Like many Americans, my real political education began with my opposition to the Vietnam War in the early 1960s, progressing from readings to joining anti-war groups to public demonstrations, draft board sit-ins and so on. But even all the reading and involvement and civil disobedience did not prepare me for what Nick Turse has discovered and laid out in his new book, Kill Anything That Moves (Holt 2013.) The title phrase comes from actual testimony Turse found, specifically that of medic Jamie Henry, who, referring to a search-and-destroy operation in the Tet counteroffensive, quoted what his company captain, Donald Reh, told Lieutenant Johnny Mack when the latter asked Reh what to do with the 19 civilians his troops had rounded up:
“The Captain asked him if he remembered the Op [operations] Order that had come down from higher that morning which was to kill anything that moves. The Captain repeated the order. He said that higher said to kill anything that moves.”(126)
The order was, of course, followed (about which more later.) This is the pattern that Turse found repeated everywhere in the war. Gooks or slopes or slants (all racist names for Vietnamese) were not people; they were, no matter how they appeared outwardly, all the enemy, all VC or Vietcong. If they remained in a village instead of fleeing to a refugee camp, and especially if they tried to run from soldiers, they were to be killed. Period. The statistics Turse cites at the outset confirm this: the Vietnam government itself estimated 2 million civilians dead. If multiplied by Gunter Loewy’s multiplier of 2.65 wounded for every one killed, that means 5.3 million civilians wounded, for a total of 7.3 million casualties out of a population of 19 million. The United States tried and still tries to call such civilian casualties “collateral damage,” as if they were accidental. Turse disagrees, and writes a massively documented book to prove that it was U.S. policy to kill civilians, and that such intentional killing constituted massive war crimes.
The main documents Turse uses to make his case came from an accidental find at the National Archives, the files of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group (activists never heard of such a group at the time.) This was a group the Pentagon formed in the aftermath of the inflammatory publicity about the My Lai massacre (500 civilians murdered), hoping to prevent further such incidents, or at least pretend that it was working to prevent them. The files include over 300 allegations of “massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations and other atrocities substantiated by army investigators, including 500 allegations that weren’t proven at the time.” Turse also interviewed numerous whistleblowers, like Jamie Henry, and many Vietnamese victims of atrocities who managed to survive, most of them maimed either physically or spiritually. He ends up with a story of massacre after massacre, with innocent civilians being bombed from high-flying B-52 bombers, or strafed by napalm spewing jets or blasted by helicopters or pounded by huge naval guns firing shells as big as a Volkswagen or simply gunned down by American soldiers following their orders to “kill anything that moves.” And this is the burden of Turse’s book: the massacre of an entire country was not an accident; rather, it was the product of a theory of war that sociologist James William Gibson calls “technowar”—a philosophy best embodied in the person of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Technowar combined “American technological and economic prowess with sophisticated managerial capacities” to produce a war machine “functioning as smoothly and predictably as an assembly line.” One of the products of that ‘assembly line’ approach was to imagine a “crossover point”—the moment when American soldiers would be killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace—an idea that would lead directly to the huge emphasis on “body count,” the number of killed Vietnamese. Also related was the notion that since the United States was fighting a guerilla war against an enemy that could easily melt back into its jungle villages, the solution was to deprive the guerillas of their civilian and jungle cover. How? Simple: either kill or force most villagers to move into refugee camps or cities (Saigon tripled in size during the war), and reduce their tropical homeland to desert by using napalm and white phosphorus and toxic defoliants like Agent Orange that would not only get rid of the jungle cover but also destroy the lush paddy fields of rice that had made Vietnam before the war a net exporter of rice, and soon made it a net importer.
