When Will They Ever Learn? Bringing American War Crimes in Vietnam to Light
Eddie J. Girdner
Nick Turse, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), 370 pages, $30.00, hardcover.
The Vietnam War is a case of state terrorism on a massive scale. This is made devastatingly clear from the evidence based upon official documents in the US National Archives and other records explored here. The book is thoroughly documented, backed up with some 86 pages of footnotes. While more than 30,000 books have been published on Vietnam, very few have dealt with the war crimes carried out by the US Government and the American military machine as official policy. American civilian and military officials have known of the documentation of war crimes for years but have acted to keep them hidden from the public until such time as the public no longer remembers or cares about what happened. As Turse shows, this policy has largely succeeded. The massacre at My Lai has gone down in the public consciousness as an “aberration” and the one instance of a major war crime in Vietnam. That carrying out of war crimes on a daily basis was official policy, is clearly an outrageous proposal in the context of the official history of the war which most Americans believe. But, nevertheless, it is the truth. When will the people of the United States ever come to grips with this history? When will they ever learn?
The official position of the US military is that “the United States Army has never condoned wanton killing or disregard for human life.” (pp. 1-2) But in Vietnam, when soldiers were sent out on patrol, they were often clearly ordered to “kill anything that moves.” This was the order of Captain Ernest Medina at My Lai, where more than five-hundred innocent civilians were gunned down, but it was no exception. It was the general understanding of soldiers sent out to kill Vietnamese communists in the villages and in “free-fire zones.” That the orders were illegal means little. In practice, it is not easy to question orders in war. Some soldiers that did died of fragging.
Having read quite a lot on the Vietnam War and visited the country from north to south thirty years after the war, I realized while reading this book that I could never really understand the nature of what the American soldiers were actually doing out there on a daily basis. One never quite gets the full picture when reading most books on Vietnam. But the descriptions here vividly open one’s eyes to what the military machine and the soldiers on patrol were actually doing on a day to day basis. Tired, angry, hungry, and exhausted, in the heat and misery, risking being killed, and being wounded and killed, and charged with doing their duty to kill some communists, they often took it out on civilians in the villages. They clearly understood that at least much of the time, they were expected to kill everyone in the village, old men, women, children, livestock, even the ducks, chickens, pigs and water buffaloes and burn the village down. This was a scorched earth policy that was carried out on a daily basis. The Vietnamese villagers faced murder, torture, rape, arrests, imprisonment, and abuse. They were forced into camps and witnessed their homes being burned to the ground. This must have seemed absolutely mad to the people whose country was being systematically destroyed under the pretext of saving them from communism. If that was not terrorism, then what is? As a matter of fact, the official policies have sometimes been described as “terrorism” by officials in the documents, as Turse has shown.
Sometimes the American soldiers handed out candy too.
Even the label put on the Vietnamese who the American soldiers were to kill was a fiction. Those fighting against the corrupt government in the South were either members of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or indigenous fighters from the South who belonged to the National Liberation Front (NLF), formerly Viet Minh. They were officially known as the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF). Some wore uniforms and some simple peasant’s clothes. The term “Viet Cong” or “VC” was simply made up by the US Information Service. Many were simply nationalists, not necessarily communists. The Americans often could not tell if one was “VC.” The fact that many peasants wore black pajamas, along with other types of clothing, led many soldiers to think that anyone dressed in black pajamas was “VC” and could be legitimately killed.
In the countryside, many peasants, maybe most, were simply growing rice and trying to feed their families. If they were in areas designated as VC controlled areas, they were simply considered to be VC and the enemy. This confusion and US policies led to massive killings. It is now believed that some 3.8 million died including military and civilian.
Nick Turse ran across the records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group accidentally, in the US National Archives. Americans have never been told that such records exist. The group was set up after My Lai to protect the US Army from possible future exposures of such war crimes. There were plenty, even though in most cases, they were never even reported.
