BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
SUSAN CRAWFORD: I see internet access as the heart of a democratic society. Having a communications system that knits the country together is not just about economic growth. It's about the social fabric of the country.
BILL MOYERS: And…
NICK TURSE: American culture has never fully come to grips with Vietnam. It’s this half known history there, these hidden and forbidden histories that just haven’t been fully engaged.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. You’ve heard me before quote one of my mentors who told his students that “news is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity.” That’s why two books are rattling the cages of powerful people who would rather you not read them. Here’s the first one. Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age by Susan Crawford. Read it and you’ll understand why we Americans are paying much more for internet access than people in many other countries and getting much less in return. That, despite the fact that our very own academics and engineers, working with our very own Defense Department, invented the internet in the first place.
Back then, the U.S. was in the catbird seat – poised to lead the world down this astonishing new superhighway of information and innovation. Now many other countries offer their citizens faster and cheaper access than we do. The faster high-speed access comes through fiber optic lines that transmit data in bursts of laser light, but many of us are still hooked up to broadband connections that squeeze digital information through copper wire. We’re stuck with this old-fashioned technology because, as Susan Crawford explains, our government has allowed a few giant conglomerates to rig the rules, raise prices, and stifle competition. Just like standard oil in the first Gilded Age a century ago.
In those days, it was muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens rattling the cages and calling for fair play. Today it’s independent thinkers like Susan Crawford. The big telecom industry wishes she would go away, but she’s got a lot of people on her side. In fact, if you go to the White House citizen’s petition site, you’ll see how fans of Captive Audience are calling on the President to name Susan Crawford as the next chair of the Federal Communications Commission. “Prospect” magazine named her one of the “top ten brains of the digital future,” and Susan Crawford served for a time as a special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation. Right now she teaches communications law at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law here in New York City and is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Susan Crawford, welcome.
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Thank you so much.
BILL MOYERS: “Captive Audience?” Who's the captive?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Us, all of us. What's happened is that these enormous telecommunications companies, Comcast and Time Warner on the wired side, Verizon and AT&T on the wireless side, have divided up markets, put themselves in the position where they're subject to no competition and no oversight from any regulatory authority. And they're charging us a lot for internet access and giving us second class access. This is a lot like the electrification story from the beginning of the 20th century. Initially electricity was viewed as a luxury. So when F.D.R. came in, 90 percent of farms didn't have electricity in America at the same time that kids in New York City were playing with electric toys. And F.D.R. understood how important it was for people all over America to have the dignity and self-respect and sort of cultural and social and economic connection of an electrical outlet in their home. So he made sure to take on the special interests that were controlling electricity then who had divided up markets and consolidated just the way internet guys have today, he made sure that we made this something that every American had.
BILL MOYERS: But we are a long way from F.D.R., the New Deal and those early attitudes toward industry. What makes you think that's relevant now when you come to the internet?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: You know, this is an issue about which people have a lot of passion because it touches them in their daily lives. “The Wall Street Journal” on the front page had an article about kids needing to go to McDonald's to do their homework because they don't have an internet connection at home. Parents around the country know that their kids can't get an adequate education without internet access. You can't apply for a job these days without going online. You can't get access to government benefits adequately, you can't start a business. This feels to 300 million Americans like a utility, like something that's just essential for life. And the issue of how it's controlled and how expensive it is and how few Americans actually sign up for it is not really on the radar screen.
BILL MOYERS: You describe this frankly as a crisis in communication with similarity, you say, to the banking crisis and global warming. What makes it a crisis?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: It's a crisis for us because we're not quite aware of the rest of the world. Americans tend to think of themselves as just exceptional. And we're—
BILL MOYERS: Well, we did invent the internet, didn't we?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: We did, but that was generation one. Generation two, we're being left far behind. And so all the new things that are going on in the world, America won't be part of that unless we are able to communicate. So there's a darkness descending because of this expensive and relatively slow internet access in America. We're also leaving behind a third of Americans. A third of us.
BILL MOYERS: In here you call it the digital divide. Describe that to me.
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Well, here's the problem. For 19 million Americans, many in rural areas, you can't get access to a high speed connection at any price, it's just not there. For a third of Americans, they don't subscribe often because it's too expensive. So the rich are getting gouged, the poor are very often left out. And this means that we're creating yet again two Americas and deepening inequality through this communications inequality.
BILL MOYERS: So is this why, according to numbers released by the Department of Commerce, only four out of ten households with annual household incomes below $25,000 reported having wired internet access at home compared with 93 percent of households with incomes exceeding $100,000? These companies are not providing cheap enough access to the poor folks in this country?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: These are good American companies. Their profit motives though don't line up with our social needs to make sure that everybody gets access. They're not in the business of making sure that everybody has reasonably priced internet access. That's how a utility functions. That's the way we need to treat this commodity. They're in the business right now of finding rich neighborhoods and harvesting, just making more and more money from the same number of people. They're doing really well at that. Comcast is now a $100 billion company. They're bigger than McDonald's, they're bigger than Home Depot. But they're not providing this deep social need of connection that every other country is taking seriously.
