Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves:The Real American War in Vietnam, has been praised by virtually everyone who has read it, from men who were there, in uniform, like Dan Ellsberg [“no book I have read in decades has so shaken me,”] Andrew Bacevich [“the evidence he has assembled is irrefutable,”] and Tim O’Brien[ “a record of repetitive deceit and cover-ups on the part of high ranking officers and officials,”] to journalists who saw much and said so, like Jonathan Schell [“shocking almost beyond words.”] Others who have written about the war, like Frances Fitzgerald [“the most comprehensive account to date of the war crimes committed by U.S. forces in Vietnam”] and who investigated atrocities like Seymour Hersh [“reminds us again, in this painful and important book, why war should always be a last resort,”] are impressed. If these who knew so much about the war before reading are stunned, how can the ordinary reader not be?
Taking as his point of departure the widely known My Lai massacre of March 16, 1968, Turse meticulously documents incident after incident of similar atrocities, until now unknown, or disbelieved and forgotten by the American public. Perhaps no ground assault involved 500 civilian deaths in a single day as My Lai did, but the cumulative effect of day after day, week after week, year after year of US military savagery against the very people it had been sent to ‘defend’ from the communists, can scarcely be grasped. As Turse says in his introduction, it was “a system, a machinery of suffering.” The sheer brutality of “Operation Speedy Express’ in the Mekong Delta which over 6 months [December 1968 to 31 May 1969] killed something like 5,000 civilians, as acknowledged by the Army, dwarfs the toll at My Lai, and yet until Turse did his research it was known, if at all, only through a June 19, 1972 compressed and eviscerated article by Newsweek‘s Saigon Bureau Chief, Kevin Buckley, with Alexander Shimkin. Those who led the operation, General Julian Ewell and Col Ira Hunt, were later asked by the Army to document their work for use by incoming commanders.
As Ron Ridenhour, who repeatedly pressed members of Congress to look into something “rather dark and bloody” and was responsible for the Army beginning an investigation of the butchery at My Lai, says “this was an operation, not an aberration.
Kill Anything That Moves began when Turse stumbled on a cache of documents at the U.S. National Archives while researching PTSD as a graduate student in 2001.
“… I held the yellowing records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret Pentagon task force that had been assembled after the My Lai massacre to ensure the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal. (There were) box after box of criminal investigation reports … with the most detailed and nightmarish descriptions; other files … hinted at terrible events that had received no follow up… There were more than 300 allegations of massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations and other atrocities substantiated by army investigators.
Few, if any, of these had ever come to wide army or marine corps attention, much less to the public at large. In fact, the purpose of the General Westmoreland initiated task force had not been to find, investigate and try to stop atrocities from happening in the field, but to be aware of such courts- martial and allegations as did occur and make sure the Command was not blind-sided.
In the 12 years that followed Turse immersed himself in the initial cache of documents. He found more records at the National Archives. He filed Freedom of Information requests and followed leads to other incidents, reported and not. He read volumes of reporting from journalists in Vietnam, too young (b 1975) to have read them as they appeared. He interviewed soldiers and marines who had been involved or who had witnessed the events. He flew repeatedly to Vietnam to interview survivors. The 262 pages of text and 85 pages of detailed notes in Kill Anything That Moves constitute a mini-encyclopedia of war time atrocities committed by U.S. troops and their South Vietnamese, Korean and other allies.
A marching song sung by the 1st Cavalry division gives the grotesque snapshot:
After a useful introduction, Turse reconstructs one of the incidents contained in the War Crimes files, one which we will see occurred over and over again. Following the killing of one of their own by a booby trap, a marine company (about from 80-225 men divided into three to five platoons) is ordered — and wants to go– into the nearby village, Trieu Ai. Though it wouldn’t have been called collective punishment, which is against the rules of war, that is exactly what the marines had in mind: revenge for the death of their buddy. And the orders?
“Move through the ville. When we reached the other side ‘there was nothing to be left alive or unburned.’ One Corporal remembers clearly “kill everyone in the ville and burn it down.”
