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Vietnam: A War on Civilians

On the 50th Anniversary of My Lai massacre, we're re-visiting Nick Turse's groundbreaking reporting on the atrocities that were covered up.
Vietnam: A War on Civilians

Few Americans born after the Tet Offensive know even the barest facts about the Vietnam War. I aim this generalization not at the oft-underrated Joe Sixpack but at graduates of our finest universities. I remember getting coffee with an old friend, then fresh out of Yale, right after she had backpacked through Vietnam. Whenever she mentioned the war she referred to the former South Vietnam as “the democratic side.” It was immediately clear that she, like virtually everyone else of her and my generation, had never heard of the Geneva Accords of 1954 to guarantee free elections in South Vietnam, elections scuttled after the CIA predicted that Ho Chi Minh would win. My friend had had no sense that the U.S. invaded (a word rarely used, but what else can you call sending 500,000 troops to a foreign nation?) South Vietnam to prop up an authoritarian government with little popular legitimacy. We launched a ruthless pacification campaign; it failed—but not before Washington spread the war into Laos and Cambodia and ultimately killed some two million civilians. This was the war, and there was no “democratic side.”

By contrast, my interlocutor—an intelligent and cultured person—did show a sure command of the political history of Tibet, which had been the next stop on her Asian tour.

From Generation X on down, there is a gaping lack of knowledge about the most foolish and brutal of our postwar wars. (Yes, worse than Iraq.) But this is not a vacant lot ready for intellectual development. Instead this block of nescience is something dense, opaque, and fenced off with barbed wire. Why is there so much socially reinforced ignorance about our bloodiest war since World War II?

One reason is that uttering any less-than-flattering account of the war is likely to make one feel, even in 2013, like a bit of a traitor. By airing unpleasant facts about the war am I smearing my Uncle G—, an avid gardener, terrific father, husband, and all-around great guy who was an Army Ranger in Laos? Am I blood-libeling my brother’s beloved high-school English teacher who served in the Special Forces advising and fighting with the Khmer Khrom ethnic minority and wrote a memoir about it? I don’t doubt this man’s courage any more than I believe that our war in Southeast Asia can be recast as a “Lost Crusade”—his book’s title—to protect Vietnam’s ethnic minorities.

Nobody wants to be called out for “spitting on the troops.” Not that historians have found a single instance of people actually expectorating on returning Vietnam soldiers. That this piece of revanchist folklore has taken such firm root shows how hypersensitive America remains to any hint that the war was anything less than noble. Even after four decades, you don’t make friends by implying that the personal sacrifice of members of your community was for nothing.

Or worse than nothing. Because the main reason we don’t want to know about Vietnam is that it gave so much to not want to know about. Yes, Vietnam was a military defeat that killed some 58,000 American soldiers and left 75,000 severely disabled—reason enough, for many, to stuff it down the memory hole. But as scholar and journalist Nick Turse shows in a new book that is scrupulously documented, what makes the memory of this war so worthy of repression is that its defining feature was mass atrocities against civilians. Rape; the massacres of women, children, and the elderly; military vehicles running over civilians for sport; “Zippo raids” that burned down villages; indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardment; despoliation of crops and drinking water; routinized torture—this was the unredeemable essence of our Vietnam War, not American teenagers coming of age and bonding against a bamboo backdrop, not “good intentions” in Washington leading us into a “quagmire.”

Of the 33,000 books about the Vietnam War, all but a few eagerly sidestep the atrocious carnage inflicted on hundreds of thousands of civilians. Nick Turse’s scholarly mission is to haul it into the center of historical inquiry and public memory, where it belongs. Kill Anything That Moves offers neither argument nor a new narrative—it simply aims to make violence against civilians “the essence of what we should think of when we say ‘the Vietnam War’.”

The war was “a system of suffering.” Turse is sick of hearing about My Lai—the programmatic slaughter of over 500 Vietnamese women, children, and elderly men carried out on March 16, 1969 by Americal Division’s Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry—not because it wasn’t an appalling war crime but because the event, now fashioned as a horrific one-off anomaly, has perversely absolved the rest of the war, obscuring for instance the massacre of 118 civilians at Dien Nien or of 68 civilians at Phuoc Binh; of 200 civilians at An Phuoc; of 86 killed at Nhon Hoa; 155 killed at the My Khe (4) hamlet.

Turse’s book is sometimes repetitive, by design: “I thought I was looking for a needle in a haystack,” he says about embarking on his research, “what I found was a veritable haystack of needles.” There was nothing exceptional about My Lai. In the words of Ron Ridenhour, the former helicopter door-gunner who did more than anyone to expose that particular massacre, it “was an operation, not aberration.”

