The Truth About the Vietnam War: Nick Turse's Kill Anything That Moves
Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam
The Vietnam War is one of the most controversial and divisive wars in American history. It was a war that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese people. It was a war that sparked massive protests and resistance movements in the United States and around the world. It was a war that exposed the dark side of American power and morality.
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But how much do we really know about what happened in Vietnam? How much do we understand the true nature and extent of the violence that was unleashed by the US military against the Vietnamese people? How much do we acknowledge the responsibility and accountability for the war crimes that were committed by American forces?
In this article, we will review a book that attempts to answer these questions and reveal the shocking truth about the American war on Vietnamese civilians. The book is called Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, written by Nick Turse, an award-winning journalist and historian. Based on classified documents and first-person interviews, Turse exposes the systematic and widespread killing, torture, rape, and mutilation of Vietnamese noncombatants by US troops, as well as the cover-up and denial by the US military and government. He also examines the consequences and implications of these atrocities for both Vietnam and America, as well as for our understanding of war and human rights.
What is the book about?
Kill Anything That Moves is a groundbreaking investigation into one of the most hidden and horrific aspects of the Vietnam War: the deliberate killing of innocent civilians by American forces. Turse argues that this was not a result of a few "bad apples" or isolated incidents, but rather a pervasive and systematic policy that was authorized and encouraged by the highest levels of command. He shows how official orders to "kill anything that moves" led to a culture of brutality and impunity among US troops, who routinely slaughtered unarmed men, women, children, and elderly; burned down villages; tortured prisoners; raped women; mutilated corpses; and destroyed crops and livestock. He also reveals how these crimes were covered up by falsifying reports, destroying evidence, intimidating witnesses, and lying to Congress and the public.
Turse bases his findings on more than a decade of research into secret Pentagon archives, where he discovered thousands of previously unknown cases of civilian casualties and atrocities. He also conducted extensive interviews with American veterans who confessed their participation or witnessed these crimes, as well as with Vietnamese survivors who shared their stories of suffering and resilience. Turse presents a compelling and comprehensive account of what he calls "the real American war in Vietnam", one that challenges the conventional narrative of a noble cause gone wrong or a tragic mistake.
Who is the author?
Nick Turse is an investigative journalist, historian, and author who specializes in war, human rights, and national security issues. He is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com, a fellow at The Nation Institute, and a contributing writer for The Intercept. He has written for many publications, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, and The Village Voice. He has also appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, and NPR.
Turse is the author of several books, including The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. He has received numerous awards and honors for his journalism and scholarship, such as the Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction, the George Polk Award, the American Book Award, and the Guggenheim Fellowship. He holds a PhD in sociomedical sciences from Columbia University.
Why is the book important?
Kill Anything That Moves is an important book because it exposes a hidden and shameful chapter of American history that has been largely ignored or denied by the mainstream media and academia. It reveals the true scale and nature of the violence that was inflicted by the US military on the Vietnamese people, who were seen as less than human or as enemies by default. It challenges the myth of American exceptionalism and morality, and shows how the US government and military lied to the American people and the world about their conduct and motives in Vietnam. It also sheds light on the lasting impact of these atrocities on the Vietnamese society and culture, as well as on the American psyche and politics.
Kill Anything That Moves is also an important book because it raises critical questions about war and human rights that are still relevant today. It asks us to confront the reality and consequences of war crimes, and to demand justice and accountability for the victims and perpetrators. It asks us to question the official narratives and propaganda that justify wars of aggression and intervention. It asks us to reflect on our own role and responsibility as citizens and human beings in preventing or opposing wars that violate human dignity and international law.
The My Lai massacre and its cover-up
What happened at My Lai?
One of the most notorious examples of American war crimes in Vietnam was the My Lai massacre, which took place on March 16, 1968. On that day, a unit of US soldiers from the Americal Division entered a village called My Lai 4 in Quang Ngai province, where they expected to encounter Viet Cong guerrillas. Instead, they found mostly women, children, and elderly people who were unarmed and posed no threat. Over the course of four hours, the soldiers killed more than 500 civilians in cold blood, shooting them at close range, throwing grenades into their homes, bayoneting them, clubbing them with rifle butts, and raping them. They also burned down the entire village and killed hundreds of animals.
The massacre was carried out under the command of Lieutenant William Calley Jr., who later claimed that he was following orders from his superiors to "kill anything that moves". However, some soldiers refused to participate or tried to stop the killing spree, such as Hugh Thompson Jr., a helicopter pilot who landed his chopper between the soldiers and the civilians and threatened to fire at them if they did not stop. Thompson also rescued some survivors and reported the incident to his superiors.
How did the US military try to hide it?
The US military tried to cover up the My Lai massacre by suppressing any evidence or information that could expose it. They falsified reports to make it seem like a successful operation against enemy forces, claiming that they killed 128 Viet Cong fighters with only one American casualty. They destroyed or confiscated any photographs or documents that could prove otherwise. They threatened or bribed any witnesses or whistleblowers who could testify about what really happened. They also launched a series of investigations that were designed to whitewash or downplay the massacre.
For example, one of the first investigations was conducted by Colonel Oran Henderson, who was in charge of the Americal Division at the time of the massacre. He interviewed only a few soldiers who were involved in the operation, and concluded that there was no evidence of a massacre or any wrongdoing by US troops. He also claimed that he had no knowledge of any orders to kill civilians or any cover-up attempts. He later admitted that he lied under oath during his testimony.
How did the truth come out?
The truth about the My Lai massacre came out thanks to the courage and persistence of a few individuals who exposed it to the public and the press. One of them was Ron Ridenhour, a former soldier who heard about the massacre from his friends who were there. He wrote a letter to several members of Congress and the Pentagon, describing in detail what he had learned and urging them to investigate. He also contacted Seymour Hersh, an investigative journalist who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Vietnam War. Hersh interviewed Calley and other soldiers who confessed their involvement in the massacre, and published his findings in November 1969.
Hersh's articles caused a sensation and sparked outrage and debate in America and around the world. They also prompted the US Army to launch a new investigation, led by Lieutenant General William Peers, who was more independent and thorough than his predecessors. Peers interviewed hundreds of witnesses and collected thousands of pages of evidence, and concluded that the My Lai massacre was indeed a war crime that was covered up by the US military. He also identified more than 30 officers and soldiers who were responsible or complicit in the massacre or its cover-up, and recommended that they be court-martialed.
The systematic violence against Vietnamese civilians
What were the official orders and policies that encouraged killing civilians?
The My Lai massacre was not an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of a larger pattern of violence against Vietnamese civilians that was sanctioned and encouraged by the US military. Turse argues that this violence was driven by several factors, such as:
The US military's strategy of attrition, which aimed to inflict as many casualties as possible on the enemy, regardless of whether they were combatants or noncombatants. This strategy relied on indiscriminate bombing, shelling, napalm, Agent Orange, and search-and-destroy missions that targeted villages suspected of harboring or supporting the Viet Cong.
The US military's use of body counts as a measure of success and failure in Vietnam, which incentivized killing as many people as possible, regardless of whether they were enemy fighters or innocent civilians. This also led to widespread falsification and inflation of body counts by US troops, who often counted women, children, and elderly as Viet Cong.
The US military's lack of cultural understanding and respect for the Vietnamese people, who were often seen as inferior, savage, or dehumanized by American soldiers. This fostered a culture of racism, hatred, and contempt among US troops, who often referred to the Vietnamese as "gooks", "dinks", or "slopes".
The US military's lack of discipline and accountability for its actions in Vietnam, which allowed war crimes to go unpunished or ignored by the chain of command. Many soldiers were poorly trained, inexperienced, or traumatized by the war, and faced little or no consequences for their misconduct or atrocities.
What were the common practices and atrocities committed by US troops?
Turse documents many examples of common practices and atrocities committed by US troops against Vietnamese civilians, such as:
Killing civilians on sight or at random, often for sport or entertainment. For example, some soldiers would shoot at farmers working in their fields, children playing in their yards, or people riding bicycles on the roads. Some would also throw grenades into huts or wells, or fire rockets into villages.
Killing civilians during raids or sweeps of villages suspected of being Viet Cong strongholds or sympathizers. For example, some soldiers would round up all the villagers and execute them en masse, or separate them into groups and kill them one by one. Some would also burn down the houses, destroy the crops and livestock, and loot the valuables.
For example, some soldiers would beat, electrocute, waterboard, or mutilate the prisoners to extract information or confessions. Some would also rape or sexually abuse the female prisoners, or force them to perform oral sex.
Killing civilians as revenge or retaliation for attacks by the Viet Cong. For example, some soldiers would massacre entire villages or hamlets in response to sniper fire, mines, booby traps, or ambushes. Some would also kill civilians who were suspected of being informers or collaborators with the enemy.
Killing civilians as part of "free-fire zones" or "strategic hamlets". These were areas designated by the US military as enemy territory, where anyone could be killed without question or consequence. These zones often included populated areas where many innocent civilians lived. The strategic hamlets were fortified villages where the US military relocated and isolated the rural population from the Viet Cong influence. However, these hamlets often became targets of attack by both sides, and many civilians died or suffered in them.
How did the US military measure success and failure in Vietnam?
