A napalm strike erupts in a fireball near US troops on patrol in South Vietnam in 1966 during the Vietnam War. (AP Photo)
This is a joint Nation/Tom Dispatch article and will appear at TomDispatch.com.
For half a century, we have been arguing about the Vietnam War. Is it possible we did not know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible. But such, it turns out, has literally been the case. Now, in Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse has, for the first time, put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces were actually doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth. Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records and other Pentagon reports, firsthand interviews in Vietnam and in the United States as well as contemporaneous press accounts and important work by previous scholars, Turse shows that what were often presented as isolated atrocities— episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, torture—were in fact the norm, a continuous stream of atrocity that unfolded year after year throughout the country.
It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that thanks to the special character of the war, its fundamental reality—an accurate overall picture of what was occurring on the ground—has never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the American phase of the war, it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he presents plenty of numbers: for instance, the mind-boggling estimates that overall some 2 million civilians were killed and some 5 million wounded during the war, or that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties and expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.
Yet it would not have been enough simply to accumulate anecdotal evidence of abuses. Therefore, while providing an abundance of firsthand accounts, Turse has supplemented this approach. Much like a fabric, any social reality—a town, a university, a revolution, a war—has a pattern and a texture. No fact is an island; each one is rich with implications that reach out, so to speak, toward the wider area of surrounding facts. When some of these facts are confirmed, they begin to reveal the pattern and texture in question. Turse repeatedly invites us to ask what sort of larger picture each story implies. For example, he writes:
If one man and his tiny team could claim more KIAs than an entire battalion without raising red flags among superiors; if a brigade commander could up the body count by picking off civilians from his helicopter with impunity; if a top general could institutionalize atrocities through the profligate use of heavy firepower in areas packed with civilians—then what could be expected down the line, especially among heavily armed young infantrymen operating in the field for weeks, angry, tired, and scared, often unable to locate the enemy and yet relentlessly pressed for kills?
Like a tightening net, the web of stories and reports, drawn from myriad sources, coalesces into a convincing, inescapable portrait of this war—a portrait that, as an American, you do not wish to see, that, having seen it, you want to forget, but that you should not forget and that the facts force you to see and remember and take into account when you ask yourself what the United States has done and been in the last half-century and what it is still doing and still is.
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My angle of vision on these matters is a highly particular one. In early August of 1967, I arrived in I Corps, the northernmost district of US military operations in what was then South Vietnam. I was there to report for The New Yorker on the “air war.” The phrase was a misnomer. The Vietnamese foe, of course, had no assets in the air, and so there was no “war” of that description. There was only the unilateral bombardment of the land and people by a fantastic array of US aircraft. These ranged from the B-52, which laid down a pattern of destruction a mile long and several football fields wide; to fighter bombers capable of dropping (along with much else) 500-pound bombs and canisters of napalm; to the reconfigured DC-3 equipped with a cannon capable of firing 100 rounds per second; to the ubiquitous helicopters, large and small, that crowded the skies. All this was abetted by continuous artillery and naval bombardment into “free fire” zones. By the time I arrived, the destruction of villages and the removal of their people to squalid refugee camps was approaching completion; only a few pockets of villages survived (though people often returned to their blasted homes, now subject to indiscriminate artillery fire). I witnessed the destruction of many of these in Quang Ngai and Quang Tin provinces from the back seat of small Cessnas called “forward air control” planes. As we floated overhead day after day, long lines of houses burst into flame one after another as troops moved through the area of operation. In the meantime, the FACs were calling in air strikes requested by radio from the ground. In past operations, the villagers had been herded out of the area and into camps. But this time, no evacuation had been ordered, and the population was being subjected to the full fury of the ground and air assault. A rural society was torn to pieces before my eyes.