The Real American War in Vietnam

The Real American War in Vietnam

In his new book Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse shows that what were often presented as isolated atrocities were in fact the norm.


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

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. 

* * *

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. 

The broad results of the American military’s actions in 
I Corps were thus visible from the air. No scorched-earth policy had been announced, but scorched earth had been the result. Yet a huge piece was still missing from the puzzle. I was not able to witness most of the significant ground operations at first hand. I sought to interview some soldiers, but they wouldn’t talk, though one did hint at dark deeds. “You wouldn’t believe it, so I’m not going to tell you,” he told me. “No one’s ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over and we’ve all gone home, no one is ever going to know.” 

In other words, like so many reporters in Vietnam, I saw mainly one aspect of one corner of the war. What I saw was ghastly, but it was not enough to serve as a basis for generalizations about the war as a whole. Just a few years later, in 1969, thanks to the determined efforts of the courageous soldier Ron Ridenhour and the persistence of the reporter Seymour Hersh, one piece of the hidden truth about ground operations in I Corps came to light. It was the My Lai massacre, in which more than 500 civilians were murdered in cold blood by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the Americal Division. News of other atrocities in the area eventually filtered into the press, often many years after the fact. For example, in 2003 the Toledo Blade disclosed a campaign of torture and murder over a period of months, including the summary execution of two blind men by a reconnaissance squad called the Tiger Force. Still, no comprehensive picture of ground operations in that area emerged. 

* * *

The great contribution of Turse’s book is that it has brought the everyday reality of these atrocities fully to light. Almost immediately after US troops arrived in I Corps, a pattern of savagery was established. My Lai, it turns out, was exceptional only in the numbers killed. Turse offers a massacre at a village called Trieu Ai in October 1967 as a paradigm. A Marine company suffered the loss of a man to a booby trap near the village, which had been mostly burned down by other US forces a few days earlier. But some villagers had returned for their belongings. Now the Marine company, enraged by its loss but unable to find the enemy, entered the village firing M-16s, setting fire to intact houses and launching grenades into bomb shelters. One Marine marched a woman into a field and shot her. Another reported that there were children in the shelters being blown up. His superior replied, “Tough shit, they grow up to be VC.” Five or ten people rushed out of a shelter when a grenade was thrown into it; they were cut down in a hail of fire. Turse comments: 

In the story of Trieu Ai one can see virtually the entire war writ small. Here was the repeated aerial bombing and artillery fire…. Here was the deliberate burning of peasant homes and the relocation of villagers to refugee camps…. Angry troops primed to lash out, often following losses within the unit; civilians trapped in their paths; and officers in the field issuing ambiguous or illegal orders to young men conditioned to obey—that was the basic recipe for many of the mass killings carried out by army soldiers and marines over the years. 

The savagery often extended to the utmost depravity: gratuitous torture, killing for target practice, the slaughter of children and babies, gang rape. Consider the following all-too-typical actions of Company B, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry, beginning in October 1967: 

[The company] stumbled upon an unarmed young boy. “Somebody caught him up on a hill and they brought him down and the Lieutenant asked who wanted to kill him…” medic Jamie Henry later told army investigators. A radioman and another medic volunteered for the job. The radioman…”kicked the boy in the stomach and the medic took him around behind a rock and I heard one magazine go off complete on automatic.”… 

A few days after this incident, members of that same unit brutalized an elderly man to the point of collapse and then threw him off a cliff without even knowing whether he was dead or alive. A couple of days after that, they used an unarmed man for target practice…. And less than two weeks later, members of Company B reportedly killed five unarmed women…. unit members rattled off a litany of other brutal acts committed by the company…[including] a living woman who had an ear cut off while her baby was thrown to the ground and stomped on…. 

Turse’s findings complete the picture of the war in I Corps for me. Whatever the policy might have been in theory, the reality, on the ground as in the air, was the scorched earth I had witnessed from the FAC planes. Whatever the United States thought it was doing in I Corps, it was actually waging systematic war against the people living in the area. 

