A Nation Unhinged: The Grim Realities of “The Real American War”

Tom Gallagher on

A Nation Unhinged: The Grim Realities of “The Real American War”

August 4th, 2013 reset - +

Triptych image: Jesse Chehak, "Blame the Sun"

WE SHOULD MAKE NICK TURSE an honorary baby boomer for writing Kill Anything That Moves. A history of the Vietnam War that finds the My Lai massacre more the rule than the exception, this book is almost guaranteed to reveal something that will drop your jaw — at least once. For me, it was the number of American military helicopter sorties flown during the Vietnam War: over 36 million. Filled with such shocking details, Kill Anything That Moves will shake you with a deeper understanding of the serial atrocity that was the US war effort in Vietnam.

Though under 40, Turse has written just the sort of book we might have hoped to get from more baby boomers as they entered their autobiographical years. Say what you will about whether those who lived through World War II merit the title of this country’s “Greatest Generation”; they have, at the least, proven themselves America’s greatest memoir-writing generation. Never before have so many stepped forward to tell their truths, the stories of man’s inhumanity to man that they witnessed during the Holocaust and the Second World War. Which makes the relative scarcity of public reflection on the Vietnam War all the more striking, especially given all the shouting it inspired at the time.

Yes, the war looms large in collective memory — as the great alienation engine of the 1960s back in the US. But Turse’s book reminds us that the primary “tragedy of Vietnam” was not that America somehow “lost its way” in fighting an ill-advised war but rather that the war itself was a series of criminal acts perpetrated by the US government on the Vietnamese people. My characterization may sound strident to many today. Most Americans at the time certainly would have disagreed with it. Yet as the war dragged on, the number who recognized the war’s criminality grew inexorably. If you don’t already know the reason, Kill Anything That Moves will show you. And if you already do, this book will remind you why we must never forget what our country did to Vietnam.

Before the baby boomers became the “Vietnam War Generation,” we might say that they had grown up as the “Nuremberg Generation.” The 1947 Nuremberg Nazi War Crimes Trials created something of a new world order — no longer would “just following orders” render you innocent of a war crime, nor would obeying the dogma of “my country, right or wrong.” Now, it seemed that it was a people’s right — perhaps even its responsibility — to oppose its government if that government pursued an unjust war. Even silence could be criminal. When the US government then tried to conduct the Vietnam War using draftees drawn from a generation that had grown up hearing these new rules, it encountered unprecedented difficulties.

Yet, so far as American public opinion on the Vietnam War went, the Nuremberg Trials may ultimately have proven something of a double-edged sword in the sense that the enormity of the Nazi crimes confronted in those hearings may have desensitized us to the horrors that came in later years. Could anything really shock us after Auschwitz? Perhaps not, but Kill Anything That Moves overwhelmingly argues that outrage is still possible — and necessary.

To fully appreciate the Vietnam War, we must first clear up any misperception that it was some kind of fair fight between Vietnamese, with the US helping one side and the Soviet Union and China helping the other. Turse’s book does so in many ways: There’s the fact that “our side” — American and South Vietnamese government forces — used 128,400 tons of ammunition a month in 1970, while the “other side” — the National Liberation Front (NLF), or “Viet Cong,” and the North Vietnamese government — never fired more than 1,000 tons a month. Or that the US dropped 32 tons of bombs per hour on North Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, causing some to predict it would become the most bombed country in world history.

This prediction proved wrong, Turse points out. It was South Vietnam, our ally, that became the most bombed country in history as “US and South Vietnamese aircraft flew 3.4 million combat sorties in Southeast Asia,” during which they dropped “the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.” The “other side,” remember, never launched an aerial bombing run. “Our side” subjected 12 million acres to saturation bombing and dropped 70 million liters of herbicide (notably Agent Orange). One of the war images that lives on is that of a naked nine-year old Phan Thi Kim Phúc running down a road after having been napalmed by our South Vietnamese allies in 1972. (“Our side” dropped 400,000 tons of napalm in Southeast Asia.) Though Kim Phúc survived, a low-end estimate of the number of Vietnamese civilians who did not would be 250,000. By 1968, a US Senate study had put the number of civilians killed or wounded in free fire zones at 300,000. Free fire zones, as Turse reports in an infantryman’s words, meant that “everyone, men, women, children, could be considered [a fair target]; you could not be held responsible for firing on innocent civilians since by definition there were none there.”

Indeed, an American advisor reported in 1970:

[I] have medivaced enough elderly people and children to firmly believe that the percentage of Viet Cong killed by support assets is equal to the percentage of Viet Cong in the population. That is, if 8% of the population [of] an area is VC about 8% of the people we kill are VC. 

In 1995, the Vietnamese government (i.e., the “other side,” which won the war) put the number of war dead at 3 million, 2 million of them civilians; a 2008 Harvard Medical School/University of Washington research study produced even higher figures. (The population of South Vietnam was about 19 million.) Obviously nothing comparable happened in the United States.

However, no one came away from the war unfamiliar with the killing of Vietnamese civilians, if only due to the public exposure of the March 15, 1968 My Lai massacre, where American troops murdered an entire village of 300–500 unarmed South Vietnamese, in addition to raping civilians, killing their livestock, mutilating corpses, burning down houses, and fouling drinking water. (In the official record, the Americans recorded killing 128 enemy troops and suffering no casualties.) But where My Lai, Turse writes, “has entered the popular American consciousness as an exceptional, one-of-a-kind event,” his investigation caused him to see “the indiscriminate killing of South Vietnamese noncombatants” as “neither accidental nor unforeseeable.”

