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The Brutal War on Vietnamese Civilians: Interview with Nick Turse

U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires
and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated
Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.
--Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves

In March 1968 U.S. infantry troops of the Army’s Americal Division massacred five hundredVietnamese civilians, mostly women and children, in the village of My Lai. The military described the massacre as an anomaly, an aberration, the result of a few bad apples in the ranks, and the mainstream media embraced that explanation.

In 1971, decorated Navy veteran (now Secretary of State) John Kerry testified before the Senate that such atrocities in Vietnam were not “isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” Kerry told of U.S. veterans who “relived the absolute horror” of what their country made them do.

He said that veterans had described instances in which “they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown [sic] up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.”

The military dismissed Kerry’s testimony at that time, but his contentions are confirmed now in historian Nick Turse’s meticulously researched new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (Metropolitan Books). The book is based on over a decade of research sparked by Turse’s discovery of the papers of the Pentagon’s “Vietnam War Crimes Working Group.”

Turse details dozens of cases of torture, rape, kidnapping, forced displacement, beatings, arson, mutilation, executions and massacres carried out by U.S. troops. He concludes, as Kerry suggested decades ago, that these atrocities were the result of policies dictated by the highest levels of the government and the military.

The tactics of “attrition” and “overkill” and reliance on body counts as measures of success and use of free fire zones were employed aggressively as helicopter gunships, bombers and fighter jets rained down terror with the U.S. dropping more than three times more bomb tonnage on Vietnam than it dropped in both theaters during World War II. The devastation culminated in the deaths or injuries of 7.3 million Vietnamese civilians out of a population of 19 million. And these are the people usually ignored and left out of the story told to Americans, the story absent from movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now.

Kill Anything That Moves has been widely praised for its groundbreaking research, original findings, and vivid writing based on primary documents and accounts from U.S. veterans and Vietnamese survivors. Renowned New Yorker writer and investigative reporter Seymour Hersh commented: “Nick Turse reminds us again, in this painful and important book, why war should always be a last resort, and especially wars that have little to do with American national security. We failed, as Turse makes clear, to deal after the Vietnam War with the murders that took place, and today -- four decades later -- the lessons have yet to be learned. We still prefer kicking down doors to talking.”

Author Chris Hedges wrote: “Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is not only one of the most important books ever written about the Vietnam conflict but provides readers with an unflinching account of the nature of modern industrial warfare. It captures, as few books on war do, the utter depravity of industrial violence.” Award-winning novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien said: “Nick Turse’s research and reportage is based in part on the U.S. military’s own records, reports, and transcripts, many of them long hidden from public scrutiny. Kill Anything That Moves is not only a compendium of pervasive and illegal and sickening savagery toward Vietnamese civilians, but it is also a record of repetitive deceit and cover-ups on the part of high ranking officers and officials.”

Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of TomDispatch.com. His work has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and In These Times. His other books include The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyber Warfare, and The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives. Turse received the Ridenhour Prize at the National Press Club in April 2009 for his investigation of mass civilian slaughter by U.S. troops in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta during Operation Speedy Express. He earned a doctorate in sociomedical sciences from Columbia University. 

Robin Lindley: What sparked your interest in the Vietnam War?

Nick Turse: I was a graduate student at Columbia and I had a job as a project historian for a study on post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans. Basically, my boss sent me to the National Archives where I tried to find hard data -- official documents -- to link to the self-reports we had from veterans about their time of service, and where and when they served, to corroborate what they told us about their time in Vietnam.

On one research trip, I had been there about two weeks and every research avenue I pursued was a dead end. It was one brick wall after another. Finally, I went to an archivist I worked with there and said, “Look, I can’t go back to my boss empty-handed. I need something or he won’t send me back down here.”

And this archivist thought about it for a moment, and then said a few words that changed my life. He asked if I thought witnessing war crimes could cause post-traumatic stress. I said that was an excellent hypothesis and I asked what he had on war crimes. He told me about a collection of documents called the “Vietnam War Crimes Working Group.”