One soldier, Richard Brummett of A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Regimental Cavalry illustrated this philosophy in a letter he sent to then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird:
[my unit] did perform on a regular basis, random murder, rape and pillage upon the Vietnamese civilians in Quang Tin Province…with the full knowledge, consent and participation of our Troop Commander, a Captain David Roessler…
These incidents included random shelling of villages with 90mm white phosphorus rounds, machine gunning of civilians who had the misfortune to be near when we hit a mine, torture of prisoners, destroying of food and livestock of villagers if we deemed they had an excess, and numerous burnings of villages for no apparent reason. (97)
Another more specific account came from the aforementioned medic, Jamie Henry. Henry was a member of Company B in the 35th Infantry engaged in what came to be known as the Tet counteroffensive—wherein the U.S. military vowed to prove that it was unfazed by the Tet offensive that nearly brought the U.S. military to its knees. The savagery unleashed in response destroyed much of the country, including many of the cities like Hue where the Vietnamese guerillas had triumphed. Henry’s unit, working in Quang Nam province in the north, was part of this Tet counteroffensive. Having lost five men earlier, the unit entered a hamlet so small it had no name, seeking revenge. Instead of the enemy, however, they found only a few villagers. Some of the soldiers killed livestock (a common tactic, to deprive villagers of their food, and thus force them to cities or refugee camps), while others dragged a teenaged girl into a hut for the usual gang rape. Others rounded up 19 villagers (by now including the girl who had been raped) and it was then that Henry heard his captain repeating the Op Order mentioned above—to kill anything that moved. As Henry described it, four or five of the soldiers surrounded the terrified squatting villagers, and
“opened fire and shot them. There was a lot of flesh and blood going around because the velocity of an M-16 at that close range does a lot of damage.” (126)
Henry added that this was not an isolated incident; by the end of his tour, he knew of “at least 50 civilians executed by our company and with as little provocation as on [the day of the massacre], not in the heat of battle or from air strikes—deliberate murder.”
Jamie Henry tried to speak up about what he’d seen, but he was advised that if he did so while still in Vietnam, he’d be likely to get a bullet in his back. So he waited till he got home, went to the Judge Advocate General in Fort Hood, Texas, but was advised, again, to be silent because otherwise he’d be made to be quiet or even disappear. Even the anti-war magazine Ramparts, though it wrote up his story, refrained from publishing it; only Scanlon’s Monthly, in Spring 1970, published it, but it made hardly a ripple. Army investigators did take a 10-page statement from Jamie Henry, but it disappeared like many others. Only the Winter Soldier Investigation of January 1971 finally gave Jamie Henry a forum, and at that event he made clear what Nick Turse asserts again and again: “the executions are the direct result of a policy. It’s the policy that is important” (239). And that policy, as reporter Jonathan Schell noted about Quang Ngai province which he found to be nearly totally destroyed, was summed up simply: the war was a battle against the South Vietnamese people.
The question we keep wanting to ask is: how could American boys do such things? In answer, Turse cites the training they received, emphasizing the singular purpose of their mission: to kill, kill, kill (I remember the slogan from my basic training: “What’s the motto of the bayonet? Kill, Kill, Kill”). The dehumanization of Vietnamese people cited earlier facilitates this, especially among 19-year-olds. While there were the Jamie Henrys and others who found the killing of innocents repugnant and criminal, there were others who actually found it fun. This is documented by perhaps the most shocking violations Turse found: numerous accounts of American troops actually making a game out of killing. One American medic, seeing two boys dead near a road,
“found out they’d been hit by an American military truck and that there was this kind of game going on in which, supposedly, guys were driving through town gambling over who could hit a kid. They had some disgusting name for it, something like “gook hockey.” I think they were driving deuce-and-a-halfs—big-ass trucks. The NCO who ordered me to clean the bodies could have cared less. (157)
To help explain such behavior Turse refers to the fancy new military technologies young soldiers are equipped with, encouraging in them the firing of weapons for the “simple thrill of it—what the historian Charles Appy calls the ‘hedonism of destruction.” This starts with the M-16 rifle every soldier carried (and which, not coincidentally, is the model for the Bushmaster Rifle so favored by our local gun aficionados, including Newtown killer Adam Lanza). The M-16 can fire “up to 700 rounds a minute and tear off a limb at a hundred yards.” So light and play-like is the M-16 that it came to be known, among soldiers, as the “Mattel Toy.” Other troop toys included Vietnamese ears strung around soldiers’ necks, and “kill albums”— photo albums kept by troops showing pictures of severed heads, or “lots of heads, arranged in a row, with a burning cigarette in each of the mouths, eyes open”(162).
