Writer digs into dark U.S. history: slaughters in Vietnam

A troubling new book is causing me bad dreams. “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam” is a horrific piece of investigative journalism. It details a dark chapter of our history that was hidden away.

Nick Turse spent 10 years writing it. He conducted many interviews with our soldiers who served in Vietnam. He went to Vietnam to investigate disturbing evidence that he found in Pentagon archives. This material was assembled following the notorious massacre at My Lai. These were the records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. They reveal that the horror of My Lai, where hundreds of innocent civilians died, was not merely an isolated incident. One soldier recalled that there had been “a My Lai a month” during the Vietnam War.

I asked Turse how he found this material. He said, “I was working on a project dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. Vietnam veterans … . I had struck out with every research avenue I pursued … . I was poring through this collection of documents … these were the Army’s own investigations of atrocities committed by American troops. Some of them were detailed; big, thick phone-book sized case files. Some were very thin. I realized that they weren’t in the literature anywhere … it was a horror trove of files. These records, I could just never get them out of my head. And that kind of launched me on this project.”

It took me a long time to read his book. I kept setting it aside. I would read a few pages or just a paragraph and feel too overwhelmed to continue. Turse has taken his title, “Kill Anything That Moves,” from some actual orders that were issued to some of our soldiers. The nonstop litany of murder and mayhem in these pages is profoundly appalling. If you are faint-hearted, you might want to keep some smelling salts nearby when you read it. It’s that bad.

Turse examines the convergence of factors that contibuted to the slaughter of thousands of Vietnamese civilians. There was a heavy emphasis placed on “body counts.” Many civilian casualties, women, children and the elderly were tallied as having been enemy troops to satisfy ambitious quotas established by the chain of command.

The author asserts that “deeply ingrained racism” was also a factor in the carnage, “the notion that Vietnam’s inhabitants were something less than human.” He states that “in a conflict where American soldiers found it almost impossible to tell the enemy from the general population, the constant emphasis on body counts made civilian deaths almost inevitable.”

U.S. military forces pulverized the countryside with massive bombardments, relentless air power and helicopters that strafed civilians laboring in their rice paddies. In tiny hamlets across the country our soldiers wreaked havoc.

The author described to me looking for a particular hamlet where a massacre had once occurred. He found massacre sites but was informed that he was seeking a different one, this was a another massacre that happened here, or down there. The truth hurts. This is an important book.

You can hear my interview with Nick Turse this Sunday morning at 11 on WYSO-FM (91.3).