The Burden of Atrocity

Nick Turse’s otherwise exhaustive account of the atrocities committed in Vietnam gives short shrift to the movement that made those crimes known.

Testifying in 1971 as part of the Winter Soldier Investigation, a war crimes hearing sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton distinguished the American war in Vietnam from other conflicts:

There’s a quality of atrocity in this war that goes beyond that of other wars in that the war itself is fought as a series of atrocities. There is no distinction between an enemy whom one can justifiably fire at and people whom one murders in less than military situations.

Concluding this thought by reflecting on the experience of soldiers and veterans, Lifton observed, “Now if one carries this sense of atrocity with one, one carries the sense of descent into evil.”

Nick Turse’s book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War In Vietnam, carries readers to the core of that evil. Forty years ago, Daniel Ellsberg explained to filmmaker Peter Davis, “We weren’t on the wrong side, we are the wrong side.” There would have been no war without the US arming, training, and fighting on the side of the various despotic governments of South Vietnam.

A conservative estimate of civilian deaths arising from the war is two million in South Vietnam alone, from a population of nineteen million. An analogous civilian casualty rate in the United States today would be nearly thirty-three million — in fact, looking at the dead and wounded in Vietnam as ratios of the general population puts the conflict on par with the horrendous bloodshed of World War II. As Kill Anything That Moves relives in graphic detail, the Vietnam War was horrendously brutal in its plans, execution and outcomes.

Like the author, I wasn’t old enough during the conflict itself to have any firsthand experience of the common sense of the era. But I grew up among veterans, in a liberal milieu, and heard dinner table conversation about Vietnam. Later, I came to learn about the war as an activist, and then as a student of the war and the movement that arose to confront it. My attitude has naturally always mirrored the majority of the war’s contemporaries, who continue to maintain that it was “fundamentally wrong and immoral.” Like many of them, and certainly like the millions who participated in the antiwar movement, I knew the broad outlines of Turse’s arguments and evidence before opening his book.

But my experience is unusual for Gen X’ers, and is even more so for the Millenials behind us who have had still less direct experience of war and its effects. Today’s thirty-year-olds were born in 1984. The Gulf War of 1991, which was to have finally laid the ghosts of Vietnam to rest, was their first experience of overt US warfare. That war was safely televised from a distance. Casualties were counted in the hundreds for the US and the low thousands for the Iraqis. Spin doctors got far ahead of stories of depleted uranium, sarin gas, and Gulf War Syndrome.

More recent wars, in Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan, find little support in the polls from any age group. Yet the greatest active opposition to these conflicts occurred in their early years, before the particular kinds of atrocities created in these countries had barely gotten underway, or even occurred. There’s little urgency in the opposition to the “technowars” that continue to be waged, and little widespread knowledge of what warfare means to its victims and perpetrators.

Reading Kill Anything That Moves evokes a sense of visceral revulsion and sickened recoil, reactions toward war that are rarely experienced in the US today in our more sanitized, draft-free, drone-filled conflicts. It is like getting repeatedly punched and bracing oneself for more — an overwhelming experience, even for readers already familiar with detailed accounts of the varieties of savagery perpetrated in Vietnam, and knew already the pervasive, normal nature of the war’s brutality.

What makes Kill Anything That Moves different from other texts that cover the same material is the sheer compendium of evidence. Each of the not-quite-the-same stories — ranging from massacres to rapes to murder to torture to running people over and compensating deaths with a few dollars for the bereaved families — bears the imprint of a violent logic repeating itself again and again.

Like others writing about the war crimes committed by the United States in Vietnam, Turse sets up his own narrative pointing out that the massacre at My Lai in 1968 — in which over 500 civilians were brutalized and killed — was the “tip of the iceberg” of non-combatant murder. Turse began his own investigations when, while conducting related doctoral research, he “stumbled upon” papers from the War Crimes Working Group, a secret task force created at the Pentagon after My Lai that collected files for over 300 such criminal incidents that had been substantiated by military investigators — none individually at the scale of My Lai, but indicative of a pattern of brutality Turse traces with his book. Over the years this group regularly reported such incidents up the chains of command at the Pentagon as well as the White House — not for the purposes seeking justice, but as part of an operation of “image management . . . to be parried or buried as quickly as possible.”

Beyond these files, Turse found further official documentary evidence of war crimes in similar archives. He interviewed government officials and over 100 American veterans of the war. He visited Vietnam, speaking with the victims of US warfare. There, searching out a hamlet that had been the site of one of the many civilian massacres he was investigating, he began to see that, rather than finding the “needle in the haystack” of the small rural village in the Vietnamese countryside marked by this horror, he was instead discovering a “haystack of needles,” a whole social landscape overwhelmed by a history of criminal brutality and death.

The narrative frame of book, the analysis that links it all together, is the observation that such bloodiness, such wanton destruction, was in fact the plan. Vietnam was the technocratic set letting slip the dogs of war. From the very top, from the very beginning, the war in Vietnam was intended as a war of attrition that the US would win because it was able to bring down more lethal destruction than its enemy. General William Westmoreland, with the statistical support of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his team, sought the elusive “crossover point” of carnage, “at which Vietcong and North Vietnamese casualties would be greater than they could sustain,” in McNamara’s description.

The logic of the war makers in the US was that the national liberation movement and their allies in the North would give up when they had too many of their fighters and supporters killed. Keeping track of the “body count” allowed trackers in Washington to measure with precision how close the US and their South Vietnamese allies were to this goal.

Turse makes much of the effect that this singular fixation on the body count had on the units and individual soldiers fighting the war. Working in tandem with the racist and dehumanizing “mere-gook rule,” the body count chase meant “if it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.”

As a medic told historian Christian Appy, the body count system created “a real incentivizing of death and it just fucked with our value system.” Like many other accounts of US soldiers in the Vietnam War, Turse shows how basic training to kill; the instilled obedience to authority; the absence of any meaningful war crimes education; the confounding and contradictory conditions of guerilla warfare; and the sleeplessness, fear, and everyday horrors of the front combined with the pursuit of high body created conditions ripe for individual and group brutality against civilians.

From the start, the dead Vietnamese counted towards Westmoreland’s crossover point included thousands of villagers swept up in the slaughter. Turse describes in great detail how the-only-good-Vietnamese-is-a-dead-Vietnamese logic informed the sadistic behavior of soldiers in all corners of the war throughout its tenure.

Given the scope of the murders committed, however, this individual brutality pales in the face of the “overkill” and “system of suffering” that structured the war as a whole. Which is to say, soldiers committed horrifying individual acts, but much more typically murderous was the systematic destruction embedded in the methods of the war as a whole.

Beyond the body count, “free fire zones” encouraged slaughtering first, asking questions never. Early in the war, the forced relocation of villagers to “strategic hamlets” controlled by the South Vietnamese caused widespread misery; such pacification efforts continued, generating hundreds of thousands of internal refugees fleeing villages destroyed by the US and its allies.

Most damning, and stomach churning, is the extent to which the US used every technological means at its disposal, short of its nuclear arsenal, to destroy the “VC” in the South Vietnamese countryside. Here is a point that readers unfamiliar with the war may not realize: The US devoted much of its energy to supporting the South Vietnamese government in its efforts to root out an internal challenge from liberation forces allied with the Communist North Vietnamese. So the US was “at war” with the North, allied with the South. Indeed, beginning with “Operation Rolling Thunder” in February 1965 continuing through 1968, an average of thirty-two tons of bombs were dropped each hour in the North.

But most of the war was fought in South Vietnam — the US was fighting an insurgency within its ally’s borders. South Vietnam received bore the bulk of the destruction, and the majority of the casualties were South Vietnamese. North Vietnam was the “enemy,” but the people of South Vietnam were the primary targets.

The numbers are staggering. Thirty billion pounds of munitions spent. Seventy million liters of herbicidal agents (like Agent Orange) sprayed. Twenty-one million bomb craters created in the South. Four hundred thousand tons of napalm dropped.

The evolution of napalm over the course of the war gives some sense of the terror that fell from the sky: a burn agent, it was “improved” with polystyrene, to help it stick better to skin, and phosphorus, to ensure that it would continue to work in water. Another anti-personnel weapon was the “pineapple,” a “bomblet” that released 250 steel pellets on detonation. “One B-52 could drop 1,000 pineapples across a 400-yard area. As they burst open, 250,000 lethal ball bearings would tear through everything in the blast radius.” Between these and the larger “guava” cluster bombs, over the course of the war the US bought 322 million: seven for each man, woman, and child in the whole of the Southeast Asian theater (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam).

It seems sociopathic on the part of the war-planners like Robert McNamara to have imagined (if they ever did) that such destruction could be controlled, but it’s clear from Turse’s story that there wasn’t much effort to do so. Mass killing was encouraged, and when lines were crossed, as they often were, most of the military brass averted their eyes, engaged in cover-ups and denials, or took small, secret steps to redress some of the most egregious actions.

The story of My Lai again becomes typical of a larger pattern: only one lieutenant, William Calley, was successfully prosecuted for war crimes, leaving many of his superiors and others who oversaw or committed the systematic murders uncharged or acquitted of charges brought against them. Calley himself was later pardoned by President Nixon.

Kill Anything That Moves provides us with both the forest and the trees of the destruction meted out during the US war in Vietnam. It is groundbreaking and essential for those reasons. But it is not exactly revelatory. You don’t have to be a scholar or contemporary of the period to see that many of the sources cited data from the war period itself, or have been gathered and examined by previous scholars. Again, Robert Lifton, speaking at the VVAW’s Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971, observed there was an “overall sense, shared by the larger society (whatever its position about the war) and the vets themselves, that this is a dirty war.”

And why did the public hold such a view? My own sense is that the antiwar movement deserves the bulk of the credit: both for unveiling the horrors that Turse details in his book, as well as creating the understanding within the “larger society” of whom Lifton speaks that Vietnam was a “dirty war.”

So the scanty treatment that this movement receives in this otherwise strong book is both a bit mystifying and troubling.

Like the war itself, the antiwar movement was, in many respects, exceptional. No antiwar movement of the twentieth century compares to the international mobilization opposing the war in Southeast Asia, and it could be argued that no social movement of the twentieth century involved as many people in the United States as did the Vietnam antiwar movement. Historian Mel Small estimates that six million people in this country actively participated in the movement, with another twenty-five million closely sympathizing.

Opposition to the war was not limited college students, elites, or fractions of particular groups. As I demonstrate in my own work, opposition to the war came from all sectors of US society, with rates of antiwar sentiment among soldiers and veterans as high as those found on college campuses. Movement actors included housewives, unionists, clergy, veterans, civil rights and black power activists; cities across the country had their largest demonstrations to this day held against the war. In all of these instances, the movement spoke about the atrocities committed in Southeast Asia.

Turse is, of course, aware of the common knowledge of war crimes contemporaneous to the war. When Turse writes of such revelations, “for a brief moment in 1971, it looked as if the floodgates were about to burst,” front and center to my mind are the years and years of relentless antiwar critique and action that created the ground and audience for the muckraking journalists and whistleblowers that Turse goes on to cite, and which he uses throughout the book. Two years before, the Citizens Commission of Inquiry came out of the movement to document war crimes after My Lai — a kind of progressive doppelganger to the Pentagon’s War Crimes Working Group operating with opposite goals.

Most important to these efforts was the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an antiwar organization of thousands of veterans that had exploded in growth from 1969–71. Among other campaigns, VVAW organized rap sessions and public platforms for returning soldiers, giving them the courage, support, and strength to tell their own stories of atrocity. These efforts culminated in the above-mentioned Winter Soldier Investigation organized in Detroit in January 1971.

There, over 100 veterans from every part of the military testified to the war they’d witnessed and participated in — the same “real” war of Turse’s subtitle. Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield anticipates nearly all the chapters and themes of Kill Anything That Moves when he summarized the WSI investigations before placing them in the Congressional Record two months later:

The testimony and allegations raised by the experience of these veterans includes charges regarding: the torture and murder of suspects and prisoners of war captured by Americans and South Vietnamese forces; the wanton killing of innocent, unarmed civilians; the brutalization and rape of Vietnamese women in the villages; military policies which enabled indiscriminate bombing and the random firing of artillery into villages which resulted in the burning to death of women, children, and old people; the widespread defoliation of lands of forests; the use of various types of gases; the mutilation of enemy bodies; and others.

A recurrent theme running throughout the testimony is that of institutionalized racist attitudes of the military in their training of the men who are sent to Vietnam — training which has indoctrinated them to think of all Vietnamese as “gooks” and subhuman.

Further, the thrust of the allegations made in the three-day testimony is that such actions were the consequence of reasonable and known policy adopted by our military commanders and that the knowledge of incidents resulting from these policies was widely shared.

That same spring, Lieutenant John Kerry testified as a member of VVAW at the Fulbright hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Congressman Ron Dellums sponsored an ad hoc War Crimes hearing on Capitol Hill, both of which received coverage in the mainstream news.

But typically, after mentioning 1971’s bursting floodgates, Turse doesn’t get to VVAW for a few pages, and then delivers a perfunctory discussion of their role in this development. More mysteriously, neither the Fulbright hearings nor the Dellums hearings are mentioned, though the later International Commission of Enquiry into United States Crimes in Indochina, held in June in Oslo, gets a page.

It is not clear why the movement’s role in bringing these stories to light is not foregrounded in this book. In a strange passage in the introduction, Turse objects to the fact that these atrocities went from being hidden to being “yawn-worthy” when revealed during the war itself. But my own sense is the opposite: such revelations, taken as part of years of struggle against the war, were and remained decisive for the war’s contemporaries in shaping their reaction to that war. The news may have disappeared from the headlines, but the content of the news itself had become common sense for millions.

In his own review and discussions of Kill Anything That Moves, Michael Uhl, Vietnam veteran and author of Vietnam Awakening, makes a similar observation about these kinds of omissions in the book, and Uhl is bothered as well by what could read as claims of original research and analysis when the basic story is already well-known.

I’m less worried about the problem of implicit claims to originality in Turse’s meticulous review of the war. He generated extensive evidence, and synthesized others, to tell a decisive story, one from which it is difficult to avert ones eyes. It’s enough that this is new for a contemporary audience.

But as a comprehensive, no-holds-barred, definitive overview of our “descent into evil,” Kill Anything that Moves should be contributing to our own contemporary memory of the war. In so doing, however, I’m concerned that it’s not telling the right story of how these revelations are ever brought to light — how people come to know the atrocities that our governments inevitably commit when war is unleashed.

Turse is understandably awed by individual whistleblowers who risked lives, careers, family, mental, and physical health to share their knowledge of war crimes. Brave individuals reported up the chain of command, confessed to crimes and served as witnesses to others, and moral journalists took their stories. But they did so in the context of — and often while participating in — a movement that had created the space to attack the war and its means.

The common knowledge the movement, journalists, and whistleblowers helped create has, of course, been actively revised in the decades since. The memory of Vietnam has remained a central site of political contestation because of the truths it revealed — not just about the basic moral standing of the US in the world, but the truth about war itself. But the force of any knowledge, any set of truths, is only as strong as the people, institutions, and actions that uphold them.

With its focus on individual revelations (not to mention individual atrocities), Kill Anything That Moves risks obscuring the collective efforts it takes to both make and unmake these wars. I hope that this book becomes a canonical reference point for our understanding of the American war in Vietnam, but I suspect it only will if larger social forces — beyond muckraking journalists and brave whistleblowers — successfully challenge the presumptions and consequences of the wars we continue to wage.