BILL MOYERS: And you make the point that the United States itself is beginning to experience this digital divide in the world.
SUSAN CRAWFORD: It's fair to say that the U.S. at the best is in the middle of the pack when it comes to both the speed and cost of high speed internet access connections. So in Hong Kong right now you can get a 500 megabit symmetric connection that's unimaginably fast from our standpoint for about 25 bucks a month. In Seoul, for $30 you get three choices of different providers of fiber in your apartment. And they come in and install in a day because competition's so fierce. In New York City there's only one choice, and it's 200 bucks a month for a similar service. And you can't get that kind of fiber connection outside of New York City in many parts of the country. Verizon's only serving about 10 percent of Americans. So let's talk about the wireless side for a moment, you know, the separate marketplace that people use for mobility. In Europe you can get unlimited texting and voice calls and data for about $30 a month, similar service from Verizon costs $90 a month. That's a huge difference.
BILL MOYERS: Why is there such a disparity there?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: The difference in all of these areas is competition and government policy. It's not magical. Without the intervention of the government there's no reason for these guys to charge us anything reasonable or to make sure that everybody has services.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that in the course of one generation, from the invention of the internet in this country to falling way behind as you say the rest of the world in our access to internet? How did that happen?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Beginning in the early 2000’s we believed that the magic of the market would provide internet access to all Americans. That the cable guys would compete with the phone guys who would compete with wireless and that somehow all of this ferment would make sure that we kept up with the rest of the world. Those assumptions turned out not to be true. It's much cheaper to upgrade a cable connection than it is to dig up a copper phone line and replace it with fiber. So the cable guys who had these franchises in many, most American cities, they are in place with a status quo network that 94 percent of new subscriptions are going to. Everybody's signing up with their local cable incumbent. There is not competition for 80 percent of Americans. They don't have a choice for a truly high speed connection. It's just the local cable guy. Competition has just vanished.
BILL MOYERS: Well, the 1996 Telecommunications Act was supposed to promote competition and therefore protect the consumer by bringing prices down. That didn't happen?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: That didn't happen because it's so much cheaper to upgrade the cable line than it is to dig up the copper and replace it with fiber. The competition evaporated because Wall Street said to the phone companies, "Don't do this, don't be in this business." So you may think of Verizon and AT&T as wired phone companies, they're not. They've gone into an entirely separate market which is wireless.
They're the monsters on the wireless side that control two thirds of that market. So there's been a division. Cable takes wired, Verizon/AT&T take wireless. They're actually cooperating. There's a federally blessed non-compete in the form of a joint marketing agreement between Comcast and Verizon. And so the world is perfect for them, not so great for consumers who are paying more than other people in the rest of the world for slower service.
BILL MOYERS: Since the 1996 Telecommunications Act which I thought was going to lower the price of our monthly cable bill, it's almost doubled.
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Well, that's because Time Warner controls Manhattan. There's no competition. The cable guys, long ago, something they call “the summer of love,” divided up—
BILL MOYERS: “The summer of love?”
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Yeah. They clustered their operations. It makes sense from their standpoint. “You take San Francisco, I'll take Sacramento. You take Chicago, I'll take Boston.” And so Comcast and Time Warner are these giants that never enter each other's territories.
BILL MOYERS: You talk to certain people and they say, "Look, I don't know what this is about. I have all the gizmos I want. I have a smart phone, I have a tablet,” And they say, "What's the crisis? Because I have more access than I can use."
SUSAN CRAWFORD: There are a lot of bright shiny objects that are confusing people about the underlying market dynamics here. What people don't realize is that for this wireless access you're paying too much and the coverage is too spotty. On the wired side, that's where we're really being left behind. And here's the important tie to understand. A wireless connection is just the last 50 feet of a wire. So fiber policy is really wireless policy. These two things fit together. And if the whole country did an upgrade to cheap fiber everywhere we'd get better connection for everybody. Right now though if a mayor wants to do this for himself he'll be pummeled by the incumbents. In almost 20 states in America it's either illegal or very difficult for municipalities to make this decision for themselves.
BILL MOYERS: In North Carolina a couple of years ago lobbyists for Time Warner persuaded the state legislature to make it almost impossible, virtually impossible for municipalities to get their own utility, right?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: That's exactly right. And so now North Carolina, after being beaten up by the incumbents is at the near the bottom of broadband rankings for the United States.
BILL MOYERS: And what's the practical consequence of that?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: All those students in North Carolina, all those businesses that otherwise would be forming, they don't have adequate connections in their towns to allow this to happen. They've got-- they're subject to higher and higher pricing. They're being gouged.
