"Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam"
A book by Nick Turse
Nick Turse's "Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam" is not only one of the most important books ever written about the Vietnam conflict but provides readers with an unflinching account of the nature of modern industrial warfare. It captures, as few books on war do, the utter depravity of industrial violence -- what the sociologist James William Gibson calls "technowar." It exposes the sickness of the hyper-masculine military culture, the intoxicating rush and addiction of violence, and the massive government spin machine that lies daily to a gullible public and uses tactics of intimidation, threats and smear campaigns to silence dissenters. Turse, finally, grasps that the trauma that plagues most combat veterans is a result not only of what they witnessed or endured, but what they did. This trauma, shame, guilt and self-revulsion push many combat veterans -- whether from Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan -- to escape into narcotic and alcoholic fogs or commit suicide. By the end of Turse's book, you understand why.
This is not the book Turse set out to write. He was, when his research began in June 2001, a graduate student looking at post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans. An archivist at the U.S. National Archives asked Turse whether he thought witnessing war crimes could cause PTSD. He steered Turse to yellowing reports amassed by the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. The group, set up in the wake of the My Lai massacre, was designed to investigate the hundreds of reports of torture, rape, kidnapping, forced displacement, beatings, arson, mutilation, executions and massacres carried out by U.S. troops. But the object of the group was not to discipline or to halt the abuses. It was, as Turse writes, "to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal." War crimes, for army investigators, were "an image management" problem. Those charged with war crimes were rarely punished. The numerous reports of atrocities collected by the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group were kept secret, and the eyewitnesses who reported war crimes were usually ignored, discredited or cowed into silence.
Turse used the secret Pentagon reports and documents to track down more than 100 veterans -- including those who had reported witnessing atrocities to their superiors and others charged with carrying out atrocities -- and traveled to Vietnam to interview survivors. A decade later he produced a masterpiece. Case after case in his book makes it painfully clear that soldiers and Marines deliberately maimed, abused, beat, tortured, raped, wounded or killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians, including children, with impunity. Troops engaged in routine acts of sadistic violence usually associated with demented Nazi concentration camp guards. And what Turse describes is a woefully incomplete portrait, since he found that "an astonishing number of marine court-martial records of the era have apparently been destroyed or gone missing," and "most air force and navy criminal investigation files that may have existed seem to have met the same fate."
The few incidents of wanton killing in Vietnam -- and this is also true for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- that did become public, such as My Lai, were dismissed as an aberration, the result of a few soldiers or Marines gone bad. But, as Turse makes clear, such massacres were and are, in our current imperial adventures, commonplace. The slaughters "were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military," he writes. They were carried out because the dominant tactic of the war, as conceived by our politicians and generals, was centered on the concept of "overkill." And when troops on the ground could not kill fast enough, the gunships, helicopters, fighter jets and bombers came to their assistance. The U.S. Air Force contributed to the demented quest for "overkill" -- eradicating so many of the enemy that recuperation was theoretically impossible -- by dropping the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs on Vietnam, most actually falling on the south where our purported Vietnamese allies resided. And planes didn't just drop bombs. They unloaded more than 70 million tons of herbicidal agents, 3 million white phosphorus rockets -- white phosphorous will burn its way entirely through a body -- and an estimated 400,000 tons of jellied incendiary napalm. "Thirty-five percent of the victims," Turse writes, "died within fifteen to twenty minutes." Death from the skies, like death on the ground, was often unleashed capriciously. "It was not out of the ordinary for U.S. troops in Vietnam to blast a whole village or bombard a wide area in an effort to kill a single sniper," Turse writes.
Murder is an integral part of war. And the most disturbing form of murder, because it is so intimate, is carried out by infantry troops. The god-like power that comes with the ability to destroy anything, including other human beings, along with the intoxicating firepower of industrial weapons, rapidly turns those who wield these weapons into beasts. Human beings are reduced to objects, toys to satiate a perverse desire to dominate, humiliate, control and kill. Corpses are trophies. Many of the Vietnamese who were murdered, Turse relates, were first subjected to degrading forms of public abuse, gang rape, torture and savage beatings. They were, Turse writes, when first detained "confined to tiny barbed wire 'cow cages' and sometimes jabbed with sharpened bamboo sticks while inside them." Other detainees "were placed in large drums filled with water; the containers were then struck with great force, which caused internal injuries but left no scars." Some were "suspended by ropes for hours on end or hung upside down and beaten, a practice called 'the plane ride.'" Or they "were chained with their hands over their heads, arms fully extended, so their feet could barely touch the ground -- a version of an age-old torture called the strappado. Untold numbers were subjected to electric shocks from crank-operated field telephones, battery-powered devices, or even cattle prods." Soles of feet were beaten. Fingernails were ripped out. Fingers were dismembered. Detainees were slashed with knives, "suffocated, burned by cigarettes, or beaten with truncheons, clubs, sticks, bamboo flails, baseball bats, and other objects. Many were threatened with death or even subjected to mock executions." Turse found that "detained civilians and captured guerrillas were often used as human mine detectors and regularly died in the process." And while soldiers and Marines were engaged in daily acts of brutality and murder, the Central Intelligence Agency "organized, coordinated, and paid for" a clandestine program of targeted assassinations "of specific individuals without any attempt to capture them alive or any thought of a legal trial."
