(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)
Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse.
Kill Anything That Moves is based on previously unused archival material and interviews, and tells the tale of American systematic disregard for Vietnamese lives and the atrocities that were committed during the Vietnam war.
In some of the first pages, Turse recounts the well known story of the My Lai massacre from 1964, in which American soldiers murdered around 400 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, both men, women-many of whom were raped, children and infants. Only one soldier, Second Lieutenant William Calley, was convicted, and he ended up servicing only a few years under house arrest. Contrary to what is oftentimes thought today, however, the My Lai massacre was the rule of American warfare in Vietnam, and not an abhorrent exception. The rest of the book reads a descent into more and more indiscriminate violence and successively increasing depravity. Although the book at times becomes a catalogue of violence and horror, we are never brought out of context.
Turse traces the various factors that contributed this culture. He starts with boot camp, which consciously dehumanized the soldiers and taught that obedience was paramount. Illegal orders were common, and soldiers, who did not have extensive training in the legality of war, often had to be uncertain about how to respond. Often those who gave the orders did not themselves know what was legal and not.
“Body count”- enemies killed, is term that runs through the book. The ubiquitous focus on body counts seems to have been partly an effect of the system’s priorities, but became also a driver itself, since both honor and more tangible rewards were distributed on the basis of that measure. This lead to a practice in which any killed civilian (or even water buffalo) was labelled as Viet Cong, and also incentivized the killing of those civilians. A part of this was Pentagon pursuit of the “crossover point”, at which enemies were killed faster than they were replaced. The “mere gook rule” said killings of Vietnamese were nothing to worry about.
“Free fire zones,” special areas of dubious legality in which everyone could be killed, were instituted.
A number of actions by the US army served only to alienate the Vietnamese population: people were driven away from their homes, villages, hamlets and crops were burnt, animals were killed, people were shot at, collective punishment enforced, corpses were mutilated. Sometimes the population starved and raided the garbage of the soldiers for food. Some soldiers started making adornment of their victims, e.g. ears on cords.
In the chapter on torture, the practices initially described bears a sinister resemblance to the revelations of the maltreatment of prisoners that occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in the early 2000’s: Electricity to body parts, water torture, beatings, humiliations. The torture was not restricted to these practices, though, Turse goes on to list among other things, hanging people upside down, inserting needles under fingernails, ripping out nails, shackling people tightly in tiny “tiger cells”, severe beatings, and free reign being given to Vietnamese interrogators, and claims that all this was widespread. Even applied to the enemy, these practices are controversial, to say the least. In a context were those in the field had huge discretion, soldiers often did not know who were the enemy and were constantly in danger, and proper trials were not held, a large number of innocents had to be harmed.
A chilling question is whether also the graver torture that is documented for the Vietnam war have occurred in recent wars, in particular in Afghanistan and Iraq. Given the similarity of at least some of the practices, there is perhaps no good reason not to suspect that there may be more.
Turse allocates much time to “Speedy Express,” an operation that took place in a few months from December 1968 to May 1969. This operation condoned massive deadly force on a previously unseen scale, with possibly thousands of civilians killed.
A bipartisan delegation visited, two members saw some mistreatment, etc. and reported on it, but were suppressed in the final report. Whistle blowers were not listened to.
In general resistance to the war not in the news to begin with. A little more after a while, much with My Lai, then more. Veterans started to come forward and make the atrocities known. These were often harassed. Daniel Ellsberg leaked “the pentagon papers,” partly about American disregard for Vietnam lives, etc. Pentagon fought against publication. Conference in Oslo just a week after publication of the pentagon papers, about warfare in Indo-China. Damning statement from commission.
Turse does not offer any quick fixes for current or future war-makers to avoid the atrocities of Vietnam, he seems content to document how bad the war really was. It is a worthwhile endeavor.