Of course, the main point of Turse’s book is that it was not just out-of-control 19-year-olds who bear the burden of guilt. Generals were the ones giving the orders, and when the general was someone like Julian Ewell, who in 1968 was given command of the 9th Infantry Division responsible for “clearing” the Mekong Delta (perhaps the richest agricultural expanse in the world), the murder and mayhem could and did reach epic proportions. Known as the “Butcher of the Delta,” Ewell was obsessed with the infamous “body count.” His chief of Staff, Colonel Ira Hunt, was equally obsessed. Together, they beat and browbeat the commanders under them to fatten the body count by any means necessary. Turse quotes Ewell in one rant to his commanders:
“What the fuck are you people doing down here, sitting on your ass? The rest of the brigades are coming up with a fine body count…If you can’t get out there and beat ‘em out of the bushes, then I’ll relieve you and get somebody down here who will.” (206).
Turse also cites Navy Admiral Robert Salzer’s contention that Ewell was “psychologically unbalanced…you could almost see the saliva dripping out of the corners of his mouth”(207). The insanity showed up in hordes of dead civilians—all, as always and everywhere, counted as enemies, “dead VC.” Before Ewell took over, the 9th Infantry Division had a ratio of about eight VC dead for every American killed in large unit operations, which was slightly higher than average. Then came Speedy Express, Ewell’s name for his operation in the Delta, tragically given an even greater mandate by politics (Pres. Johnson had re-started the Paris peace talks, and the Pentagon wanted to bring the Mekong Delta under Saigon’s control before any peace could break out, and so ordered Ewell and others to pound the Delta even more savagely than before.) With this added sanction from above, the kill ratio for Speedy Express kept leaping to ever more astounding levels, peaking in March of 1969 with a 134 to 1 ratio: that is, 134 “enemy” kills for every American death. Ewell became, of course, the darling of the officer corps, even in spite of the complaints that continued to mount against him. One Concerned Sergeant (later revealed by Turse as George Lewis) wrote a letter to General Westmoreland, the Supreme commander in Vietnam:
Sir, the 9th Division did nothing to prevent the killing, and by pushing the body [count] so hard, we were “told” to kill many times more Vietnamese than at My Lay [My Lai], and a very few per cents of them did we know were enemy…
In case you don’t think I mean lots of Vietnamese got killed this way, I can give you some idea how many. A battalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day. With 4 battalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 to 1500 a month, easy. (One battalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!) If I am only 10% right, and believe me its lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay each month for over a year.
Of course his letter was buried, the excuse being that an anonymous letter could be legally discounted. Instead, My Lai was easily turned into a “singular case” of one bad apple in a generally noble barrel, thus obviating any more concern about war crimes. And General Ewell and his chief of staff were commissioned by the Army to write a book about their glorious campaign, for the edification of future military commanders. Called Sharpening the Combat Edge, it completely whitewashed the history of the Mekong Delta massacres, claiming that their mass killing methods had actually “unbrutalized” the war.
This is the fate of war criminals in the American military. While hard-hitting reports, like that of Kevin Buckley of Newsweek, are truncated and sanitized for public consumption, the books of war criminals and psychopaths are admired as models for the future ‘civilized’ conduct of war. Sadly, Nick Turse’s book has appeared too late to compel war crimes trials—which should have happened years ago when the criminals were still alive. All that we have now is Turse’s chilling documentation indicating, once more, why there are, in fact, millions of people in the world who consider the United States of America a rogue nation, an empire of advanced killing machines manned by smooth-faced killers all too ready and eager to use them.