Nick Turse: Exhuming Vietnam

U.S forces in Vietnam, 1962 Credit: Horst Faas
US forces in Vietnam, 1962 Credit: Horst Faas

Conventional wisdom insists that war crimes and atrocities by U.S forces in Vietnam were isolated, committed by a "few bad apples" and "rogue units." In fact, for 40 years the American public has been collectively assuring the veterans of that war that no one considers them "baby killers" nor believes that the My Lai massacre was anything more than an aberration.

But what if there was evidence otherwise — that Americans killed more civilians during direct combat operations than our conventional wisdom allows, and what if those killings were deemed more than mere "accidents" or "collateral damage," but murder – the result of policies and practices that set the conditions for carnage at the highest levels of the command?

What if it was also discovered that much of this was unknown to the press and the public – and even elected officials in Washington – because there were conscious attempts to bury numerous allegations, investigations, witness testimony – even substantiated massacres and crimes – for the sake of the Army’s reputation and for ongoing public support of the war?

For Nick Turse, an investigative journalist and managing editor of, his accidental discovery 10 years ago of what he describes as a trove of never-before-seen documents buried in the annals of the National Archives, could have been viewed as an impossible burden. These documents do everything suggested in the preceding two paragraphs and more. His formidable personal choice a decade ago: leave history in its uneasy, half-told entombment, or re-open a wound that nearly bled the country dry a generation ago, at a time before he was even born.

Turse, then a doctoral student at Columbia University at the time, chose the latter. A decade later he has produced a compelling book that packages everything he found in the archives, plus reams of government documents, forgotten research and interviews he collected in his subsequent quest. Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, threatens to shatter preconceptions about the American way of war, and invokes perhaps the most important question to emerge – so what are we going to do about it?

Turse comp

For Gen-Xers like Turse and myself, the answer is plain enough: learn. But as we’ve found, painfully, after the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which span more years than the "official" timeline of U.S military operations in Vietnam (1964-1973), this is something the military struggles with, always. Even as so-called "warrior scholars" like David Petraeus, who made a name re-envisioning counterinsurgency doctrine after Vietnam, trying (and many can argue, failed) to make invasion, pacification and occupation more "population-centric," the military never addressed the worst of its policies (and its own culture), and therefore continues to teach a history based on a whitewash, with some pop-variations to make them appear transformative. The effect, in essence: Groundhog Day.

Case in point: the nation’s war colleges are still teaching the book Sharpening the Combat Edge: The Use Of Analysis To Reinforce Military Judgment, which was written by the late Maj. General Julian Ewell and his former Chief of Staff Col. Ira Hunt for the Department of the Army in 1991. Together, they led a notoriously bloody rampage to secure the Mekong Delta in 1968 known as Operation Speedy Express. Turse argues, quite effectively, footnoted all the way, that Speedy Express employed every tactical framework and policy – both implicit and explicit – responsible for the unusually high civilian casualty count in the war overall (estimated 2 million). This included overwhelming firepower, the "search and destroy" missions, the employment of "free fire zones" that encouraged U.S forces to ignore the normal rules of engagement (ROE) that protect civilians, and the extraordinary pressure generated by the "body count" as the chief measure of operational success.

Sharpening the Combat Edge is a whitewash – even Ewell and Hunt were forced to omit any reference to the official 1972 inquiries into what Turse called the operation’s "industrial-scale slaughter." Reporters had attempted to get at the truth but it did not matter. Ewell, who was once called "the Butcher of the Delta" by his own men, remained lionized until his death in 2009, and Sharpening the Combat Edge became part of the official narrative. That is until now, as Turse revives a little known (buried) and powerfully damning 1972 Army Inspector General’s report that lends official substantiation to charges that some 5,000 to 7,000 civilians may have perished in the eight months under Ewell’s command, and that such deaths were "a constant, accepted and indeed inevitable result" of Operation Speedy Express.

That is far more than the "history" so far has allowed, and all but obliterates the notion that My Lai (the 1968 massacre and cover-up, in which upwards of 500 Vietnamese were killed, raped, and mutilated by U.S forces, and for which only one platoon leader was ever convicted, only serving three and a half years under house arrest) was an isolated event.

