02.21.13

The Atrocity Lessons: What the U.S. Military Learned From Vietnam

A powerful new book reveals the true extent of American atrocities against civilians during the Vietnam War—and exposes the lessons learned about information control that the U.S. military has applied to Iraq and Afghanistan. By Jake Whitney.

In March 1969, American helicopters flying over a western part of South Vietnam spotted a group of Vietnamese cutting wood. Circling the group, the Americans grew angry when none of the woodcutters looked up. But the Vietnamese had good reason. American policy held that if a Vietnamese looked at a hovering chopper, he must be Viet Cong. The Americans began dropping canisters of tear gas, which ignited a blaze. When the woodcutters turned to flee, the Americans blasted away with rockets and machine guns, leveling the forest and killing all but one of them.

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Smoke rises from burning villages as a Junker 52 from the French Air Force drops its load of 100-pound bombs over suspected Communist Viet Minh positions on March 16, 1951, some 100 miles north of Hanoi. (Levy/AP)

The eight dead Vietnamese were recorded as “enemy killed in action” by the Americans, but an investigation revealed that the group was solely unarmed civilians, a woman and a child among them. Nevertheless, no American was punished for their murders. Why? The soldiers were simply following policy, which said that if Vietnamese ran, they must be Viet Cong.

Nick Turse uses the woodcutters’ story to develop the signal themes of his book, Kill Anything That Moves that American atrocities happened everywhere in Vietnam and often without provocation, that Pentagon policy was the primary cause, and that most civilian deaths were the result of a reckless overuse of modern weaponry. Turse has received wide acclaim for revealing the vast extent of American atrocities and for obliterating the notion that “a few bad apples” were responsible. He tells of Americans shelling entire provinces, searching for a single sniper; using civilians for target practice; and committing mass shootings, rapes, corpse mutilations, and disfiguring children with napalm and phosphorus bombs.

While many of these stories are told sparsely, others are recounted in excruciating detail by a surviving victim. There’s the story of Bui Thi Huong, for example, who was 18 years old in 1966 when Marines ransacked her home. After five soldiers gang-raped her, they shot her and her sick husband and four other family members, including their 3-year-old son and a 5-year-old girl. As the Marines covered up the scene, they discovered the 5-year-old still breathing, so one soldier lifted his rifle and, as the others counted in unison, smashed her with the butt until she died.

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“Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” By Nick Turse. $30; Metropolitan Books; 384 pages. ()

Turse’s primary aim in Kill Anything That Moves is to record as many crimes as possible, and his decade of research took him across the U.S. interviewing veterans, to Washington to scour the National Archives, and to Vietnam to interview witnesses and surviving victims. But beyond the litany of atrocities, his book contains far-reaching implications that have been overlooked. What does the book say about Vietnam’s relevance to our recent wars, for example? And what lessons did the Pentagon take away from the backlash against its war in Southeast Asia?

How many tales like the Vietnamese woodcutters occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will their stories ever be heard?

One of Turse’s key sources is a file by the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group—a secret Pentagon panel tasked with determining how to prevent future war-crimes scandals. The group’s very existence is evidence that the Pentagon sought to learn lessons about public manipulation from Vietnam. For instance, Turse describes how the Defense Department became increasingly nervous that the narrative it had concocted for Vietnam—that America was on the verge of victory and that the massacre at My Lai was an aberration—was dissolving. Turse uses the example of Operation Speedy Express, the annihilation of the Mekong Delta between 1968 and 1969. Initially lauded as a huge success because of its staggering “body count,” it gradually came to light that civilians composed the bulk of the dead.

Turse quotes the Newsweek reporter who broke the story on Speedy Express, saying that Pentagon officials told him they were “afraid they had a PR disaster on their hands with [Speedy Express] and were surprised when it didn’t happen.” Several years later, however, “the PR disaster was finally upon them.”

But the Pentagon learned its lessons well. Looking at America’s wars since 9/11, alarming similarities exist with Vietnam, particularly in the killing of civilians through the reckless overuse of our latest weaponry and the documented use of torture. Yet modern public outcry has been practically muted. This is the result of skillful policy: embedding journalists to control media coverage rather than allowing them freer rein, as during Vietnam, and assembling a vast modern PR apparatus to respond to crises and disseminate propaganda. (According to the war correspondent Michael Hastings, DoD now employs 27,000 media professionals at $4.7 billion per year and even creates phony Facebook and Twitter accounts of pro-American Afghans.) This huge PR machine has been accompanied by a strategy of public disengagement—through policies like the elimination of the draft, a refusal to raise wartime taxes, and an increasing reliance on long-range weapons like drones. All of this makes war far less impactful to most Americans.

As powerful as Turse’s book is, you may wonder if so many atrocity stories are necessary. They are incredibly difficult to read and share a common thread: American soldiers, having been indoctrinated with the idea that the Vietnamese were subhuman and consistently pressed for more “body count,” murdered, raped, and pillaged to a degree that most Americans would only attribute to the likes of Genghis Khan. But they are war crimes, after all, and every one demands a hearing. The brilliance of Turse’s book is that he uses these awful tales to reveal the implications of our ever-expanding military spin machine. Because even though it took a long time for many atrocity stories to emerge from Vietnam, they eventually did. How many tales like the Vietnamese woodcutters occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will their stories ever be heard? Sure, some of them have been, but one suspects there are many more.

Indeed, the most terrifying implication of Kill Anything That Moves is that skillful military spin combined with a disengaged public could lead to a state of perpetual war—even one as criminal as Vietnam—without a significant public outcry. With the Afghanistan war and the war on terror entering their 12th years, Turse demonstrates that only by coming to grips with the full horror of Vietnam can we understand why we are dangerously close to that perpetual state.