‘They All Looked Alike’

by , March 07, 2013
My_Lai_massacre

Review: Kill Anything That Moves
by Nick Turse
Metropolitan Books, 2013, 320 pages

On August 18, 1980, Republican candidate for president Ronald Reagan addressed the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In his speech, Reagan identified a disease plaguing America: "the Vietnam Syndrome." Infected by North Vietnamese propaganda, the Gipper argued, Americans had become convinced that the United States was an imperial power engaged in an immoral and unwinnable war in Vietnam. That belief, however, wasn’t contained to just Vietnam, it had seeped into the American mindset, making the public reluctant to use force abroad going forward. Reagan, however, would have nothing to do with such weakness masquerading as moral introspection and uncertainty. He told the veterans assembled that it was time to recognize a purifying truth: "ours…was a noble cause." How could it not be when the United States had lost much more than confidence in the jungles of Vietnam. "We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful," Reagan told the veterans in attendance. War crimes like the My Lai massacre, where a unit of U.S. soldiers massacred approximately 500 elderly men, women, and children in March 1968, were a horrific yet minimal by-product of a just war.

If Reagan’s Vietnam Syndrome is a chauvinistic, backwoods misdiagnosis of why the American people grew weary of the war in Indochina, then Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves is a reckoning with how much death and destruction the United States had to inflict on the Vietnamese to reach that crisis of faith in American Messianism.  My Lai, Turse explains, wasn’t a bloody exception within a principled war to defeat Communist expansion: it was the ghastly rule.

"My Lai was an war operation, not an aberration," Turse tersely states at the outset of his disturbing book. "This was the war in which the American military and successive administrations in Washington produced not a few random massacres or even discrete strings of atrocities, but something on the order of thousands of days of relentless misery – a veritable system of suffering. That system, that machinery of suffering and what it meant for the Vietnamese people is what this book is meant to explain."

In many ways, Turse’s project owes a lot to the late revisionist historian Howard Zinn. In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn looked at American history through the eyes of the slave, the common laborer, the conscript, and others classes of people easily excised from academic and popular histories. Turse does the same, yet internationalizes it and layers it with on-the-ground reportage through interviews with survivors and veterans. The result is a nightmarish look at how those on the receiving end of American napalm, daisy-cutter bombs, and M-16 rounds suffered, died, and, amazingly, survived to tell their tales. It is a remarkable, if excruciatingly macabre, synthesis of history and journalism.

Turse’s greatest achievement is documenting how the "bad apples" theory of American atrocities in Vietnam is rotten to the core. The constant massacres and executions of innocent civilians were not the result of stressed, immature G.I.s – although that certainly played a role – but of official policies flowing down the chain of command. Before the orders could be given, those receiving them – "not far from childhood themselves" – had to be primed to receive them. Boot camp meant dehumanization of the service member and his enemy. Punishment for not following orders "consisted of both psychological debasement and physical suffering – everything from being forced to eat garbage to being exercised to the point of collapse." The Vietnamese, including the South Vietnamese the United States were ostensibly defending, were referred to as "gooks" and "dinks." As draftee Peter Milord put it:  "I didn’t become a robot, but you can get so close to being one it’s frightening."

Once "in-country," these boys were told no one – even children and women – could be trusted. As one veteran told Turse, "the enemy is anything with slant eyes who lives in the village. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s a woman or a child." Or as Marine Captain Edward Banks described the process of discriminating between a guerrilla and a civilian: "They all looked alike." What that meant was American forces shot first – whether it was mortars, grenades, or bullets – and sought answers later. Mistakes could always be corrected. A woman, an elderly man, a young child, it didn’t matter, all became Viet Cong, or "VC," when the reports were handed in. "If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC" was a common phrase uttered by service members in Vietnam.

The tell-tale sign of this criminal arithmetic, Turse explains, were high enemy body counts and low amounts of enemy weapons recovered, known as the kills-to-weapons ratio. During Operation Speedy Express from December 1968 through May 1969 – dubbed "a mega-My Lai" by Turse – the 9th Infantry Division reportedly killed 10,899 enemy troops while only recovering 748 weapons. Another method was dividing the number of enemy killed by Americans killed. When the proportions were heavily skewed to enemy dead, Turse notes, you could be confident those guerrilla dead were civilians. These were distinctions the MGR, or "mere-gook rule," didn’t recognize. The MGR, Turse explains, "held that all Vietnamese – northern and southern, adults and children, armed enemy and innocent civilian – were little more than animals, who could be killed or abused at will."

Military policies made civilian casualties inevitable. The technocratic masters of war in the Pentagon believed in a "crossover point," which meant achieving the rate by which American soldiers killed their enemies faster than they could be replaced. This, however, led to an obsession with achieving high body counts, or "production quotas," thereby incentivizing wanton killing and juking the stats to turn an innocent civilian, like a teenage girl, into a guerrilla. Officers chased high body counts in pursuit of promotions while grunts chalked up kills for "rest and relaxation" passes and other creature comforts, like extra beer.

