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Déja Vu All Over Again: Notes on Jonathan Schell's Review of "Kill Anything That Moves'

By Michael Uhl  Posted by Dave Lindorff (about the submitter)     Permalink
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Bogged down in the untenable thesis that field policy "was left to the soldiers to decide," Schell can only move on by acknowledging that, after all, but "for the blind and misguided policies" of the war's architects" these infernal situations never would have arisen." The war was always intrinsically an "atrocity producing situation," Schell now realizes, citing the well-known formula coined by psychiatrist, Robert J. Lifton, an early pioneer in recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam war veterans. This insight of Lifton's on how atrocities became the "norm" in Vietnam is one, it now appears, that can be generalized by Schell to embrace the entire war.

Everything that Schell attributes to Turse's book in his review -- which is clearly only one enthusiastic critic's pre'cis of the work -- was well known, if not during the earliest days, certainly by the late stages of the organized opposition to Vietnam. Getting out that message was precisely what scores of returning war veterans like myself were attempting, most intensely between the public revelation of My Lai in late 1969 and the by now obscure and forgotten congressional hearings on war crimes in Vietnam chaired by Congressman Ron Dellums at the end of April 1971. Schell suggests that the evidence of wide scale atrocities then in circulation was anecdotal when, in fact, Vietnam veterans in waves, representing virtually every phase of the war and every sector of the fighting, appeared in public over a period covering almost two years giving eye witness testimony of atrocities they had witnessed or participated in. Moreover these atrocities were consciously framed by the antiwar activists who organized these veterans as standard operation procedure and de facto policies designed by the architects and managers of the war.

Even in advance of seeing it I anticipate that, as a comprehensive study, Nick Turse's book is an extraordinary contribution to the efforts of those of us who for decades have been fighting the battle over how our history will portray the Vietnam War. The campaign to challenge the forces aimed at re-writing or sanitizing the history of the Vietnam War has recently been injected with new urgency in the wake of President Obama's launching last Memorial Day of the Pentagon's Vietnam War Commemoration Project (See In The Mind Field essays by  myself  and  John Grant .) This $5 million-a-year Pentagon project seeks to honor Vietnam veteran "warriors" in national and community-based ceremonies from now until 2025 while stripping away the "atrocity producing" context in which the war was executed.

Among the 30,000 titles on the Vietnam War Jonathan Schell refers to in his review, his The Village of Ben Suc and The Military Half are in the cream that floats on the top of that list. But still, I believe that Schell has oversold the ground breaking significance of Nick Turse's book by overlooking the historical platform on which it has been constructed. And I hope to demonstrate below with some few strands of evidence at hand why that is the case.

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First, let me be clear on several points. Nothing can justify the atrocities inflicted upon the Vietnamese people by American soldiers during the course of the Vietnam War. Probably the majority of American soldiers never committed atrocities, although I would argue that a majority witnessed them at one time or another during their in-country tours. Nor are those who did commit atrocities absolved of personal responsibility for their actions. The questions here are where the greater responsibility falls, and whether or not "soldiers in the field" ever formulated policy, even in a de facto sense, and whether or not the commission of these atrocities was known to be the "norm" -- even if this assertion was not generally accepted by the government, the media, the public or Jonathan Schell -- long before the publication of Kill Anything That Moves.

Schell maintains that "the everyday reality" of the war was "never assembled" before Turse's book. What follows here is a selection of accounts of atrocities committed by American soldiers that appeared in major American newspapers (not even taking into account wide exposure in the electronic media which I can not reproduce here) between November 1969 and August 1971:

* "Peace Group to Set Up Panels on Atrocity Charges," New York Times, November 30, 1969. The article reports "the formation of citizen's commissions"where former soldiers would provide first-hand evidence of war crimes... including electric torture and killing of prisoners [as] part of an American policy in South Vietnam" carried out on orders from those higher up."

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* "War crimes unit stages Vietnam horror showing," by Don Frese. Evening Capital [Annapolis, MD], March 12, 1970. "Photographs, motion pictures and slides of dead and maimed children were used to convey the horror of the Vietnamese War... The inquiry... is intended to show how war crimes fit into our overall war policy." And in one paragraph, the reporter writes that an "ex-soldier told of his involvement in widespread bombing of villages and defoliation of the land, adding "We were told to kill everything that moved.'"

* "War Crimes in Vietnam," a flyer announcing a Teach-in at New York University, March 17, 1970. The meeting, featuring the Citizens Commission of Inquiry, "will document the truth about genocidal massacre of the civilian population of South Vietnam."

* "U.S. Army Veteran Alleges Vietnamese Civilians Slain," The Springfield Union [Springfield, MA], April 7, 1970. West Point graduate and former Infantry Captain, Robert Bowie Johnson, quoted in the article, said, ""irrational acts' of servicemen in Vietnam are traceable to the "irrational policy of the United States in Vietnam.'"

* "3 Viet Vets Charge "Routine' Use of Torture by U.S. Troops," by Timothy Ferris. New York Post, April 13, 1970. This is precisely what Jonathan Schell says he learned from Nick Turse's book in 2013, that "The U.S. military machine was [a]...system in which torture was standard procedure and extrajudicial executions common."

* "They'd Probe Pentagon on "Atrocities," New York Daily News, April 14, 1970. At this press conference, where I gave an account of torture I had witnessed personally, CCI called for an "investigation of the Pentagon by some independent agency. It's absurd for the Pentagon to investigate itself for war crimes."

* "Two ex-GIs say troops torture prisoners in Vietnam," by Douglas Crocket. The Boston Globe, May 8, 1970." We were joined in this press conference by Noam Chomsky, who referred to an "American government" made up of desperadoes and lawbreakers," and said that "American atrocities in Vietnam were a violation of the Geneva accords."

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* "Ex-GIs Tell of Torturing Prisoners," by William Greider. The Washington Post, July 19, 1970. The big news for me in this article was that Bill Greider was able to corroborate my allegations of torture through an interview with the Interrogation Officer in my 11th Infantry unit.

* There is an article in the Swedish newspaper, Afton Bladet, October 25, 1970, reporting on the testimony I had given before a meeting of the International Enquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam.

* "War Atrocities Termed Commonplace," by James Long. Oregon Journal, October 28, 1970. A CCI coordinator is quoted saying, "The My Lai massacre is a logical outgrowth of policies set at the highest level -- individual soldiers do not account for genocide."

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