BILL MOYERS: Your book did underscore for me why this is so important to democracy, to the functioning of our political system, to our role as a self-governing free people. Talk about that a moment. Why do you see this so urgently in terms of our practically dysfunctional democracy today?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: We need to be able to speak to each other effectively and effectively to government. We need to empower our citizens to feel dignified and ready to cope in the 21st century. Having a communications system that knits the country together is not just about economic growth. It's about the social fabric of the country. And a country that feels as if it can move together and trust each other is one that is more democratic. As a matter of national policy we have forced other countries to talk about the importance of internet access, foreign policy we're great at saying, "Make sure internet is everywhere." Domestically, for some reason, we haven't done so well. So I see internet access as the heart of a democratic society.
BILL MOYERS: You use that merger of Comcast and NBCUniversal as the window in your book into what this power can do to the aspirations of a democratic internet.
BRIAN WILLIAMS on NBCNightlyNews: Federal regulators today approved the purchase by Comcast of a majority stake in NBCUniversal from General Electric […] This merger will create a $30 billion media company with cable, broadcast, internet, motion picture and theme park components. The deal is expected to close by the end of the month.
BILL MOYERS: You say that the merger between Comcast and NBCUniversal represented a new frightening moment in U.S. regulatory history. How so?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Comcast is not only the nation's largest broadband distributor with tens of millions of customers, it also now owns and controls one of the four media conglomerates in America, NBCUniversal. That means that it has a built-in interest in making sure that it shapes discourse, controls programming all in the service of its own profit-making machine. As both the distributor and a content provider, it's in its interest to make sure that it can always charge more for discourse we would think isn't controlled by anybody. So it's a tremendous risk to the country that we have this one actor who has no interest in the free flow of information controlling so much of high speed internet access.
BILL MOYERS: You say the merger created the largest vertically integrated distributor of information in the country. So what's the practical consequence of Comcast having this control over its content?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Here's the consequence. Comcast with the control over its programming, and also because it works to closely with the very concentrated programming industry, can raise the costs of any rival coming in to provide let's say competitive fiber access. So Google in Kansas City is having real trouble getting access to sports content because Time Warner Cable, the local monopoly player there, controls that sports content. So Google or any other competitive fiber provider has to enter two markets at once. One market to provide the transport, the fiber, and then also the programming market. And making programming more expensive is yet another barrier to entry. And Comcast can carry that out now.
BILL MOYERS: So what should the F.C.C. do about that?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: This is a moment when we have to separate out content from conduit. It should not be possible for a local cable actor or any distributor to withhold programming based on volume. That's what's going on. The programmers say, "We'll sell to Comcast cheaply 'cause they're big. But if you're an upstart we're going to charge you three to four times what Comcast is paying for the same programming." That should not be legal. Everybody should get access to the same stuff at the same price and they should be announced prices.
BILL MOYERS: What about the argument that in this modern world there are certain industries, certain markets, that require an economy of scale. Critics have said that you're ignoring the sophisticated economics that govern these industries.
SUSAN CRAWFORD: The economics of these networks did not change when we added a little bit of digital pixie dust to them. It's still very expensive to build these networks. Private actors still don't have an interest in covering everybody because that's too much of an economic risk for them. The better route is sensible oversight. We can learn from our mistakes in the past when it came to regulatory regimes that didn't work. But a regulatory regime is needed without question to make this work for all Americans.
BILL MOYERS: I have to say this is pretty strong stuff. Listen to yourself. "Instead of ensuring that everyone in America can compete in a global economy, instead of narrowing the divide between rich and poor, instead of supporting competitive free markets for American inventions that use information, instead that is of ensuring that America will lead the world in the U.S. in the information age, U.S. politicians have chosen to keep Comcast and its fellow giants happy."
SUSAN CRAWFORD: For the last 30 years the rhetoric of the market being the thing we all aspire to has in a sense become the collective vision in America. Our politicians aren't separate from that kind of understanding. I think they believe that it's better to have government stay out of industry. In this particular place no government intervention is actually disaster for the country because we leave so many people behind, we subject ourselves to the informational control of just a few giants. The problem for the politicians is that there's no upside right now to fighting back. If they do they'll lose their campaign contributions. We need to get the public interested in this so that politicians will understand that they're not acting alone.
BILL MOYERS: In your last chapter you describe what happened in Lafayette, Louisiana when the city decided it wanted the very kind of internet access you're talking about. And a few years ago my colleagues and I did a documentary called “Net @ Risk” in which we looked at the threat to internet access. And we went to Lafayette and lo and behold they're doing exactly what you're describing in your book.
JOEY DUREL in Net @ Risk: We have an out-migration problem with our young people from Louisiana, and I felt it was time for politicians to quit talking and do something. RICK KARR in Net @ Risk: Something like building every home and business in town its own fiber optic connection to the information superhighway.
DON BERTRAND in Net @ Risk: We see telecommunications in the way of Internet, in the way of fiber connectivity as something that should be available to everyone.
STEPHEN HANDWERK in Net @ Risk: Just like water, sewer, electricity, telephone. I mean it all falls into that same lump.
