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Excerpt: Kill Anything That Moves

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There were scores of witnesses on the ground and still more overhead, American officers and helicopter crewmen perfectly capable of seeing the growing piles of civilian bodies. Yet when the military released the first news of the assault, it was portrayed as a victory over a formidable enemy force, a legitimate battle in which 128 enemy troops were killed without the loss of a single American life. In a routine congratulatory telegram, General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, lauded the “heavy blows” inflicted on the enemy. His protégé, the commander of the Americal Division, added a special note praising Charlie Company’s “aggressiveness.”

Despite communiqués, radio reports, and English-language accounts released by the Vietnamese revolutionary forces, the My Lai massacre would remain, to the outside world, an American victory for more than a year.
Despite communiqués, radio reports, and English-language accounts released by the Vietnamese revolutionary forces, the My Lai massacre would remain, to the outside world, an American victory for more than a year. And the truth might have remained hidden forever if not for the perseverance of a single Vietnam veteran named Ron Ridenhour. The twenty- two-year-old Ridenhour had not been among the hundred American troops at My Lai, though he had seen civilians murdered elsewhere in Vietnam; instead, he heard about the slaughter from other soldiers who had been in Pinkville that day. Unnerved, Ridenhour took the unprecedented step of carefully gathering testimony from multiple American eyewitnesses. Then, upon returning to the United States after his yearlong tour of duty, he committed himself to doing what ever was necessary to expose the incident to public scrutiny.

Ridenhour’s efforts were helped by the painstaking investigative reporting of Seymour Hersh, who published newspaper articles about the massacre; by the appearance in Life magazine of grisly full-color images that army photographer Ron Haeberle captured in My Lai as the slaughter was unfolding; and by a confessional interview that a soldier from Charlie Company gave to CBS News. The Pentagon, for its part, consistently fought to minimize what had happened, claiming that reports by Vietnamese survivors were wildly exaggerated. At the same time, the military focused its attention on the lowest ranking officer who could conceivably shoulder the blame for such a nightmare: Charlie Company’s Lieutenant William Calley.

An army inquiry into the killings eventually determined that thirty individuals were involved in criminal misconduct during the massacre or its cover-up. Twenty-eight of them were officers, including two generals, and the inquiry concluded they had committed a total of 224 serious offenses. But only Calley was ever convicted of any wrongdoing. He was sentenced to life in prison for the premeditated murder of twenty-two civilians, but President Nixon freed him from prison and allowed him to remain under house arrest. He was eventually paroled after serving just forty months, most of it in the comfort of his own quarters.

The public response generally followed the official one. Twenty-five years later, Ridenhour would sum it up this way. At the end of it, if you ask people what happened at My Lai, they would say:

“Oh yeah, isn’t that where Lieutenant Calley went crazy and killed all those people?” No, that was not what happened. Lieutenant Calley was one of the people who went crazy and killed a lot of people at My Lai, but this was an operation, not an aberration.

Looking back, it’s clear that the real aberration was the unprecedented and unparalleled investigation and exposure of My Lai. No other American atrocity committed during the war — and there were so many — was ever afforded anything approaching the same attention.

Most, of course, weren’t photographed, and many were not documented in any way. The great majority were never known outside the offending unit, and most investigations that did result were closed, quashed, or abandoned. Even on the rare occasions when the allegations were seriously investigated within the military, the reports were soon buried in classified files without ever seeing the light of day. Whistleblowers within the ranks or recently out of the army were threatened, intimidated, smeared, or — if they were lucky — simply marginalized and ignored.

The stunning scale of civilian suffering in Vietnam is far beyond anything that can be explained as merely the work of some “bad apples,” however numerous.
Until the My Lai revelations became front-page news, atrocity stories were routinely disregarded by American journalists or excised by stateside editors. The fate of civilians in rural South Vietnam did not merit much examination; even the articles that did mention the killing of noncombatants generally did so merely in passing, without any indication that the acts described might be war crimes. Vietnamese revolutionary sources, for their part, detailed hundreds of massacres and large-scale operations that resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, but those reports were dismissed out of hand as communist propaganda.

And then, 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. In leaflets, pamphlets, small-press books, and “underground” newspapers, the growing American antiwar movement repeatedly pointed out that U.S. troops were committing atrocities on a regular basis. But what had been previously brushed aside as propaganda and leftist kookery suddenly started to be disregarded as yawnworthy common knowledge, with little but the My Lai massacre in between.

Such impulses only grew stronger in the years of the “culture wars,” when the Republican Party and an emboldened right wing rose to power. Until Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the Vietnam War was generally seen as an American defeat, but even before taking office Reagan began rebranding the conflict as “a noble cause.” In the same spirit, scholars and veterans began, with significant success, to recast the war in rosier terms. Even in the early years of the twenty-first century, as newspapers and magazines published exposés of long-hidden U.S. atrocities, apologist historians continued to ignore much of the evidence, portraying American war crimes as no more than isolated incidents.

But the stunning scale of civilian suffering in Vietnam is far beyond anything that can be explained as merely the work of some “bad apples,” however numerous. Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process — such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam. And as Ridenhour put it, they were no aberration. Rather, they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.

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  • Anonymous

    An outstanding work compelling as it is important.

