Nick Turse’s meticulously-researched investigations of American war crimes in Vietnam have gained him a Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. His bestselling work, Kill Anything That Moves, has been honored by an impressive list of publications, Vietnam War authors, organizations, and critics. Here is my take on it as a Vietnam veteran, combat infantry platoon leader, and author of Cologne No. 10 For Men, which Writers Digest calls “a superb novel of the Vietnam War.”
Turse’s premise is that the official U.S. Government strategy was to beat the South Vietnamese opposition into submission by warring against the civilian population, a policy of government-approved atrocities and cover-ups and of increasing kill counts by killing and counting civilians. “America implemented a system of destruction that turned rural zones into killing fields and made war crimes all but inevitable.” It employed “search-and-destroy operations, free-fire zones, and the application of massive firepower” and “widespread bombing and shelling of civilian hamlets in ‘free-fire’ zones, the forced evacuations of peasants from their homes, and general failure to provide for the safety and care of civilians.”
He supports his argument “by combining veterans’ testimonies, contemporaneous press coverage, Vietnamese eyewitness accounts, long-classified official studies, and the military’s own formal investigations into the many hundreds of atrocity cases that it knew about…” and with eighty-five pages of end notes.
In my novel Cologne No. 10 For Men (2007), I blast with satire most of the same tactics and strategies that Turse attacks: the use of body counts and kill ratios to measure success against the enemy (also see my song, “Counting Bodies in the Nam” under Skytroopers lyrics https://richardmorrisauthor.wordpress.com/skytroopers/lyrics/, or hear it at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/richardmorris), search and destroy tactics (changed to “search and clear” in 1967), infantry units calling in artillery fire on civilian areas when they receive enemy fire, free-fire zones where all occupants are considered enemies who can be killed, H&I Fires—harassment and interdiction (fired at no one in particular)—and the “rule” allowing U.S. soldiers to kill anyone who is running away.
But has Turse gone too far with his accusations? He claims that atrocities were ubiquitous in Vietnam but his source material covers only eleven of the forty-four Vietnam provinces. He states, “While we have only fragmentary evidence about the full extent of civilian suffering in South Vietnam, enough similar accounts exist so that roughly the same story could have been told in a chapter about Binh Dinh Province in the mid-1960s, Kien Hoa Provine in the late 1960s, or Quang Tri Province in the early 1970s, among others.” This is weak.
He reports that atrocities caused two million civilian deaths (according to the Vietnamese government) or 195,000 (according to the U.S. Department of Defense) and were mostly from air attack—B52 bombers, jet fighters, helicopters, naval guns, tanks, mortars, and artillery. To me, the credible number is between these two. (While I consider these to be atrocities, many people would not; they consider atrocities to be face-to-face savagery like occurred in My Lai.)
But his biggest failure is that he provides no reports from soldiers and military units that did not commit atrocities; he tars all U.S. soldiers with the same shameful brush. He ignores those who fought courageously, did their jobs, and committed no crimes, and the 58,000 U.S. troops who were killed by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers and the agony and suffering they experienced. How many hundreds of thousands of American G.I.s did their duty without committing atrocities? Turse did not answer that. And if atrocities were so common, why were there only 300 allegations of such deeds in the secret Pentagon Vietnam War Crimes Working Group files that he examined, and why did those files detail “the deaths of [only] 137 civilians in mass killings,” a third as many murders as Chicago experiences every year.
In 1967, I personally served in a unit that committed no atrocities. I was an infantry rifle platoon leader with the 1st Air Cavalry Division. I attended Infantry Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, where besides receiving military training, we were taught humane treatment of civilians and prisoners under the Geneva Convention. In Vietnam, my platoon patrolled mountain jungles and surrounded hamlets searching for enemy soldiers. But we never burned a house or killed or wounded a baby, woman or old person. Neither did anyone in my company, nor to my knowledge, my battalion. I believe that our restraint was a result of proper command control. We did not “kill anything that moves” and never received that order. Our leaders required us to treat civilians and prisoners humanely.
And when we killed enemy soldiers, we always were required to show the bodies and captured weapons to our superior officers for them to verify that the remains were Viet Cong or NVA soldiers and not civilians (my novel Cologne No. 10 For Men contains the story of an officer who refuses to drag bodies down from a mountain ambush in the middle of the night for inspection and verification, not because he is covering up an atrocity but because he fears his men will be attacked if they don’t escape [and because I made this up–it’s fiction]). There may have been cases in our battalion where civilians were killed by infantrymen or helicopters while running away or by artillery fire called when our troops were under fire.
The following description is from an article in the 1st Air Cavalry Division newspaper, “The Cavalier”, September 27, 1967, about an operation that occurred in Binh Dinh Province in central South Vietnam near Bong Son and the coast. It inspired a major scene in Cologne No. 10 For Men, as well as the song on my Skytroopers album “Canh Giao Cave” (lyrics at https://richardmorrisauthor.wordpress.com/skytroopers/lyrics/, or hear it at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/richardmorris), and demonstrates how we treated our prisoners.
“The wounded were immediately medevacked. After the others ate, drank water and saw daylight again, Captain Pratt asked them to go back into their cave and any other caves they were aware of and bring out their comrades. One of the prisoners was killed when he went back into a cave.” This is not fiction, but it, too, is anecdotal information. Still, it exemplifies reports that Turse should have explored before branding all Vietnam veterans baby killers and war criminals. I believe most veterans would testify that they were never were given orders of this type.
“Rockpile” at Chanh Giao
All said, however, Turse has presented some information that seems horrendous and indisputable: for instance, his description of Operation Speedy Express in the delta from January through April 1969 by the 9th Infantry Division under the command of Lt. General Julian Ewell. In this operation almost 6,500 tactical air strikes unloaded 5,078 tons of bombs and 1,784 tons of napalm on the hamlets and countryside of the delta. “The Division had reported killing 10,899 enemy troops…[but] recovered only 748 weapons…. During the week of April 19… 699 guerrillas had been added to the division’s body count (at the cost of a single American life), but only nine weapons were captured.” The kill ratio of enemy dead to U.S. dead for the first month was 24:1 and jumped “to an astounding 68:1 in March and an eyepopping 134:1 in April.” This, along with the hundreds of thousands of refugees that were driven from the country to the cities or to “New Life” hamlets, seems to be irrefutable evidence of the indiscriminate killing of thousands of Vietnamese civilians and the destruction of their homes.
It makes me wonder if this murderous attack on the Vietnamese people may have been aimed at bringing an end to the war (the Paris peace negotiations began on May 10, 1968 and were ongoing), just as the bombing and killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Germany and Japan were used to try to break the will of the people and end World War II. To me, this makes the killing of civilians no less a crime.
In the end, I conclude, with Nick Turse, that in many cases, official military policy in Vietnam led to massive killing of innocent civilians. However, please let’s not return to the time when returning solders were spat upon and called baby killers. We have only this year finally been welcomed home by an American President at the Wall on Memorial Day 2012 and thanked for our service (https://richardmorrisauthor.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/not-as-predicted). God bless him.
Vietnam was a horrible war that cannot be forgotten. But the lessons from it do seem to have been forgotten. It was from hearing news reports about similarities between Vietnam and Iraq, including reports of heavy civilian casualties, that made me take Cologne No. 10 For Men off the shelf and get it published.