JOEY DUREL in Net @ Risk: I think this is a tremendous opportunity for small business and to attract business here.
RICK KARR in Net @ Risk: So what the city decided to do was build its own fiber network through its municipal power and water company, Lafayette Utility Systems or L.U.S.
BILL MOYERS: How did they get away with it in Lafayette when as you say they didn't in North Carolina?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Persistence of a mayor who very much focused on this and said, "We're going to get this done." And there wasn't a statute at that point at the state level making it illegal. Municipalities have a lot of assets at their disposal. They control the rights of way, the access to their streets and their poles that people need in order to build these networks. They can condition access to those rights of way on a particular network being built. Stockholm did this. They say, "Look, you can come in and build a fiber network as long as it's a wholesale, nondiscriminatory really fast fiber network connecting our hospitals and schools and police departments. And then you have to let anybody else connect to it." Not that hard, you just draft an R.F.P., request for proposals, and the city can do that using its control over its rights of way.
Cities often also have access to this long term low rate financing. They can put their good name behind a bond issue and make sure that it gets paid back by the subscriptions to the network over time. It's a great investment for the city, and that's what Lafayette found out.
BILL MOYERS: So how is the consumer in Lafayette situated differently from me here in Manhattan with one cable service?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: In comparison to where you are in Manhattan where there's no government intervention at all, in Lafayette the municipality is acting as a steward, standing up for you. It is in fact government's role to stand up against the ethic that might makes right. In most of America there is no government factor keeping these bullies from charging us whatever they want.
BILL MOYERS: You describe something in your book that we've talked about often at this table. Quote, "The constant easy, friendly flow between government and industry in the communications world centered around Washington D.C." Describe that world.
SUSAN CRAWFORD: It's a warm pond of familiarity. Everybody knows everybody else. They're all very nice people, you'd like to have a drink with them. They go from a job inside the regulator to a job in industry to a job on the hill, one easy flow, nice people. Outsiders have no impact on this particular world.
And it would be-- I talked to a cable representative not long ago about the need to change this regulatory state of affairs. And she looked at me and said, "But that would be so disruptive." And she's right, it would be disruptive.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you know, the F.C.C. was supposed to be the cop on the beat of the communications world. But for example Michael Powell, who served as F.C.C. chairman for four years in the mid-2000s, is now the cable and telecom industry's top D.C. lobbyist.
Meredith Attwell Baker who was one of the F.C.C. commissioners who approved Comcast's merger with NBCUniversal, left the agency four months later to join Comcast as a highly paid lobbyist. That move infuriated media groups.
SUSAN CRAWFORD: But that warm pond of familiarity in Washington sees this as absolutely normal behavior. Just yesterday the former chief of staff of the F.C.C. left to be the general counsel of a regulated company. It happens all the time. And so in order to change this you'd have to make regulation of this area not be carried out by such a focused agency. Right now, the F.C.C.'s asymmetry of information is striking. They only talk to the industry. The community is all so close. In order to break that up you'd have to make sure you had a broad based agency seeing lots of different industries.
BILL MOYERS: About the time I was reading your book I also read a speech by the present chair of the F.C.C., Julius Genachowski. He said, "The United States is in a global bandwidth race. A nation's future economic security is tied to frictionless and speedy access to information." If you were chair of the F.C.C. what would you do to move us forward?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: I know that it's important to let these municipalities make decisions for themselves. That's going to take a bill in Congress preempting the terrible state laws like the one that happened in North Carolina. We need to make self-determination possible for cities. And the second one is making sure that there's low cost, low rate financing available to build these networks.
That's the stumbling block, making sure that you can actually build without needing to put up all the money yourself. Because it pays out over time, it pays out as a social investment for the country. And then finally, changing all those rules at the FCC that are getting in the way of progress.
BILL MOYERS: So briefly describe the need.
SUSAN CRAWFORD: All Americans need a fast, cheap connection to the internet.
BILL MOYERS: And the problem?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: A few companies control access in America and it's not in their interest to bring that fast, cheap access to us all.
BILL MOYERS: And the solution?
SUSAN CRAWFORD: The solution is for people to care about this issue, ask hard questions at every debate, make sure you elect people who will act and give your mayor air cover so that he or she can act to make sure that your city has this fast, competitive access.
BILL MOYERS: The book is “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the Gilded Age.” Susan Crawford, I've enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for being with me.
SUSAN CRAWFORD: Thank you so much.
BILL MOYERS: Just like Susan Crawford, my next guest has been driven to tell a story the powers-that-be would rather we forget. He found it by chance in documents buried deep in the recesses of the National Archives in our nation’s capital. The discovery led him on a journey of twelve years that has now concluded with this beautifully written account of ugly horrors, "Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam," by Nick Turse.