These documents reveal the real American war in Vietnam. They include more than 300 allegations of massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations, all substantiated by US Army investigators. They detail the deaths of 137 civilians in mass killings and other attacks including rapes. Some 141 cases where US troops used brutality and torture including the water torture, now known as water boarding were investigated. Also other types of torture with electricity, sticks, bats, tiger cages and so on, is documented. Using these records, Turse discovered more cases of war crimes in interviews with American veterans and with Vietnamese in remote villages in Vietnam. He also interviewed American generals, civilian officials and former war crimes investigators. Records of courts-martial contained much further evidence, although Turse found many empty files. Many records seem to have been destroyed. This suggests that what has come to light barely scratches the surface. The full history of these American war crimes can never be written, but people are still telling their stories.
The Vietnam War was fought mostly by teenagers who were literally scared shitless. They are told what to do and they know that they better do it. The military drafted them out of small towns and slums all across America. Only those going to universities could get a deferment and a chance to escape going to Vietnam and also perhaps start to understand something about the world. These young, not so fortunate, still kids, are sent to a boot camp like a herd of sheep. The day after arrival their terrorization and brutalization begins. They are stripped of their clothes and hair and all individuality. A uniform and boots are thrown at them, as they are cursed and abused as worthless vermin, and they are marched back and forth on an asphalt parade ground until their feet are sore and swollen with blisters and they are exhausted. They are told they are pussies, cunts, and so on. Any small infraction of the rules and they are sent for punishment, hard exercises at midnight. They are brutalized with the notion that their duty is to kill. To survive they must scream “Sir, yes Sir” every hour of every day and prepare themselves to kill, kill, kill.
Then at some point they are herded into a plane or ship and sent half way around the world, knowing virtually nothing about the world, in a herd. They are now rendered mindless, and sent into an alien landscape where they believe that if they do not kill, they themselves will be killed. It is a Hobbesian world where survival is the game. They have to swagger, be part of the mob, go along with the mob and kill with the mob. Hunt with the pack. They merely want to live and have a good time, but they know that they are about to get killed and they do not have a clue. If the generals and officers do not get them killed, then the “VC” will. Then they are sent out into Vietnamese villages, a place such as they have never seen or imagined, unable to communicate with the people, and ordered to “kill everything that moves.” What does one expect is going to happen?
When General Westmoreland took over the command in Vietnam the US came to use the scorched earth tactics the Japanese had used in China. Mao had said that the people were like water and the guerrillas were like fish that moved in the water. The sea had to drained so entire areas had to be depopulated and the people moved into strategic hamlets, artificial areas, more like concentration camps. The US military used its full range of weapons on areas considered to be under the control of the enemy to drive out the population and herd them into camps. These included artillery shells, M-16 rifles, Claymore mines, grenades, bombs, mortars, rockets, napalm and agent orange. When innocent civilians were killed, they were simply reported as enemy killed in action (KIA).
This policy was “pacification.” They were forced to live in squalid one-room tin shacks with no doors with rags over the windows. The rooms were in rows on hard packed earth surrounded by barbed wire and chain linked fence. There were no latrines, no wells, no classrooms, no medical facilities. The shelters were made from waste material.
In Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s “technowar,” there would be scientific management of the war. This relied upon numbers. As the war progressed, a “crossover point” would be reached in which more enemies were being killed than could be replaced. This would mean that the US was “winning.” As a consequence, the “body count” became the crucial number and “the measure of success.” Pressure was put on officers to get the body count up and without it they would not advance in rank. Enlisted soldiers in military units competed with each other for the highest body count which earned them time off on the beach, extra food and beer, and light duty. The body count would naturally be inflated but there would also be more dead civilians. Moreover, racism against Vietnamese in the military was rampant. Under the “mere gook rule” (MGR), soldiers were seldom punished for outright murder, as Turse documents. The “search and destroy” patrols carried out were supposed to kill VC, but to the soldiers, it often just meant destroying and burning villages and killing civilians, the livestock, and destroying stocks of food. Crops were destroyed too.