Operation Speedy Express, however, is just one piece –one brick – in the ivy-grown wall that Turse found himself dismantling after he first discovered the boxes labeled "Vietnam War Crimes Working Group," which he refers to as a secret Pentagon task force that had been assembled after My Lai under the direction of General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S forces in Vietnam (1964-68), in the National Archives. "Box after box" of these heretofore secret papers (including sworn statements from officers in the field at the time) indicated there were more than 300 allegations of murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilation and "other atrocities," substantiated by the group, as well as 500 others that were unproven at time. Most of these revelations had not been aired in the press, nor in a public inquiry, ever.

Turse had stumbled on the documents while studying post traumatic stress disorder in veterans for his original dissertation. The rest of his quest at the archives was much more methodical: he sought and found thousands of pages of other investigations, IG reports, plus documents he received through repeated Freedom of Information Act requests, and interviews with over 100 veterans about incidents that up to now were mere wisps of memory in an overgrown rice paddy somewhere. He went to those rice paddies too – traveling to Southeast Asia, tracking down the villages corresponding to the reports back home, and interviewing aging Vietnamese about long dead family members and horrors they endured, while Turse’s wife Tam captured their wizened faces to include among the more gruesome photographs in the book.

Sometimes the inquiries he made while in Vietnam about one known massacre led to another. "I’d thought that I was looking for a needle in a haystack," he wrote, "what I found was a veritable haystack of needles."

Some may think Turse will get pricked by those needles, dredging up the past. There will be plenty who think they can poke holes in his conclusions. One need not look further than the beating veteran John Kerry got nine years ago over his participation in the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation, to know that there will always be those who consider raising the issue of American war crimes and atrocities in Vietnam an unpatriotic, if not treasonous, act.

A few things about this book: Turse seems genuinely, and equally empathetic, if not personally affected by the traumas endured by both the American veteran and Vietnamese civilian. He counts as life-long friends the veterans who helped him on his quest, believing, that while high-ranking officers — beginning with Gen. Westmoreland himself — protected their own, it was the grunts who paid, if not directly, but emotionally for what happened.

Turse is relentless in documenting individual horrors, so even the most detached reader cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the level of destruction here, and the seemingly cold-blooded ways in which unarmed civilians were erroneously pegged as Viet Cong and cut down from the skies or on the ground, their numbers invariably – and deliberately — inflating the almighty body count. Meanwhile, there are endless stories of Vietnamese – all footnoted — who escaped the gun or grenade but were left homeless standing in the ruin of their villages, corpses of family and livestock scattered among napalm ashes. This is not an easy read. "Small doses" is sometimes the best way to get through it.

Tran Thi Nhut. Credit: Tam Turse. Her house burned down and her 70-year-old mother and 12-year-old son killed, along with 30 other civilians in a 1967 massacre by U.S troops in Phi Phu hamlet, Quang Nam Province
Tran Thi Nhut. Credit: Tam Turse. Her house burned down and her 70-year-old mother and 12-year-old son killed, along with 30 other civilians in a 1967 massacre by U.S troops in Phi Phu hamlet, Quang Nam Province

Historians might say most American forces had followed the ROE (though Turse found a post-war survey of generals indicating only 19 percent felt ROE was adhered to "throughout the chain of command" before My Lai) and, that there was no other way to attempt victory than with the firepower they brought to bear or the "pacification" measures taken. The enemy, it is said, came from all sides and was indistinguishable in key areas like the Mekong Delta.

Of course this leads one to suggest, then, that we might not have fought this war in the first place.

"(It is) difficult to see how a greatly different mode of operation on the part of American ground forces could have been implemented in practice, considering the realities of the battlefield," wrote Eric M. Bergerud, in The Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province (1991).

Turse is cognizant of the gray areas and complexities of the Vietnam battlefield, but does not spend a lot of time tussling with alternative historical views or dealing with how America had accrued its own losses: 58,209 dead; 153,303 wounded. Instead, by cracking open old files, and "inhaling decades-old dust from half a world away," he prefers to reveal new sources of information and seems keen on doing that coherently and for maximum impact, carrying on where journalists on the subject in the 1970’s – like Seymour Hersh, who exposed My Lai, and Kevin Buckley, who wrote the damning, but heavily censored expose on Operation Speedy Express for Newsweek in 1972, left off. Buckley handed Turse much of his research with co-author, the late Alexander Shimkin, to assist in Kill Anything that Moves.

Contrary to what the critics will say, Turse appears in no haste to generalize, which would risk the credibility of his work and the hard fought acknowledgement for the victims and the veterans who tried and failed to get their claims substantiated at the time. Instead, he seems driven by one measure: to lay the blame where it belongs, at the top.

