Kill Anything that Moves, by Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves

The thesis of Kill Anything that Moves—backed up by an impressive quantity and quality of evidence—is that the My Lai massacre was not some aberration where a small number of American soldiers momentarily went berserk and killed some Vietnamese civilians, but merely one incident in a very common pattern of war crimes committed by the Americans and their allies throughout the Vietnam War.

These atrocities were a predictable product of the policies put in place by military leaders, and were consistently covered up by them. They were made public sporadically by the mainstream media and certainly by the alternative media, but never with the kind of emphasis and repetition such stories would have received if Americans had instead been on the receiving end, and they have been largely forgotten. (Except My Lai, but then again how many Americans today could identify even that event? 15%? 10%?)

I find I’m usually more emotionally affected by movies than books, and probably by fiction more than documentaries (which is odd, because you’d think the realization that something is real would make it more intense). Once in a blue moon there’s a movie that gets to me enough that I have to step away from it (assuming I’m watching it on tape or DVR or whatever), and resume watching when I’m in a better mood to handle it.

This book, though, bothered me not only more than any book in memory, but more than any movie either. I was infuriated throughout, and close to tears at times. America’s Stolen Narrative, that I read recently, about dirty tricks of a treasonous level in presidential campaigns, was certainly a depressing book, but I felt considerably more upset reading this one.

Reading it put me in one of those hopeless states where it’s hard to think anything but the worst about humanity, where I can understand people who have suicidal tendencies based on just not wanting to live anymore in a world where people do things like those that are depicted in this book. I felt a need to step back and remind myself of all the good and beautiful things in the world, and of all the truly good things that people do for each other.

I am a pretty cynical, rational person with few illusions that I live in a country that’s somehow better motivated and more a force for good in the world than any random country. I have a strong predisposition against war and military matters in general. I don’t hero worship military people just because they wear the uniform of my country, any more than I do those who kill for some other country. Given how emotionally difficult reading this material was for me, I can only assume that the reaction of the average American who comes to this book with the normal loyalty to his own country and its soldiers would be to refuse to believe it, perhaps to fling it aside in anger.

It’s no wonder people—the schools, the mainstream media, the general public—so desperately hide from information like this that would utterly disrupt their worldviews and their assumptions about who are the good guys and the bad guys in the world.

That’s not good though. Hiding from such truths only makes it more likely they will recur in the future. History has proven repeatedly that a false worldview, highlighted by an inflated view of the nobility of one’s own country and a conviction that “We never do bad guy stuff, and furthermore when we do it’s only the absolute minimum necessary to counteract the actual bad guys doing bad guy stuff” is hugely dangerous for one’s own country and the world.

I’ve read plenty of books about war and about the Vietnam War in particular that didn’t pull any punches. I’m not sure why Kill Anything that Moves saddened and upset me more than the others, but it did.

But anyway, getting to the substance of the book, the concept of the “body count” (the tally of enemy fighters killed in action) was crucial to how the war was fought on the American side. It was one of the few measurables to indicate who was winning, a way of keeping score. It sounded encouraging to the public. If 200 of the enemy were killed and only three Americans in a given encounter, it seemed pretty clear who was giving the ass-kicking.

It also fit with the overall strategy of the architects of the war, namely that if you kept at the killing long enough, eventually you’d reach a tipping point where you’re killing more of the enemy than they can replace (with new recruits, fighters smuggled in from the north, whatever), which would make the ultimate outcome of the war a foregone conclusion.

Commanders were obsessed with increasing the body count. Everyone below them, from the highest officers to the lowest grunt traipsing through the jungle, knew that’s what they were being judged on.

In theory, the pursuit of body count wasn’t supposed to include killing civilians, but in practice it certainly did. Because the Americans put such a high value on quantity of Viet Cong killed, they fought the war in such a way as to pursue that objective even when doing so incidentally bumped up the number of civilians killed.

The emphasis on body count, not to mention in many cases the personal safety of the troops themselves, meant not only killing confirmed Viet Cong, but killing anyone in a gray area who even might be Viet Cong, or might be connected to or supporting the Viet Cong in some fashion.

Soldiers learned early that if you killed some civilians by mistake, it was easy to get away with lying and saying they were Viet Cong. After all, everyone above you in the hierarchy also benefited from a higher body count, so actually you were all better off than if you hadn’t killed them.

From there it’s just a small step to the realization that intentionally killing civilians and reporting them as Viet Cong would also be easy to get away with and beneficial to you and those above you who get some credit for the increased body count.

