Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (American Empire Project)

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9780805086911: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (American Empire Project)

Based on classified documents and first-person interviews, a startling history of the American war on Vietnamese civilians

Americans have long been taught that events such as the notorious My Lai massacre were isolated incidents in the Vietnam War, carried out by "a few bad apples." But as award-winning journalist and historian Nick Turse demonstrates in this groundbreaking investigation, violence against Vietnamese noncombatants was not at all exceptional during the conflict. Rather, it was pervasive and systematic, the predictable consequence of orders to "kill anything that moves."

Drawing on more than a decade of research in secret Pentagon files and extensive interviews with American veterans and Vietnamese survivors, Turse reveals for the first time how official policies resulted in millions of innocent civilians killed and wounded. In shocking detail, he lays out the workings of a military machine that made crimes in almost every major American combat unit all but inevitable. Kill Anything That Moves takes us from archives filled with Washington's long-suppressed war crime investigations to the rural Vietnamese hamlets that bore the brunt of the war; from boot camps where young American soldiers learned to hate all Vietnamese to bloodthirsty campaigns like Operation Speedy Express, in which a general obsessed with body counts led soldiers to commit what one participant called "a My Lai a month."

Thousands of Vietnam books later, Kill Anything That Moves, devastating and definitive, finally brings us face-to-face with the truth of a war that haunts Americans to this day.

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About the Author:

Nick Turse is the author of The Complex, the managing editor for TomDispatch.com, and a fellow at the Nation Institute. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Nation, among other publications. Turse's investigations of American war crimes in Vietnam have gained him a Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He lives near New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction
An Operation, Not an Aberration

On January 21, 1971, a Vietnam veteran named Charles McDuff wrote a letter to President Richard Nixon to voice his disgust with the American war in Southeast Asia. McDuff had witnessed multiple cases of Vietnamese civilians being abused and killed by American soldiers and their allies, and he had found the U.S. military justice system to be woefully ineffective in punishing wrongdoers. “Maybe your advisors have not clued you in,” he told the president, “but the atrocities that were committed in Mylai are eclipsed by similar American actions throughout the country.” His three-page handwritten missive concluded with an impassioned plea to Nixon to end American participation in the war.1

The White House forwarded the note to the Department of Defense for a reply, and within a few weeks Major General Franklin Davis Jr., the army’s director of military personnel policies, wrote back to McDuff. It was “indeed unfortunate,” said Davis, “that some incidents occur within combat zones.” He then shifted the burden of responsibility for what had happened firmly back onto the veteran. “I presume,” he wrote, “that you promptly reported such actions to the proper authorities.” Other than a paragraph of information on how to contact the U.S. Army criminal investigators, the reply was only four sentences long and included a matter-of-fact reassurance: “The United States Army has never condoned wanton killing or disregard for human life.”2

This was, and remains, the American military’s official position. In many ways, it remains the popular understanding in the United States as a whole. Today, histories of the Vietnam War regularly discuss war crimes or civilian suffering only in the context of a single incident: the My Lai massacre cited by McDuff. Even as that one event has become the subject of numerous books and articles, all the other atrocities perpetrated by U.S. soldiers have essentially vanished from popular memory.

The visceral horror of what happened at My Lai is undeniable. On the evening of March 15, 1968, members of the Americal Division’s Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, were briefed by their commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, on a planned operation the next day in an area they knew as “Pinkville.” As unit member Harry Stanley recalled, Medina “ordered us to ‘kill everything in the village.’ ” Infantryman Salvatore LaMartina remembered Medina’s words only slightly differently: they were to “kill everything that breathed.” What stuck in artillery forward observer James Flynn’s mind was a question one of the other soldiers asked: “Are we supposed to kill women and children?” And Medina’s reply: “Kill everything that moves.”3

The next morning, the troops clambered aboard helicopters and were airlifted into what they thought would be a “hot LZ”—a landing zone where they’d be under hostile fire. As it happened, though, instead of finding Vietnamese adversaries spoiling for a fight, the Americans entering My Lai encountered only civilians: women, children, and old men. Many were still cooking their breakfast rice. Nevertheless, Medina’s orders were followed to a T. Soldiers of Charlie Company killed. They killed everything. They killed everything that moved.

Advancing in small squads, the men of the unit shot chickens as they scurried about, pigs as they bolted, and cows and water buffalo lowing among the thatch-roofed houses. They gunned down old men sitting in their homes and children as they ran for cover. They tossed grenades into homes without even bothering to look inside. An officer grabbed a woman by the hair and shot her point-blank with a pistol. A woman who came out of her home with a baby in her arms was shot down on the spot. As the tiny child hit the ground, another GI opened up on the infant with his M-16 automatic rifle.