The numbers are numbing. According to study by Harvard Medical School and the University of Washington, there were 3.8 million violent war deaths, of which two million were civilian, with similar estimates reached by the Vietnamese government and Robert McNamara himself. Up to 500,000 Vietnamese women turned to sex work. 14,000 South Vietnamese civilians were killed, mostly by U.S. firepower, during the Tet Offensive. 70 million liters of herbicidal agents, notably Agent Orange, were dumped across the countryside. (“Only you can prevent forests” was the travestied Smokey the Bear slogan.) 3.4 million combat sorties were launched by the U.S. and South Vietnam between 1965 and 1972. The amount of ammunition fired per soldier was 26 times higher than in World War II. In the northernmost province of South Vietnam, Quang Tri, only 11 out of 35,000 villages were not damaged by bombing or artillery. A survey found that 96 percent of Marine Corps second lieutenants said they would torture prisoners to obtain information.

Turse paints a fresco of casual cruelty and the wholesale destruction of an agrarian society relocated at gunpoint into “strategic hamlets” (a plan dreamed up by Harvard professors like Samuel Huntington) and urban slums. He tells the stories of dozens of individuals, mostly Vietnamese, whose lives were ruined by the war. Pham Thi Luyen, 13 years old on October 21, 1967, when American members of Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment came to her village of Trieu Ai and massacred a dozen civilians, including her father. Nguyen Thi Lam, a villager from the Mekong Delta, who was gunned down by U.S. helicopters on the morning of May 20, 1968 while at work in the rice paddies; she lost her left leg, her sister-in-law lost her life. (As Turse reports, “Even a U.S. Senate study acknowledged that by that by 1968 some 300,000 civilians had been killed or wounded in free-fire zones.”) Bui Thi Houng, gang-raped by five members of a Marine unit as other Marines shot dead her unarmed husband, mother–in-law, and sister-in-law in Xuan Ngoc hamlet on September 23, 1966.

It was a great big homicidal carnival. Sergeant Roy Bumgarner of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, then the 173rd Airborne Brigade, achieved celebrity within the ranks for his slaughter of Vietnamese civilians, and when in 1969 he was finally court-martialed for the murder of three civilians, his only penalty was a reduction in rank and a monthly fine of $97, which lasted only half a year. Bumgarner stayed on active duty throughout, quickly rose back from private to sergeant, and was one of the last U.S. infantrymen to leave the country. One civil affairs lieutenant involved in the case—and outraged by its lack of consequence—chalked up the light sentence to “the M.G.R.–the Mere Gook Rule” which granted free rein to homicidal violence.

But the relentless violence against civilians was more than the activity of a few sociopaths: it was policy. This was a war fought along Fordist principles—Robert McNamara had gone to the Department of Defense straight from the helm of the auto giant—and the slaughter was industrial in scale. Victory over the Viet Cong was to be achieved by quantifiable “kill ratios,” to reach that elusive tipping point where the insurgency could no longer replenish its troops. This approach hard-wired incentives to secure a high “body count” down the chain of command, with the result that U.S. soldiers often shot civilians dead to pad their tallies and thereby move up the ranks.

It was Gen. Julian Ewell who made the killing of Vietnamese civilians into standard operating procedure. Ewell assumed the military command of the Mekong Delta region in early 1968 and immediately upped the requisite body count to 4,000 a month, then to 6,000. At the end of the year, he started Operation Speedy Express, a six-month infantry assault on the delta region, killing thousands of Vietnamese, a great many of whom were civilians. (Civilian war casualties were 80 percent of all patients at provincial hospitals.) Air power raised the killing to industrial scale, with a total of 4,338 gunship sorties, 6,500 tactical air strikes dropping at least 5,078 tons of bombs and 1,784 tons of napalm. One American regional adviser described it as “nonselective terrorism.” As another veteran recalled, “A Cobra gunship spitting out six hundred rounds a minute doesn’t discern between chickens, kids and VC.”

Ewell, known by his men as “the Butcher of the Delta,” was awarded a third general’s star and made a top U.S. military adviser at the Paris peace talks. His book about the operation was taught at West Point.

Some readers (and many more non-readers) in the United States will reject this knowledge and accuse Turse of beating up the troops, hating America, etc. In fact, Turse shows quite a bit of empathy for the American grunt, a heavily armed teenager in a wholly foreign environment. But he does not look away from the senseless destruction U.S. troops perpetrated, “fueled by a toxic mix of youth, testosterone, racism, anger, boredom, fear, alienation, anonymity, impunity and excitement.” Turse will not have Lt. William Calley alone made the fall guy for My Lai, “as if the deaths of more than five hundred civilians, carried out by dozens of men at the behest of higher command, were his fault alone.” As the files of the Pentagon’s own War Crimes Working Group show, “atrocities were committed by members of every infantry, cavalry and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed without the rest of its division—that is, every major army unit in Vietnam.”