Not to mention, when you’ve been intentionally dehumanized by military training, and especially when this is occurring in the context of a fight with what you’ve had hammered into your head incessantly is an inferior race of subhumans, for a lot of people inflicting mayhem is just plain fun. You have unrestricted sexual access to the women and children, you can inflict revenge on people who have killed some of your buddies and tried to kill you (not really the same people, but people of the same subhuman race who all look alike anyway), and you can exercise whatever sadistic impulses of torture and murder you might have with no restraints. It’s not a surprise that in that situation, more than a few soldiers let loose and raped and killed in a rampage.

In most of the massacres, there were few if any military-age male victims. Most such males had long since left their village to join the Viet Cong, join the South Vietnamese army, or just run away to avoid having to join either. So it was almost all women, children, elderly, and disabled left for the Americans to work out their frustrations on.

Even when soldiers presumed to follow a policy of only killing suspected Viet Cong rather than just killing anyone, the way they determined who was a suspected Viet Cong could be tragically ludicrous.

Running away was a definite sign you were Viet Cong. Doing something peculiar, like not running away when helicopters were buzzing around you, was also a sign. Having a weapon of course was a sign. Not having forcibly driven all Viet Cong from your area (which presumably would have necessitated having weapons) was a sign.

Looking at an American helicopter was a sign. Ignoring an American helicopter was not recommended either, though. In one incident described in the book, the Americans in their helicopters were so frustrated that the Vietnamese villagers below would not acknowledge them that they took to firing shots around them and otherwise trying to provoke some reaction or other from them. Once the Vietnamese finally panicked and tried to run away, the relieved Americans were able to mow them down as Viet Cong.

A lot of this reminds me of the scene in Schindler’s List where the Nazi in the concentration camp would occasionally shoot inmates for sport from his window as they walked across the compound, and the inmates would be scared to death to quicken their pace or do anything out of the ordinary that might risk calling attention to themselves and drawing even more shots.

Turse makes the point that while the My Lai-type face-to-face murders and rapes and such are the most attention-grabbing, really the bulk of the atrocities were at-a-distance things like dropping tons of napalm and destroying huge swaths of the country and anyone living there.

The chapter Overkill is particularly harrowing. It describes the terrible weapons that were used (as a normal, acknowledged part of the war, not as part of some kind of hush hush massacre), and the almost unimaginable quantities of them that were used.

White phosphorus bombs, for example, used a substance designed to stick to skin and clothes that was virtually impossible to stop burning as long as it had any oxygen supply. Other bombs with a massive number of tiny projectiles inside were popular because they horrifically maimed even more people than they killed, and injuring people badly enough to need to be taken care of—often for the rest of their lives—sapped the enemy’s resources all the more than just killing them.

Millions upon millions of these bombs were dropped, mostly on civilians. It makes you realize how ludicrous are some of the lines we draw marking off some weapons (the chemical and biological weapons everyone gets up in arms about) as somehow beyond the pale, used only by terrorists and terrorist regimes, so bad that the rest of the world should feel morally obligated to join forces to oppose by any means necessary anyone using them, whereas using things like this constitutes waging regular, playing-by-the-rules war.

It comes as no surprise as you get deeper into the book to learn that all the best known forms of torture—electric shocks to the genitals, waterboarding, etc.—were utilized routinely by the Americans and their allies in Vietnam.

There are so many of these stories of massacres and torture and more that it’s hard to avoid some level of compassion fatigue. But really these are heartbreaking tales. What a feeling of injustice and helplessness to be a Vietnamese during that period. Not even necessarily a Viet Cong or someone actively assisting the Viet Cong, but just some widow farmer trying to survive when the most powerful military in the history of the world decides that they need to spray the equivalent of a giant can of Raid from the sky to obliterate as much of your country as is necessary to wipe out all those it considers vermin.

It’s offensive how consistently in depictions of the war—in history books, but also in novels and movies and such, including those considered anti-war—Americans are still at some level presented as the good guys, or at least as tragically trying to be the good guys even while the circumstances make that harder and harder. If atrocities by Americans are depicted at all, they almost always fit the preferred (and false) narrative of being anomalies, the work of a few bad apples. America is depicted as having exercised extraordinary restraint (“fighting with one hand tied behind its back”), though there is debate over whether their doing so was good or bad. There’s always great sympathy for the American GI and his suffering.

Recall the scene in Apocalypse Now when Kurtz recounts how after the Americans vaccinated all the children in a village (typical good guy American thing to do), the Viet Cong came through and sliced off the arms of all those who had been vaccinated (typical bad guy enemy-of-America thing to do). Kurtz cried his eyes out when he saw this. (Of course he did; he’s an American.) But then he realized that when you’re fighting a foe of this kind, you can’t win unless you force yourself to sink to that same level temporarily to get the job done. (Which insufficient Americans could bring themselves to do, seeing how hopelessly humane and loving we are, and so the war was lost.)