Turse won the Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction in 2009 for his article on these findings. He was generous enough to give this interview:

Antiwar: The conventional wisdom is that war crimes and atrocities committed by U.S forces in Vietnam were isolated events perpetuated by a "few bad apples" – rogue units and platoons. How does your research – this book – shatter that perception?

Turse: The War Crimes Working Group offers irrefutable proof of atrocities committed by every major Army unit that deployed, every division and separate brigade that went to Vietnam. And just looking at the numbers, and then going to Vietnam and talking to people, I realized how pervasive the scale of that carnage was. This is what I try to convey in Kill Anything that Moves.

We’re talking about, according to the best estimates we have — two million Vietnamese civilian dead. Add to that five million wounded, and the best numbers that U.S. government came up with was about eleven million Vietnamese made refugees. On top of that, studies show that about four million Vietnamese were exposed to defoliants like Agent Orange.

Obviously, it’s beyond what a couple of rogue units, even a couple of rogue divisions could do. The level of carnage was almost unimaginable. I hope that Kill Anything that Moves helps to put the rest the idea of bad apples and rogue units.

Antiwar: The emphasis on body counts, the search and destroy missions, free fire zones, heavy artillery – are all tactical frameworks that you argue set the conditions for these war crimes and atrocities to happen, whether there were explicit orders to kill civilians or not. How do you counter the establishment histories, especially those that are used to teach officers today, that acknowledge many of these things but claim a) conditions on the ground made it difficult to do things much differently and b) most of our forces were indeed adhering to the proper rules of engagement.

Turse: I think it’s hard to argue against the fact that millions of Vietnamese were killed, wounded and made refugees. And this was due to deliberate U.S policies, like the use of unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling over a wide swath of the countryside, and due to search and destroy missions, and the overwhelming emphasis on body counts. It’s also irrefutable that these policies were dictated at the highest levels of the military. What I try to point out is that the American way of war did not just produce a random string of massacres but a veritable system of suffering. That system, the machinery of suffering and what it meant to the Vietnamese people, is what Kill Anything that Moves is meant to explain. I think it would be hard to look at those numbers and read the litany of daily events and come to any other conclusion. This was certainly policy, not bad apples.

Antiwar: You went into the National Archives to research PTSD and you came out 10 years later, an expert in Vietnam war crimes. What kept you at this quest?

Turse: I was born after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and I didn’t have any personal connection to the war. It began as a job, researching PTSD among Vietnam vets. I stumbled upon these records and they really put a hook in me. As I read through them, I knew the records weren’t in the literature, anywhere. I contacted some Vietnam War historians that I knew and l told them they needed to get down to the archives and look at this collection. One of them said to me, ‘you should do it, you found them and you know their significance.’ …I was just a novice Vietnam War historian at that time, but his confidence in me convinced me I could do it. And I really thought it was way too important to let go. I thought it was necessary for the historical record because the files told a story that wasn’t in the existing literature. So I started to work with (the documents) and wrote my dissertation on the topic.

Then I thought these records were too important to just remain in an academic document that most people were never going to see. I went to the Los Angeles Times and I put together a series (with Deborah Nelson). They sent me to Vietnam for the first time. I went with a stack of documents in my hands and talked to people throughout the countryside. That first experience and, especially subsequent research trips, really transformed my project. I went to talk to someone about one specific spasm of violence and they ended up telling me about what it was like to live for 10 years under bombs and artillery shells and helicopter gunships and how they negotiated their lives around the American War.

They would talk about what it was like to have their homes burned four or five or six times and then give up rebuilding in favor of living a semi-subterranean life in their bomb shelter … then they would tell me what it was like to leave the bomb shelter. There were constant choices involved – there were times when the artillery shelling was raining down and everyone would run to the bomb shelter and then you would spend all of your time working out when you would leave it… you had to time it right. If you left too soon you could come out and a helicopter above could spot you and shoot. If you waited too long American forces might roll grenades in for fear there were guerillas hiding in there… having to grapple with this, day after day, year after year, just impressed on me what the war really meant to the people who had to experience it every day… this is the real story of the war. This transformed my project from what it had been to what Kill Anything that Moves ultimately became.

Antiwar: No matter what you do, you will be accused of broad brushing the entire military with these crimes. You will be accused of being anti-military. How do you handle that?

