all, “Westmoreland’s scuttling of the Speedy Express investigation spared the army from having to deal with another major atrocity scandal in the aftermath of My Lai and also served to shield his brethren from West Point.”

By 1969, writes Turse, the stuffing was coming out of the doll, and articles on atrocities began to appear in mainstream magazines, such as on the Phoenix program, the “Green Beret Affair,”[5] and other outrages large and small brought to light by further courageous whistleblowers. “More and more stories were finding their way to a reporter, past a Saigon bureau chief, over the wire to New York, and then into a newspaper or magazine.” The growing stream of revelations turned the government and military cover-up into a “desperate scramble.” Top circles began to worry about the “Yamashita precedent,” Yamashita being a Japanese general executed for war crimes in 1946 for “failing to prevent atrocities by his troops.” Westmoreland, “apparently rattled” by the possibility of his own indictment as a war criminal, oversaw a task force to whitewash the war crimes allegations. This report, which Turse calls a “brazen rewriting of history,” asserted that “General Westmoreland demanded strict adherence to the laws of war.” The report was never made public.

By 1971, the United States Army in Vietnam was “on the verge of collapse.” Units were refusing combat, killing their own officers, and were riddled with drugs. An official assessment said the situation “was just shy of the ‘French Army’s Nivelle mutinies of 1917 and the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.’ ” Hundreds of underground newspapers by GIs had appeared. There were fourteen dissident GI organizations and six antiwar veterans’ groups. In April 1971 several hundred Vietnam vets threw their Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars over a barricade erected to keep them from reaching Congress, “perhaps the single most iconic antiwar act in American history.” These men, and hundreds of other vets like them, were “doing what no American fighting men had done for two hundred years: speaking out en masse against their own military.”

Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) had ten thousand members by the early 1970s. “Many had gone to Vietnam with their heads filled by visions of their fathers’ war, as seen through the prism of the John Wayne movies of their childhoods.” Some VVAW members carried out “mock search and destroy missions” in small towns around the United States, handing out flyers about what they might have done if the locals were Vietnamese. Medic Jamie Henry, who had witnessed atrocities during the Tet Offensive, had run into the same walls of silence as other whistleblowers; even radical Ramparts magazine shelved his story in late 1968. Beginning in 1970 and 1971, however, Henry’s story began to get out, as for example at the VVAW’s Winter Soldier Investigation.

The stream was turning into a flood. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, “Robert McNamara’s secret study of US policy in Vietnam from the 1940s to 1968.” An international commission on US war crimes in Indochina, which brought together not merely American vets, but Vietnamese survivors, met in Oslo, Norway, and indicted US policymakers at the highest level.

The Pentagon responded with its tried and true methods of cover-up: “Drag out all investigations as long as possible, intimidate witnesses, obstruct courts martial, and hope that the public would eventually lose interest.” A key witness corroborating Jamie Henry’s statements received an intimidating visit at his home and fell silent; a major in charge of investigating other atrocities fell into a depression and committed suicide after telling his wife that “it goes all the way up to the highest.” Then-President Richard Nixon began his policy of “Vietnamization,” replacing US troops with South Vietnamese forces; American combat deaths declined, and the war itself ceased to be front-page news. Editorial cowardice ensured that further detailed investigation into Operation Speedy Express by two determined reporters wound up on the cutting room floor of Newsweek magazine, too hot to handle. In this context, with all the silenced exposés that Turse detailed, “the last best chance for the truth about the war to finally emerge” went out the window. Two commanders of Speedy Express, Ewell and Hunt, wrote a book commissioned by the army about their activities in the Mekong Delta that did not even mention the operation by name, yet another complete whitewash. Of the 30,000 published books on the Vietnam War, according to Turse, “only a tiny fraction focus on American atrocities.” My Lai ultimately came to “blot out” all others. “Buried in forgotten US government archives, locked away in the memories of atrocity survivors, the real American war in Vietnam has all but vanished from public consciousness.”

Turse has more than enough of a story to tell without getting into the larger political questions of the Vietnam War, such as the political character of the Viet Cong and North Vietnam,[6] and the larger background role of the Soviet Union and China. To do so would change nothing about the barbarity of the American side of the war, and the moral outrage it provoked and still provokes, almost prior to any political thought. “US Out NOW!” was all the American anti-war movement in those years needed to know, but it is also important not to forget that both the Soviet Union and China, North Vietnam’s ostensible allies, received US President Richard Nixon in 1972 even as the United States was raining bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong, or that something on the order of 800,000 “boat people,” many of them from the Chinese Hoa minority, left Vietnam under duress in the years 1978 79, or finally that a serious inflow of Japanese capital began to arrive shortly after the victory of the North and the NLF. There is no discontinuity between the political forces, north and south, which defeated the United States, and the “doi moi” market reformers who since the early 1980s have transformed Vietnam into one of the Asian “tigers.” Much of the American (and more generally Western) New Left opposition to the Vietnam war was taken with Third Worldist visions of “socialism” as the goal of the Viet Cong and the North, visions which generally did not survive the late 1970s, when the front-line “progressive countries” Vietnam, Cambodia, China and the Soviet Union were all about to go to war with each other.