The US military measured success and failure in Vietnam mainly by body counts, which were the number of enemy killed in action. This was based on the assumption that the Viet Cong had a limited supply of manpower and resources, and that killing enough of them would eventually break their will and force them to surrender. However, this assumption was flawed and misguided, as Turse explains:
The body counts were often inaccurate or exaggerated, as many soldiers counted civilians as enemy fighters, or inflated their numbers to impress their superiors or earn rewards. For example, Turse cites a case where a US unit claimed to have killed 1,000 Viet Cong in a single operation, but later admitted that the actual number was only 16.
The body counts were often irrelevant or counterproductive, as they did not reflect the actual strength or weakness of the enemy, or the political and social factors that influenced the war. For example, Turse cites a case where a US unit killed 181 Viet Cong in a battle, but lost 155 American soldiers in the process. The US military considered this a victory based on the body count ratio, but it was actually a defeat in terms of morale and public opinion.
The body counts were often immoral or inhumane, as they encouraged killing as an end in itself, rather than as a means to achieve a political or military objective. They also devalued human life and dignity, and justified atrocities and war crimes against civilians. For example, Turse cites a case where a US unit killed 567 civilians in a village, and reported them as enemy killed in action.
The consequences and implications of the war crimes
How many Vietnamese civilians were killed or wounded by US forces?
One of the most difficult and controversial questions about the Vietnam War is how many Vietnamese civilians were killed or wounded by US forces. The exact number is hard to determine, as there are different sources and methods of counting and estimating casualties. However, Turse provides some estimates based on his research and analysis:
According to the US military's own records, US forces killed about 2 million Vietnamese people during the war, of which about 1.2 million were classified as enemy combatants and 800,000 as civilians. However, Turse argues that these numbers are unreliable and understated, as they are based on faulty body counts and do not include many cases of civilian casualties that were not reported or recorded.
According to the Vietnamese government's records, US forces killed about 3.8 million Vietnamese people during the war, of which about 2 million were classified as enemy combatants and 1.8 million as civilians. However, Turse argues that these numbers are also unreliable and overstated, as they are based on political propaganda and do not include many cases of civilian casualties caused by the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army.
According to independent researchers and scholars, US forces killed about 2.5 million Vietnamese people during the war, of which about 1.5 million were classified as enemy combatants and 1 million as civilians. However, Turse argues that these numbers are still incomplete and conservative, as they do not account for many cases of civilian casualties that were hidden or ignored by the US military and government.
Turse concludes that the true number of Vietnamese civilians killed or wounded by US forces is likely much higher than any official or unofficial estimate, and that it may never be known with certainty. He suggests that a more accurate and meaningful way of measuring the impact of the war on the Vietnamese people is to look at the proportion of the population that was affected by it. He estimates that about one-third of the South Vietnamese population and one-fourth of the North Vietnamese population were killed or wounded by US forces during the war, which means that almost every Vietnamese family lost a loved one or suffered a trauma because of the war.
How did the war crimes affect the Vietnamese society and culture?
The war crimes committed by US forces against Vietnamese civilians had a devastating and lasting effect on the Vietnamese society and culture. Turse describes some of these effects, such as:
The war crimes caused immense physical and psychological suffering and trauma for the survivors and their families, who had to cope with the loss of their loved ones, their homes, their livelihoods, their dignity, and their security. Many survivors suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, guilt, anger, or suicidal thoughts. Many also suffered from physical disabilities, diseases, or deformities caused by injuries, malnutrition, or exposure to toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange.
The war crimes disrupted and destroyed the social and cultural fabric of the Vietnamese society, which was based on family ties, community bonds, ancestral traditions, and religious beliefs. Many families were torn apart or displaced by the war, losing their sense of identity and belonging. Many communities were wiped out or isolated by the war, losing their sense of cohesion and solidarity. Many traditions and rituals were interrupted or forgotten by the war, losing their sense of history and continuity. Many temples and shrines were damaged or desecrated by the war, losing their sense of sacredness and reverence.
The war crimes created and deepened divisions and conflicts within and between the Vietnamese people, who were divided by ideology, politics, ethnicity, religion, or geography. Many people were forced to choose sides or switch allegiances during the war, creating distrust and resentment among former friends or neighbors. Many people were persecuted or discriminated against during or after the war, creating hatred and violence among different groups. Many people were traumatized or radicalized by the war, creating extremism and fanaticism among some factions.
How did the war crimes shape the American public opinion and anti-war movement?
Turse explains some of these effects, such as:
The war crimes eroded and undermined the credibility and legitimacy of the US government and military, who had claimed to be fighting for democracy and freedom in Vietnam. They also exposed the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the US leaders and officials, who had lied to the American people and the world about their motives and actions in Vietnam. They also revealed the corruption and incompetence of the US institutions and agencies, who had wasted billions of dollars and thousands of lives in a futile and immoral war.
The war crimes shocked and outraged the American public, who had been largely unaware or