There have been many memorable accounts of the terrible things done in Vietnam – memoirs, histories, documentaries and movies. But Nick Turse has given us a fresh holistic work that stands alone for its blending of history and journalism, for the integrity of research brought to life through the diligence of first-person interviews. Those interviews skillfully unlock the memories of American warriors and expose the wounds that to this day still scar the hearts and minds of villagers who survived the scorched earth of Vietnam. Here is a powerful message for us today, a reminder of what war really costs.
Ironically, Nick Turse wasn’t even around as the Vietnam War raged. He was born in 1975, the year it ended. Not until 25 years later, while pursuing his PhD in sociomedical sciences, did he discover the secret trove of documents that sent him on this long search. In addition to two earlier books and countless articles and essays, Nick Turse is managing editor of TomDispatch.com – the indispensable website if you want the news powerful people would prefer to keep hidden.
Nick Turse, welcome.
NICK TURSE: Thanks so much for having me on.
BILL MOYERS: Of the more than 30,000 nonfiction books that have been published since the end of the war, this is one of the toughest. How did you come to write it? You weren’t even born until the year the war ended in 1975.
NICK TURSE: I really stumbled upon this project. I was a graduate student when I began it. I was working on a project on post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. Vietnam veterans. And I would go down to the National Archives. Just outside of D.C. I was looking for hard data to match up with, you know, self-report material, what veterans told us about their service. And on one of these trips, I was down there for about two weeks. And about every research avenue that I had pursued was a dead end. And I finally went to an archivist that I worked with there.
And I said to him, "I can't go back to my boss empty-handed. I need something, at least a lead." And he, you know, said a few words to me that really changed my life. He said, "Do you think that witnessing war crimes could cause post-traumatic stress?" And I said, "You know, that's an excellent hypothesis. What do you have on war crimes?"
And within an hour, I was going through a collection of boxes, thousands and thousands of pages of documents. To call it, you know, an information treasure trove is the wrong phrase. It was a horror trove. These were reports of massacres, murders, mutilation, torture. And these were investigations that were carried out by the U.S. military during the war. A collection of documents called The Vietnam War Crimes Working Group Collection. And this was a taskforce that was set up in the Pentagon. And it was designed to track war crimes cases in the wake of the exposure of the My Lai Massacre.
BILL MOYERS: Where 500 men, women, and children were murdered by American G.I.s.
NICK TURSE: That's right. The military basically, what they wanted to do was make sure they were never caught flatfooted again by an atrocity scandal. So in the Army Chief of Staff's Office, there were a number of Army colonels who worked to track all war crimes allegations that bubbled up into the media that GIs and recently returned veterans were making public. And they tracked all these. And whenever they could, they tried to tamp down these allegations.
BILL MOYERS: The book, your book is very important to me. I was there at the White House in the 1960s, when President Johnson escalated the war. My own great regret is that I didn't see the truth of the war in time didn't see what was happening there. And yet, as I said, you didn't even come to the experience until after it was all over. And yet you have become obsessed with telling this story. You had no money. You had no advance. You didn't, you had no means of support when you left graduate school to do this.
NICK TURSE: That's right. But I thought that this story was, I really thought it was just too important. And one Vietnam War historian that I, you know, really respected recommended that I pursue it. And once I did, once I got involved with it, you know, I could never get those records out of my head. And, you know, then I went you know, I traveled the country. I spoke to a lot of American witnesses and perpetrators.
BILL MOYERS: There are 80 pages of notes in here, tiny little notes. You seem almost determined that nobody would accuse you of not having sourced the information.
NICK TURSE: Well, I know that this it's not a popular narrative of the war. And you know, it's they're hard truths. And I know it's you know, there are a lot of people who are predisposed to disbelieve this. It is in many cases, it's shocking. And it's hard to believe. This isn't the type of warfare that most Americans think that their fellow Americans pursue.
So I wanted to make sure that it was documented as meticulously as I could. And this is the story of Vietnam veterans told by Vietnam veterans. I used you know, hundreds of sworn statements, sworn testimony that active-duty GIs and recently-returned veterans gave to army criminal investigators. So it's the veterans in their own words.
BILL MOYERS: But let me play for you what John Kerry said back in 1971, when he returned from Vietnam and he joined with other Vietnam veterans to talk about the kind of war they had experienced. Here's what he said.
JOHN KERRY TALKING BEFORE THE SENATE: Not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It is impossible to the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do. They told stories that, at times, they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.
BILL MOYERS: All these years later, this book you've been working on for ten years, based upon these documents buried at the National Archives, confirmed what John Kerry was saying then.
NICK TURSE: All the atrocities that Kerry mentions by name there I found evidence of all of those types of crimes represented in the records of this Vietnam War Crimes Working Group in the government’s own files. So at the same time that-- you know, that Kerry and the veterans that he was referring to there were being smeared as fake veterans or as liars, the military had all these records that proved that these were just the very crimes that were going on in Vietnam.
BILL MOYERS: And the military had these records in 2004, when John Kerry was being swiftboated.
