Thursday, March 14, 2013

Nick Turse on Vietnam

Yesterday, I had lunch with one of those people we claim to have plenty of here in Minnesota but in fact are unfortunately very rare—a genuine reader.  At one point, the subject of Chalmers Johnson and his incredible trilogy on USA foreign policy—Blowback, Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis—came up.  I happen to have had a little personal history with Mr. Johnson—mostly because he is so obviously a member of my tribe.  During the days when guys like me were taking to the streets to oppose the USA attack on Vietnam, Johnson was making a name for himself at UC Berkeley by ridiculing our pathetic attempts.  At one point, he had gone to the University library to see if the most authoritative works on Asia were being read.  They weren't.  His conclusion was that we were so obviously uninformed, our acts of "conscience" were nothing more than crude anti-intellectialism.

Johnson was right about us knowing nothing—at least about me.  Because the news from official sources were lies made up of whole cloth, we wouldn't have known anything even if we were curious.  I didn't BEGIN to understand what had happened until the good books on Vietnam started coming out in the 1980s  But I did know one thing that fueled my passions and gave me courage to take on USA militarism even though I spent most days frightened about what would happen to me for my activism.  Let me explain.

When I was living in North Dakota 1965-66, we were about 85 miles from the Minot Air Force base.  Drive 25 miles and you began to see the missile silos.  And depending on weather conditions, there were the B-52s in flight patterns over our town.  Mutually Assured Destruction meant there were some in the air 24/7.  I was seriously into building flying model airplanes in those days.  The closest hobby store was in Minot.  Apparently not even being in the friggen' Air Force at one of geopolitically most important bases totally satisfied the airplane itch so the hobby store's customer base was almost all from Minot AFB.  The guy who owned it insisted I go to an Air show the base put on for their families.  Since I was obviously not a military family member, I had to sign up on a list.  When I showed up at the gate, they gave me a badge.  And what a badge!  I got to lay at the controls of a C-135 refueling rig.  I got to handle precision inner parts of a TF-33 engine and climb all over a B-52—the bomb bay was open!  They had found out I was building model airplanes on my own budget.  The Air Force has need of such people.  Lots of folks had been coached to explain to me (and fellow badge wearers) that the Air Force was the big leagues for airplane nuts whenever I wanted to ask a question about anything.

(MITO Minimum Interval Take Off.  These things are so large they barely notice any air disturbance from the plane ahead.)

As the day wore on, some of the fun visitors flew off.  A Crusader, a T-38 Talon, and then a F-4 Phantom did high-performance take-offs.  The runways at Minot are so long, these fighters could be all cleaned up and gaining momentum by the time they got to our position.  The Phantom went vertical and flew out of sight—no small accomplishment in North Dakota.  But for me, the most awesome display involved the take-off of a B-52.  This was a SAC-mission aircraft—the air show had been fun but now it was back to the business of scaring commies.  I walked out as far as I could so that it would take off more or less over my head.  The B-52 has eight engines.  It taxis along on 4 center-mounted trucks, with wingtip wheels to maintain some balance.  Fully loaded with some big fat nukes, it required about ten minutes to lumber down to the end of the runway.  With a puff of black smoke, it started to rumble towards us.  Soon the wing tips were flying and those drooping wings on the ground were curved up in a graceful arc.  And then it was flying.  The wheels retracted, the wings cleaned up, and this ugly duckling had become an amazingly graceful swan.  It was miraculous—like the hippos becoming ballerinas in Fantasia.  And then it passed overhead with an earthshaking roar and soon was gone.

To say I was utterly awestruck doesn't do the word justice.  Human beings, a lot like me, launched giant aircraft on 10,000 mile flights carrying 20 megatons worth of destruction, and they did it routinely through North Dakota winters.  Sign me up.  I wanted to play with such toys but now I wanted to feel their power.

Only not so fast.  Once I knew the B-52 up close, I began to follow it in the news.  And sure enough, they were using them to bomb the Vietnamese both North and South.  My graceful swans were being used to kill poor peasants working their fields on the backs of water buffalo from altitudes so high, the farmers could neither see nor hear them.  I may not have known what Johnson knew about Asia, but I knew this was wrong.  And it turned out, this form of analysis was better than his.  And in the opening of Blowback, he admits as much.  He has to because when it came to Vietnam, we were right—still are.

