By Michael Uhl
Jonathan Schell"s probing review of Nick Turse's new book Kill Anything That Moves originated on Tom Dispatch and migrated to Salon, where it appeared under the head "Vietnam was even more horrific than we thought."
Really? While Jonathan Schell is not accountable for the Homer-moment in Salon's headline, he nonetheless seems convinced that Nick Turse's recently published book justifies such hyperbole. Schell, of course, produced some of the finest reporting to come out of the Vietnam War, and one is inclined to take seriously his views on this subject. Yet Schell immediately undermines the authority conferred by his masterly reporting during the war's earlier stages with the disclaimer that, "like so many reporters in Vietnam, I saw mainly one aspect of one corner of the war" not enough to serve as a basis for generalization about the conduct of the war as a whole."
This retroactive blind spot on Schell's part, I'd wager, did not prevent his many readers from doing precisely what he says he shied from, extrapolating from his gripping accounts the strong suspicion that the air war he witnessed so intimately in Quang Ngai Province was a template for the use of American air power and massive bombing throughout South Vietnam. It's a tangential point, but it does set up the clouded historical perspective Schell applies throughout this review.
I cannot comment here directly on Turse's book for the simple reason that I won't see the copy I ordered for another week. But as I sit here midwinter in a small village on the coast of Maine, with only limited reference materials at hand, I must take issue with some of the claims Jonathan Schell makes for this book that are independent of any future evaluations on my part concerning its quality, timeliness, and scholarly contribution.
It seems that only now with the publication of Nick Turse's book has the narrow window through which Schell says he once observed the war expanded to reveal a source that "has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture". of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam." What Schell had "once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm."
Turse's achievement, according to Schell, is "an accurate overall picture of what" has never been assembled" for instance, the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed"." This is hardly news when you consider that the Vietnamese themselves have been loudly proclaiming this carnage for decades. Nonetheless Schell goes on to argue, "It has not been until the publication of Turse's book that the everyday reality of which these atrocities were a part has been brought so fully to light."
Perhaps the key word here is "fully." What Schell seems to be arguing is that, what had been and remains common knowledge to many -- antiwar Vietnam veterans like myself for example -- only constitutes true knowledge of the war's "everyday reality" if it is repackaged years later between the covers of a single volume in which the author is said to have formulated "the actual facts of the case."
Schell then concedes that it wasn't exactly that the "actual facts" of the war were shrouded from public view, but that they were presented within the frame of a false dichotomy. As accounts of atrocities began to accumulate dramatically after the revelation in November 1969 of the My Lai massacre, these barbarisms by the troops were presented by the government as "aberrations" and by antiwar forces as "orders from the top," which is to say, "policy." For Schell, however, "the relationship between policy and practice in Vietnam was" far more peculiar than the two choices suggest."
American troops invading Vietnam in 1965 were, he reflects, "expecting to be welcomed as saviors." But instead they "found themselves in a sea of nearly universal hostility." Built on this observation -- and presumably distilled from Turse's text -- is perhaps the most convoluted passage in Schell's lengthy essay. Essentially he concludes that since Washington had not provided a "manual," which is to say clearly stated policy guidelines, "it was left to the soldiers to decide what to do." And, therefore, "to this extent, policy was indeed being made in the field." In this scenario, U.S. soldiers were trapped between the "impossible mission dictated from above (to win "hearts and minds" of a population already overwhelmingly hostile, while pulverizing their society) and locally conceived illegal but sometimes vague orders that left plenty of room for spontaneous, rage-driven improvisation on the ground."
"Locally conceived illegal but sometimes vague orders," is definitely a mouthful for any poor grunt to digest. But let's just isolate the words "vague orders" to highlight the flaw in Schell's thinking here. Well, were they orders or weren't they? Or to put it more clearly, did the troops understand them as orders or didn't they? Somehow erased from Schell's portrayal of American soldiers "in the field" is the fact that they were commanded by senior field grade officers (lieutenant colonels), and on occasion by officers of even higher rank (as in my own experience with the 11th Infantry -- the My Lai brigade -- under the notorious "gook hunter," Colonel John Donaldson). While I suspect these names are not overlooked by Nick Turse, there's no mention by Schell of Hatchet Hank Emerson, or George S. Patton, Jr. and other notoriously blood-thirsty battalion commanders who were constantly in the field directing and cheering on the "rage-driven" mayhem carried out by their troops.
To extricate himself from this apparent slippage in his analysis, Schell mounts a deus ex machina that in one magic stroke replaces an anarchic battlefield reminiscent of Lord of the Flies with a war suddenly and unambiguously conducted by "orders from the top." Schell cues the next scene with actual stage directions: "Enter General [Julian] Ewell and his body count." Schell's contention being that the high command has finally come to understand that counting the bodies is the only yardstick available to them in a People's War for measuring progress on the battlefield, and thus, "the improvising moved up the chain of command until the soldiers were following orders when they killed civilians."
The problem is that by the time General Ewell took command of the 9th Infantry Division in February 1968, the body count culture -- de facto or otherwise -- already had deep roots in the "search and destroy' operations that long dominated American combat tactics. Whether a given GI sometimes handed out candy to small children, or, in another mood -- covered in the blood and flesh of a buddy blown sky high by a booby trap within sight of a "friendly" village -- torched a hooch or abused a cringing papasan or worse, every grunt understood the meaning of the "dead gook" rule. Any Vietnamese killed in an operation -- and statistically that was almost always an unarmed civilian who may or may not have been a non-combatant -- was declared to be one less Viet Cong and added to a unit's roster of enemy kills in a shower of praise from the "old man.' The practice of awarding three day in-country R&R getaways to Nha Trang and other exotic beaches on the South China Sea to GIs who had increased their units' body count was by then well established
Keep in mind that the My Lai massacre occurred in March of 1968, many months before General Ewell and his 9th Infantry launched the infamous Speedy Express operation Schell refers to that produced such an enormous body count and so few captured weapons, at which point Ewell becomes Schell's avatar who shifts accountability for the slaughter of civilians from the troops in the field to the policy makers in Washington and the high command of the Pentagon. The fact was, if you do the math based on two million dead Vietnamese, it's clear that Speedy Express was itself, not the exception, but the norm.