Over four hours, members of Charlie Company methodically slaughtered more than five hundred unarmed victims, killing some in ones and twos, others in small groups, and collecting many more in a drainage ditch that would become an infamous killing ground. They faced no opposition. They even took a quiet break to eat lunch in the midst of the carnage. Along the way, they also raped women and young girls, mutilated the dead, systematically burned homes, and fouled the area’s drinking water.4

There were scores of witnesses on the ground and still more overhead, American officers and helicopter crewmen perfectly capable of seeing the growing piles of civilian bodies. Yet when the military released the first news of the assault, it was portrayed as a victory over a formidable enemy force, a legitimate battle in which 128 enemy troops were killed without the loss of a single American life.5 In a routine congratulatory telegram, General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, lauded the “heavy blows” inflicted on the enemy. His protégé, the commander of the Americal Division, added a special note praising Charlie Company’s “aggressiveness.”6

Despite communiqués, radio reports, and English-language accounts released by the Vietnamese revolutionary forces, the My Lai massacre would remain, to the outside world, an American victory for more than a year. And the truth might have remained hidden forever if not for the perseverance of a single Vietnam veteran named Ron Ridenhour. The twenty-two-year-old Ridenhour had not been among the hundred American troops at My Lai, though he had seen civilians murdered elsewhere in Vietnam; instead, he heard about the slaughter from other soldiers who had been in Pinkville that day. Unnerved, Ridenhour took the unprecedented step of carefully gathering testimony from multiple American eyewitnesses. Then, upon returning to the United States after his yearlong tour of duty, he committed himself to doing whatever was necessary to expose the incident to public scrutiny.7

Ridenhour’s efforts were helped by the painstaking investigative reporting of Seymour Hersh, who published newspaper articles about the massacre; by the appearance in Life magazine of grisly full-color images that army photographer Ron Haeberle captured in My Lai as the slaughter was unfolding; and by a confessional interview that a soldier from Charlie Company gave to CBS News. The Pentagon, for its part, consistently fought to minimize what had happened, claiming that reports by Vietnamese survivors were wildly exaggerated. At the same time, the military focused its attention on the lowest-ranking officer who could conceivably shoulder the blame for such a nightmare: Charlie Company’s Lieutenant William Calley.8

An army inquiry into the killings eventually determined that thirty individuals were involved in criminal misconduct during the massacre or its cover-up. Twenty-eight of them were officers, including two generals, and the inquiry concluded they had committed a total of 224 serious offenses.9 But only Calley was ever convicted of any wrongdoing. He was sentenced to life in prison for the premeditated murder of twenty-two civilians, but President Nixon freed him from prison and allowed him to remain under house arrest. He was eventually paroled after serving just forty months, most of it in the comfort of his own quarters.10

The public response generally followed the official one. Twenty-five years later, Ridenhour would sum it up this way.

At the end of it, if you ask people what happened at My Lai, they would say: “Oh yeah, isn’t that where Lieutenant Calley went crazy and killed all those people?” No, that was not what happened. Lieutenant Calley was one of the people who went crazy and killed a lot of people at My Lai, but this was an operation, not an aberration.11

Looking back, it’s clear that the real aberration was the unprecedented and unparalleled investigation and exposure of My Lai. No other American atrocity committed during the war—and there were so many—was ever afforded anything approaching the same attention. Most, of course, weren’t photographed, and many were not documented in any way. The great majority were never known outside the offending unit, and most investigations that did result were closed, quashed, or abandoned. Even on the rare occasions when the allegations were seriously investigated within the military, the reports were soon buried in classified files without ever seeing the light of day.12 Whistle-blowers within the ranks or recently out of the army were threatened, intimidated, smeared, or—if they were lucky—simply marginalized and ignored.

