Book Club

Excerpt: Kill Anything That Moves

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Seeking to connect such formal military records with the actual experience of the ordinary Vietnamese people who had lived through these events, I made several trips to Vietnam, making my way to remote rural villages with an interpreter at my side. The jigsaw-puzzle pieces were not always easy to align. In the files of the War Crimes Working Group, for example, I located an exceptionally detailed investigation of a massacre of nearly twenty women and children by a U.S. Army unit in a tiny hamlet in Quang Nam Province on February 8, 1968. It was clear that the ranking officer there had ordered his men to “kill anything that moves,” and that some of the soldiers had obeyed. What was less than clear was exactly where “there” was.

With only a general location to go by — fifteen miles west of an old port town known as Hoi An — we embarked on a shoe-leather search. Inquiries with locals led us to An Truong, a small hamlet with a monument to a 1968 massacre. But this particular mass killing took place on January 9, 1968, rather than in February, and was carried out by South Korean forces allied to the Americans rather than by U.S. soldiers themselves. It was not the place we had been looking for.

I’d thought that I was looking for a needle in a haystack; what I found was a veritable haystack of needles.
After we explained the situation, one of the residents led us to another village not very far away. It, too, had a memorial — this one commemorating thirty-three locals who died in three separate massacres between 1967 and 1970. However, none of these massacres had taken place on February 8, 1968, either. After interviewing villagers about these atrocities, we asked if they knew of any other mass killings in the area. Yes, they said: not the next hamlet down the road but a little bit beyond it. So on we went. Daylight was rapidly fading when we arrived in that hamlet and found a monument that spelled out the basics of the grim story in spare terms: U.S. troops had killed dozens of Vietnamese there in 1968. Conversations with the farmers made it clear, though, that these Americans were marines, not army soldiers, and the massacre had taken place in August. Such is the nature of investigating war crimes in Vietnam. I’d thought that I was looking for a needle in a haystack; what I found was a veritable haystack of needles.

In the United States, meanwhile, the situation in the archives was often frustratingly the opposite. At one point, a Vietnam veteran passed on to me a few pages of documents from an investigation into the killing of civilians by U.S. marines in a small village in the extreme north of South Vietnam. Those pages provided just enough information for me to file a Freedom of Information Act request for court-martial transcripts related to American crimes there. The military’s response to my request was an all too common one: the documents were inexplicably missing. But the government file was not entirely empty. Hundreds of pages of trial transcripts, sworn testimony, supporting documents, and the like had vanished into thin air, but the military could offer me something in consolation: a copy of the protective jacket that was once wrapped around the documents. I declined.

Indeed, an astonishing number of marine court-martial records of the era have apparently been destroyed or gone missing. Most air force and navy criminal investigation files that may have existed seem to have met the same fate. Even before this, the formal investigation records were an incomplete sample at best; as one veteran of the secret Pentagon task force told me, knowledge of most cases never left the battlefield. Still, the War Crimes Working Group files alone demonstrated that atrocities were committed by members of every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed without the rest of its division — that is, every major army unit in Vietnam.

The scattered, fragmentary nature of the case files makes them essentially useless for gauging the precise number of war crimes committed by U.S. personnel in Vietnam. But the hundreds of reports that I gathered and the hundreds of witnesses that I interviewed in the United States and Southeast Asia made it clear that killings of civilians — whether cold-blooded slaughter like the massacre at My Lai or the routinely indifferent, wanton bloodshed like the lime gatherers’ ambush in Binh Long — were widespread, routine, and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.

And such massacres by soldiers and marines, my research showed, were themselves just a tiny part of the story. For every mass killing by ground troops that left piles of civilian corpses in a forest clearing or a drainage ditch, there were exponentially more victims killed by the everyday exercise of the American way of war from the air. Throughout South Vietnam, women and children were asphyxiated or crushed to death when their bunkers collapsed on them, burying them alive after direct hits from jets’ 500-pound bombs or 1,900-pound shells launched from off shore ships. Countless others, crazed with fear, bolted for safety when helicopters swooped toward their villages, only to have a door gunner cut them in half with bursts from an M-60 machine gun — and many others, who froze in place, suffered the same fate. There’s only so much killing a squad, a platoon, or a company can do. Face-to-face atrocities were responsible for just a fraction of the millions of civilian casualties in South Vietnam. Matter-of-fact mass killing that dwarfed the slaughter at My Lai normally involved heavier firepower and command policies that allowed it to be unleashed with impunity.

This was the real war, the one that barely appears at all in the tens of thousands of volumes written about Vietnam. This was the war that Ron Ridenhour spoke about — the one in which My Lai was an operation, not an aberration. This was the war in which the American military and successive administrations in Washington produced not a few random massacres or even discrete strings of atrocities, but something on the order of thousands of days of relentless misery — a veritable system of suffering. That system, that machinery of suffering and what it meant for the Vietnamese people, is what this book is meant to explain.


From Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse. Copyright 2013 by Nick Turse. Excerpted by permission of Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt & Co.

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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.