He pulled those records for me and, within an hour, I was reading through thousands and thousands of pages of military reports. To call it an information treasure trove is the wrong term. This was a horror trove of military investigations of massacres, murder, rape, torture, assault, mutilation -- all of it assembled by a secret Pentagon task force that unofficially operated out of the Army Chief of Staff’s office. At the time, that was William Westmoreland who had been the top American commander in Vietnam just a couple years before.

I really stumbled upon these records. My work as a Vietnam historian began as a job, and it took over my life in some ways.

Were those documents classified?

They had been declassified for years before I found them and they were just sitting on public shelves. I realized these documents weren’t anywhere in the literature. I asked the archivist who had worked with these records before. I was incredulous that they could just be sitting there. He told me that people had looked at a case or two but no one, to his knowledge, had looked at the entirety or written about these records. But they were available.

You were born in 1975 -- the year Saigon fell and the war ended for the U.S. Did you have a personal connection to the war that sparked your interest on the PTSD study or the war?

No. I didn’t have any relatives that served in the war and I wasn’t a Vietnam War historian before I began that [PTSD] project. I just happened to be a historian on the medical school campus in the School of Public Health. But that’s how I found my way to that study.

I taught myself the war and working on that study was some of the best training I could have had because I was able to read through and listen to thousand and thousands of interviews with Vietnam vets that were done in the late seventies and early eighties. It gave me a feel for the war in ways that you don’t always get from reading the historical literature. I also talked to hundreds of Vietnam vets and I interviewed for this book between one hundred and two hundred veterans. There’s a texture that sometimes you can only get from talking to people who lived it.

Your book is meticulously documented. How did the book came about after you found the documents from the War Crimes Working Group?

I began with those documents and they were an entryway to this project that became much larger. I worked with the documents and then freelanced with the Los Angeles Times for a year and a half on a project to take some of the marquee cases from the files and I co-wrote a series on them.

That project allowed me to travel and meet veterans who had been witnesses or perpetrators in the case files I had. And the Los Angeles Times sent me to Vietnam for the first time. There my project changed from what would have been a study strictly of war crimes to something larger. I went to Vietnam with stacks of documents and I was looking for witnesses and survivors to our particular cases.

Over and over, I’d go to a village and try to find people from a particular case, a specific spasm of violence. But what they told me again and again was what it was like to live for ten years under bombs and shells and helicopter gunships and how they had to negotiate their entire lives around the war. They didn’t put it specifically in those terms, but it was the same story again and again, and I realized this was really the story of the war and it was a story that was missing from much of the literature.

Much of the literature in the U.S. focuses on the American side of the war, but I began to see what millions of Vietnamese lived through for ten years straight, and all the calculations they had to make to stay alive in the war zone. They told me again and again in hamlet after hamlet of how preparatory artillery fire would rain down and they would run into bomb shelters they had dug under their homes. They would wait there and calculate when to emerge. You couldn’t emerge too quickly because you might be cut down by machine guns from a helicopter or be caught in a crossfire between withdrawing guerillas and onrushing Americans. But if you waited too long, the Americans would come in and roll grenades into the bomb shelter because they saw them as possible enemy fighting positions. So if you leave the bomb shelter a second too early, it could be lethal. But a second too late could be no less deadly. And it wasn’t just your life on the line but the lives of your entire family -- you’re all huddled down there together.

And I thought about what it must have been like to live in that state of fear and apprehension for all those years. That’s what I wanted to get across and that’s what I tried to do in Kill Anything That Moves.

You visited Vietnam and talked with survivors on several occasions. How would you describe they’re response to your concerns?

As an American, I expected animosity when I first went, and it turned out to be the very opposite. I was always warmly greeted and I was amazed at how open people were with me and how understanding they were. I would ask them about the most horrific events imaginable and the most horrible days of their lives, and I’d ask in four or five different ways about the same thing, again and again, to make sure I was getting the story right.

