Book Club

Excerpt: Kill Anything That Moves

  • submit to reddit

Official South Vietnamese hospital records indicate that approximately one-third of those wounded were women and about one-quarter were children under thirteen years of age.
In recent years, careful surveys, analyses, and official estimates have consistently pointed toward a significantly higher number of civilian deaths. The most sophisticated analysis yet of war time mortality in Vietnam, a 2008 study by researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, suggested that a reasonable estimate might be 3.8 million violent war deaths, combatant and civilian. Given the limitations of the study’s methodology, there are good reasons to believe that even this staggering figure may be an underestimate. Still, the findings lend credence to an official 1995 Vietnamese government estimate of more than 3 million deaths in total – including 2 million civilian deaths — for the years when the Americans were involved in the conflict.

The sheer number of civilian war wounded, too, has long been a point of contention. The best numbers currently available, though, begin to give some sense of the suffering. A brief accounting shows 8,000 to 16,000 South Vietnamese paraplegics; 30,000 to 60,000 South Vietnamese left blind; and some 83,000 to 166,000 South Vietnamese amputees. As far as the total number of the civilian war wounded goes, Guenter Lewy approaches the question by using a ratio derived from South Vietnamese data on military casualties, which shows 2.65 soldiers seriously wounded for every one killed. Such a proportion is distinctly low when applied to the civilian population; still, even this multiplier, if applied to the Vietnamese government estimate of 2 million civilian dead, yields a figure of 5.3 million civilian wounded, for a total of 7.3 million Vietnamese civilian casualties overall. Notably, official South Vietnamese hospital records indicate that approximately one-third of those wounded were women and about one-quarter were children under thirteen years of age.

What explains these staggering figures? Because the My Lai massacre has entered the popular American consciousness as an exceptional, one-of-a-kind event, the deaths of other civilians during the Vietnam War tend to be vaguely thought of as a matter of mistakes or (to use a phrase that would come into common use after the war) of “collateral damage.” But as I came to see, the indiscriminate killing of South Vietnamese noncombatants — the endless slaughter that wiped out civilians day after day, month after month, year after year throughout the Vietnam War — was neither accidental nor unforeseeable.

I stumbled upon the first clues to this hidden history almost by accident, in June 2001, when I was a graduate student researching post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans. One afternoon, I was looking through documents at the U.S. National Archives when a friendly archivist asked me, “Could witnessing war crimes cause post-traumatic stress?” I had no idea at the time that the archives might have any records on Vietnam-era war crimes, so the prospect had never dawned on me. Within an hour or so, though, I held in my hands the yellowing records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret Pentagon task force that had been assembled after the My Lai massacre to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.

To call the records a “treasure trove” feels strange, given the nature of the material. But that’s how the collection struck me then, box after box of criminal investigation reports and day-to-day paperwork long buried away and almost totally forgotten. There were some files as thick as a phonebook, with the most detailed and nightmarish descriptions; other files, paper-thin, hinting at terrible events that had received no follow-up attention; and just about everything in between. As I leafed through them that day, I knew one thing almost instantly: they documented a nightmare war that is essentially missing from our understanding of the Vietnam conflict.

The War Crimes Working Group files included more than 300 allegations of massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations, and other atrocities that were substantiated by army investigators. They detailed the deaths of 137 civilians in mass killings, and 78 smaller scale attacks in which Vietnamese civilians were killed, wounded, and sexually assaulted. They identified 141 instances in which U.S. troops used fists, sticks, bats, water torture, and electrical torture on noncombatants. The files also contained 500 allegations that weren’t proven at the time — like the murders of scores, perhaps hundreds, of Vietnamese civilians by the 101st Airborne Division’s Tiger Force, which would be confirmed and made public only in 2003.

In hundreds of incident summaries and sworn statements in the War Crimes Working Group files, veterans laid bare what had occurred in the backlands of rural Vietnam — the war that Americans back home didn’t see nightly on their televisions or read about over morning coffee. A sergeant told investigators how he had put a bullet, point-blank, into the brain of an unarmed boy after gunning down the youngster’s brother; an army ranger matter-of-factly described slicing the ears off a dead Vietnamese and said that he planned to continue mutilating corpses. Other files documented the killing of farmers in their fields and the rape of a child carried out by an interrogator at an army base. Reading case after case — like the incident in which a lieutenant “captured two unarmed and unidentified Vietnamese males, estimated ages 2-3 and 7-8 years … and killed them for no reason”— I began to get a sense of the ubiquity of atrocity during the American War.

In the years that followed, with the War Crimes Working Group documents as an initial guide, I began to track down more information about little-known or never-revealed Vietnam War crimes. I located other investigation files at the National Archives, submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act, interviewed generals and top civilian officials, and talked to former military war crimes investigators. I also spoke with more than one hundred American veterans across the country, both those who had witnessed atrocities and others who had personally committed terrible acts. From them I learned something of what it was like to be twenty years old, with few life experiences beyond adolescence in a small town or an inner-city neighborhood, and to be suddenly thrust into villages of thatch and bamboo homes that seemed ripped straight from the pages of National Geographic, the paddies around them such a vibrant green that they almost burned the eye. Veteran after veteran told me about days of shattering fatigue and the confusion of contradictory orders, about being placed in situations so alien and unnerving that even with their automatic rifes and grenades they felt scared walking through hamlets of unarmed women and children.

  • submit to reddit

BillMoyers.com encourages conversation and debate around issues, events and ideas related to content on Moyers & Company and the BillMoyers.com website.

  • The editorial staff reserves the right to take down comments it deems inappropriate.
  • Profanity, personal attacks, hate speech, off-topic posts, advertisements and spam will not be tolerated.
  • Do not intentionally make false or misleading statements, impersonate someone else, break the law, or condone or encourage unlawful activity.

If your comments consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be, you and your comments will be excluded from it.

We need your help with this. If you feel a post is not in line with the comment policy, please flag it so that we can take a look. Comments and questions about our policy are welcome. Please send an email to feedback@billmoyers.com

Find out more about BillMoyers.com's privacy policy and terms of service.

  • 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.