But to criticize Turse for neglecting these ultimate dimensions of the war would be, in light of what he has uncovered about America’s war at home, the most cretinous sniping. They are merely important to mention as a footnote. The truly troubling dimension of Turse’s narrative, is again, is how a decade of techno-war that killed upwards of five million people and maimed many more could, as he says, “have vanished from public consciousness.” We know that in the wake of Vietnam, the Pentagon expended great effort in not only whiting out the memories of the war, but also took great pains to assure that a perspective of “never again” would guide strategy on the home front to prevent a recurrence of Vietnam’s chilling television and press coverage, however incomplete it was. “Embedded” journalists and TV camera men, under careful tutelage, would henceforth prevent unwanted evening newscasts of decimated villages and homeless refugees. The Pentagon was obsessed with “controlling the narrative” of any future US adventures. And adventures there were: the “conquest” of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada; the strangulation of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and the cultivation of “muscular democracies” in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras; the “arrest” of Panamanian dictator Noriega, in which thousands of Panamanians died; the Navy’s “accidental” shoot-down of an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988; the naval shelling of Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, in revenge for some terrorist action or other; the truly Blitzkrieg first war against Iraq in 1990 1991, in which Colin Powell proved himself more than a worthy student of the mass killer Gen. Donaldson; the resulting punitive embargo of Iraq through the 1990s, in which hundreds of thousands of children died or were deformed by malnutrition; the 13-year-old war in Afghanistan, begun in 2001, in all probability a failure in its own terms; the second Iraq war, begun in 2003 and leading, with Afghanistan, to a debacle which will probably surpass Vietnam, as much of the Moslem world from Libya to Pakistan is crumbling into militia-and jihadi-controlled chaos.

If Vietnam has, once again, been largely forgotten, except for the sickening irony ofits offering the old US-built Da Nang naval base to the American navy in the new strategic chessboard that is the South China Sea, it has also been forgotten and covered over by new crimes of US imperialism in Central America and above all in the Middle East.

And yet, when all is said and done, Vietnam was still qualitatively different, to date, in the numbers of American troops and firepower committed over so many years, and in the impact on American society itself, which, despite everything, broke open something that has never been put back together again. Every new opinion poll shows more people in the United States deeply estranged from the government, not caring whether Republicans or Democrats control it; such estrangement began with Vietnam and more generally the “sixties.” One must however be careful: estrangement and cynicism are not yet revolutionary consciousness, and can move in many different political directions, some of them unpalatable.

And yet, walking around an American city or suburb or newly-gentrified neighborhood today, having just read Turse’s book, it is hard not to remember the conclusion of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (about of course a very different kind of war):

And then England—southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way…to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday…the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen—all sleeping the deep deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear we shall never wake until we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

  1. [1]In March 1968, “Charlie Company,” of the United States Army infantry, killed over 500 (mainly old) men, women and children in a Vietnamese hamlet, My Lai, suspected of harboring Viet Cong fighters. What happened there finally came to light in newspapers through the determined efforts of one GI, who passed the information about My Lai to journalist Seymour Hersh. Under the impact of public outcry, the Pentagon eventually tried one carefully selected fall guy, Lt. William Calley, who served a sentence of forty months of house arrest in his own quarters for war crimes ordered from far up the chain of command.
  2. [2]This was codified in the “MGR”—mere gook rule—according to which all Vietnamese were less than human.
  3. [3]The “concrete universal,” the Exhibit A for the Prosecution of the American techno-war was of course Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had come up through the top management of the Ford Motor Company and who believed in the application of the same systems analysis to warfare that he had developed at Ford.
  4. [4]Powell, as is widely known, wound up as a five-star general and head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he was able to apply what he had learned in Vietnam in the turkey shoot known as the first Iraq War (1990 – 91), which featured (among other things) the infamous “Mile of Death,” a stretch of freeway in Kuwait where hundreds of thousands of fleeing Iraqi soldiers were strafed and napalmed.
  5. [5]A case in which seven members of Special Forces were implicated in the torture and killing of intelligence operative Thai Khac Chuyen. All charges were dismissed by the Secretary of the Army, Stanley Resor, thus preventing “a dossier of CIA and Special Forces assassinations” from being used as courtroom evidence.
  6. [6]See for example my review of Ngo Van’s Vietnam 1920 – 1945: Révolution et contre-révolution sous la domination coloniale (Paris, 2000) for some historical background; see also Ngo Van’s autobiography In the Crossfire (Oakland, 2010).

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