For Turse, a journalist and the author of a previous book on the military industrial complex’s impact on daily life, the first glimmer of understanding came in 2001 when, as a graduate student researching post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans, he happened upon the records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. This was “a secret Pentagon task force that had,” he writes, “been assembled after the My Lai massacre to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” The papers “documented a nightmare war that is essentially missing from our understanding of the Vietnam conflict.”

In this book, the devil is truly in the details. There were, for instance, the military units placed in kill-count competition so that, one soldier recalled, “as you passed through the chow line you were able to look up at a chart and see that we had killed so many.” How to decide if a corpse was Viet Cong, and thus merited a chow line check mark? As the saying went, “If it’s dead and it’s Vietnamese, it’s VC.” (This expansive sense of the enemy was a Western tradition: when the French fought the Viet Minh (a predecessor organization to the Viet Cong), a French lieutenant once asked, “What is a Viet Minh – A Viet Minh? He is a dead Vietnamese.”) Turse writes, “The purest expression of the effect of the rules of engagement I ever found was on the death certificate of Nguyen Mai, an unarmed Vietnamese man who died ‘from a penetrating wound’ to the face.” The certificate listed the “external caus[e]” of death as “Running from US forces.” As Ron Ridenhour, the soldier who gathered the details of the My Lai massacre, said 25 years later, My Lai “was an operation, not an aberration.”

There were also the Zippo squads — the men who set thatched houses on fire with cigarette lighters when the military ordered the peasant population to move out because there were Viet Cong in the neighborhood. If this doesn’t strike you as the most brilliant way to win the Vietnamese “hearts and minds” our government told us it was striving for, you’re not alone. Turse cites a 1970 refugee study in one province where 80 percent blamed their homelessness on US and allied South Vietnamese government forces, 18 percent attributed the damage to actual battles between the two sides, and only 2 percent blamed the NLF alone. This assessment was backed up by John Paul Vann, head of the US’s Saigon-area “pacification” program, who wrote in 1968 that “I estimate 15,000 houses destroyed — about 99 percent of this has been the result of overreaction on the part of US and [South] Vietnamese units.” Overreaction.

Another of Turse’s interesting finds is an official army investigation of the “Torture of Prisoners of War by US Officers,” which concluded that such torture was “standard practice” among US troops. And the study Defense Secretary William McNamara commissioned in 1969 that found more “than 96 percent of Marine Corps second lieutenants […] surveyed […] indicated that they would resort to torture to obtain information.” Turse concludes:

For the Vietnamese, the American War was an endless gauntlet of potential calamities. Killed for the sake of a bounty or shot in a garbage dump, forced into prostitution or gang-raped by GIs, run down for sport on a roadway or locked away in jail to be tortured without the benefit of a trial — the range of disasters was nearly endless.

Not everyone was unaware of these monstrosities at the time. When the My Lai story surfaced in late 1969, Nixon’s White House advisors feared the case might “develop into a major trial almost of the Nuremberg scope and could have a major effect on public opinion.” In 1971, retired army general Telford Taylor, chief prosecution counsel at the Nuremberg Trials, raised the precedent of Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who was executed in 1946 after an American military tribunal found him guilty of failing to prevent atrocities by his troops — even though he had lost contact with the troops at the time the crimes were committed. Taylor suggested that General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, might be in a similar situation given what had occurred on his watch.

(Westmoreland once told a filmmaker: “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. As the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.” Damning as this opinion may sound now, it was well within mainstream discussion at the time. There were definitely Americans who thought that the huge numbers of Vietnamese that forced us to kill them — by not surrendering — was evidence of a general Asian lack of respect for the value of human life.)

But the administration managed to contain the fallout, with no convictions of anyone higher ranking than Lieutenant William Calley. In 1968, in terms of press coverage, even Ramparts, arguably the most radical mass-market publication in the nation, refused to run a war-crime story by a veteran who had witnessed the crime. But after My Lai became public knowledge, Turse asserts: “It was almost as if America’s leading media outlets had gone straight from ignoring atrocities to treating them as old news.” In 1972, Newsweek’s departing Saigon bureau chief filed a story about an operation called “Speedy Express,” in which he concluded that “thousands of unarmed, noncombatant civilians have been killed by American firepower. They were not killed by accident. The American way of fighting made their deaths inevitable.” His editors, however, argued that running the story would constitute a “gratuitous attack” upon the Nixon Administration, which had just taken such a hit over My Lai.

Henry Kissinger once told Richard Nixon, “Once we’ve broken the war, no one will care about war crimes.” And as the US turned the bulk of the war over to its South Vietnamese government allies to lose, Kissinger proved right. In the tremendous research effort that produced this book (including many interviews of Vietnamese and American soldiers), Turse finds that, “The scale of the suffering becomes almost unimaginable,” but not as “unimaginable as the fact that somehow, in the United States it was more or less ignored as it happened, and then written out of history even more thoroughly in the decades since.”

We will almost certainly never see an outpouring of truth-telling about Vietnam approaching that of the Second World War era for the simple reason that “we” were not on the side of the angels in Vietnam. But this only makes Turse’s work all the more significant.

¤

Tom Gallagher is a writer and political activist currently living in San Francisco.

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