What a crock. Americans were routinely guilty of horrific atrocities. They engaged in wholesale slaughter of civilians, and practically every form of torture and brutality intended to terrorize a population. Such behavior wasn’t something they couldn’t bring themselves to do because they were such incurably nice guys. They weren’t prevented from engaging in such behavior and doing what was necessary to win the war by politicians or the liberal media or anyone else. There was no arm tied behind anyone’s back.

Or if there were such restraints—no nuclear weapons were dropped on Vietnam, for instance—they were imposed out of self-interest (the self-interest of not wanting to bring about consequences even worse than failing to win the Vietnam War, like setting off a nuclear World War III with the Soviet Union), not some misguided humanitarianism.

When will people learn that governments and militaries lie, constantly, including one’s own? Why are they ever believed? American military spokesmen in Vietnam were no better than that Iraqi foreign minister guy that everyone makes fun of. Polls consistently show that Americans trust and respect their military more than just about any institution in the country. Why? It’s absolutely unearned.

As Daniel Ellsberg is quoted in the book describing the American military of the Vietnam era, it was “a system that lies automatically, at every level from bottom to top—from sergeant to commander-in-chief—to conceal murder.”

After I read this book, and was so sickened by what I read, I read some reviews of it online, both formal reviews and the little reader reviews on Amazon. As I typically do, I focused especially on negative reviews.

So what do people say against this book, and against Turse’s thesis that the almost unspeakable brutality with which the Americans fought the Vietnam War has been all but forgotten by history, left out of the narrative by which most people—most Americans anyway—understand the war?

Some just say that the massacres and such that he describes are made up or exaggerated, that given that he’s a liberal (or a communist, or a member of the media, or whatever), it goes without saying that it’s all bullshit (since it’s well established that people of those categories will say anything to make America look bad).

Doubtful. It sure seems to be meticulously researched, with a plethora of first-hand accounts. Few if any of the stories are based on the word of one vet with a possible ax to grind, with no supporting evidence.

It’s certainly possible that one or a small number of the stories weren’t as bad as they’re recounted in the book, since even multiple sources could be lying or embellishing, but I think it’s a lot more likely that these that he was able to document so well are the tip of the iceberg.

Surely sometimes—indeed probably the overwhelming majority of the time—if a handful of pissed off American soldiers went into a village and killed a dozen civilians in cold blood for no reason, no one—neither the murderers nor the murdered—ever spoke out about it afterwards. It’s not like there were surveillance cameras in every little hamlet in Vietnam, and an open record somewhere of everything that happened anywhere in the country during those years.

The military frantically tried to cover these incidents up. The times they failed even to the very limited extent that enough evidence could be compiled decades later to tell these stories is likely a small minority of the total incidents.

But another criticism of the book I saw multiple times doesn’t so much deny that things like what he described happened, as chide him for his naiveté in not realizing that “everybody does it” in wartime, that “War is Hell,” that this is all old news that everyone already knows.

I don’t disagree completely with this. It’s mostly true that behavior like this is to be expected in war. Probably a guerrilla army that needs the support of the people and is idealistic (a Che Guevara-type force) is the most likely to be a partial exception, but even that is probably romanticized. Plus if the guerillas win the greater brutality may just come later. Mao may have been popular with the common people as a guerrilla leader, but once he had power and felt he had to do certain things to maintain it and to further his policies, the death toll was unimaginable.

So, yeah, what the Americans did in Vietnam is not outside the norm for behavior in wartime. But that’s hardly a justification for it. What it is is a reason to avoid war far more desperately than any country ever does. The alternative better be pretty horrible if your choice is instead to engage in an activity that will bring this behavior out in you, your allies, and your enemies.

Furthermore, just because this is how more or less every country fights every war, by the very nature of war, it doesn’t follow that it’s old news that this is how Americans fought in Vietnam. The overwhelming majority of Americans do not realize this is how Americans fought in Vietnam.

Another criticism I read of this book is that it ignores the atrocities of the other side.

It’s mostly true that the author doesn’t tell about the worst things the Viet Cong did to civilians. (A little bit is mentioned in passing.) But that’s not the subject of this book. If this were intended as an overview of all the parties in the Vietnam War and their behavior, then it would be very biased in focusing almost solely on the misdeeds of the American military. But it’s not so intended. It establishes that Americans did terrible things and did them routinely; it never says no one else did.