And so it was, as Turse voluminously documents, throughout the country. A case in point is the Mekong Delta, an area of less than 15,000 square miles, laced with rivers and canals, and home to as many as 6 million people. In February 1968, Maj. Gen. Julian Ewell, soon to be known by Vietnamese and Americans alike as “the Butcher of the Delta,” was placed in charge of the 9th Infantry Division, launching Operation Speedy Express later that year. His specialty, amounting to an obsession, was increasing the “body count,” ordained by the high command as the key measure of progress in defeating the enemy. Theoretically, only slain soldiers were to be included in the count. But as everyone, soldier or reporter, who spent half an hour in the field learned, virtually all slain Vietnamese—most of them clearly civilians—were included in the total. The higher an officer’s body count, the more likely his promotion. Privates who turned in high counts were rewarded with mini-vacations. One “Concerned Sergeant” who protested the operation in an anonymous letter to the high command at the time described the results as he witnessed them:

A battalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day. With 4 battalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 to 1500 a month, easy. (One battalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!) If I am only 10% right, and believe me its lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay each month for over a year.

This range of estimates was confirmed in later analyses. The result was the same as in I Corps: indiscriminate warfare, unrestrained by calculation or humanity, on the population of South Vietnam [for more on Speedy Express, and the Army investigation and cover-up, see Turse, “A My Lai a Month,” December 1, 2008]. 

Turse reminds us that off the battlefield, too, casual violence—such as running over Vietnamese on the highway with military trucks, seemingly for entertainment—was widespread. The commonest terms for Vietnamese were the racist epithets “gooks,” “dinks” and “slopes.” And the military machine was supplemented by an equally brutal US/South Vietnamese prison system in which torture was standard procedure and extrajudicial executions common. 

* * *

How did it happen? How did a country that believes itself to be guided by principles of decency permit such savagery and then allow it to continue for more than a decade? Why, when the first main-force American units arrived in early 1965, did so many of them almost immediately cast aside the rules of war as well as all ordinary scruples and sink to the lowest levels of barbarity? What chains of cause and effect linked “the best and the brightest” of America’s top universities and corporations—those who were running the war—with the murder of the buffalo boys in the Mekong Delta? How did the gates of hell open? The moral and cognitive seasickness that attended the Vietnam War afflicts us still. Yet Kill Anything That Moves permits us, finally, to at least formulate the right questions. Reflection would certainly seem in order for a country that seems to have done its best to unlearn even such lessons as were learned from that debacle, in preparation for other misbegotten wars like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. I cannot pretend to begin to do full justice to the issue. Here, however, are a few thoughts offered in a spirit of thinking out loud. 

Roughly since the massacre at My Lai was revealed, people have debated whether the atrocities of the war were the product of decisions by troops on the ground or of high policy and orders issued from above—whether they were “aberrations” or “operations.” The first school obviously lends itself to the “bad apple in a healthy barrel” school, which blames individual units for the atrocities while exonerating the higher-ups, whereas the second tends to exonerate the ground soldiers while pinning the blame on their superiors. Turse’s book, which shows that the barrel was rotten through and through, discredits the aberration school once and for all. Yet it does not seem precisely to offer support for the orders-from-the-top school. 

Perhaps these alternatives framed the situation badly in the first place. The relationship between policy and practice was more peculiar than the two choices suggest. It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war. But in Vietnam, it was not just that the United States was doing one thing while saying another (for example, destroying villages while claiming to protect them), true as that was. Rather, from its very inception, the war’s structure was shaped by the attempt to superimpose a false official narrative on a wholly different reality. In the official version of the war, the people of South Vietnam were resisting North Vietnam’s attempts to conquer them in the name of world communism, and the United States was assisting the South in its patriotic resistance. In fact, most people in South Vietnam, insofar as they were politically minded, were nationalists who sought to push out foreign conquerors—first the French, then the Japanese, then the Americans, along with their client state, the South Vietnamese government, which consequently was never able to develop independent strength in a land supposedly its own. This fictitious official narrative was not added on later to disguise unpalatable facts; it was baked into the enterprise from the outset. 

Accordingly, the collision of policy and reality took place on the ground. The US armed forces, including their local commanders, were confronted with a reality that the policy-makers had not faced and would not face for many long years. Expecting to be welcomed as saviors, the troops found themselves in a sea of nearly universal hostility. No manual was handed out in Washington to deal with the unexpected situation. It was left to the soldiers to decide what to do, so they started to improvise. To this extent, policy was made in the field. The resulting situation was a combination of an incomprehensible and impossible mission dictated from above (to win the “hearts and minds” of a population, already overwhelmingly hostile, while pulverizing their society) and locally conceived and often illegal but sometimes vague orders, both leaving plenty of room for spontaneous, rage-driven improvisation. It was in this gap between the fiction of high policy and the actuality of the conflict that the tragic, futile, abhorrent war on the people of Vietnam was born. 

The improvisatory character of all this, as Turse emphasizes, can be seen in the fact that, although abuse of civilians was pervasive, it was not consistent: “Sometimes U.S. troops handed out candies. Sometimes they shot at people. Sometimes they passed through a village hardly touching a thing. Sometimes they burned all the homes.” As one villager in a brutalized area told him years later: “We didn’t understand the reasons why they acted in the way they did.” 

Alongside the imaginary official war, then, there grew up this real war, the one that Turse has described. It is no defense of what happened to point out that, for the troops, it was not so much their orders from on high as their circumstances—what Robert Jay Lifton has called “atrocity-producing situations”—that generated their degraded behavior. But neither does such an observation provide an escape from accountability for the war’s civilian architects, without whose blind and misguided policies these infernal situations never would have arisen. 

In one further bitter irony, at a certain point, this real war came to be partially codified at higher and higher levels of command into policies that translated into commands from the top. That is, the generals gradually—if absurdly, in light of the supposed goals of the war—sanctioned and promoted the de facto war on the population. Enter General Ewell and his body counts. In other words, the improvising moved up the chain of command. At that point, the soldiers were following orders when they killed civilians, though, as in the case of Ewell, the orders rarely took exactly that form. 

The generals sometimes went quite far in formulating these rules, even though they flagrantly contradicted official policies. To cite one example supplied by Turse, in 1965 Gen. William Westmoreland, who had been made commander of US forces in Vietnam in 1964, in effect implicitly declared war on the peasantry of South Vietnam. He said: 

Until now the war has been characterized by a substantial majority of the population remaining neutral. In the past year we have seen an escalation to a higher intensity in the war. This will bring about a moment of decision for the peasant farmer. He will have to choose if he stays alive. 

Like his underlings, Westmoreland was improvising. This new policy of terrorizing the peasantry into submission was utterly inconsistent with the Washington narrative of winning hearts and minds, but it was fully consistent with everything US forces were doing on the ground. 

One more level of the conflict needs to be mentioned in this context. Documents show that as early as the mid-1960s, the central assumptions of the war—that the Vietnamese foe was a tentacle of world communism, that the war was a front in the Cold War rather than an episode in the long decolonization movement of the twentieth century, that the population of South Vietnam was eager for rescue by the United States—were widely suspected to be mistaken in official Washington. But one other assumption was not found to be mistaken: that whichever administration “lost” Vietnam would likely be defeated in the next election. Rightly or wrongly, presidents lived in terror that if they lost the war, they would be politically destroyed by a movement of the kind Joe McCarthy launched after the American “loss” of China in 1949. In the later words of McGeorge Bundy, President Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser, “LBJ isn’t deeply concerned about who governs Laos, or who governs South Vietnam—he’s deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ball game of the Cold War. The great Cold War championship gets played in the largest stadium in the United States and he, Lyndon Johnson, is the quarterback, and if he loses, how does he do in the next election? So don’t lose. Now that’s too simple, but it’s where he is. He’s living with his own political survival every time he looks at these questions.” 

Domestic political considerations trumped the substantive reasoning that, once the futility and horror of the enterprise had been revealed, might have brought an end to the war. More and more, the war was seen to be a murderous farce, but politics dictated that it must continue. As long as this remained the case, no news from Vietnam could lead to a reversal of policy. This was the top floor of the skyscraper of lies that was the Vietnam War. The primacy of domestic politics was the largest and most fact-proof of the atrocity-producing situations. Do we imagine that this has changed?

In “Remember and Thank George McGovern,” Tom Hayden describes the late senator and presidential candidate’s role in ending the war in Vietnam (Oct. 23).

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