Don't Look Away: We Must Confront the Horrific Industrial Violence the American Military Is Capable of
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Nick Turse’s “ Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam” is not only one of the most important books ever written about the Vietnam conflict but provides readers with an unflinching account of the nature of modern industrial warfare. It captures, as few books on war do, the utter depravity of industrial violence—what the sociologist James William Gibson calls “technowar.” It exposes the sickness of the hyper-masculine military culture, the intoxicating rush and addiction of violence, and the massive government spin machine that lies daily to a gullible public and uses tactics of intimidation, threats and smear campaigns to silence dissenters. Turse, finally, grasps that the trauma that plagues most combat veterans is a result not only of what they witnessed or endured, but what they did. This trauma, shame, guilt and self-revulsion push many combat veterans—whether from Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan—to escape into narcotic and alcoholic fogs or commit suicide. By the end of Turse’s book, you understand why.
This is not the book Turse set out to write. He was, when his research began in June 2001, a graduate student looking at post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans. An archivist at the U.S. National Archives asked Turse whether he thought witnessing war crimes could cause PTSD. He steered Turse to yellowing reports amassed by the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. The group, set up in the wake of the My Lai massacre, was designed to investigate the hundreds of reports of torture, rape, kidnapping, forced displacement, beatings, arson, mutilation, executions and massacres carried out by U.S. troops. But the object of the group was not to discipline or to halt the abuses. It was, as Turse writes, “to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” War crimes, for army investigators, were “an image management” problem. Those charged with war crimes were rarely punished. The numerous reports of atrocities collected by the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group were kept secret, and the eyewitnesses who reported war crimes were usually ignored, discredited or cowed into silence.
Turse used the secret Pentagon reports and documents to track down more than 100 veterans—including those who had reported witnessing atrocities to their superiors and others charged with carrying out atrocities—and traveled to Vietnam to interview survivors. A decade later he produced a masterpiece. Case after case in his book makes it painfully clear that soldiers and Marines deliberately maimed, abused, beat, tortured, raped, wounded or killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians, including children, with impunity. Troops engaged in routine acts of sadistic violence usually associated with demented Nazi concentration camp guards. And what Turse describes is a woefully incomplete portrait, since he found that “an astonishing number of marine court-martial records of the era have apparently been destroyed or gone missing,” and “most air force and navy criminal investigation files that may have existed seem to have met the same fate.”
The few incidents of wanton killing in Vietnam—and this is also true for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—that did become public, such as My Lai, were dismissed as an aberration, the result of a few soldiers or Marines gone bad. But, as Turse makes clear, such massacres were and are, in our current imperial adventures, commonplace. The slaughters “were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military,” he writes. They were carried out because the dominant tactic of the war, as conceived by our politicians and generals, was centered on the concept of “overkill.” And when troops on the ground could not kill fast enough, the gunships, helicopters, fighter jets and bombers came to their assistance. The U.S. Air Force contributed to the demented quest for “overkill”—eradicating so many of the enemy that recuperation was theoretically impossible—by dropping the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs on Vietnam, most actually falling on the south where our purported Vietnamese allies resided. And planes didn’t just drop bombs. They unloaded more than 70 million tons of herbicidal agents, 3 million white phosphorus rockets—white phosphorous will burn its way entirely through a body—and an estimated 400,000 tons of jellied incendiary napalm. “Thirty-five percent of the victims,” Turse writes, “died within fifteen to twenty minutes.” Death from the skies, like death on the ground, was often unleashed capriciously. “It was not out of the ordinary for U.S. troops in Vietnam to blast a whole village or bombard a wide area in an effort to kill a single sniper,” Turse writes.