Guest writer Simon Smith reviewing one of the latest books on the American War in Vietnam.
compelling and fascinating account andexplanation of why and how the American war machine killed so many Vietnamese civilians by design rather than by accident. It is a history book written about the atrocity which was the Vietnam War and the countless smaller atrocities which were part of the bigger picture. It is a book written in simplified, layman’s terms which doesn’t test your concentration but taxes your ability to soak up details of horror and atrocity.
The writer, Nick Turse, sets out to show that war crimes like the My Lai massacre were not at all exceptional or isolated. The term “a few bad apples” raises its ugly head as it does now and again here in Northern Ireland. In fact I found many examples of military practices during the Vietnam War which occurred here in Northern Ireland but perhaps that should be a topic for another time.
The book takes its name from the response to the question from a US. soldier to his superior officer before the My Lai massacre in which 500 unarmed civilians were killed by the occupying U.S. troops. He asked ‘Are we supposed to kill women and children?’ to which his Commanding Officer replied ‘Kill everything that moves.’
The author begins with the obligatory history lesson on the roots of the Vietnam War but does so with panache, giving even the seasoned reader on the subject an informative, detailed, concise and absorbing account. Facts are laid bare like how the forerunner of the CIA funded the Viet Minh in its war against the occupying Japanese during the Second World War only for the Americans to support the French during a nascent Cold War up to the point where the US was funding 80% of the cost of the French war in Vietnam as early as 1953. This seems analogous to some of the more recent conflicts involving the US. There was also talk about “winning hearts and minds” although how this could be done with a scorched earth policy is anybody’s guess.
In another book I read called Women and Revolution in Vietnam by Arlene Eisen, she explains that the US authorities invented the term Viet Cong, meaning Vietnamese Communists, to disguise the fact that the next incarnation of fighters after the Viet Minh, the National Liberation Front was formed as an eclectic umbrella organisation that united businessmen, workers, trade unions, women, youth, peasants, students, writers and artists. The Americans wanted to disguise the fact that the NLF had popular support.
During basic training the US Army recruits were dehumanised and so too, to a greater extent, were the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians alike. Taught to chant “Kill, Kill, Kill” and with no training in the Geneva Conventions, they referred to all Vietnamese as "gooks" or "slants", never mind "Viet Cong", even before they left the States.
I suspect Turse’s explanation of why ordinary teenage boys can become murderers and war-criminals was based on that of Philip Caputo’s in his book A Rumor of War. One paragraph explains:
Angry troops primed to lash out, often following losses within the unit; civilians trapped in their path; and officers in the field issuing ambiguous or illegal orders to young men conditioned to obey - that was the basic recipe for many of the mass killings carried out by army soldiers and marines over the years.
Also involved were napalm, defoliants, huge bombs dropped from B-52 planes etc. He goes on to explain that indiscriminate civilian death was the inevitable outcome of 'deliberate decisions made long before, at the highest levels of the military.'
The book is a meticulous study of the “American War” as the Vietnamese call it, based on interviews and research including substantiated war crimes investigations and court-martial records. The author often found the same problem with military records as John Stevens found with those of the RUC, they had simply vanished or had been destroyed.
From the policy makers at the top, to middle ranking officers’ demands for a high "body-count" no matter what, to the sniper picking off as many farmers as possible to boost the kill rate or the "Double Veterans" who murdered those who they had just raped, from helicopters playing "gook-hunting" or drivers of huge military trucks playing "gook-hockey" the story of why so many civilians were killed is told convincingly.
Many of the civilian homes had underground bunkers, often L or Z-shaped to protect against grenades. Every time a person emerged from a bunker they knew, Turse explains, that 'An instant too late could mean death, but potentially a second too early was potentially no less lethal.'
There were many dissenting voices within the military at all levels but pressure, policy and cover-ups left many perpetrators with medals and promotions rather than prison sentences.
It is a harrowing book, horrific details stay with you long after they have been read. The descriptions, so anathematic to the human mind, will leave their mark. I found one face amongst many in the included photographs provoking and together with the photos of the Vietnamese interviewees I found myself a little overcome with emotion. No wonder so many people who have actually witnessed or partook in horrific situations suffer Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (or "Battle Fatigue" or "Shell Shock" as it has previously been called).
I would recommend this book to anyone except the reader who may find the graphic content upsetting. It would be perfect as someone’s first book on the subject as it gives a general history as well as a much needed perspective. Turse uses analysis and explanation skilfully to paint a cruel picture, trying as best he can to remain unbiased with his damning research.
As well as the many photographs there is an index, a map and the most extensive "notes" section I have seen in years betraying the fact that the book was thoroughly researched and well written.
Nick Turse, 2013, Kill Anything That Moves. Metropolitan Books: New York. ISBN 9780805086911