NICK TURSE: That's right. You know, these records existed then. There was proof at the time that the military they knew about it and they didn’t disclose it to the public. And it was still, you know, under wraps when he was running. The military definitely didn't want these records out there. I talked to several members of this Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, this Pentagon taskforce.
And I asked one of the colonels, who he ended up retiring as a general. And he says that, at the time, he thought it was right that these records need to be kept secret. It was for the good of the country, for the good of the war effort, but in the years since, he recognized that he thought it was the wrong thing to do.
I talked to him during the Iraq War. And he said, you know, "Perhaps if these things had been aired at the time, if we had been honest with the American people and open with these records, then maybe we wouldn't have had Abu Ghraib-- you know, the torture scandal there." He came to see it as a real failing on his part.
BILL MOYERS: What kind of reception did you get when you went out to call on these veterans who had been there, whose testimony was included in these secret files and who must have been disturbed when this young reporter calls and said, "I'd like to talk to the two of you about war crimes in Vietnam"?
NICK TURSE: There were times when I had a door slammed shut in my face or the phone slammed down on the receiver. But most of the time veterans were willing to talk.
And a lot of them told me that they were-- they were happy to talk about it, in some ways. Even if we were talking about, you know, horrific events-- you know? A lot of them said that they couldn't tell their families about this. You know? It's not something they were able to talk about. But I knew something of their experience. And they were willing to walk that road with me.
BILL MOYERS: There was a medic, Jamie Henry, who seems to epitomize the stories of everyone else with whom you've talked. Tell me about Jamie Henry.
NICK TURSE: Yeah, Jamie had a tremendous impact on my life. And-- you know, I found him through this collection of records to begin with. And then I sought him out. And Jamie was a self-described hippy living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District before the war. But he was drafted. And became a medic and a very good one.
The men who served with him said that he was among the best soldiers that they had served with. He saved a lot of American lives. And they really lauded his performance in the field. But Jamie saw things in Vietnam that really disturbed him. He told me that on his first day in the field, he watched as the point man, the lead man of his patrol stopped a young girl on a trail and molested her right there. And, you know, Jamie said to himself, you know, "My God, what's going on here?" And over the next-- several months, he just saw a litany of atrocities take place.
He watched a young boy who was just-- you know, detained and beaten and shot dead for no reason-- an old man who was used for target practice, a prisoner who was beaten up and then thrown off a cliff-- another man who was taken and held down to be run over by an armored personnel carrier, basically a small tank.
And Jamie saw these things. And when he first spoke up about brutality his life was threatened by fellow unit members. And even his friends came to him and said, "Look, you have to keep your mouth shut or you're going to get shot in the back during a firefight and no one's going to be the wiser." So Jamie did keep his mouth shut, but he kept his eyes open. And he kept cataloguing everything he saw.
And this culminated in-- it was February 8th, 1968. And his unit moved into a small hamlet. And his commanding officer, a West Point trained captain-- ordered all the civilians there rounded up. It was about 19 civilians, women and children. And Jamie was taking a break, smoking a cigarette. And over the radio he heard this captain give an order. And it was to kill anything that moves.
And Jamie heard this. And he jumped up. And he went to go try and intervene. But he was just seconds late. He showed up just as five men arrayed around these civilians, opened up on full automatic with their M-16 rifles, and shot them all dead. And Jamie told me that 30 seconds after this took place, he vowed that he would make this public.
And he made it, you know, his duty to do so. As soon as he got home from Vietnam, he sought out an Army lawyer. And he told them everything that he saw. And this Army lawyer told him that he needed to keep quiet, because there were a million ways that the Army could make him disappear. He went to spoke to an Army criminal investigator. But that man threatened him. He went and sought out a civilian lawyer who told him to get some political backing.
He wrote to two congressman. Neither of them returned his letters. Then he started speaking out. He went on the radio. He went to public forums. And even the winter soldier investigation He spoke out there. But he could never get any traction. And finally, you know, it was years later that Jamie just gave up. And you know, he decided that he just had to move on with his life.
BILL MOYERS: Until you tracked him down.
NICK TURSE: He was. I showed up on his doorstep with several phone books, stacks of documents. And this was the first time that Jamie knew the Army had investigated his allegations, had corroborated everything he said. And, in fact the documents even painted a grimmer picture than Jamie had told. Because other members of his unit finally spoke up. And they talked about things that Jamie hadn't seen-- you know? Additional atrocities.
BILL MOYERS: So this is where you got the title for your book, “Kill Anything that Moves”? That's what he overheard?
NICK TURSE: Yes, this was-- this was the order that his commanding officer, the West Point trained captain gave. And this was the first time that I really took note of the phrase. But then as I continued, you know, working on this topic, I noticed it coming up again and again. I realized that this was the order that was given out by Captain Medina, the commanding officer, to the troops who carried out the My Lai Massacre, that was his order to them to kill anything the moves.