I doubt the Viet Cong came close to inflicting the sheer volume of death, destruction, and terror on that country as the Americans did. But they did enough to establish that they weren’t some sort of morally superior beings. Had they had the same military wherewithal as the Americans, and had they believed that American-style tactics were necessary to achieve their ends, then I have to assume they would have run up numbers just as ugly as the Americans did.

But again, that’s not what Kill Anything that Moves is about.

Thinking about this book, I keep coming back to America’s self-image, or more broadly the tendency most people have to see clearly the faults in others while ignoring or denying the same traits in themselves.

Why does almost everyone in the American public see American soldiers as heroes fighting for freedom? Why should that be true of Americans who pick up a rifle and kill as ordered, but somehow not true of Turks, or Chinese, or Chileans who do? Why is it only true of Americans (and maybe Israelis and those we’ve been taught to associate with Americans) that our soldiers courageously fight for the right, and either don’t engage in atrocities, or engage in them to a limited degree with great reluctance only when the bestial nature of our enemies requires it? What makes Americans so exceptional?

Almost all Americans think that “terrorists” and countries opposed by the U.S. are of a morally different category entirely from the U.S. and its military, a category of evil. It’s so much a part of their worldview, so deep an assumption, that they wouldn’t even think of it as an opinion, and anyone who in any way questioned it would seem insane and/or dangerous to them (and likely allied with the terrorists and their ilk).

To them, the world consists of evil people and regimes, and the folks who have to decide how best to deal with those evil people and regimes—namely the U.S. and to a lesser extent other western, white democracies (though even these, e.g., France, are often viewed with considerable distaste or suspicion). We good guys, in turn, can be divided into the poor, misguided, naïve souls who don’t realize the nature of the evil we face and so advocate woefully inadequate wimpy responses to it, versus the hardheaded realists who know how the world works and who know you have to go all out to crush evil no matter how much it requires things that understandably don’t come natural to fine folks like us.

I want to say a little more about both of these things: the alleged moral difference between Americans and their foes, and the policies that are advocated on the basis of this alleged difference.

First, in terms of atrocities and basic inhumanity, how different is, say, the American military from some al Qaeda-like terrorist group?

Certainly the U.S. military has enormously more blood on its hands. It has massacred more civilians and damaged more infrastructure and such to ruin civilian lives than al Qaeda could ever dream of.

But the distinction often made in response to this is that a terrorist group intentionally maximizes civilian casualties, whereas for a conventional military—at least the military of a “good” country like the U.S.—civilian casualties are an unfortunate but inevitable byproduct of military action, a byproduct that the military seeks to minimize rather than maximize. You can hardly equate, they would say, flying airliners into buildings to kill and terrorize as many people as possible, with bombing civilian areas as a last resort to get at an evil enemy that insists on locating in such areas to use people as human shields. In the one case it’s a bloodthirsty group that is, again, intending to kill innocents, and in the other case it’s a humane group reluctantly, unintentionally, killing innocents as part of a necessary policy to defeat evil people.

Let’s look at this distinction in the context of this book on American atrocities in Vietnam and see if it holds up.

First of all, certainly a large number of the atrocities were directly and literally intentional. When soldiers walk into a village, place a gun to the head of an elderly person, infant, etc., and pull the trigger, or they grab some fourteen year old girl and gang rape her before murdering her, or they shoot random Vietnamese for sport from their helicopters or driving by in their jeeps, that’s intentional. These incidents are not some unintended byproduct of something else; they are intentional atrocities.

The response to this—after perhaps seeking, unsuccessfully, to deny that such incidents occurred—would probably be to insist that the distinction still holds at a higher level. The point, people would say, isn’t that American soldiers as individuals never commit intentional atrocities, but that when they do so it is explicitly contrary to the policy of the U.S. and its military, whereas terrorists who do horrific things like that are acting fully consistently with their group’s means and ends. Terrorists rape and murder as a matter of policy; when Americans do so at all, they do so as individuals deviating from policy.

But, again, think of it in terms of the atrocities discussed in this book. These American soldiers who committed atrocities in Vietnam were placed in a certain position, and given certain orders, that made such atrocities predictable. When the atrocities occurred, the higher ups in the military nearly always sought to cover them up and to make sure the perpetrators were not punished or were punished as lightly as possible, and they kept in place the policies that were leading to these atrocities.

If that doesn’t make the atrocities intentional at that higher, policymaking level of generals, cabinet officials, and presidents, then it comes awfully close. Maybe you can still make a distinction between those atrocities and the atrocities of terrorists, but the gap between them is seeming smaller and smaller.

