Writing about war crimes in an American war fought nearly 50 years ago is a thankless task for a journalist. But it is a subject that is more relevant than ever as the United States gears up for permanent global war in which U.S. troops may be sent to fight simultaneously in several Islamic countries. What really happened in Vietnam holds profound significance for understanding how the U.S. military operates.
That is why Nick Turse’s new book “Kill Anything That Moves” deserves the attention of activists in particular. It is the first real scholarly book on this subject, combining first-hand experiences interviewing the villagers who survived U.S. and South Korean massacres with research in the previously unknown files of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret Pentagon task force set up after My Lai. And it is the first to fully reflect the cumulative horror of the U.S. assault on millions of South Vietnamese.
Most Americans still think My Lai was an isolated case of American atrocity. Turse’s book documents the reality that My Lai was only the tip of the gigantic iceberg of war atrocities. He gleans from those Pentagon files the shocking fact that army investigators actually substantiated more than 300 atrocities by U.S. troops, including “massacres, rapes, murders, torture, assaults, mutilations….” They included 141 cases of torture of noncombatants.
But the same files show that there were another 500 allegations of atrocities that were never seriously investigated, including the murders of dozens and perhaps hundreds of Vietnamese civilians by the 101st Airborne’s Division’s Tiger Force.
As he read case after case of wanton killings by U.S. troops, Turse recalls, he “began to get a sense of the ubiquity of atrocity during the American War.” That ubiquity of U.S. atrocity in Vietnam raises questions that remain highly relevant in this era of acute American militarism: why did the U.S. military command allow such atrocities to flourish in Vietnam? Was it a matter of military culture? Was it a virulent form of racism that ran through not only the military but also U.S. society? Or was it part of a conscious military plan?
Turse shows that it was all of the above, but he puts primary emphasis on the conscious military plan that essentially authorized atrocities in advance, as long as they were committed against the residents of long-term Viet Cong base areas. He refers to “search-and- destroy tactics, loophole-laced rules of engagement and ‘free fire’ zones”.
And he has managed to ferret out a crucial incriminating document issued by Gen. William Westmoreland, the top U.S. commander in Vietnam, in 1965, which explicitly stated that “free strike zones” were to exclude populated areas “except those in accepted VC bases”. In other words, Westmoreland’s directive was saying that the civilian population of those areas was fair game.
In a final chapter, Turse tries to convey through important anecdotal evidence the way in which the military and the news media conspired to minimize or deny the prevalence of war crimes in the post My-Lai period. It features an account of how Newsweek correspondents Alex Shimkin and Kevin Buckley wrote a scathing investigative report on the months-long murderous rampage of U.S. forces in heavily populated Mekong Delta in late 1968 and the first half of 1969 called “Speedy Express” – only to have the story eviscerated by editors in New York and ignored by the rest of the media.
Writing a book about American war crimes poses an obvious challenge: how to hold the reader’s interest while reciting multiple litanies of murder. Because Turse is first-rate writer, and because he has personalized the story of U.S. war crimes, he has surmounted that challenge. The writing involves a great deal of narrative and it includes passages and even pages that are beautifully written. The epilogue of the book draws a connection between the “bad death” the Vietnamese believe their war dead suffer — trapped in a limbo between our world and the land of the dead” and the “bad death” of U.S. war crimes which “continue to haunt our society in profound and complex ways”.
Turse’s book invites a discussion of the significance of war crimes in Vietnam for the policies and politics of present era of the “permanent war state”. What does that bloody chapter in American foreign and military policy tell us about the nature of the military and civilian institution that spawned those crimes – and those political and media institutions that have covered them up for half a century? How does the issue of war crimes – both past and present-day – play in efforts to educate and organize about the folly of U.S. wars?
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]