And now a new generation has waded into the battle.  Nick Turse was born the year Saigon fell.  As a result, he has no direct memory of Vietnam and so has a lot less baggage than we had.  But he is adding to the scholarship and doing a fine job. He has found yet another example of what happens when a superpower decides to use its technological muscle to bully a people who have nowhere else to go.

‘They All Looked Alike’

by Matthew Harwood, March 07, 2013

Review: Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse
Metropolitan Books, 2013, 320 pages

On August 18, 1980, Republican candidate for president Ronald Reagan addressed the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In his speech, Reagan identified a disease plaguing America: "the Vietnam Syndrome." Infected by North Vietnamese propaganda, the Gipper argued, Americans had become convinced that the United States was an imperial power engaged in an immoral and unwinnable war in Vietnam. That belief, however, wasn’t contained to just Vietnam, it had seeped into the American mindset, making the public reluctant to use force abroad going forward. Reagan, however, would have nothing to do with such weakness masquerading as moral introspection and uncertainty. He told the veterans assembled that it was time to recognize a purifying truth: "ours…was a noble cause." How could it not be when the United States had lost much more than confidence in the jungles of Vietnam. "We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful," Reagan told the veterans in attendance. War crimes like the My Lai massacre, where a unit of U.S. soldiers massacred approximately 500 elderly men, women, and children in March 1968, were a horrific yet minimal by-product of a just war.

If Reagan’s Vietnam Syndrome is a chauvinistic, backwoods misdiagnosis of why the American people grew weary of the war in Indochina, then Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves is a reckoning with how much death and destruction the United States had to inflict on the Vietnamese to reach that crisis of faith in American Messianism. My Lai, Turse explains, wasn’t a bloody exception within a principled war to defeat Communist expansion: it was the ghastly rule.

"My Lai was an war operation, not an aberration," Turse tersely states at the outset of his disturbing book. "This was the war in which the American military and successive administrations in Washington produced not a few random massacres or even discrete strings of atrocities, but something on the order of thousands of days of relentless misery – a veritable system of suffering. That system, that machinery of suffering and what it meant for the Vietnamese people is what this book is meant to explain."

In many ways, Turse’s project owes a lot to the late revisionist historian Howard Zinn. In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn looked at American history through the eyes of the slave, the common laborer, the conscript, and others classes of people easily excised from academic and popular histories. Turse does the same, yet internationalizes it and layers it with on-the-ground reportage through interviews with survivors and veterans. The result is a nightmarish look at how those on the receiving end of American napalm, daisy-cutter bombs, and M-16 rounds suffered, died, and, amazingly, survived to tell their tales. It is a remarkable, if excruciatingly macabre, synthesis of history and journalism.

Turse’s greatest achievement is documenting how the "bad apples" theory of American atrocities in Vietnam is rotten to the core. The constant massacres and executions of innocent civilians were not the result of stressed, immature G.I.s – although that certainly played a role – but of official policies flowing down the chain of command. Before the orders could be given, those receiving them – "not far from childhood themselves" – had to be primed to receive them. Boot camp meant dehumanization of the service member and his enemy. Punishment for not following orders "consisted of both psychological debasement and physical suffering – everything from being forced to eat garbage to being exercised to the point of collapse." The Vietnamese, including the South Vietnamese the United States were ostensibly defending, were referred to as "gooks" and "dinks." As draftee Peter Milord put it: "I didn’t become a robot, but you can get so close to being one it’s frightening."

Once "in-country," these boys were told no one – even children and women – could be trusted. As one veteran told Turse, "the enemy is anything with slant eyes who lives in the village. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s a woman or a child." Or as Marine Captain Edward Banks described the process of discriminating between a guerrilla and a civilian: "They all looked alike." What that meant was American forces shot first – whether it was mortars, grenades, or bullets – and sought answers later. Mistakes could always be corrected. A woman, an elderly man, a young child, it didn’t matter, all became Viet Cong, or "VC," when the reports were handed in. "If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC" was a common phrase uttered by service members in Vietnam.

