Friday, February 15, 2013

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse

The War in Vietnam was a defining experience in the lives of an entire generation of Americans. For a large portion of the country it was not the cause, or reasons for American engagement, but the apparently unsuccessful prosecution of the war that became a source of deep frustration. For them, it was a strategic mistake.It caused them to doubt the competency and judgment of the country’s leaders. For a sizable and growing minority, including many of the nation’s young people, the conflict was more than that. If not a premeditated crime, it had become a massive and violent enterprise sustained by government deception and lies, one that demanded, intolerably, the continued expenditure of lives in an attempt to bolster an eroding political credibility. So for a large number of Americans the political decision to continue the war in Vietnam became something wrong, something immoral, but the conduct of the war itself, the way it was prosecuted in country, was not the reason that most people who opposed the war thought American involvement should end.

There were voices that spoke up about the questionable and criminal actions of U.S. troops concerning the Vietnamese population, but they were a minority, one whose charges went uninvestigated and whose allegations never colored the view of the American the war effort in the minds of most Americans.The most celebrated war crimes trial of the war was that of Lieutenant William Calley for 22 of the killings in the massacre of 400 Vietnamese civilians in the hamlet of My Lai. My Lai has been portrayed historically as an aberration, an exception, in the American conduct of the war. Nick Turse argues here that disregard for the lives of Vietnamese civilians and their frequent murder was in fact characteristic of the American military’s conduct of the war. At the end of  his chapter called “A Litany of Atrocities,” Turse writes, “The incidents in this chapter were unbearably commonplace throughout the conflict and are unusual only in that they were reported in some form or recounted by witnesses instead of vanishing entirely from the historical record.” Kill Anything that Moves is the most comprehensive summary to date of actions that can only be characterized as war crimes, and is the result of ten years of research and interviews done by Turse. He has made a number of visits to Vietnam, talked with both Vietnamese civilians and American combat veterans, and he has done extensive research in U.S. government military archives.

To support his argument, Turse must convince us that the incidents he describes are representative of the conduct of the war rather than isolated incidents. The problem is that the nature of every military action in the long years of the war cannot be fully known and investigated. And so no matter how many “for instances” Turse can supply, he can never cite enough instances to constitute quantitative proof for his argument that these kinds of actions were representative and normative in the conduct of the war. This seems particularly true of those actions that we think of as atrocities. It is, by its nature, a case that can only be made by inference. But certainly there are a troubling number of “instances” here. Turse’s ‘instances” are supported, perhaps most strongly, by another evidentiary line he pursues, that of exploring the actual results of general military command policies in Vietnam. He explains the emphasis on “body count” as a measure of operational success, the establishment of so called “free fire zones” in which “anything that moves” was to be destroyed, “search and destroy” missions, and the massive overkill that often came in the form of American artillery and air power, something that was intended to destroy the enemy while reducing the risk to the lives of American soldiers but manifestly took a heavy toll in collateral damage on Vietnamese civilians. He gives illustrations of how these policies worked in the field, particularly in an extended examination of an operation called “Speedy Express” that was conducted in the Mekong Delta between December 1968 and May of 1969. Turse also discusses the racism that lead to the feeling that Vietnam’s inhabitants were something less than human, a feeling that was embodied in talk of the “MGR” rule (the mere-gook-rule) that resulted in a lack of concern for the lives of Vietnamese civilians. They became, Turse argues, almost interchangeable with enemy combatants, and their deaths, collateral or intentional were used to enhance the body count. In operation “Speedy Express” the 9th Infantry Division reported killing 10,899 enemy troops though it recovered only 748 weapons. During the week of April 19th 699 “guerillas” were added to the division’s body count, but only 9 weapons were recovered. The ratios are incriminating.

This book will be controversial.  At least one hopes it will be. We can hope that there are those in America who still care about the nature of the Vietnam War and what can be learned from it. This may be an account disturbing to Vietnam veterans, particularly those whose experience is at odds with the story told here and who will be resentful that their time of service in Vietnam has been characterized in the way it is by this account. Turse after all is arguing for a revision of the way we have archived the war in our collective memory as a tragedy, our means of putting the war to rest, and is arguing that we understand that the conduct of the war was immoral and regularly criminal in its violation of the Geneva conventions. Whether you end up agreeing with that characterization or not, tt will be difficult after reading this book not to recognize that whatever “tragedy” the war was for America, it was, as we seldom seem to give its due, an unmitigated horror for Vietnamese civilians caught in the crossfire. Their lives were held cheap and there was a disregard for their terrible suffering. Nick Turse has proved that irrefutably here. He has written a book that fundamentally changes our understanding of the war.

No comments: