Here's how I met Nick Turse. I have a friend who's a professor of public health and one day in 2003 he asked me if I'd be willing to spend a little time with one of his graduate students who was doing some curious work on the Vietnam War. This student had read my book The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War era that had a significant Vietnam component, and was eager to get together with me. One morning a week or two later, at the local diner near my apartment, I met this scraggly kid lugging a giant army surplus rucksack stuffed to the brim with god-knew-what. And it was true. Though born the year the Vietnam War ended, he did indeed know an inordinate amount about that conflict and had, he told me, stumbled upon a trove of forgotten files at the National Archives from a secret Vietnam-era Pentagon working group investigating U.S. war crimes. Those files, he added, were both sobering and startlingly extensive and they had been carefully buried at war's end. It was the subject of his dissertation.
I must admit I only half paid attention. Not long after, he started sending me little TomDispatch-like emails he was circulating to friends. At first, I barely glanced at them, but -- whatever "it" is -- he had it and that included an incredible eye for strange war toys, odd military research, and bizarre Pentagon weapons programs. After a while, I found myself compulsively reading those idiosyncratic emails of his. Finally, I picked up the phone and suggested he turn one of them into a TD piece -- and so he did. On October 16, 2003, I published "Zap, Zap, You're Dead," an article on militarized video games, and our collaboration has never ended.
A couple of years later, I got him to turn his Pentagon research into The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives for the American Empire Project series I co-run with Steve Fraser. In the meantime, that dissertation of his, compounded by years of further research in Vietnam and here, was slowly being transformed into what became Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Over that period, both as his editor and a friend, I've witnessed his obsessional journey, a genuine odyssey, through a nightmarish landscape of war and crime long buried, like those Pentagon files, in the memories of American veterans and Vietnamese peasants. He spent years tracking down and interviewing those who had committed war crimes, those who tried to expose them, and those who suffered from them. At the same time, he was working to grasp the nature of the American way of war in Vietnam that had made all this possible.
I knew something about what had already been written on that war here (though nobody could begin to read the 30,000 books that have poured out since that disaster of a conflict ended), and I had no doubt that his would be unique. I knew something else as well: that Americans had, since 1973, been remarkably uninterested in the war crimes their troops had committed there and so I expected one of the great books on that war to disappear more or less without a trace, no matter when it came out.
Most of the time, being wrong is, at best, an uncomfortable experience. Every now and then, though, it&ssquo;s a wonder. So it's been with his book. Instead of instantly heading down the tubes, it landed on the New York Times extended bestseller list, is being widely reviewed, and is now in its fifth printing. Nick has appeared on shows ranging from Fresh Air and Democracy Now! to Moyers & Company. Letters filled with terrifying memories from Vietnam vets, who have lived all these decades with their private nightmares, have been pouring in, offering powerful confirmation of what he's written and enough new material for him to write volume two, if he ever wants.
Undoubtedly, this is an odd way to introduce his post for today, a sobering look at what we're never told about war, but I wanted TomDispatch readers to know just how proud I am of Nick for not stopping, not caring what the future might hold, and especially for keeping faith with those, American and Vietnamese, who suffered grievously. Tom
Who Did You Rape in the War, Daddy?
A Question for Veterans that Needs Answering
By Nick Turse
On August 31, 1969, a rape was committed in Vietnam. Maybe numerous rapes were committed there that day, but this was a rare one involving American GIs that actually made its way into the military justice system.
And that wasn't the only thing that set it apart.
War is obscene. I mean that in every sense of the word. Some veterans will tell you that you can't know war if you haven't served in one, if you haven't seen combat. These are often the same guys who won't tell you the truths that they know about war and who never think to blame themselves in any way for our collective ignorance.
The truth is, you actually can know a lot about war without fighting in one. It just isn't the sort of knowledge that's easy to come by.
There are more than 30,000 books on the Vietnam War in print. There are volumes on the decision-making of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, grand biographies of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, rafts of memoirs by American soldiers -- some staggeringly well-written, many not -- and plenty of disposable paperbacks about snipers, medics, and field Marines. I can tell you from experience that if you read a few dozen of the best of them, you can get a fairly good idea about what that war was really like. Maybe not perfect knowledge, but a reasonable picture anyway. Or you can read several hundred of the middling-to-poor books and, if you pay special attention to the few real truths buried in all the run-of-the-mill war stories, you'll still get some feeling for war American-style.
The main problem with most of those books is the complete lack of Vietnamese voices. The Vietnam War killed more than 58,000 Americans. That's a lot of people and a lot of heartache. It deserves attention. But it killed several million Vietnamese and severely affected -- and I mean severely -- the lives of many millions more. That deserves a whole lot more focus.
Missing in Action (From Our Histories)
From American histories, you would think the primary feature of the Vietnam War was combat. It wasn't. Suffering was the main characteristic of the war in Southeast Asia. Millions of Vietnamese suffered: injuries and deaths, loss, privation, hunger, dislocation, house burnings, detention, imprisonment, and torture. Some experienced one or another of these every day for years on end. That's suffering beyond the capacity of even our ablest writers to capture in a single book.