Turse: While I emphasize the fact that the Vietnamese were constantly in untenable situations, I try to explain that many times the U.S troops were also in extremely complex situations and were operating in extremely difficult conditions. They were given mixed messages, like rote instructions about treating the Vietnamese civilians well when almost every other aspect of U.S. military policy seemed to run counter to the notion, including extreme pressure to produce high body counts. You can’t excuse individual culpability for things like massacres and outright murder, but I tried to tell as best I could a nuanced story. I have been accused by some of producing a book that is anti-military. A few people have claimed that Kill Anything that Moves maligns all those who served, but really, this book is the story of Vietnam veterans, told by Vietnam veterans. I interviewed well over 100 American veterans, spoke to many more, and I relied on thousands and thousands of pages of sworn testimony of both active duty soldiers and recently-returned veterans about their experiences, and that is the story told in the book. This is their own view of the war – I just tried to put it together in a comprehensive way.

Antiwar: Were you at all surprised at the level of cover up you found in those (National Archives documents), the many allegations, the testimonies and letters to congressmen and military officials that were suppressed, ignored or had sparked inquiries, investigations that never went anywhere, or were concluded without results?

Turse: By nature I’m not one who is prone to conspiracy theories … I had a tough time believing that it was as systematic, as well orchestrated as it turned out to be. I talked to a military lawyer who had been an advisor to the head of the Army Criminal Investigation Division during the Vietnam War, who was still working in the Army as a civilian lawyer at the time I talked to him. What he impressed on me is that, especially at the end of the war, everyone just wanted the war to go away, at every level, from the investigators who were supposed to be rigorously investigating allegations, to the base commanders who had jurisdiction over men who were charged, to the judges and the juries at court martial proceedings — everyone in the legal system was predisposed against actually carrying out legitimate justice. For all the reasons you’d expect, it was not popular to prosecute Americans for crimes against the Vietnamese. If you have an entire system predisposed against the process then that process is going to fall apart …

Antiwar: As a nation, we’ve spent the last 40 years assuring veterans that we don’t blame them for what happened in Vietnam. So much so, that today, if we criticize the war we’re told we’re we are criticizing the troops, which gives the military and policymakers cover for their decisions. Are you afraid you’ll hit a wall in terms of the impact this book can have on such carefully managed history? What do you hope to accomplish?

Turse: I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised at the reaction that the book has received as I was prepared to have it just disappear. So in that sense, maybe I am reaching an audience, however limited, that is open to learning more and is willing to reconsider the existing narrative of the war. I hope that the book, within the (Vietnam) literature, will become a text that you will at least have to consider when writing about Vietnam … In the past (this story) was sidelined and it disappeared from the literature… scholars assumed it was antiwar propaganda and it was shunned by serious academics. It became a hidden and forbidden history. I hope my book can revive some interest in that literature and give those histories a second look.

Antiwar: Can we relate any of these revelations to the wars we just fought in Iraq and Afghanistan? Has the military learned its lessons when it comes to the treatment of indigenous populations or are we merely repeating the same mistakes?

Turse: I’ve studied today’s wars and have to say that I don’t think that the killing of civilians by U.S. forces is anywhere near the scale of the carnage in Vietnam… that said, civilians still die on a regular basis in our war zones, be it Iraq or Afghanistan – many due to violence set off by America’s invasions and occupations and resulting civil strife. And of course others have been killed directly by U.S. bombing, from helicopter gunships and from troops on the ground. Many have been wounded and made refugees.

Even with the best efforts of the UN and other NGOs, (non-governmental organizations) we still don’t have good numbers on the human toll of these wars. And if history is any guide, I fear it will be decades before anyone is able to put together the full story of these wars. I’m afraid it might take 40 years before some reporter or historian is able to set the record straight.

Antiwar: It’s even easier now, right, for the military to write its own narrative of Iraq and Afghanistan, considering that the media doesn’t have the kind of access they had in Vietnam?

Turse: The lessons I learned about Vietnam were quite different from the lessons the military learned. They have long blamed their loss on the antiwar movement and politicians back home and, of course, the press. Since Vietnam, they have really tried to manage the press – with embedding being the most conspicuous effort. Journalists had relatively unfettered access in Vietnam and that was considered a liability. (The military) has tried their best to make sure there was nothing like that in the wars to come after.

Note: The War Crimes Working Group (documents) that sparked Turse’s quest have since been removed from the public shelves of the National Archives. Most are still unavailable and can only be viewed by filing a Freedom of Information Request.

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.