“In the fields the bodies burning / As the war machine keeps turning”
—“War Pigs”, Black Sabbath
“The true history of Vietnamese civilian suffering does not fit comfortably into America’s preferred postwar narrative – the tale of a conflict nobly fought by responsible commanders and good American boys, who should not be tainted by the occasional mistakes of a few ‘bad apples’ in their midst.” – Nick Turse
“I’ve seen horrors… But you have no right to call me a murderer ... you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies!”
– Marlon Brando as “Colonel Walter E. Kurtz”, Apocalypse Now (1979)
Recently, I happened to watch a Vietnam Airways-sponsored travel video on YouTube that described Ho Chi Minh City as “an exciting and desirable international city… Its positive energy has a way of rubbing off on all who visit this city, leaving visitors feeling youthful and invigorated.” But in 1972, Saigon, as it was known then, was a very, very different place – it was Hell. It was a bombed-out, crime-ridden formerly glorious city with “piles of rotting garbage lay[ing] uncollected beneath a pall of smog;” the country’s highest infant mortality rate; thousands of women who had turned to prostitution and “servicing the American war machine; and an estimated 100,000 children who had run away from home or who had been separated by their parents and were living on the streets.
But the violence unleashed on and endured by the residents of Saigon was just collateral damage, just the tip of the iceberg for the American government and military, says author Nick Turse in his latest book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. As early as 1950, President Truman authorized the deployment of American military “advisers” to aid the French government in their attempt to recolonize Vietnam – or French Indochina as it has been known before – so by the time the first “official” American combat troops landed in 1965, the American occupation of Vietnam was well on its way.
From 1950 to 1975, an entire generation of Vietnamese was eviscerated—militarily, physically and psychologically – by the American military. It was not just about the killing of civilians and even prisoners of war (POWs) under hazy rules of engagement (ROE): it was the widespread intimidation and dehumanization of a simple, South East Asian agrarian society through gang rape, sodomy, destruction of entire villages, torture, and even child sex abuse.
Turse has an unusual pedigree for an author – equal parts historian, journalist and academic – and it is this unique combination that lends such an authoritative voice to Kill Anything that Moves. As much as this book is about the sheer volume of physical brutality and firepower unleashed onto the people of Vietnam during this war, it is also an expose on American military organization and leadership; the similar, but occasionally dissimilar goals of policymakers versus military minds; the ethics of war; and, borrowing the title of the 2003 documentary on Robert McNamara, this book also covers the “fog of war”.
It’s fitting to mention former Secretary of Defense McNamara, because Turse suggests none to subtly that it was McNamara’s narrow focus on numbers, statistics, ratios and percentages that became the guiding principle of the Department of Defense through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, which in turn trickled down through the military and cascaded like a waterfall from generals to majors and then to captains, lieutenants and enlisted men. The goal was simple: reach the “crossover point” .This was, according to Turse, “The moment when American soldiers would be killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace. After that, the Pentagon expected, the communist-led forces would naturally give up the fight – that would be the only rational thing to do.”
As the years of conflict continued, the mysterious “crossover point” proved elusive. However, as Turse details, this did not slow down the American war machine; rather, it cranked it up. Vietnam was not just a battlefield – it became a “laboratory” for the American military to try it its latest gadgets and to force the Vietnamese into submission. According to Turse:
“The American forces came blazing in with fighter jets and helicopter gunships. They shook the earth with howitzers and mortars. In a country of pedestrians and bicycles, they rolled over the landscape in heavy tanks, light tanks and flame-thrower tanks … The Americans unleashed millions of gallons of chemical defoliants, millions of pounds of chemical gases, and endless canisters of napalm; cluster bombs, high-explosive shells, and daisy-cutter bombs that obliterated everything within a ten-football field diameter.”
During that war, there was widespread confusion over who the enemy was; most reports indicate that officers were as confused as enlisted men over the differences in politics, commitments and even attire of the North Vietnamese army, National Liberation Front (NLF), People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) or other groups. According to Turse, the term “Viet Cong” or “Vietnamese Communists” was invented by the U.S. Information Service to serve as a one-stop shop moniker for all NLF combatants. “Viet Cong” slowly become “VC” then “Victor Charlie” and eventually, “Charlie”.
The tragedy, of course, is that “Charlie” became the omnipresent target of all Vietnamese, civilian or combatants, men or women, armed or unarmed, young or old, who were unfortunate enough to come into contact with American soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen. According to Turse’s interviews with servicemen, as well as their independently submitted testimony, “Charlie” became any Vietnamese man, woman or child who directly attacked Americans, ran away from a helicopter, ran towards a helicopter, surrendered, did not surrender, left a bunker, stayed in a bunker, etc.
Truthfully, I found reading Kill Anything that Moves to be one of the most painful experiences of my book-reviewing career. It’s not that this book is bad—although that was the reason why I could not finish Howard Stern’s “Private Parts” and actually threw it across the room in a fit of rage – but at many points, I just had to put this book down and think, “Is there any point to keep reading?” When I look at my notes, I see the following scribble on page 71: “Was there any benefit to this war? Did any good come of it? Did the VT (Vietnamese) benefit at all?” I suppose my inner turmoil about trying to get through Kill Anything that Moves is actually a testament to Turse’s highly descriptive and cogent style – his thesis statement comes across loud and clear, i.e., The U.S. military and government knowingly and willfully committed themselves to the systematic killing of Vietnamese civilians and prisoners war in open violation of the Geneva Convention.
What is less convincing in my eyes is Turse’s explanation of why Americans deployed to Vietnam chose to take part in such brutal violence against the Vietnamese. Yes, he paints a picture of not only a top-down approach to treating Vietnam like a parasite-riddled land, but also a massive culture of cover-ups, turning blind eyes and general apathy to stories of brutality. Yes, he describes the frustration of the rare whistleblower who had the courage to call out wanton violence, but then who changes his mind later; or whose testimony gets buried in the bureaucracy. But not once in Kill Anything That Moves does the author provide some of the psychological theories as to why American soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen chose to disregard human life and justice in favor of “kill counts” and promotions. I feel that while Turse chose to bring up Nuremberg, as well as post-World War II judgments passed on German and Japanese officials, I did not find any references to the notion of “just following orders”; the psychological experimentations of Stanley Milgram or Philip Zimbardo; or the Christopher Browning-Daniel Goldhagen debate over accountability in light of the Nazi destruction of European Jewry.
We all know the common adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it; and when we do hear it, we often roll our eyes and yawn. But, after reading this book, I wonder if the American government has learned anything from Vietnam. When the United States first went to war in Afghanistan following the attacks of 9/11, it became public knowledge that America entered the country with Arabic linguists and translators, even though it is not an Arabic-speaking country; America tried to use heavy armor, only to end up relying on cavalry; and America was suddenly being attacked by the very same people it had armed during previous conflicts with the Soviet Union.
With the Iraq War over and the War in Afghanistan winding down, the Obama Administration does not seem to have taken its foot off the gas when it comes to slowing down the ambiguous War on Terror. Perhaps this is the greatest fear still permeating American society: American still don’t know who they are fighting. After reading Kill Anything that Movies, I wonder if this is what American has become known for – fighting shadows with numbers, inventing enemies to feed its military industrial complex, and looking for rational behavior in a very, very irrational world.