"All that suffering," Turse, writes, "was more or less ignored as it happened, and then written out of history even more thoroughly in the decades since."
Turse, in one of many accounts, describes a string of atrocities committed in the Duc Pho/Mo Duc border region in spring 1967 by Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry under the command of Capt. James Lanning. A wounded detainee, Turse writes, was dumped into a boat and pushed into a rice paddy where he was riddled with bullets and finished off with a grenade. A wounded woman was covered with a straw mat and set on fire. Paul Halverson, a soldier and military combat correspondent who accompanied the unit, when asked about the total number of civilians killed by Lanning's force, stated in the book: "The entire time I was over there -- just by Charlie Company -- I'd say it would be in the hundreds."
Maj. Gordon Livingston, a regimental surgeon with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, in 1971 testified before Congress that he witnessed "a helicopter pilot who swooped down on two Vietnamese women riding bicycles and killed them with the helicopter skids." The pilot, after being grounded briefly and investigated, was soon exonerated and allowed back in the air.
Soldiers and Marines, as is common in all wars, collected body parts of dead Vietnamese -- heads, noses, scalps, breasts, teeth, ears, fingers, genitals -- and displayed them or wore them in necklaces. "There was people in all the platoons with ears on cords," Jimmie Busby, a member of the 75th Rangers during 1970-1971, told an Army criminal investigator. Corpses were dressed up and twisted into comic poses for photographs or gruesomely mutilated. Severed heads of Vietnamese were mounted on pikes or poles in Army camps. The dead were lashed onto Army vehicles -- which at times ran over Vietnamese civilians for sport -- and driven through villages.
"One marine remembered finding a Vietnamese woman who had been shot and wounded," Turse writes. "Severely injured, she begged for water. Instead, her clothes were ripped off. She was stabbed in both breasts, then forced into a spread-eagle position, after which the handle of an entrenching tool--essentially a short-handled shovel--was thrust up her vagina. Other women were violated with objects ranging from soda bottles to rifles."
Vietnamese who were detained in the country's "massive incarceration archipelago" were slapped, punched, kicked, sexually assaulted, given electric shocks and subjected to the "water-rag" treatment, or waterboarding.
"They tried to force me to confess that I was involved with the Viet Cong," one detainee said of her South Vietnamese and American interrogators. "I refused to make such a statement and so they stuck needles under the tips of my ten fingernails saying that if I did not write down what they wanted, and admit to being Viet Cong, then they would continue the torture." When she did not comply "they tied my nipples to electric wires, then gave me electric shocks, knocking me to the floor every time they did so. They said that if they did not get the necessary information they would continue the torture. Two American soldiers were always standing on either side of me."
Military commanders and politicians were seduced by the destructive fury they could call down on the enemy. Walls of automatic rifle fire, hundreds of rounds of belt-fed machine-gun fire, 90 mm tank rounds, endless sheets of grenades, mortars, artillery shells and claymore mines saturated the countryside while gigantic 2,700-pound explosive projectiles were fired from battleships along the coast. Canisters of napalm, daisy-cutter bombs, anti-personnel rockets, high-explosive rockets, incendiary rockets, cluster bombs, high-explosive shells and iron fragmentation bombs -- including the 40,000-pound bomb loads dropped by giant B-52 Strarofortress bombers -- along with chemical defoliants and chemical gases were dropped from the sky. The ceaseless assault would, the generals and politicians believed, ultimately ensure victory. The gleeful tally of the dead was captured in the perverse practice of body counts, a macabre scorecard to "prove" that our side was winning.
The official license granted to soldiers and Marines to kill anyone came in the form of the free fire zone -- a term later changed by the military to the more neutral sounding "specified strike zone" -- which had at its core the Orwellian logic of military institutions. In these zones, troops were informed, there were no civilians because everyone in a "free fire zone" was the enemy. Women. Children. The elderly. They were all legitimate targets. "You could not be held responsible for firing on innocent civilians since by definition there were none there," an infantryman said. And when patrols shot and killed groups of unarmed civilians outside of officially designated free fire zones they unilaterally decided to designate their killing sites as free fire zones.