Crimes of war

“Not aberrations, but operations”

Kill Anything That Moves:

The Real American War in Vietnam

In November 1967, an International War Crimes Tribunal was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, to examine the US war against Vietnam. On the agenda for the participants to consider was a determination of genocide. Jean-Paul Sartre, the well-known French philosopher and writer, was one the panelists. His reasoned conclusions were published in the February 1968 issue of Ramparts magazine. As Sartre noted, war is not

abstract: it is the greatest power on earth against a poor peasant people. Those who fight it are living out the only possible relationship between an over-industrialized country and an underdeveloped country, that is to say, a genocidal relationship implemented through racism—the only relationship short of picking up and pulling out.

In his meticulously documented account of “The Real American War in Vietnam” Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse makes this relationship painfully clear. Turse lays bare the totality of the war against the Vietnamese people, and how it was driven by a frenzy for “body counts” that resulted in a systematic policy of mass murder. No future history of this war worth its salt will ignore the contributions Turse makes in exposing the kind of war the United States waged in Vietnam, a war whose sole aim was the crushing of a people by all means of modern industrial warfare.

It didn’t take an international tribunal to expose the crimes of the US military in Vietnam. Numerous soldiers identified countless crimes they had witnessed, participated in, and agonized over. Many reported their observations to their superiors, congressman, or the press. Most of these crimes—even the most sensational—were ignored, explained away, or diminished by halfhearted court-martials. No general or higher official was ever found complicit in this genocidal undertaking. The My Lai massacre became the exception in an otherwise legitimate military endeavor. As Turse notes in his introduction, “Even as that one event [My Lai] has become the subject of numerous books and articles, all the other atrocities perpetrated by US soldiers have essentially vanished from popular memory.” 

The My Lai massacre of March 15, 1968, followed the surprise Tet Offensive of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in February, and put the lie to the government’s assurances that the war was going in favor of the US and its allies. This massacre went unreported for more than a year. That it got noticed at all was due to the perseverance of Ron Ridenhour, a 22-year-old soldier who had heard about it from other soldiers and spent a year gathering evidence. Together with Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter who broke the story, they laid bare the policy that most combat units were following in Vietnam.

Captain Ernest Medina, who planned the attack on My Lai, expressed the objective succinctly when, in answer to an artillery forward observer’s question—“Are we supposed to kill women and children?”—he responded, “Kill everything that moves.”

As Turse notes, “Until the My Lai revelations became front-page news, atrocity stories were routinely disregarded by American journalists or excised by stateside editors.” More disconcerting, though, “in a stunning reversal, almost immediately after the exposure of the My Lai massacre, war crime allegations became old hat—so commonplace as to be barely worth mentioning or looking into.”

Captain Medina and his lieutenant, William Calley, were the designated fall guys for the genocidal policy, but the price they paid amounted to little more than wrist slaps. To ensure that no one else would pay a price, “an astonishing number of marine court-martial records of the era have apparently been destroyed or gone missing.” The same holds true for air force and navy files. Turse was offered “a copy of the protective jacket that was once wrapped around the documents.” He declined the pathetic gesture. 

Nevertheless, the Pentagon was concerned enough that, following the My Lai revelations, it assembled a task force “to ensure that the army would never again be caught off guard by a major war crimes scandal.” Thanks to an unnamed archivist at the National Archives, Turse was directed to “the yellowing records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group,” where he found the trail—soldiers’ reports—that led him to conclude that My Lai and similar atrocities were “not aberrations, but operations” emanating from the highest levels. As Turse notes, from the Working Group’s own files—the author uncovered hundreds of other atrocity cases this body did not record—there was enough to demonstrate “that atrocities were committed by members of every…major army unit in Vietnam.” Turse spent several days photocopying the thousands of pages of Working Group records while living out of his car in the parking garage of the National Archives, after which all 30 boxes of records were quickly removed from the shelves.