Until the My Lai revelations became front-page news, atrocity stories were routinely disregarded by American journalists or excised by stateside editors. The fate of civilians in rural South Vietnam did not merit much examination; even the articles that did mention the killing of noncombatants generally did so merely in passing, without any indication that the acts described might be war crimes.13 Vietnamese revolutionary sources, for their part, detailed hundreds of massacres and large-scale operations that resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, but those reports were dismissed out of hand as communist propaganda.14

And then, in a stunning reversal, almost immediately after the exposure of the My Lai massacre, war crime allegations became old hat—so commonplace as to be barely worth mentioning or looking into. In leaflets, pamphlets, small-press books, and “underground” newspapers, the growing American antiwar movement repeatedly pointed out that U.S. troops were committing atrocities on a regular basis. But what had been previously brushed aside as propaganda and leftist kookery suddenly started to be disregarded as yawn-worthy common knowledge, with little but the My Lai massacre in between.15

Such impulses only grew stronger in the years of the “culture wars,” when the Republican Party and an emboldened right wing rose to power. Until Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the Vietnam War was generally seen as an American defeat, but even before taking office Reagan began rebranding the conflict as “a noble cause.” In the same spirit, scholars and veterans began, with significant success, to recast the war in rosier terms.16 Even in the early years of the twenty-first century, as newspapers and magazines published exposés of long-hidden U.S. atrocities, apologist historians continued to ignore much of the evidence, portraying American war crimes as no more than isolated incidents.17

But the stunning scale of civilian suffering in Vietnam is far beyond anything that can be explained as merely the work of some “bad apples,” however numerous. Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process—such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam. And as Ridenhour put it, they were no aberration. Rather, they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.

The first official American combat troops arrived in Vietnam in 1965, but the roots of the conflict go back many decades earlier. In the nineteenth century, France expanded its colonial empire by taking control of Vietnam as well as neighboring Cambodia and Laos, rechristening the entire region as French Indochina. French rubber production in Vietnam yielded such riches for the colonizers that the latex oozing from rubber trees became known as “white gold.” The ill-paid Vietnamese workers, laboring on the plantations in harsh conditions, called it by a different name: “white blood.”18

By the early twentieth century, anger at the French had developed into a nationalist movement for independence. Its leaders found inspiration in communism, specifically the example of Russian Bolshevism and Lenin’s call for national revolutions in the colonial world. During World War II, when Vietnam was occupied by the imperial Japanese, the country’s main anticolonial organization—officially called the League for the Independence of Vietnam, but far better known as the Viet Minh—launched a guerrilla war against the Japanese forces and the French administrators running the country. Under the leadership of the charismatic Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese guerrillas aided the American war effort. In return they received arms, training, and support from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1945, with the Japanese defeated, Ho proclaimed Vietnam’s independence, using the words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence as his template. “All men are created equal,” he told a crowd of half a million Vietnamese in Hanoi. “The Creator has given us certain inviolable rights: the right to life, the right to be free, and the right to achieve happiness.” As a young man Ho had spent some years living in the West, reportedly including stretches in Boston and New York City, and he hoped to obtain American support for his vision of a free Vietnam. In the aftermath of World War II, however, the United States was focused on rebuilding and strengthening a devastated Europe, as the Cold War increasingly gripped the continent. The Americans saw France as a strong ally against any Soviet designs on Western Europe and thus had little interest in sanctioning a communist-led independence movement in a former French colony. Instead, U.S. ships helped transport French troops to Vietnam, and the administration of President Harry Truman threw its support behind a French reconquest of Indochina.

Soon, the United States was dispatching equipment and even military advisers to Vietnam. By 1953, it was shouldering nearly 80 percent of the bill for an ever more bitter war against the Viet Minh.19 The conflict progressed from guerrilla warfare to a conventional military campaign, and in 1954 a Gallic garrison at the well-fortified base of Dien Bien Phu was pounded into surrender by Viet Minh forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap. The French had had enough. At an international peace conference in Geneva, they agreed to a temporary separation of Vietnam into two placeholder regions, the north and the south, which were to be rejoined as one nation following a reunification election in 1956.

That election never took place. Fearing that Ho Chi Minh, now the head of the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, was sure to sweep any nationwide vote, the United States picked up where its French partners had left off. It promptly launched efforts to thwart reunification by arming its allies in the southern part of the country. In this way, it fostered the creation of what eventually became the Republic of Vietnam, led by a Catholic autocrat named Ngo Dinh Diem.

From the 1950s on, the United States would support an ever more corrupt and repressive state in South Vietnam while steadily expanding its presence in Southeast Asia. When President John Kennedy took office there were around 800 U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam. That number increased to 3,000 in 1961, and to more than 11,000 the following year. Officially listed as advisers involved in the training of the South Vietnamese army, the Americans increasingly took part in combat operations against southern guerrillas—both communist and noncommunist—who were now waging war to unify the country.20

After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson repeatedly escalated the war with bombing raids on North Vietnam, and unleashed an ever more furious onslaught on the South. In 1965 the fiction of “advisers” was finally dropped, and the American War, as it is known in Vietnam, began in earnest. In a televised speech, Johnson insisted that the United States was not inserting itself into a faraway civil war but ta...

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