And I found it listed in court-martial documents from a Marine Corps massacre that took place in 1967. And it seemed that everywhere I looked, there were variations on it. "Shoot anything that moves. Kill anything that breathes." And I came to see it as really a shorthand for the war.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think this will strike some people as old news?
NICK TURSE: Well, I think that in some ways the story of atrocities in Vietnam is kind of a half-known history. People have, you know, maybe some inkling of it. They know a little bit about My Lai. Or they've seen glimpses of civilians suffering in “Apocalypse Now” or “Platoon” or “Casualties of War”, these movies.
But I think that, you know, this society and the American culture has never fully come to grips with Vietnam. It's this half-known history there. These hidden and forbidden histories that just haven't been fully engaged. So while I think people might know a little bit of it, I doubt that they know the full story as I came to know it.
BILL MOYERS: It's not just a litany of atrocities, you reach some very significant conclusions about the way the war was fought, how it was not just some bad apples that were conducting these brutal acts, but that it was a pattern which was inevitable given the pressures from the top.
NICK TURSE: I talk about individual micro-level atrocities, things like murders and massacres. And they do punctuate the book. But really I'm telling the story of civilian suffering. And the sheer number of Vietnamese who were killed or wounded in Vietnam or became refugees-- this wasn't due to simply bad apples, simply-- troops on the ground. It was command-level policies, things like the use of unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling on heavily-populated areas of the countryside, policies that were promulgated at the highest levels of the U.S. military. This is what made it inevitable that there would be this much civilian suffering, that there would be, you know, an estimated two million Vietnamese civilians killed.
I mean, the Vietnam War in Vietnam took such a tremendous toll. It's almost as I came to understand, it was almost unfathomable suffering on the part of the Vietnamese people. You know, the best estimates that we have are 3.8 million Vietnamese deaths overall, combatants and noncombatants, two million of them civilians. 5.3 million civilians wounded using a very conservative method of estimation.
NICK TURSE: The U.S. government came up with a number of 11 million Vietnamese who were made refugees during the war. And the latest studies show that up to four million Vietnamese were exposed to toxic defoliants like Agent Orange. So this is-- it's suffering on a scale that I don't think that most Americans can fully wrap their head around.
BILL MOYERS: I was struck by your writing that by the mid-'60s, the American military-- the American military had turned war making into "a thoroughly"-- I'm quoting you, "thoroughly corporatized, quantitatively-oriented system known as techno war." And you say that became, in Vietnam, the American way of war. And this led to what you call the indiscriminate death of civilians, as well as the atrocities that occurred against individuals.
NICK TURSE: That's right. You know, the military fought this war with an attrition strategy. The U.S. was fighting a guerilla war. And they were looking for a metric to show that they were winning. And the attrition strategy provided that by making body count the way that you could tell. Basically, you would kill your way to victory. You would pile up Vietnamese bodies. You would kill more enemy guerillas than the enemy could put into the field.
BILL MOYERS: That was the crossover point?
NICK TURSE: That was the famed "crossover point?
BILL MOYERS: So this crossover point that-- that we were supposed to reach when we were killing more Vietnamese than could be replaced led, as you point out here, step by step, to the whole notion focus the body count as the measure of success in Vietnam?
NICK TURSE: That's right. Sometimes I found that-- you know, American troops would take prisoners in the field. And they'd call in, you know, "I have a prisoner." And the commander would call back, "Well, I want a body count." And then the prisoner would be killed and then called in as an enemy who was shot while fleeing or shot during a firefight.
BILL MOYERS: You say, "So entire units would be pitted against each other in body count competitions with prizes at stake."
NICK TURSE: Yes. You know, one veteran that I talked to, he said there was a great-- he called it an "incentivization of death". And I talked to many veterans who talked about this. They said that that this really messed with their value system, that they were told to-- you know, if they brought in a dead Vietnamese, that they proved a body count, they would get three days of R&R at a beach resort-- in Vietnam or they would get extra beer or light duty when they were back at basecamp or medals, badges.
So there were all these incentives that were pushing them to produce bodies. And then there were disincentives. There were-- along with those carrots, there were sticks. They knew if they didn't produce bodies that they'd be that they'd have it tougher. They'd be kept out in the field longer. They wouldn't-- they'd have to march out instead of getting an airlift and a helicopter. So there were real reasons to produce bodies.
BILL MOYERS: And you describe, you know, almost a sporting event, sport statistics, box scores-- and those scores being padded by including civilians?
NICK TURSE: Yeah, there were-- you know, everywhere in Vietnam, there were kill boards, they were called, up that showed each unit's number of kills. Some men talk about it-- you know, the being like box scores up in the mess hall in military publications. This idea of body count was just drilled into them at every turn. And they really couldn't get away from it. I mean, this was the way the war was fought. And it turned out to be disastrous for Vietnamese civilians.
BILL MOYERS: And so that led, as you say, to the body count as the measure of success. Nick, you make it clear that this pressure that led to this kind of killing came down from the top in Washington, as well, from Secretary of Defense McNamara at the Pentagon and clearly from the White House.