Telford Taylor, a retired brigadier general and former Nuremberg prosecutor, daringly argued in 1971 for war crimes tribunals that would try American officers—this idea went nowhere. Throughout the war there was a veneer of law regulating the soldiers, but impunity for war crimes was close to absolute. Even when atrocity allegations (usually made in the face of heavy peer pressure and intimidation) did result in investigations, there were few convictions, and such sentences as did get handed down were generally minimal—and then usually reduced further. Most cases were allowed to flounder until collapsing upon the soldier’s discharge. (The pattern of impunity is redolent of Central American state violence in the 1980s—except the perpetrators have jarringly non-Latin surnames like Duffy, Cushman, Bowers, Parker.) The War Crimes Working Group, whose files are the backbone of Turse’s research, was formed not to investigate and prosecute but to perform damage control: after the My Lai story broke, never again would the military be caught off-guard when an atrocity hit the news.

The main effect of the My Lai news was to provoke a wave of sympathy for Lieutenant Calley, with state legislatures from Mississippi to New Jersey passing resolutions in support of the man, who was under house arrest at Fort Benning. (In Georgia, Calley had a vigorous defender in the young Democratic governor, Jimmy Carter.) Newsweek’s Vietnam correspondents, Kevin Buckley and Alex Shimkin, fought a losing battle to make their magazine publish a long story about the systematic nature of wartime atrocities, arguing, like Turse today, that My Lai massacres were widespread and “normal.” The magazine eventually published a heavily edited version shorn of its most important findings.

A book with such an elevated atrocity-per-page ratio demands the greatest rhetorical finesse, lest chapters like “A Litany of Atrocities” and “Unbounded Misery” become mere litanies of atrocities of unbounded misery. Turse is up to the task: he doesn’t rant, doesn’t scold, and his writing never raises its voice. His research is a triumph of the historian’s craft, with sources including hundreds of interviews with American veterans and dozens with civilian survivors of atrocities, conducted over several trips to Vietnam. More impressive still is his mastery of archival resources: Turse was bequeathed the copious notes of Newsweek’s Buckley and Shimkin, and he has broken new ground with the previously unexplored files of the Army’s War Crimes Working Group—which he happened upon in the National Archives and photocopied for several days straight while sleeping in his car in the parking lot. And a good thing he made copies because the drive to suppress memories of Vietnam has entered even the archives: the files were later removed from the shelves.

But the word is out. Turse’s book has shifted the focus of the Vietnam War from the stories of American soldiers to the stories of the civilians whose suffering was orders of magnitude higher. It will be the work of others to unpack the implications of this seminal work, which raises so many questions. Do counterinsurgency and pacification campaigns unavoidably lead to rampant slaughter of civilians? (The New York Times marked the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion with an op-ed from counterinsurgency guru John Nagl attempting to salvage his pet tactic from blood-soaked ignominy of Afghanistan and Iraq.) Can armies “control” and “protect” a population without routinized atrocity?

July/August 2013And how much of the slaughter was, according the laws of armed conflict, legal? Turse generally sticks to the non-legal term “atrocity” rather than “war crime”—which is very wise, given that the two terms don’t overlap as closely as many would like to believe. There is no doubt that American, South Vietnamese, and Viet Cong soldiers violated the laws of armed conflict in their treatment of civilians. The Geneva Conventions on the treatment of enemy prisoners weren’t so much flouted as shot in the temple, a finding confirmed by the Pentagon’s own investigations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. But how much of the carnage, particularly that stemming from aerial bombardment, was perfectly legit under international humanitarian law? The point is still argued, with military lawyers like W. Hays Parks contending that the “Rolling Thunder” campaign that dropped 640,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam and killed tens of thousands of civilians was in strict compliance with international law.

Many humanitarian-minded lawyers will bristle at this, but why not admit that the law is on the side of the B-52s, not that of the civilians below? Who do you think wrote the law in the first place? We urgently need to see how the laws of war work in practice, given that so many hawks of both left and right insist that law and lawyers are a viable means of fashioning military force into a precise, therapeutic instrument. But as this book suggests throughout, the primary function of the Rules of Engagement and military law in general is not to restrain lethal force but to authorize it. In Vietnam, the overriding principle of International Humanitarian Law, the current preferred euphemism for the laws of war, turned out to be the Mere Gook Rule.

War puts incredible stress on the rule of law—when not putting it through the shredder—and beneath the law, our sense of justice and morality. Consider the example of U.S. Army Major Carl Hensley, charged with investigating war-crime allegations. Under pressure to suppress his findings, he blew his brains out with a shotgun on the day of April 15, 1971. The military came instantly and removed every piece of paper in the Hensley home. “They pulled the trash cans. They left nothing behind,” remembers his daughter Karla Hensley, then a child.

What happens when no honest memories of atrocity get left behind? We learn nothing and repeat the carnage in new places with names like Fallujah, Haditha, and Helmand. We cover ourselves with the “fog of war” like a thick fleece blanket, and those who would lift it from us do not get our thanks. But Nick Turse and his disturbing and necessary book deserve our deepest gratitude.

Chase Madar is an attorney in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning.