Last March, after a US soldier methodically shot and killed sixteen Afghan civilians, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta repeated that hoariest of maxims, “War is hell.” The saying is often attributed to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, whose Union troops blazed a path of total destruction from Atlanta to Savannah near the end of the Civil War. But because it conveniently obscures any sense of agency, the notion that war is hell has long provided cover for the most ghastly and gratuitous wartime acts. Responding to one veteran’s outrage over American massacres of South Vietnamese civilians, an army officer replied that it is “indeed unfortunate…that some incidents occur within combat zones.”
Yes, one can describe as hellish a war in which American soldiers forced a woman into a bunker and buried her alive; tied another to an armored vehicle and dragged her around her village; used unarmed civilians for target practice; mashed the head of a 5-year-old with a rifle butt; emptied an entire clip into a man fishing in a lake; mounted heads on pikes to terrify the villagers; threw a naked woman, presumably raped, onto a pile of nineteen other women and children, then sprayed them with M-16 fire. But to speak of some “indeed unfortunate” incidents that “occur” is obscene.
That’s one of the lessons of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (Metropolitan; $30), Nick Turse’s rigorously documented compendium of US atrocities large and small, committed from the air and on the ground during that conflict. Based on new archival research and more than 100 interviews with veterans and Vietnamese, the book elaborates on the argument that Turse, a fellow at the Nation Institute, previously put forward in these pages [“A My Lai a Month,” December 1, 2008]: that the violence against civilians in Vietnam was not an aberration, but rather “pervasive and systemic,” the inevitable and often intended result of US policies.
Among the most pernicious of these was the fanatical insistence on “body counts” as a measure of military success. The value of the tallies was not just symbolic: the more “kills” a unit called in, the better its position in the field. Trigger-shy troops were punished with “less support in the form of airlifts—resulting in long, hot, dangerous hikes through treacherous terrain instead of helicopter rides to or from the base,” according to Turse, who shows due sympathy for the youthfulness (and fearfulness) of the GIs.
These vile incentives stemmed from the same systemic racism and strategic inconsistencies that doomed the American enterprise from the start. After learning in training that the “enemy is anything with slant eyes who lives in the village,” US troops massacred the very South Vietnamese civilians for whom they were purportedly fighting. Turse only hints at how this tactical and moral perversity led directly to defeat.
The great contradiction of the war, and another lesson of this book, is that even as the United States officially downplayed the popularity of the Viet Cong insurgency, many US soldiers used it as a rationalization for slaughtering individual Vietnamese and even entire villages. A few common adages, quoted by Turse, bear this out: “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.” “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.” “The sooner they all die, the sooner we go back to the World.” And when civilians were “accidentally” killed? One marine explains: “No problem, just stick a chicom [Chinese communist] grenade on ‘em, or an AK[-47], they become VC.” Another, defending the murder of children: “Tough shit, they grow up to be VC.” So why were we in Vietnam?
The real story of what the Vietnamese rightfully call “the American War” is not so much unknown as insufficiently recognized, less “untold” than too seldom acknowledged. In 1988, the late Alexander Cockburn wrote in this magazine that “My Lai remains a symbol, just an intimation of what happened in that destroyed land.” Despite intensive (and ongoing) efforts to suppress that horrible reality—much of this book relies on files from the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret Pentagon project to investigate allegations of American atrocities, only to hide them from the public—it is Turse’s immense achievement to have written a book that painstakingly chronicles at least a fraction of the murders and gang rapes committed in our name.
“We make more VC than we kill by the way these people are treated,” one marine wrote to his parents, foreshadowing the absurdity of more recent US adventures. “I won’t go into detail but some of the things that take place would make you ashamed of good old America.” Kill Anything That Moves—words that appeared repeatedly in military directives during the war—makes it clear that if an American president ever did have the courage to embark on an “apology tour,” Vietnam would have to be the first stop.
Jonathan Schell writes about Nick Turse’s book in the February 4, 2013, issue of The Nation.