While the top officers were back in headquarters, the soldiers on patrol were being used as “bait” to draw the enemy out of the villages. When this happened, theoretically, heavy enemy fire could be brought in to destroy them. But this didn’t work because the Vietnamese guerrillas would not be drawn into big battles. When sniper fire was taken and the guerrillas hid in a village, the safest thing for the patrol to do was to call in a fire mission on the village. This would save the troops and get the needed body count. Who were the generals and colonels back at headquarters to look into how many innocent civilians got killed? They did not care. They had their own ass to cover. To the troops who were tired, hungry and dirty, these were rear-echelon motherfuckers (REMF).
The villagers were caught between the guerrillas and the American troops. The rules of engagement (ROE) were generally not observed from day to day. Civilians were supposed to know certain rules and when they broke them, they would get shot. They were to stay out of free fire zones. But this was often where they lived and grew their rice. There were dusk to dawn curfews. Running or walking in a certain way would get them shot. On the other hand, it was suspicious if they stood still. A US military manual stated that if they looked up at a helicopter they were VC. If they took evasive action, like running to a bunker, they became targets. Turse discovers a death certificate for a Vietnamese where the cause of death is listed as “running from US forces.” By 1968, at least 300,000 civilians had been killed or wounded in free-fire zones, which was 40 percent of the South Vietnamese countryside. An American officer said that they must “terrorize the villages.” They would “shell the hell out of them” (p. 64) and generate refugees.
Operation Masher in Binh Dinh on the east coast carried out by the 1st Cavalry Division in l966 illustrates the methods of depopulating an area. In practice, it meant launching an attack on the entire population of the area. First 133,191 artillery shells were fired into a heavily populated area. Ships offshore fired 3213 rounds. There were 600 tactical air sorties from the Air Force dropping 427 tons of bombs. In addition to this, 265 tons of fragmentation ordnance, and 80 tons of white phosphorus. There were 5576 enemy casualties but only 354 weapons were found on those killed.
Such policies swelled Saigon from a population of 1.4 million to four million. The late political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that the US had found the answer to “wars of national liberation.” He called it “forced draft urbanization and modernization.” The new urban slums would be “a gateway to a new and better way of life.” (p. 145) Half a million women turned to prostitution to service the Americans.
The US CIA trained 85,000 South Vietnamese Government agents. Prisoners were turned over to Saigon’s National Interrogation Center. Torture was systematic. In Con Son Prison, some 1500 prisoners were kept chained in “tiger cages” for years until their limbs degenerated and they could no longer stand or walk. Brown and Root (now KBR) got a contract from the US Navy to build new cells (tiger cages). The Phoenix program resulted in the deaths of 20, 587 people.
An American colonel and some other officers engaged in “gook hunting.” They would fly around in a helicopter and shoot peasants in rice fields. General Julian Ewell, who ran operation Speedy Express in the Mekong Delta became known as “the Butcher of the Delta.” He said he would “pound the shit out of the little bastards.” (p. 207) The 9th Infantry Division, launched the operation at the end of l968, pounding the Delta with every weapon in the American arsenal. The normal “kill ratio” was eight enemy killed for each American. General Ewell managed to get the ratio up 134 to one. While the operation killed many civilians, it never decreased the number of enemy forces in the Delta.
The American media cooperated with the White House and the US Military to cover up these crimes after My Lai broke. But by the end of the war, the bigger problem was that there was a virtual collapse in the US armed forces. Many in the military, both officers and enlisted had tried to bring crimes to the attention of US officials and the public, but they were largely silenced.
One hears allegations of murders by American soldiers in Afghan villages again today. Who in America is listening?
Nick Turse has written a brilliant book which I wish every American would read and try to digest. This is not only the story of the real war in Vietnam. It is the real stuff of the American Empire, as felt by people around the world. When will Americans ever get it? When is it going to stop?
Eddie J. Girdner, retired professor. Author of USA and the New Middle East. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 2008.