Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam
Metropolitan Books, 2013, 370 pg
Note to my regular readers: I don’t read as much history as I would like to, but from time to time I will venture away from just literature.
There were more atrocities in Vietnam than Mai Lai is the basic premise of Kill Anything That Moves. It is an important statement because while there have certainly been books that mention various small group actions that could easily be called atrocities (Turse quotes from come of them), there has not been a book to systematically show problematic American behavior in Vietnam was. 370 pages of brutal detail and well documented research, using American documents, contemporary news accounts, and survivor testimony from both American and Vietnamese sources, he shows that American strategy and tactics and general break down of moral conduct of many fighting men lead to countless criminal acts, large and small. It can be tough reading at times, as any book like this can be, but it is a much needed work.
Turse divides up the atrocities in to two general categories: those committed by units or individual soldiers, and those that fall into what one might call industrialized war. It is a good framework for looking at the conduct of the war, because, in Turse’s opinion, the latter led to the former. The chief issue was the term body count. American military planers, prevented from engaging North Vietnamese forces in set piece battles where American arms would prevail, opted for a way of attrition that would bleed the North Vietnamese and lead them to stop the war. The body count statistic was so powerful that units were sent into the field with the expectation that they would return with bodies for the tally board. Unfortunately, that led to commanders who didn’t really care about whether the number of bodies actually had a relation to the captured guns. Too often soldiers would return with disproportionally small number of arms. Moreover, the American military instituted what were called free fire zones in areas of heavy enemy activity. In the zones soldiers had even fewer rules about what they could shoot. A common tactic also was to bring in heavy armaments from fire bases or airplanes to shell and in theory scare the North Vietnamese. Those tactics coupled with the commanders on the ground calling in air and artillery strikes in heavily civilian areas led to massive indiscriminate destruction. This is not to mention defoliation strategies and other industrial methods of clearing the landscape.
Naturally, all these tactics had a heavy toll on the Vietnamese population. Rise fields were damaged, villages destroyed, people killed and wounded, and suffering the effects of toxins. Most villages had bomb shelters or trenches to protect the villagers. Turse doesn’t mention the efficacy of them for safety from shelling, but they became a double edged sword when American troops came saw them. Soldiers took them for something more and did not have patience for villagers who went into them, preferring to kill civilians in them rather than risk a booby trap. The catch 22 nature of the trenches was just one of the ways that the Vietnamese civilians were trapped. An all too common experience was when they ran in fear from soldiers they would be shot because only the enemy runs. That practice often got out of control when a helicopter pilot would hover over a civilian and they would run and be shot.
It is in these encounters with the soldiers in the villages that it is hardest to read. Description after description of one atrocity after the other can make it a little hard to get a little more perspective on what was going on. Turse is aware and points out many times how American soldiers were not well equipped for this kind of counter insurgency, and their frustration could turn into indiscriminate violence. Turse also notes a strain of racism that ran throughout, the most common when describing Asians was “they don’t value life as much as Americans do” and the MGR (mere “gook” rule). The one thing that is missing and probably is impossible to know is just what percentage of patrols were doing these kinds of things. His work is well researched, but when reading it without a sense of where it fits in the overall story it is possible to see every soldier as a killer, which is an overstatement.
Ultimately, we will never know the full scale of these events because many of the court marshals and investigations performed by the military were destroyed or are missing. Turse notes that when he made freedom of information acts he often got empty records. Still, he was able to dig up enough to show there was a pattern of cover ups. Part of the issue was after the soldiers left the army the government no longer wished to prosecute. The other issue was the press was never that interested in writing about war crimes. Before My Lai they didn’t want to do it because of the scandal, after it was as if it was old news. Probably the biggest example of this was the operation in the Mekong delta that two reporters, working from official military press releases, uncovered. They had a story ready to go that showed a very high body count and a very low weapons recover ratio, around 100:1. It might have been a My Lai size story but their editors buried the piece saying the public was tired of the war.
Ultimately, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam describes a war that failed, not as some revisionists might say, because America let down the South Vietnamese, but because the killing was so indiscriminate, at best made the population fear the Americans, at worst supporters of the North. It is a needed book one that adds a fuller dimension to a war that cost so much and did so little.