    Praised by scores of reviewers for meticulous research and lifting the curtain on subject matter long avoided the Author gets less credit for his incredible skill as a writer. Revealing explosive truths with skill and grace of the most accomplished Matador. The reader is caught up in spellbinding emotion, mesmerized by the cape of humane treatment of inhumane content, only to have the ferocious bull charge through with brutality, reality and tragedy.

  • M. Gripholm

    What is sad is the psychopathic inability of Americans to realize that these crimes were done by themselves–their children whom they raised. This shows how thin is the veneer of our so-called civilization; how cowardly most of these people were and are, how fundamentally savage and barbaric, callous and stupid;; how easily they descended into diabolic depths of depravity and cruelty. There is no sign of profound shame and remorse, just a desire to sweep it under the rug and go on shopping and tv watching. A despicable people at bottom, with precious few noble exceptions (which of course will be stupidly attributed to their Americanism). No wonder, and how deservedly, they are now losing their civil rights and being converted into a fascistic national security state. It is a psychopathic and predatory culture at bottom, and it deserves rapid disappearance.

  • Unreprenant draft dodger

    I am currently reading Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum which is full of blood and guts. This
    work of fiction describes well the logic of the Japanese imperialists in China and the
    US in Vietnam. There was no mercy in Nanking and none in My Lai. We have the equivalent of today’s drone pilots who sat in their B 52s.Then we have the sanctions that cause civilians so much suffering but are justified by Albright or Clinton/Kerry. The logic continues around the globe.

    Kissinger and McNamara got away with mass murder. Many of the veterans
    became victims themselves. Not so strange that so many have thrown away their medals and often committed suicide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jameslowman.bradley James Lowman Bradley

    James Bradley Author of The Janitor
    Sample or purchase The Janitor: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/283161

  • CP

    I hope that enlightenment will bring a change in our culture. This is a human nature problem and a human government problem that is replayed throughout all time and in ALL countries.

  • Dos Equis

    Nick Turse, HERE ARE SOME FACTS YOU MAY HAVE OVERLOOKED in “Kill
    Anything That Moves: US War Crimes and Civilian Slaughter during the Vietnam
    War”

    1. The My Lai
    Massacre was one of a small number of incidents committed by poorly led rogue
    American Units. Compare the scale of
    those incidents to the scale of atrocities committed by North Vietnamese Troops
    and Viet Cong during the war.

    EXAMPLES:

    On January 30, 1968, the real Tet Offensive began. Early in
    the morning, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong forces attacked both towns
    and cities in South Vietnam, breaking the ceasefire that had been called for
    the Vietnamese holiday of Tet (the lunar new year).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tet_Offensive

    During the months and years that followed the Battle of Huế,
    which began on January 31, 1968, and lasted a total of 28 days, dozens of mass
    graves were discovered in and around Huế. The estimated death toll was between
    2,800 to 6,000 civilians and prisoners of war.[1] Victims were found bound,
    tortured, and sometimes apparently buried alive.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_at_Hu%E1%BA%BF

    2. The scale of the
    crimes committed by the Communists Governments in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and
    Laos after 1975

    For starters read this:

    http://jim.com/ChomskyLiesCites/When_we_knew_what_happened_in_Vietnam.htm#_ftnref1

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_boat_people

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge_rule_of_Cambodia

  • George Kalergis

    Nick does not tell the whole story in balance.

    I was a Forward Observer for the First Cavalry Division in 1967. We operated for months in the An Lao Valley “Free Fire Zone”. His comments on free fire zones are right on target and I can verify from personal experience that what he writes about is factual and correct in that regard.

    Some of his other allegations are overstated. In particular the raping of women and children as a routine occurrence and the number of My Lai “style” incidents does not coincide with my personal experience. I suspect he is taking isolated incidents and reporting them as if they were almost daily occurrences which is substantially misleading.

    He also fails to mention the significant number of incidents where women or children killed American soldiers because we were too cautious about injuring civilians. The young American soldiers were put in an impossible situation and I believe his book should have described that on balance.

    Another contributing factor was the inexperience of the American leaders and the soldiers with combat. We were fighting an enemy that had decades of experience. Our leaders had six months tours in command.

    I am certain the same challenges are occurring in the ill advised conflicts of today.

    Too soon old, too late smart.

  • George Kalergis

    Nick does not tell the whole story on balance.

    I was a Forward Observer for the First Cavalry Division in 1967. We operated for months in the An Lao Valley “Free Fire Zone”. His comments on free fire zones are right on target and I can verify from personal experience that what he writes about is factual and correct in that regard.

    Some of his other allegations are overstated. In particular the raping of women and children as a routine occurrence and the number of My Lai “style” incidents does not coincide with my personal experience. I suspect he is taking isolated incidents and reporting them as if they were almost daily occurrences which is substantially misleading.

    He also fails to mention the significant number of incidents where women or children killed American soldiers because we were too cautious about injuring civilians. The young American soldiers were put in an impossible situation and I believe his book should have described that on balance.

    Another contributing factor was the inexperience of the American leaders and the soldiers with combat. We were fighting an enemy that had decades of experience. Our leaders had six months tours in command.

    I am certain the same challenges are occurring in the ill advised conflicts of today.

    Too soon old, too late smart.