The tell-tale sign of this criminal arithmetic, Turse explains, were high enemy body counts and low amounts of enemy weapons recovered, known as the kills-to-weapons ratio. During Operation Speedy Express from December 1968 through May 1969 – dubbed "a mega-My Lai" by Turse – the 9th Infantry Division reportedly killed 10,899 enemy troops while only recovering 748 weapons. Another method was dividing the number of enemy killed by Americans killed. When the proportions were heavily skewed to enemy dead, Turse notes, you could be confident those guerrilla dead were civilians. These were distinctions the MGR, or "mere-gook rule," didn’t recognize. The MGR, Turse explains, "held that all Vietnamese – northern and southern, adults and children, armed enemy and innocent civilian – were little more than animals, who could be killed or abused at will."

Military policies made civilian casualties inevitable. The technocratic masters of war in the Pentagon believed in a "crossover point," which meant achieving the rate by which American soldiers killed their enemies faster than they could be replaced. This, however, led to an obsession with achieving high body counts, or "production quotas," thereby incentivizing wanton killing and juking the stats to turn an innocent civilian, like a teenage girl, into a guerrilla. Officers chased high body counts in pursuit of promotions while grunts chalked up kills for "rest and relaxation" passes and other creature comforts, like extra beer.

Official Pentagon policies, like "free fire zones" and "search and destroy missions," further ensured civilian slaughter. Like a despised police force patrolling the ghetto, American troops decided that any Vietnamese that ran from their patrols was guilty of something. Often runners were shot immediately, as Turse exhaustively documents. Sometimes slaughter was determined simply by the patrol’s mood that day. As villager Phan Van Nam explained to Turse, some days American and ally Korean soldiers came through his hamlet and passed out candy or didn’t touch a thing. Other days they shot at people or burned all the homes. On March 22, 1967, Korean soldiers along with a few Americans came into Nam’s hamlet, herded a bunch of villagers together, and massacred them all. Afterward 45 children, 30 women, and 11 elderly men lay dead. The entire book recounts incident after incident like this; it is brutal and unrelenting, as it should be. The book’s title, after all, comes from a constant refrain barked by multitudes of officers in Vietnam: "kill anything that moves." Winning hearts and minds it was not. “We make more VC than we kill by the way these people are treated,” Marine Ed Austin wrote home to his parents. “I won’t go into detail but some of the things that take place would make you ashamed of good old America.” more

Nick Turse: Exhuming Vietnam

An interview with the author of Kill Anything That Moves
by Kelley B. Vlahos, March 05, 2013

Conventional wisdom insists that war crimes and atrocities by U.S forces in Vietnam were isolated, committed by a "few bad apples" and "rogue units." In fact, for 40 years the American public has been collectively assuring the veterans of that war that no one considers them "baby killers" nor believes that the My Lai massacre was anything more than an aberration.

But what if there was evidence otherwise — that Americans killed more civilians during direct combat operations than our conventional wisdom allows, and what if those killings were deemed more than mere "accidents" or "collateral damage," but murder – the result of policies and practices that set the conditions for carnage at the highest levels of the command?

What if it was also discovered that much of this was unknown to the press and the public – and even elected officials in Washington – because there were conscious attempts to bury numerous allegations, investigations, witness testimony – even substantiated massacres and crimes – for the sake of the Army’s reputation and for ongoing public support of the war?

For Nick Turse, an investigative journalist and managing editor of, his accidental discovery 10 years ago of what he describes as a trove of never-before-seen documents buried in the annals of the National Archives, could have been viewed as an impossible burden. These documents do everything suggested in the preceding two paragraphs and more. His formidable personal choice a decade ago: leave history in its uneasy, half-told entombment, or re-open a wound that nearly bled the country dry a generation ago, at a time before he was even born.