NICK TURSE I think it did. And there was rarely any distinction made between enemies and the civilian population. They were-- you know, and I should make the point that these are very young men, 18, 19, 20 years old. So they get to boot camp as mere boys. And they're really told that all the Vietnamese are dangerous. And they learn pretty quickly that it was okay to shoot first, because no one was going to ask questions later.
BILL MOYERS: How were you affected when you went to Vietnam for the first time?
NICK TURSE: Well, I was. It really changed-- you know, the project that I was working on. And I think it changed me in profound ways. I went to--
BILL MOYERS: How so--
NICK TURSE: I went to Vietnam-- you know, with these stacks of documents. And I was looking for witnesses and survivors to individual atrocities, the cases that I had read about. And I went to these villages. And I talked to Vietnamese. And I was asking them about one specific spasm of violence.
But what I'm-- what they kept telling me, the stories that I kept hearing, what it was like to live for 10 years under bombs and shells and helicopter gunships and how they had to negotiate their live around the American war, what it was like to have your home burned down five, six, seven times, and to finally give up rebuilding it and start to live a subterranean or semi-subterranean existence in a bomb shelter and have to-- you know, to make all these calculations about how to survive, when to leave the bomb shelter to forage for food or to find water or to relieve yourself, when to farm.
And all these decisions could have a profound affect that your life depended on it and the life of your family. You had to know-- to get into the bomb shelter in time, when artillery started raining down. But you had to get out of there before the American troops came through and started grenading the bunkers because Americans didn't see these as bomb shelters, they saw them as enemy bunkers that could be hiding guerillas. And the Vietnamese lived with this war for 10 years straight. And as they told me these stories again and again, I realized that this was really the story that I needed to tell, the one of Vietnamese civilian suffering, the one of--
BILL MOYERS: You called it a system of suffering.
NICK TURSE: Yeah, I-- you know, with the way that the American war was engineered, I think it turned it into a veritable system of suffering.
BILL MOYERS: Did you encounter animosity, an anger towards you as an American?
NICK TURSE: I didn't. And it was one of the most shocking things to me that-- you know, I would go into a village. And I would often be the first American they had seen since the war. And-- you know, I'd ask them to dredge up the most-- you know, horrific events imaginable, the most horrible days of their lives. And then I'd ask these people to do it again and again, to make sure that I got the stories exactly right.
And afterwards I would be shocked to find them thanking me. That they would-- they expressed a great gratitude. They were amazed that an American knew something of the story of what they lived through, the story of their hamlet. And they couldn't believe that someone had traveled halfway around the world to listen to this.
BILL MOYERS: Why are we talking about this? Do you we think any good is going to come out of resurrecting the skeletons in the closet and bringing them out and exposing them in your book or in a conversation like this?
NICK TURSE: Well, I'm hoping that it will have some bearing on the present. You know, the U.S. is, of course, involved has been involved in constant warfare in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia. There's you know military interventions taking place all over the world, over the last decade plus.
But I don't think that Americans really have a clear picture of those wars. And what they've meant for people overseas, what they've meant to civilians around the world. So I hope that my book might be able to, you know, to add to that conversation, to open America's eyes to what wars mean for people overseas. And if we're asked to send our brothers and sisters and sons and daughters to war, I think we should have some idea of what it means for the sons and daughters of people overseas.
BILL MOYERS: The book is “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” Nick Turse, thank you for joining me.
NICK TURSE: Thanks so much for having me.
BILL MOYERS: Hardly had Nick Turse and I finished our conversation than the “New York Times” published a chilling account of a Muslim cleric in Yemen named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber. He was standing in a village mosque denouncing Al Qaeda, a brave thing to do -- a respected tribal figure, arguing against terrorism.
But two days later, when he and a police officer cousin agreed to meet with three Al Qaeda members to continue the debate, all five men -- friend and foe -- were incinerated by an American drone attack. The killings infuriated the village and prompted rumors of an upwelling of support in the town for Al Qaeda, because, the Times reported, "Such a move is seen as the only way to retaliate against the United States.”
Our blind faith in technology combined with a sense of infallible righteousness continues unabated. It brought us to grief in Vietnam and Iraq and may do so again with President Obama's cold-blooded use of drones and his indifference to so-called "collateral damage," otherwise known as innocent bystanders. By the standards of slaughter in Vietnam the deaths by drone are hardly a blip on the consciousness of official Washington.
But we have to wonder if each one -- a young boy gathering wood at dawn, unsuspecting of his imminent annihilation, the student picking up the wrong hitchhikers, that tribal elder standing up against fanatics -- doesn't give rise to second thoughts by those judges who prematurely handed our president the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Better they had kept it on the shelf in hopeful waiting, untarnished.
At our website, BillMoyers.com, we’ve added to our extensive coverage of drone warfare and counterterrorism, including an update from last week’s guest, Vicki Divoll, a former legal advisor to the CIA.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.