This “system of suffering,” as Turse aptly labeled it, allowed the individual and unit atrocities to become routine. For the ordinary soldier, the system of overkill began in basic training with the indoctrination in “a culture of violence and brutality, which emphasized above all a readiness to kill without compunction.” Put this together with a policy that emphasized “body counts” as the metrics demanded by the Pentagon under the leadership of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and the logic of this organized mayhem is clear. Officers were promoted based on their body counts. Individual troops were awarded prizes for their body counts. The progress of the war was charted in the recesses of the Pentagon by the accumulated body counts. The routine for the field soldier was clear: Just slaughter, count, and move on. This was techno war at its most advanced level. Quoting James Gibson from his informative book The Perfect War, Turse makes clear how the process worked:

Producing a high body count was crucial for promotion in the officer corps. Many high-level officers established “production quotas” for their units, and systems of “debit” and “credit” to calculate exactly how efficiently subordinate units and middle-management personnel performed. Different formulas were used, but the commitment to war as a rational production process was common to all.

This “system of suffering” was competitive. “Entire units were sometimes pitted against each other in body-count competitions with prizes at stake”—cases of beer or days of R & R. “This helped make the body-count mind-set even more pervasive, lending death totals the air of sports statistics. ‘Box scores’ came to be displayed all over Vietnam.” It was only logical, then, that with career promotions and other prizes at stake, “body-count inflation” became common; or as one soldier reported, “If we came across four different body parts we called in four kills.” With such metrics guiding their actions, it is not difficult to understand how civilian bodies could be added to the count as well. Differentiation was totally erased from field reports. The common phrase, “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC,” describes the logic of how this war was conducted.

Such wanton industrial killing could only happen in the context of deep contempt for the Vietnamese and their country. From President Johnson on down, the language of racism defined the attitude of the United States toward Vietnam. The most common term, “gook,” which was borrowed from an earlier US campaign in the Philippines at the beginning of the century and passed along in other imperial adventures from Japan to Korea, carried the attitude of seeing the population as subhuman. The racist ideology of the war, Turse notes, can be summed up with “a popular joke among GIs…: ‘What you do is, you load all the friendlies [South Vietnamese] onto ships and take them out to the South China Sea. Then you bomb the country flat. Then you sink the ships.’”

With racism and contempt the guiding ideologies, it was difficult for any one soldier to take a stand, though Turse makes clear that numerous soldiers did resist the status quo. For those who tried to pursue justice, there was often a disappointing outcome. Even a retired army general, Telford Taylor, “who had served as chief counsel for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials,” could not get traction with his suggestion that under the standards of those trials it was worth putting General Westmoreland in the dock. Nevertheless, Westmoreland was sufficiently rattled that he established a task force “to examine the ‘Conduct of the War in Vietnam (COWIN) and provide an insurance policy against Taylor and other critics.’” Predictably, the COWIN found Westmoreland not culpable for any criminal acts while he was in charge of the war. Needless to say, the task force was composed of officers who belonged to that fraternity known in the military as the “West Point Protective Association.”

In the end, the erosion of morale, purpose, and confidence in the objective undermined US efforts to crush the Vietnamese. By 1971, “the American military as an institution seemed to be on the verge of collapse”; or as Colonel Robert Heinl noted in  Armed Forces Journal, “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse.”

Turse builds a convincing case for why US efforts in Vietnam were unsuccessful, and the history of the systematic atrocities he illustrates has been left out of most accounts. As he notes, “Vietnam War bookshelves are now filled with big-picture histories, sober studies of diplomacy and military tactics, and combat memoirs told from the soldiers’ perspective. Buried in forgotten US government archives, locked away in the memories of atrocity survivors, the real American war in Vietnam has all but vanished from public consciousness.” Turse’s diligent research and powerful writing exposing the policy behind the atrocities of the Vietnam War are a tribute to all those who suffered and tried to set the record straight.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story