Turse, then a doctoral student at Columbia University at the time, chose the latter. A decade later he has produced a compelling book that packages everything he found in the archives, plus reams of government documents, forgotten research and interviews he collected in his subsequent quest. Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, threatens to shatter preconceptions about the American way of war, and invokes perhaps the most important question to emerge – so what are we going to do about it?

For Gen-Xers like Turse and myself, the answer is plain enough: learn. But as we’ve found, painfully, after the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which span more years than the "official" timeline of U.S military operations in Vietnam (1964-1973), this is something the military struggles with, always. Even as so-called "warrior scholars" like David Petraeus, who made a name re-envisioning counterinsurgency doctrine after Vietnam, trying (and many can argue, failed) to make invasion, pacification and occupation more "population-centric," the military never addressed the worst of its policies (and its own culture), and therefore continues to teach a history based on a whitewash, with some pop-variations to make them appear transformative. The effect, in essence: Groundhog Day.

Case in point: the nation’s war colleges are still teaching the book Sharpening the Combat Edge: The Use Of Analysis To Reinforce Military Judgment, which was written by the late Maj. General Julian Ewell and his former Chief of Staff Col. Ira Hunt for the Department of the Army in 1991. Together, they led a notoriously bloody rampage to secure the Mekong Delta in 1968 known as Operation Speedy Express. Turse argues, quite effectively, footnoted all the way, that Speedy Express employed every tactical framework and policy – both implicit and explicit – responsible for the unusually high civilian casualty count in the war overall (estimated 2 million). This included overwhelming firepower, the "search and destroy" missions, the employment of "free fire zones" that encouraged U.S forces to ignore the normal rules of engagement (ROE) that protect civilians, and the extraordinary pressure generated by the "body count" as the chief measure of operational success.

Sharpening the Combat Edge is a whitewash – even Ewell and Hunt were forced to omit any reference to the official 1972 inquiries into what Turse called the operation’s "industrial-scale slaughter." Reporters had attempted to get at the truth but it did not matter. Ewell, who was once called "the Butcher of the Delta" by his own men, remained lionized until his death in 2009, and Sharpening the Combat Edge became part of the official narrative. That is until now, as Turse revives a little known (buried) and powerfully damning 1972 Army Inspector General’s report that lends official substantiation to charges that some 5,000 to 7,000 civilians may have perished in the eight months under Ewell’s command, and that such deaths were "a constant, accepted and indeed inevitable result" of Operation Speedy Express.

That is far more than the "history" so far has allowed, and all but obliterates the notion that My Lai (the 1968 massacre and cover-up, in which upwards of 500 Vietnamese were killed, raped, and mutilated by U.S forces, and for which only one platoon leader was ever convicted, only serving three and a half years under house arrest) was an isolated event.

Operation Speedy Express, however, is just one piece –one brick – in the ivy-grown wall that Turse found himself dismantling after he first discovered the boxes labeled "Vietnam War Crimes Working Group," which he refers to as a secret Pentagon task force that had been assembled after My Lai under the direction of General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S forces in Vietnam (1964-68), in the National Archives. "Box after box" of these heretofore secret papers (including sworn statements from officers in the field at the time) indicated there were more than 300 allegations of murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilation and "other atrocities," substantiated by the group, as well as 500 others that were unproven at time. Most of these revelations had not been aired in the press, nor in a public inquiry, ever.

Turse had stumbled on the documents while studying post traumatic stress disorder in veterans for his original dissertation. The rest of his quest at the archives was much more methodical: he sought and found thousands of pages of other investigations, IG reports, plus documents he received through repeated Freedom of Information Act requests, and interviews with over 100 veterans about incidents that up now were mere wisps of memory in an overgrown rice paddy somewhere. He went to those rice paddies too – traveling to Southeast Asia, tracking down the villages corresponding to the reports back home, and interviewing aging Vietnamese about long dead family members and horrors they endured, while Turse’s wife Tam captured their wizened faces to include among the more gruesome photographs in the book.

Sometimes the inquiries he made while in Vietnam about one known massacre led to another. "I’d thought that I was looking for a needle in a haystack," he wrote, "what I found was a veritable haystack of needles." more

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