by Michael Drohan
Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse, Metropolitan Books, 2013
Nick Turse has written a truly extraordinary history of the Vietnam War such as we’ve never read nor seen on the big screen or TV. The events, painstakingly researched and recorded, happened over 50 years ago.
Turse sees the war primarily through the lens of the testimonies of its victims, Vietnamese men, women and children. This is not an easy read. In page after page he describes mind-numbing cruelty, disregard for life, torture, even sadism, utter disrespect for the Vietnamese people.
The title, “Kill Anything that Moves,” is from Captain Ernest Medina, commanding officer at My Lai’s directive. It’s similar to many orders for search and destroy operations of that war.
Jonathan Schell, who reported on the war for the New York Times, states that this book, like no other of the 30,000 written on the subject, reveals the unspeakable truth about what occurred.
When one speaks of the war in Vietnam, especially its seamy side, many are aware of the My Lai massacre when Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, killed 500 Vietnamese men, women and children in cold blood on March 16, 1968.
Journalist Seymour Hersh and Vietnam veteran Ron Ridenhour in 1969, brought that horror to light. Turse, however, finds a downside to this revelation in that My Lai came to be seen as the exception in an otherwise just enterprise, and that Sgt. William Calley was just one rotten apple in a barrel of good apples.
Turse documents how the entire barrel was rotten with massacres that took place all over Vietnam, from North to South and in varying intensities throughout the war. Its excruciating detail challenges one’s belief in the goodness of human nature.
As Turse depicts the continuous stream of atrocities that the tortured people of Vietnam endured, he attempts to delve into the mindset of those who executed the war – from the very top to the grunt on the ground. At the top, namely the President, his Cabinet and the Congress, there was a complete ignorance of Vietnamese history or the people’s aspirations that led to their prolonged anti-colonial struggle, first against the French and then the Americans.
They sought freedom from colonial rule and economic exploitation. The U.S., stepping into the shoes of the French, superimposed another narrative on this reality, namely the fight against evil communism. In a sense, the U.S. was fighting a figment of its own fears and imaginings.
Hubris was written large, especially in technocrats such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who guided the war. They perceived U.S. superior weaponry and military power as a force that no poor peasant country could match. Despite years of persistence in the struggle, the eventual defeat of our invading army was incomprehensible to army brass.
In accord with their technocratic approach, the high command introduced a particularly perverse measure of success, namely the body count. Battalions and companies were assessed, promoted and rewarded by the number of kills or body counts. The result was catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands of peasant men, women and children were murdered in order to up the body count of a given unit.
A perverse mindset prevailed, describing the people as “gooks,” “dinks,” or “slopes,” scarcely worthy of being treated as human beings. The U.S. soldiers came to Vietnam, supposedly, to liberate the people of Vietnam, but they faced a prevailing mentality that saw them as sub-human. Victory in such an enterprise makes no sense to any rational mind.
The book raises thousands of still unanswered questions. Perhaps most important: how could a country believing itself to be guided by principles of decency have permitted such savagery to continue for over a decade? More disturbing: what might prevent a repetition of such atrocities?
Alas, the experience of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suggest that little was learned.
In 2010, systems analyst Bradley Manning released to Wikileaks a video of the July 12, 2007 killing of 12 Iraqis including a Reuter’s correspondent in a Baghdad neighborhood. He described the action of the aerial team as exhibiting “bloodlust,” somewhat like a sadistic game of “killing ants underneath a magnifying lens.”
The question that nags: was this event the My Lai of the Iraqi War, that is, one of countless similar events all over Iraq?
Reading Turse’s book was for me both excruciating and salutary. I say salutary in that it fortified my opposition to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan, Syria and the preparations for war and the economic strangulation of Iran. I fear that if Iraq and Afghanistan is anything to go by, we can expect a tragic sequel to this book.
Michael Drohan is a board member of TMC and co-chair of the Editorial Collective.