“Kill anything that moves” is a phrase repeated again and again through the book — not as a repetitive point of emphasis coming from one source, but remembered by different soldiers in different units and different operations. It was the bleeding edge of how the war was understood, of how the orders coming down and the pressure for body counts were interpreted by enormous numbers of those who were there. No aberration.
After opening with the scene at Trieu Ai, Turse takes a brief excursion into the culture of combat life, from boot camp [my favorite – “The freest soldier is the soldier who willingly submits to authority;” Army field manual, as cited by a chaplain] to interviews about the use of torture on enemy prisoners (60% of army officers in 1969 said they would employ it; 96% of marine second lieutenants) to an instructor at Fort Benning who asked his class of young second lieutenants what they would do if an enemy machine gunner had killed six of their men and then laid down his gun, and walked forward, unarmed. The 200 students shouted back in unison: “Shoot him! Shoot him!”
In Trieu Ai, shoot they did:
An old woman shot multiple times
Grenades thrown into underground bunkers filled with women and children
A mother with a two year old child fleeing the explosions in the bunker, shot, the baby to death
Forced by the marines to cross a river, one man shot when he couldn’t get out of the mud.
In this case a court martial did follow, triggered by one remorseful corporal who confided in his chaplain. The company commander who had directed the raid, and the subsequent efforts to cover it up, was convicted of “failing to report the incident.” The lance corporal who killed the old woman was acquitted because “the company had been fired upon and it was impossible to distinguish civilians from combatants.”
We are only on page 59.
The subsequent chapters attempt some sort of categorization of atrocity: dropping tear-gas on men cutting wood then shooting those running from the resulting forest fire; shooting anything that moved and calling it a free-fire zone; round the clock bombing; shooting those who looked up at helicopters; shooting those who didn’t; tossing grenades into underground bunkers where civilians had gone for shelter; shooting those who came running out. Napalm, engineered to burn hotter and longer than in WW II, was used indiscriminately, the victims referred to as ‘crispy critters.’ Sexual exploitation, rape, gang rape, gang rape and murder make their appearance — not once, not twice, not aberrations, but again and again and again.
Torture was regularly used by South Vietnamese interrogators and their US advisers. Bombs were developed and used with the sole purpose of maiming any in the vicinity. Some 285 million guava bombs were used over the course of the war, delivered by 4,000 helicopters.
And these are all battle field related. Beyond that were speeding convoys, hit and run injuries and deaths, things thrown from the back of trucks:
I hate to say it, but the idea occurred to me more than once that some of these soldiers had earned the PTSD they might have taken home with them.
Linked to the discovery of what was happening all over Vietnam as a matter of policy, training and attitude, was the constant, concerted, determined denial that anything of the sort was going on — orchestrated at the highest reaches of the command structure. There were investigations to be sure. Seymour Hersh’s widely known expose of My Lai, one year after the events, put the fear of being shamed into the officer ranks.
[But] even when detailed, reliable atrocity allegations came from soldiers within the army’s own ranks, the military often tamped down the reports, suppressed investigation findings, or dragged out the cases for as long as possible. If any perpetrators were charged they could frequently count on military juries or friends in high places to let them off with very little punishment — or with none at all.
It’s a difficult book to read. Whether born after the war, as Turse was, and not brought up saturated by reporting and images of war’s misery, or for those alive during the war now being reminded of what has been slowly dimmed in memory, the content is unnerving. As Daniel Ellsberg says “no book I have read in decades has so shaken me.” But it is also difficult in its scope and organization.
Having begun with the War Crimes Working Groups files, Turse seems to have been gripped by the urge to know everything, not just the record of platoon or company sized atrocities, and their cover up, but everything: helicopter attacks, naval weapons fire, attack jet bombings, grenades, napalm, 500 pound bombs. His research is nothing short of heroic. As he absorbed what he was finding the aim of the book must have shifted — from an examination of the facts and faces in the files to nothing less than, as he says, “explaining the system of misery brought upon the Vietnamese by the US military and it’s civilian leadership.”
This is an enormous task and there are some 30,000 non fiction books about the war already in print. What most of them do not do, as Turse points out, is to focus on American atrocities, unless on the My Lai affair which by its size and prominence in the journalistic record seems to have crowded out all the rest. However, as he has found himself, it is hard to escape the idea that the entire war, in all its parts, was one moving atrocity and so hard to take one aspect of it and focus on it.
The organization of his findings presented another problem for me. The strongest chapter came late in the book and detailed an operation called Speedy Express in the Mekong Delta, in what was known as IV Corps. He walks us through the development of the tactics of saturation bombing [4,338 gunship sorties, 6,500 tactical airstrikes, 1,784 tons of napalm, 311,083 artillery rounds] and the personalities of the two ranking officers–one called by his troops “The Butcher of the Delta” — who conceived and over-saw the operation — in which something like 5,000 civilians died. As one soldier who wrote to General Westmoreland said, it was, “a My Lai each month for over a year.”
Other chapters, though filled with dates and reports of atrocities, aren’t organized around operations, or a sequence in time. “A System of Suffering” describes the US strategy built on body-counts and the effects that had on conduct by men in the field. It talks about Rules of Engagement and their non-observance and non enforcement. One atrocity and then another are cited as illustrative but, occurring at unrelated times, different locations, and carried out by different units, the effect on me was a muddied sense of “more of the same shit,” rather than a sense that a case was being made, new material added to old, all logically building to a necessary indictment.
I was one of millions who knew viscerally and cognitively from 1965 to 1975 about the infamy of the war. We knew from images and reporting of atrocities from the air. I was showing a documentary called Faces about napalm, defoliation and saturation bombing to young people in early 1970. At least after Hersh’s My Lai revelations, we knew of hundreds of small-unit atrocities. Veterans coming home were standing up and and confessing: I saw this. I was there. What I thought I’d find in Kill Anything That Moves was new, clear and compelling evidence of what went on, carried out by whom, and who knew it. For the extremely knowledgeable reader that may be there. For me, however, sorting out what was new from what was already known, was difficult.
The prominence of the cache of War Crimes files is reduced by the way they are expertly integrated into all his other sources. As a good reporter he creates multi-sided accounts of incidents, merging the found accounts with contemporaneous war-time reporting and his own later interviews. He tells us what marines said and did, what the Vietnamese did and felt. It is good stuff. It is persuasive, but it often reads like something we have seen in Apocalypse Now, Platoon, or Casualties of War. What we don’t get is the newness of the core information.
Detailed notes do reveal where all the information comes from, but to get it we have to turn back at every footnote (3-5 per page) to discover that, oh, this is from a trial, this is from 1968 reporting, this is from a recent interview. It’s a measure of his thoroughness that short coherent narratives emerge from widely disparate sources. But the effect of pulling back a curtain on what had been hidden seems lost to me. We get a litany of atrocities, not a detective story into 300 investigations, into what the Pentagon knew and when they knew it, and what they did and did not do about it.
I’m not entirely sure, had I been his editor, how I would have done it differently, though I think organization by time and place rather than by concept or theme (“Over kill,” “Unbounded Misery,”) would have given readers a surer purchase on the march of misery. [George Feiffer’s 584 page Tennozan, The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb is a fine example of masses of data set in sequential chapters, moving through time and alternating between Americans to Japanese to Okinawans in turn, giving a sturdy, memory-friendly platform to hold the mountains of plans, fears, events, quotes, actions. One isn’t puzzled about when and where any event happened or its relation to those before and after. Not so with much of Kill Anything.]
Perhaps focusing on four or five courts martial and four or five allegations dropped “for lack of evidence” –investigating the investigations– would have made a stronger point about the culpability of the high command. I would have liked to know more of the details behind his assertions of “tamped down the reports, suppressed investigation findings.”
Despite such post war books as Dereliction of Duty which castigates the Joint Chiefs for what the title says, and the prominence of such thoughtful former soldiers as Andrew Bacevich and Karl Marlantes, I know of no study of what the military knew about atrocities and when they knew it, up and down the line, and what, if anything, was done. Though there was recognition that the army was in “a state of collapse,” and that “morale, discipline and battleworthiness are…lower and worse than at anytime in this century” the corrective was not a soul searching of how “winning hearts and minds” turned into “exterminating hearts and minds.” The ‘collapse was cured through forgetting, “moving on”, and embarking on a new techno-war in the First Gulf War, in which few if any face to face encounters took place. Given what we have come to know about military morale and actions in Iraq and Afghanistan (and we probably know a small percentage) it would seem that rot not exposed to the light of day resurfaces in atrocities of a similar kind.
Perhaps beginning the book with a survey of what was publicly known about atrocities before the book, and following with what his research now shows, would have highlighted the forgotten with the new. His opening story about Trieu Ai is instructive, as it was used in an early claim of US atrocities in a book by Mark Lane, better known as an early Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist. Neil Sheehan, famous for his tough reporting from the battle field was appalled by Lane’s sloppy research and said so in a New York Times Book Review essay. Later, Gary Kulik, who had been a conscientious objector turned medic in Vietnam, tracked down the soldier cited by Lane and set forth his own account, debunking Lane’s claim of a major massacre with a smaller ‘tragedy of war’ story involving under ten Vietnamese. The Turse story sounds somewhat like the one Kulik tells, though with entirely different conclusions. In fact Kulik, author of War Stories: False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters and Winter Sholdiers — What Really Happened in Vietnam,” and now a conservative commentator, takes Turse to task not only for the story but the entire book and his general ‘not interested in the facts’ attitude. I’m not interested in a dissection of the two claims here, but they emphasize the difficulty for the reader of knowing what has already been told, what twice-told and what is new and, one hopes, clarifying.
[It is interesting, as always, how two observers will see two objects depending on the light they bring. According to Turse the War Crimes files are a record of cover up and show the mockery of justice. To Kulik, the courts-martial and punishments (4th para.) indicate the seriousness of the Army response to war-crimes. ]
When we close the book, what do we have? Why do we read books about war anyway? Some I suppose, read for entertainment: for visceral thrills while in safe places, to feel self-competent by knowing weapons nomenclature, tactics and ballistics, to Monday morning quarterback the battles won and lost. Others, me included, read to understand how men (mostly men) behave in war, and Why. And I read for actionable information, not just why men volunteer to go to war but why so often they invert the very morality they would claim to be defending. How can this be changed? How can the conveyor belt of war fighting, powered by prestige opinion, fed by vested interests, fueled by unreasonable fears ever be stopped? How, if wars will always be fought, can brakes be to stop the skid of armies and individuals into the unspeakable, be ensured?
Turse doesn’t aim to answer these questions, and mine just continue. I try to understand, as medical researchers have begun to study those who are well in order to understand illness, by thinking about the men who did not join in the mayhem, or if they did, repented, and spoke out, often with great danger to themselves.
Who are these men and why are there so few? Why, when all normal behavior towards other humans is suddenly collapsed and replaced by behavior that weeks earlier would have been considered unthinkable, do so few stop, stand up, hold fast to what they know about good and evil? Ron Ridenhour is the best known… There were others
AND this is what I keep looking for. It is from the actions of men like these that moral histories can be written, heroes rightly exalted, others reminded of their actions, and called to do the same. It’s from the stories of such men as these that others may learn to think before they join the army, think before they cheer a war, think before believing that it’s OK to kill another because emotions are running high and there are quotas to be met.
My difficulties with the book notwithstanding, Kill Anything That Moves is a book which should be read. By many. In fact, because it didn’t yield easily to me, I’ve read it several times. For those who feel they know enough, I would say that being re-minded is always good. It’s too easy to let what we knew then slip away and let the youngsters morph the current “Thank You For Your Service” meme, into acceptance of wars proposed and all that men will do in them.
It should be read by the soldiers who are now in ranks, by thoughtful former soldiers who will demand its use in war colleges and the academies. But as important as soldiers reading it, are the civilians who send the soldiers. Smart young staffers of the armed services committee, those who have the ears of the President, the senators and congressmen who salivate to bomb Iran, bomb Syria, intervene in X and Y and Z should read this.
Only through understanding what war as Actually like, where savagery becomes a synonym for normalcy, will the thrill of battle lose its luster and fewer rush to the calls of glory.