Book Club

Excerpt: Kill Anything That Moves

  • submit to reddit

From the U.S. perspective, the enemy was composed of two distinct groups: members of the North Vietnamese army and indigenous South Vietnamese fighters loyal to the National Liberation Front, the revolutionary organization that succeeded the Viet Minh and opposed the U.S.-allied Saigon government. The NLF’s combatants, officially known as the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), included guerrillas in peasant clothing as well as uniformed troops organized into professionalized units. The U.S. Information Service invented the moniker “Viet Cong” — that is, Vietnamese Communists — as a derogatory term that covered anyone fighting on the side of the NLF, though many of the guerrillas themselves were driven more by nationalism than by communist ideology. American soldiers, in turn, oft en shortened this label to “the Cong” or “VC,” or, owing to the military’s phonetic Alpha- Bravo- Charlie alphabet, to “Victor Charlie” or simply “Charlie.”

The United States never wanted to admit that the conflict might be a true “people’s war,” and that Vietnamese were bound to the revolution because they saw it as a fight for their families, their land, and their country.
By 1968 the U.S. forces and their allies in the South were opposed by an estimated 50,000 North Vietnamese troops plus 60,000 uniformed PLAF soldiers, while the revolutionaries’ paramilitary forces — part-time, local guerrillas — likely reached into the hundreds of thousands. Americans often made hard-and-fast distinctions between the well-armed, green- or khaki-uniformed North Vietnamese troops with their fabric-covered, pressed-cardboard pithstyle helmets; the khaki-clad main force PLAF soldiers, with their floppy cloth “boonie hats”; and the lightly armed, “black pajama”-clad guerrillas (all of whom actually wore a wide variety of types andcolors of clothing depending on the time and place). In reality, though, they were very hard to disentangle, since North Vietnamese troops reinforced PLAF units, “local” VC fought in tandem with “hard-core” professionalized PLAF troops, and part-time farmer fighters assisted uniformed North Vietnamese forces.

The plethora of designations and the often hazy distinctions between them underscore the fact that the Americans never really grasped who the enemy was. On one hand, they claimed the VC had little popular support and held sway over villages only through terror tactics. On the other, American soldiers who were supposedly engaged in countering communist aggression to protect the South Vietnamese readily killed civilians because they assumed that most villagers either were in league with the enemy or were guerrillas themselves once the sun went down.

The United States never wanted to admit that the conflict might be a true “people’s war,” and that Vietnamese were bound to the revolution because they saw it as a fight for their families, their land, and their country. In the villages of South Vietnam, Vietnamese nationalists had long organized themselves to resist foreign domination, and it was no different when the Americans came. By then, the local population was often inextricably joined to the liberation struggle. Lacking advanced technology, financial resources, or significant firepower, America’s Vietnamese enemies maximized assets like concealment, local knowledge, popular support, and something less quantifiable — call it patriotism or nationalism, or perhaps a hope and a dream.

Of course, not every Vietnamese villager believed in the revolution or saw it as the best expression of nationalist patriotism. Even villages in revolutionary strongholds were home to some supporters of the Saigon government. And many more farmers simply wanted nothing to do with the conflict or abstract notions like nationalism and communism. They worried mainly about their next rice crop, their animals, their house and children. But bombs and napalm don’t discriminate. As gunships and howitzers ravaged the landscape, as soldiers with M-16 rifles and M-79 grenade launchers swept through the countryside, Vietnamese villagers of every type — supporters of the revolution, sympathizers of the Saigon regime, and those who merely wanted to be left alone — all perished in vast numbers.

The war’s casualty figures are staggering indeed. From 1955 to 1975, the United States lost more than 58,000 military personnel in Southeast Asia. Its troops were wounded around 304,000 times, with 153,000 cases serious enough to require hospitalization, and 75,000 veterans left severely disabled. While Americans who served in Vietnam paid a grave price, an extremely conservative estimate of Vietnamese deaths found them to be “proportionally 100 times greater than those suffered by the United States.” The military forces of the U.S.-allied Republic of Vietnam reportedly lost more than 254,000 killed and more than 783,000 wounded. And the casualties of the revolutionary forces were evidently far graver — perhaps 1.7 million, including 1 million killed in battle, plus some 300,000 personnel still “missing” according to the official but incomplete Vietnamese government figures.

Horrendous as these numbers may be, they pale in comparison to the estimated civilian death toll during the war years. At least 65,000 North Vietnamese civilians were killed, mainly from U.S. air raids. No one will ever know the exact number of South Vietnamese civilians killed as a result of the American War. While the U.S. military attempted to quantify almost every other aspect of the conflict — from the number of helicopter sorties flown to the number of propaganda leaflets dispersed — it quite deliberately never conducted a comprehensive study of Vietnamese noncombatant casualties. Whatever civilian casualty statistics the United States did tally were generally kept secret, and when released piecemeal they were invariably radical undercounts.

Yet even the available flawed figures are startling, especially given that the total population of South Vietnam was only about 19 million people. Using fragmentary data and questionable extrapolations that, for instance, relied heavily on hospital data yet all but ignored the immense number of Vietnamese treated by the revolutionary forces (and also failed to take into account the many civilians killed by U.S. forces and claimed as enemies), one Department of Defense statistical analyst came up with a postwar estimate of 1.2 million civilian casualties, including 195,000 killed. In 1975, a U.S. Senate subcommittee on refugees and war victims offered an estimate of 1.4 million civilian casualties in South Vietnam, including 415,000 killed. Or take the figures proffered by the political scientist Guenter Lewy, the progenitor of a revisionist school of Vietnam War history that invariably shines the best possible light on the U.S. war effort. Even he posits that there were more than 1.1 million South Vietnamese civilian casualties, including almost 250,000 killed, as a result of the conflict.

  • submit to reddit
  • 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.