They would bear with me, a stranger who just showed up one day. They were willing to walk that hard road with me and, afterward invariably, I’d be thanked. It was always hard for me to wrap my head around it. They expressed amazement that there was an American who knew about their hamlet, wanted to know their story, and would travel half way around the world to listen to them. They were amazed by that, and it was always a humbling and heartening experience for me.

It seems the Vietnamese wanted to get the story out.

The story they told me isn’t part of the official narrative in Vietnam. Vietnamese history of the war is generally military history that portrays one revolutionary struggle and civilians are lumped with the rest of the revolutionary effort. To my knowledge, there isn’t a real focus on what civilians went through during the war, so there hasn’t been an opportunity to talk about that experience during the war. It’s just not part of that narrative.

You describe a range of responses to your concerns from U.S. veterans -- from refusals and reluctance to enthusiastic sharing.

Yes. It was across the spectrum. Some veterans would slam down the phone receiver or shut the door in my face, but that was the exception and not the rule.

Most people were willing to talk to some degree. Some veterans I talked to had confessed to crimes and they were unrepentant. I got in touch with one torturer who, according to the documents, had confessed to committing electric shock torture and water torture, what we now call waterboarding. He said he thought it was the right thing to do -- that it helped the war effort, and if he was in a Vietnam-type situation again, he would do the same thing. And he said he was proud of his service.

But other veterans had a great deal of remorse. Something that always stays with me is a veteran I talked with in a marathon phone session for four or five hours, and there were allegations that his unit had been involved in atrocities.

In some ways, the war was the high point of his life. There were a lot of good times he remembered. He was laughing a lot and he had really infectious, jovial laugh. But then he quieted down to tell me a story about a GI from his unit. He said they came to a hamlet one day and they were burning it down. This was standard operating procedure for the unit to drive the Vietnamese from the countryside to break the bond between the guerrillas and the people in the villages.

He said they were burning down the village, and a woman ran out and grabbed this GI by the sleeve and tugged at it and screamed at him obviously because her home was burning down and all of possessions were going up in flames. He said the soldier pushed her away and took his M-16 and hit her squarely in the nose with the butt of the rifle. He broke her nose. There was blood everywhere. She was screaming and crying. And he said this guy just turned and walked away laughing. Then he paused for a moment and said, “You know that the GI I’m talking about is me.”

It was hard for me to connect the man I was talking with his nineteen-year-old self who had done this, and I told him so. He said he had the same problem. He said that, at the time, he didn’t think anything of it, but in the years since, he couldn’t help but think of it on a regular basis. This stayed with him and haunted him.

I ran into a lot of veterans who had the same experience. They had been living with things they had done as nineteen-year-olds for forty years and it had weighed on them considerably.

U.S. Marine burns a "hootch". All photos courtesy of the author.

You conclude that this brutality and the massacre of five hundred civilians at My Lai were not the exception but the rule because of U.S. policy. One witness said there was “a My Lai every month,” and you find that our strategy resulted in enormous civilian casualties.

I used the records on atrocities like murders and massacres to punctuate the book, but I wanted to get across that the scale of the killing and injury in Vietnam was well beyond what a platoon or company can do, and well beyond the scale of single massacres.

The best estimates we have are two million civilian dead during the war, and about 5.3 million civilian wounded, using a conservative method of estimation. The U.S. government’s own figure puts the number at 11 million for refugees.

So it’s a tremendous amount of suffering and it comes from U.S. military policy promulgated at the highest levels.

It was heavy firepower that caused most of the casualties, most of the suffering. This wasn’t the work of rogue units. This [policy] came down from the Pentagon and through the military high command in Vietnam. And [we used] free fire zones -- the opening of huge swaths of the countryside to unrestrained bombing and artillery fire and hunting by helicopter gunship.

As you note, our military ignored the Geneva Conventions and the rules of war that protect civilians.

Many veterans I talked to said they were given a “Nine Rules” card you could carry in your wallet that told them about proper treatment and respect for Vietnamese and told you to treat prisoners properly. But all the signals given by their commanders ran counter to this. They either tossed them out or never thought about these cards again.

Their training in the Geneva Conventions was generally about an hour, and most of it centered on what to do if you were taken prisoner: name, rank and serial number and that sort of thing. It was not on how you were to uphold the Geneva Conventions by your treatment of noncombatants whether civilians or prisoners.

In the book I cite some studies showing that the junior officers who these American teenagers were supposed to follow had an extremely poor understanding of the laws of war and poor training themselves.

And you stress that racism played a role in the mass killing.

Racism is something I heard about again and again from veterans I talked to. In Vietnam there was the acronym MGR for “mere gook rule.” The idea was that the Vietnamese weren’t real people. They were subhuman -- “mere gooks” who could be abused or even killed at will. And some veterans said that from the moment they got to basic training that they weren’t to call them Vietnamese. “You call them gooks or ginks, slants or slopes” -- anything to dehumanize them and make it easier to kill Vietnamese.

On top of that, the war was fought using an attrition strategy, which called for high enemy body counts. Veterans said that commanders weren’t discerning about whose bodies were turned in, and there wouldn’t be questions asked.

In the My Lai massacre, five hundred civilians were killed, but when the Americal Division that carried it out reported it, they said they had killed 128 enemies that day. Of course, no Americans were killed in this “battle with hard-core troops,” and they also had no [captured] weapons to show for it. But nobody asked questions about how could they kill all of these enemy fighters and still have no weapons. It was easy to basically kill any Vietnamese and call it in as an enemy body count.

This was a problem. The body count was achieved with carrots and sticks. If you didn’t turn in a body count, your unit would be kept out in the field and be exposed to more danger, greater possibility of being wounded or killed, and of course, the hardship of being in the field. If you did turn in bodies, you’d get a three-day pass to a beach resort in country. You’d get out of the field and extra beer, better food, and special gear to wear, lighter duty back at base camp. One veteran I talked to called it “an incentivization of death” and he said it made it very easy for his fellow troops to kill any and all Vietnamese.

Ace of spades "death card".

You have described horrifying incidents. It’s stunning, for example, that dead children and water buffalo were counted as Viet Cong when they were found in a bloody rice paddy after an American attack.

This was commonplace. There was an axiom in Vietnam: “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC [Viet Cong].” The commanders didn’t care in most cases and they didn’t ask questions. As long as it was a Vietnamese body it was good enough so civilians could be chalked up to the body counts.

I recount instances in the book where prisoners were captured or civilians were detained and soldiers in the field would call commanding officers and say, “I have a prisoner,” and the commander would say something like “I don’t want a prisoner. I want a body count.” The prisoner would be executed and called in as “a prisoner shot while escaping.” This was a favorite euphemism, and it was used for civilians too. Many ran from troops or helicopters. It’s hard to stand still in a field when a helicopter buzzes you. Once a person started running, they were considered fair game. This was a constant hardship for the Vietnamese.

You detail a particularly brutal campaign in the Mekong Delta called Operation Speedy Express that was led by General Julian Ewell.

Yes. I thought that I could tell a lot of this story through Speedy Express.

Basically, Julian Ewell had been a World War II hero who had been cooped up for a long time at the Pentagon and as an attaché at the White House. When he finally got a combat command in Vietnam, he resolved to make the most of it.

Ewell was notorious even in an environment where body count was king, and was known as “The Butcher of the Delta.” He even joked about the fact that fellow commanders considered him in a class with Attila the Hun. He demanded bodies and any of the colonels under his command said he’d constantly berate them for not bringing up the body count. It was no secret that if you didn’t bring in numbers, he would sack you and derail your career. He put them under tremendous pressure and it filtered down to the field. He removed restrictions about use of heavy firepower on populated areas.

Over the course of Speedy Express, the Ninth Infantry Division reported almost 11,000 enemy killed, but they only recovered 748 weapons -- a tremendous disparity. A whistleblower within the division contacted General Westmoreland, then Army Chief of Staff, and blew the whistle on Speedy Express. Westmoreland ignored him. He wrote two other generals saying that he didn’t want to go public, he didn’t want to go to the New York Times, but he wanted the Army to take action because he thought what had gone on in the Delta was wrong and immoral.

Independent of that, a young stringer with Newsweek, Alex Shimkin, noticed that something very bloody had gone on in the Delta. He brought the story to his bureau chief, Kevin Buckley, and Kevin recognized that there was a real story there. They did a tremendous job reporting Speedy Express. They talked to high-level military sources who estimated that up to five thousand civilians had been killed during Speedy Express.

The Newsweek team did a good job of proving this out. But Newsweek pushed back on the story and they didn’t want to put it in print. Buckley and Shimkin’s five-thousand word article was cut down to 1800 words when it was finally published and it didn’t even mention Julian Ewell and it caused only a ripple of interest. Newsweek finally told Kevin Buckley that they were reluctant because they thought the Army and the Nixon administration had been through so much with My Lai that they didn’t want to cause them any more problems.

The story of Speedy Express never got the attention it should have, but I found in the archives that the Army had done their own study because they were so afraid of the story coming out. They wanted to know what really went on.

The Army’s own estimate said that the Newsweek number of five thousand [civilian dead] would be a low-ball figure. They came up with an estimate of five thousand to seven thousand civilians killed during Speedy Express. So most of those killed during the operation were civilians by the Army’s own estimate. But of course this was kept secret for forty years and no one knew during the war.

You also describe the murderous bombing campaign with some commanders urging bombing of Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.” And our soldiers, these young men, are using devastating weapons from conventional bombs and heavy machine guns and cannons to napalm, phosphorus and defoliants.

U.S. airstrike unleashes napalm.

Top commanders talked about Vietnam being used as a weapons lab, and in many ways it was. A lot of new weapons technology was tested out.

Napalm had dated back to World War II, but the Vietnam variant Napalm B was an even more vicious incendiary agent than the original. It was designed to stick to clothing and skin more effectively and it burned hotter than previous versions of napalm. It’s a devastating weapon, especially when used on a countryside filled with homes made of bamboo and thatched roofs. People lived in these exceptionally flammable structures.

I met with napalm survivors in the countryside -- people who had been living with its effects for their entire lives. The ones I talked to had been children when they were burnt with napalm and they were lucky to be alive because most people didn’t survive. They either died of asphyxiation or from the severe burns. White phosphorous, another hideous incendiary, was used in the countryside. It’s exceptionally tough to extinguish. Millions of cluster bombs were used in Vietnam. They’re explosive weapons with a tremendous number of ball bearings that spray out in all directions -- very small pellets, tiny pieces of shrapnel, like we saw in the horrible terrorist attack in Boston, and they wreaked havoc on Vietnamese civilians.

You capture the terrible levels of brutality of the war. You note that some young soldiers were shooting people at random or running over people with tanks. A high school classmate of mine was a helicopter door gunner and, shortly after his return from the war zone, he spoke enthusiastically about gunning down field workers and water buffalo with his heavy machine gun.

Even an infantryman had an impressive amount of power and it was unprecedented. There was so much killing power in an M-16 rifle and it was lightweight. It was called a Mattel toy because it was a like a kid’s plastic weapon. It packed so much power and remember that we’re dealing with nineteen-year-old kids.

The historian Christian Appy uses the phrase in his book Working-Class War: “the hedonism of destruction.” It’s the same principle as setting off firecrackers. It seems boys and young men are drawn to this and it’s very seductive.

What can your book teach us about our present military actions and future policies?

My day job is as a national security reporter and I follow the current wars closely. I think there are some lessons to be drawn from my book or at least some conversations it could start.

America is constantly involved in military conflicts abroad, most recently in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia. It’s important that Americans understand what war is really like for those who live with war everyday: namely civilians. Wars cause immense suffering but the stories of civilians affected by America’s wars rarely make the front pages of newspapers or lead the nightly news.

If Americans are called upon to send their sons and daughters to war, they ought to have a clear idea of what that means for the sons and daughters of people overseas. I hope my book will open a few eyes in that regard and maybe start some conversations along those lines.