Furthermore, the motive for the American actions that resulted in such horrible civilian suffering and death in Vietnam was quite literally terroristic. The military policies implemented in Vietnam were designed to raise the cost of not joining with the side of the U.S. and the government of South Vietnam. Civilians were to be shown, forcibly, that whatever downside there might be to actively fighting against the Viet Cong, the alternative would be far worse.

As an American officer from 1964 is quoted in the book, “We must terrorize the villagers even more, so they see that their real self-interest lies with us. We’ve got to start bombing and strafing the villages that aren’t friendly to the government.”

This is obviously not just some academic matter, as the presuppositions that the vast majority of Americans operate under affect the policies they advocate, or at least acquiesce in.

When you’re convinced that your enemies are monsters who have relinquished any claim to humanity, whereas you and your countrymen are good people who would never behave as the monsters do, except insofar as is necessary to stop the monsters, then you’ll soon convince yourself that the worst thing we could do is go soft on the monsters.

How many times have we been reminded—by presidents and by acquaintances at the local bar—that “All these people understand is force”? You have to stand up to their evil, we’re told, you can’t limit the means you’re willing to use to stop them.

If you read comment sections on political blogs, or even websites that aren’t specifically on current events and such but where posters still occasionally address topical matters, then you know how common it is for this kind of thinking to be taken to its most bloodthirsty extreme.

I’m talking about those who openly advocate genocide against the enemy of the day (the Viet Cong, Saddam’s Iraq, Iran after the revolution that overthrew the Shah, Palestinians, the entire Middle East, the Soviet Union, whatever). “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out,” “They oughta just turn the whole country into a parking lot,” “The only way to really defeat an enemy like that is to kill all of them, otherwise you’ll just have to deal with them again in the future,” “Nuke ’em,” etc.

I’m not going to say such views represent all Americans, because they certainly don’t. Indeed you’ll rarely hear such views espoused even by officeholders of the Republican party. But I stand by my statement that the views are common. I don’t know what percentage of the general population believes that any foe significant enough for the U.S. to go to war with, or seriously contemplate war with, is so dangerous, so far gone, and so irredeemable that all or most of its population—civilians and all—should be wiped off the face of the earth, but I’ll bet it’s a lot higher than most folks would care to admit. And if you include not only those who firmly support such genocide, but those who are undecided about it, or who think that option should be on the table, or who think that the enemy is very nearly at the point of evil to warrant that even if they aren’t quite there yet, I would guess it’s 50% or pretty darn close.

According to this mindset, after all, you’re not dealing with people, but monsters.

But what if people realized that their own country has behaved abominably as well? What if people educated themselves about what really went on in Vietnam by reading this book, or for that matter just contemplated that their country allowed the ownership of human beings for centuries, among many other affronts to any plausible system of morality?

Would the genocidal option still seem so appealing if it were to be applied to “us” instead of “them”? Would anyone really think that the best solution to all the atrocities the U.S. has inflicted on the world would be to simply wipe the U.S. off the map?

Leave aside the practical matter of how to do so. Assume some powerful aliens have been watching human history unfold, or someone fiercely committed to justice has somehow developed a super weapon that can pulverize even a country the size of the U.S. Is the correct reaction to the utterly sickening behavior of the American military in Vietnam that any country that behaves in such a manner is such a threat to the world and so evil that it and its population should simply be obliterated?

I seriously doubt many people would think so. It’s only when we’re talking about Communists or Arabs or some other such demons that it seems self-evident to people that you have to “get tough,” that you have to destroy them by any means necessary.

We’re sure we’re the good guys, the ones who hold others accountable for their terrible actions, but who don’t do anything terrible ourselves for which we need to similarly be held accountable.

In other words we’re self-righteous ninnies who get off on making others suffer because they “deserve” it, and who are unlikely to ever accept the kind of information presented in a book like this, regardless of how well documented it is.

I’ll close with a passage from the book that sums up its thesis quite well:

For the Vietnamese, the American War was an endless gauntlet of potential calamities. Killed for the sake of a bounty or shot in a garbage dump, forced into prostitution or gang-raped by GIs, run down for sport on a roadway or locked away in a jail to be tortured without the benefit of a trial—the range of disasters was nearly endless.

While no exact figures are available, there can be little question that such events occurred in shocking numbers. They were the very essence of the war: crimes that went on all the time, all over South Vietnam, for years and years. When you consider this, along with the tallies of dead, wounded, and displaced, the scale of the suffering becomes almost unimaginable—almost as unimaginable as the fact that somehow, in the United States, all that suffering was more or less ignored as it happened, and then written out of history even more thoroughly in the decades since.

It’ll be just a little bit harder to ignore due to Kill Anything that Moves, which is a good, if painful, thing.


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