Official Pentagon policies, like "free fire zones" and "search and destroy missions," further ensured civilian slaughter. Like a despised police force patrolling the ghetto, American troops decided that any Vietnamese that ran from their patrols was guilty of something. Often runners were shot immediately, as Turse exhaustively documents. Sometimes slaughter was determined simply by the patrol’s mood that day. As villager Phan Van Nam explained to Turse, some days American and ally Korean soldiers came through his hamlet and passed out candy or didn’t touch a thing. Other days they shot at people or burned all the homes. On March 22, 1967, Korean soldiers along with a few Americans came into Nam’s hamlet, herded a bunch of villagers together, and massacred them all. Afterward 45 children, 30 women, and 11 elderly men lay dead. The entire book recounts incident after incident like this; it is brutal and unrelenting, as it should be. The book’s title, after all, comes from a constant refrain barked by multitudes of officers in Vietnam: "kill anything that moves." Winning hearts and minds it was not. “We make more VC than we kill by the way these people are treated,” Marine Ed Austin wrote home to his parents. “I won’t go into detail but some of the things that take place would make you ashamed of good old America.”

These atrocities were greased by a Pentagon that turned Vietnam into a laboratory for slaughter, a technocratic horrorshow, according to Turse. General William Westmoreland, top U.S. commander in Vietnam from 1964-1968, "celebrated the country as a weapons lab." The United States expended the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs of munitions on southeast Asia – the majority of which landed on South Vietnam’s cities and countryside. (Never forget, the same South Vietnam the United States was defending the country it was turning into an incinerated wasteland.) By the end of the war, America had fired more than 15 billion pounds of artillery shells. Other weapons in the U.S. inventory included napalm, white phosphorus, and cluster munitions. The massive amount of firepower, including toxic defoliants like Agent Orange, that rained down on the South Vietnamese countryside – again the territory the U.S. was defending – resulted in ecocide. Riffing off the Smokey the Bear slogan, U.S. troops would joke, "Only you can prevent forests."

In the interest of demoralizing its enemy further, the United States didn’t only use weapons that tore its enemy to shreds or left them charred. Instead, "[n]otably, many of the weapons that Americans brought to Vietnam were designed specifically to maim and incapacitate people, on the theory that horribly wounded  personnel sapped enemy resources more than outright killing," Turse reports. These weapons were known as fragmentation munitions, and they operated on the same principle as suicide bomb belts, "unleashing small fragments – tiny steel pellets and razor sharp flechettes – that did immense damage to human bodies."

In one particularly arresting passage, Turse empathetically describes what it must have felt like living under the suffocating blanket of American state terrorism:

Life became an exercise in playing the percentages. Just how long did you stay in your bunker? Long enough to avoid the artillery, of course, but not so long that you were still there when the Americans and their grenades arrived. If you left the shelter’s confines too soon, some helicopter’s machine gun might open up on you as you emerged, or you could get caught in a cross fire between withdrawing guerrillas and onrushing American troops. If you waited too long, those grenades might begin rolling in. Every second mattered immensely. An instant too late could mean death, but a second too early was potentially no less lethal. Guess wrong and your family might be wiped out…. Under such circumstances, existence became an endless series of risk assessments.

Reading blood soaked page after page, it’s hard to see how this book, particularly the first-person interviews with Vietnamese survivors, didn’t take a toll on Turse – a writer, as the above passage shows, clearly intent on bearing witness to unimaginable horrors.

It’s also impossible to read Kill Anything That Moves without feeling like the past Turse documents is prologue to today’s U.S.-led campaigns of counterinsurgency. Eerily, the same conditions that led to atrocity after atrocity in Vietnam exist in our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Young Americans seething from 9-11 invaded and occupied countries completely alien to them in every way, from their religion to their language to their customs. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq begin their inevitable slide down the American memory hole, it will be up to another journalist-cum-historian like Turse to record the stories of innocent Afghans and Iraqis who suffered America’s technologically savage supremacy. It wouldn’t be fair to expect him to do it again.

As Americans there are things we tell ourselves in the twilight – that we are exceptional, that we genuinely believe in human rights. The hushed lullabies sing us to sleep in our cul de sacs of complacency as overseas the empire expands in every direction. "And while we are at it," Reagan said three decades ago but professed today by his self-professed acolytes, "let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win." Turse’s indictment of America’s war in Vietnam shows how deluded, if not outright sociopathic, Reagan’s statement was because it raises the question: Would there be a Vietnam in any recognizable way if the Johnson and Nixon White Houses "let them win?"

The Vietnam Syndrome wasn’t a disease infecting the body politic, it was an antibody produced to fight imperialism. Unfortunately, as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen show, we’ve once again grown resistant to the Vietnam Syndrome. It’s hard to read Turse and not wonder what extraordinary crimes will float to the top when another enterprising journalist drags the lakes of America’s recent occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

For it’s unflinching look into the dark heart of Pax Americana and what war, any war, does to the people who fight it and the civilians who try to survive it, Kill Anything That Moves is a heroic, essential book for a country that continually thanks military men and women for their service, yet could care less what that service entailed.

Matthew Harwood is a freelance writer and journalist in Alexandria, Virginia. He has contributed to The American Conservative, Columbia Journalism Review, Future of Freedom Foundation, Guardian, Guernica, Reason, Salon, Truthout, and The Washington Monthly.