Book Club

Excerpt: Kill Anything That Moves

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Some of the veterans I tried to contact wanted nothing to do with my questions, almost instantaneously slamming down the phone receiver. But most were willing to speak to me, and many even seemed glad to talk to someone who had a sense of the true nature of the war. In homes from Maryland to California, across kitchen tables and in marathon four-hour telephone calls, scores of former soldiers and marines opened up about their experiences. Some had little remorse; an interrogator who’d tortured prisoners, for instance, told me that his actions were merely standard operating procedure. Another veteran, whispering so that his family wouldn’t overhear, adamantly insisted that, though he’d been present at a massacre of civilians, he hadn’t pulled the trigger, no matter what his fellow unit members said. Then there was the veteran who swore that he knew nothing about civilians being killed, only to later recount an incident in which someone in his unit shot an unarmed woman in the back. And yet another former GI ruefully recounted how, walking through a Vietnamese village, he had spun around when a local woman chattered angrily at him (probably complaining about the commotion that the troops were causing) and driven the butt of his rifle into her nose. He remembered walking away, laughing, as blood poured from the woman’s face. Decades later, he could no longer imagine how his nineteen-year-old self had done such a thing, nor could I easily connect this jovial man to that angry adolescent with a brutal streak.

My conversations with the veterans gave nuance to my understanding of the war, bringing human emotion to the sometimes dry language of military records…
My conversations with the veterans gave nuance to my understanding of the war, bringing human emotion to the sometimes dry language of military records, and added context to investigation files that often focused on a single incident. These men also repeatedly showed me just how incomplete the archives I’d come upon really were, even though the files detailed hundreds of atrocity allegations. In one case, for instance, I called a veteran seeking more information about a sexual assault carried out by members of his unit, which I found mentioned in one of the files. He offered me more details about that particular incident but also said that it was no anomaly. Men from his unit had raped numerous other women as well, he told me. But neither those assaults nor the random shootings of farmers by his fellow soldiers had ever been formally investigated.

Among the most poignant of the interviews I conducted was with Jamie Henry, a former army medic with whom I eventually forged a friendship. Henry was a whistle-blower in the Ron Ridenhour mold — the type of man that many want to be but few actually are, a courageous veteran who spent several years after his return to America trying to bring to light a series of atrocities committed by his unit. While many others had kept silent, Henry stepped forward and reported the crimes he’d seen, taking significant risks for what he believed was right. He talked to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (known as CID), he wrote a detailed article, he spoke out in public again and again. But the army left him to twist in the wind, a lone voice repeatedly recounting apparently uncorroborated tales of shocking violence, while most Americans paid little attention. Until I sought him out and showed him the documents I’d found, Henry had no idea that in the early 1970s military investigators had in fact tracked down and interviewed his fellow unit members, proving his allegations beyond any doubt — and that the army had then hidden away this information, never telling him or anyone else. When he looked over my stacks of photocopies, he was astounded.

Over time, following leads from the veterans I’d spoken to and from other sources, I discovered additional long-forgotten court-martial records, investigation files, and related documents in assorted archives and sometimes in private homes across the country. Paging through one of these case files, I found myself virtually inhaling decades-old dust from half a world away. The year was 1970, and a small U.S. Army patrol had set up an ambush in the jungle near the Minh Thanh rubber plantation in Binh Long Province, north of Saigon. Almost immediately the soldiers heard chopping noises, then branches snapping and Vietnamese voices coming toward them. Next, a man broke through the brush — he was in uniform, they would later say, as was the entire group of Vietnamese following behind him. In an instant, the Americans sprang the ambush, setting off two Claymore mines — each sending seven hundred small steel pellets flying more than 150 feet in a lethal sixty- degree arc — and firing an M-60 machine gun. All but one of the Vietnamese in the clearing were killed instantly. The unit’s radioman immediately got on his field telephone and called in ten “enemy KIA” — killed in action.

Later, however, something didn’t ring right at headquarters. Despite the claim of ten enemy dead, the Americans had no weapons to show for it. With the My Lai trials garnering headlines back in the United States, the commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division did something unusual: he asked the division’s Office of the Inspector General, whose job it was to probe instances of alleged misconduct, to investigate. The next day, a lieutenant colonel and his team arrived at the site of the ambush, where they found the corpses of five men, three women, and two children scattered on the forest floor. None was wearing enemy uniforms, and civilian identification cards were found on the bodies. The closest thing to a weapon was a piece of paper with “a small drawing of a rifle and of an airplane.” The soldiers who sprang the ambush claimed it was evidence that the dead were enemy fighters, but the lieutenant colonel noted that it looked like “something a child would do.” Similarly, “the makings of booby traps” found on the bodies, and cited by the soldiers as evidence of hostile intent, turned out to be a harmless agricultural tool. As the American investigators photographed the corpses, it was apparent that the Vietnamese had been civilians carrying bags of bamboo shoots and a couple of handfuls of limes — regular people simply trying to eke out an existence in a war-ravaged landscape.

The lime gatherers’ deaths were typical of the kind of operation that repeatedly wiped out civilians during the Vietnam War. Most of the time, the noncombatants who died were not herded into a ditch and gunned down as at My Lai. Instead, the full range of the American arsenal — from M-16s and Claymore mines to grenades, bombs, mortars, rockets, napalm, and artillery shells — was unleashed on forested areas, villages, and homes where perfectly ordinary Vietnamese just happened to live and work.

As the inspector general’s report concluded in this particular incident, the “Vietnamese victims were innocent civilians loyal to the Republic of Vietnam.” Yet, as so often happened, no disciplinary action of any type was taken against any member of the unit. In fact, their battalion commander stated that the team performed “exactly as he expected them to.” The battalion’s operations officer explained that the civilians had been in an “off-limits” or free-fire zone, one of many swaths of the country where everyone was assumed to be the enemy. Therefore, the soldiers had behaved in accordance with the U.S. military’s directives on the use of lethal force.

It made no difference that the lime gatherers happened to live there, as their ancestors undoubtedly had for decades, if not centuries, before them. It made no difference that, as the local province chief of the U.S.-allied South Vietnamese government told the army, “the civilians in the area were poor, uneducated and went wherever they could get food.” The inspector general’s report pointed out that there was no written documentation regarding the establishment of a free-fire zone in the area, noting with bureaucratic understatement that “doubt exists” that the program to warn Vietnamese civilians about off-limits areas was “either effective or thorough.” But that, too, made no difference. As the final investigation report put it, the platoon had operated “within its orders which had been given and/or sanctioned by competent authority … The rules of engagement were not violated.”

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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.