On the same day in March 1968 that Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division, massacred 500 women and children in the village of My Lai on orders to “kill everything that moves,” a different U.S. Army unit, Bravo Company, entered the nearby hamlet of My Khe.
Although they met no resistance and found only women and children in the village, Bravo Company’s commander, Lieutenant Thomas Willingham, gave orders to destroy it. One soldier shot a Vietnamese baby in the head point blank with a .45 caliber pistol. Others gunned down women and children, “like being in a shooting gallery.” When their work was done, 155 Vietnamese villagers were dead. Even though a U.S. Army investigation found “no reliable evidence to support the claim that the persons killed were VC [Viet Cong],” nobody was punished for these murders at My Khe. (141-42)
As Nick Turse explains in his depressingly important new book, Kill Anything That Moves, the Pentagon’s public relations strategy for dealing with the issue of U.S. atrocities in South Vietnam “centered on portraying My Lai as a one-off aberration, rather than part of a consistent pattern of criminality resulting from policies set at the top” of the U.S. military command. So when reporters later asked about this second massacre at My Khe, Pentagon briefers, not wanting to admit that two different U.S. Army units had slaughtered civilians in two separate villages on the same day, simply lied and blamed My Khe on South Vietnamese troops. The Pentagon then buried the evidence about the My Khe massacre by classifying the documentation as “top secret.” (230)
But these events, as Turse shows with his careful research and judicious description of other atrocities, were not aberrant. In the Song Ve Valley, not far from My Lai, an elite detachment of the famed 101st Airborne Division called Tiger Force was unleashed to terrorize villagers for a six-month period, May to November 1967, killing scores of non-combatants -- often scalping the victims, kicking in their faces to extract gold teeth, cutting off their ears. (135-36) That August, a U.S. military newspaper reported that the 2nd Battalion, 320th Artillery had fired its 250,000th artillery shell from a hilltop firebase into this same Song Ve Valley, filling rice paddies with craters and destroying homes. (137) Flying over that same area in mid-1967, reporter Jonathan Schell saw that the Song Ve Valley had been ravaged -- defoliants withering vegetation, artillery reducing almost every home to ruins. Through careful study of two separate districts in Quang Ngai Province, Schell reported that 80 percent of all homes had been destroyed. (136-37)
Elsewhere in Quang Ngai Province, the 25th Infantry Division fired 42,000 artillery shells randomly into two populated districts during three months, May to July 1967, oblivious to civilian casualties. The year before, South Korean troops reportedly committed at least fourteen massacres of villagers in this same small province, in one case pushing twenty-nine unarmed youth into a bomb crater and then slaughtering them with rifle fire. (132-33) A Defense Department analyst estimated the civilian casualties in Quang Ngai Province at 33,000 every year. Other sources said 50,000 civilians were killed and wounded in Quang Ngai every year. (138)
As shown in this mind-numbing array of atrocities inflicted upon the villagers of Quang Ngai Province, Turse has developed an innovative method for retrieval of painful truths from a buried past. First, through a decade of painstaking research into “veterans’ testimonies, contemporaneous press coverage, Vietnamese eyewitness accounts, long-classified official studies, and the military’s own formal investigations,” he has recovered a staggering record of brutality and stored these seemingly random incidents in his own ad hoc atrocity archive -- perhaps the best that one can do in the aftermath of systemic suppression of official evidence. (258) Then, by clustering these disparate factual fragments according to time and place, Turse assembles a blood-red mosaic of the otherwise incomprehensible, unimaginable firestorm of death and destruction that the U.S. military rained down on the villages of South Vietnam, from Quang Ngai Province in the north to the Mekong Delta in the South.
Finally, as social historians often do, Turse double checks the dismal assessment that arises from potentially unrepresentative case studies by juxtaposing the anecdotal against the statistical, which, in fact, provides strong confirmation by showing extraordinarily high casualties among South Vietnamese civilians. A 1975 U.S. Senate investigation estimated that, in South Vietnam’s population of 19 million, there were 1.4 million civilian casualties, including 415,000 killed. A joint 2008 study by Harvard Medical School and University of Washington calculated that there were 3.8 million violent war deaths during the Vietnam War, both soldiers and civilians. Through his own calculations learned from doctoral studies in socio-medical sciences at Columbia, Turse places these casualties even higher still, at some 7.3 million Vietnamese civilians dead and wounded -- a figure he justifies by noting that over half the wounded admitted to South Vietnam’s hospitals during the war were women or children under the age of thirteen (12-13)
In the forty years since U.S. combat operation operations in Indochina ended back in 1973, America has produced hundreds of feature films and 30,000 non-fiction books all somehow asking the same question: Was the Vietnam War an atrocity, an anomaly, or, as President Reagan called it, “a noble cause”? Through his unblinking immersion in these forgotten incidents, Turse reaches an uncompromising conclusion: The Vietnam War was, in its planning by the generals and its execution by the soldiers, nothing less than a systematic atrocity, with every single major U.S. military unit that served in Vietnam, according to Pentagon records, guilty of war crimes. (21)
In presenting this painfully important information, Turse abjures the usual historical narrative and instead builds to this sober conclusion with topical chapters that read like points in a prosecutor’s brief for a war crimes trial that will, of course, never happen. In the book’s first three chapters, Turse describes the strategy and tactics for visiting such death and destruction upon the civilians of South Vietnam. Flailing about for a viable strategy at the start of major combat operations in 1965, General William Westmoreland defaulted to the venerable U.S. military doctrine of “attrition” requiring, in the peculiar circumstance of this pacification, that the number of enemy killed in combat reach a “cross over point” by exceeding their possible replacement, either by local recruitment or infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh trail. (42, 50-51) As a metric of progress toward this goal of “cross over,” Westmoreland’s data-obsessed headquarters pressed subordinates for high “body count,” which could be achieved either by direct muzzle-to-muzzle combat or by using U.S. troops as “bait” to “find and fix” the enemy for mass destruction by artillery or airpower.
Westmoreland’s inept strategy preordained the U.S. military to regular, recurring atrocities. By mid-1967, U.S. infantry were spending nearly 90 percent of their time in ceaseless patrols to flush out the enemy for putative strikes by airpower or artillery. (51) With U.S. troops scattered across the countryside in small detachments as “bait” to draw enemy fire, the communist forces initiated nearly 80 percent of all engagements, subjecting American ground forces to constant casualties from a faceless, often invisible enemy that hit fast and then disappeared before the firepower rained down. (52)
To deliver the lethal firepower that would produce body count sufficient for “cross over,” Westmoreland’s command drew upon the awesome arsenal of U.S. conventional weaponry to build a vast apparatus for killing that it clamped down over the length and breadth of South Vietnam. In 1965 the U.S. military declared 40 percent of South Vietnam’s heavily populated countryside “free fire zones” where its artillery and airpower could strike at will. In 1966, 91 percent of U.S. Army artillery was being shot off indiscriminately in random “harassment and interdiction” (H&I) fire against these zones. (91)
By 1969, U.S. airstrikes were being conducted on or near villages with 3.3 million inhabitants. (62) Many of these airstrikes dropped anti-personnel “guava” bombs, each one spraying 200,000 steel fragments in all directions. During the war, the U.S. military purchased 285 million of these guava bombs, sufficient to rain a daily cloudburst of lethal steel across much of South Vietnam. (85) At peak of combat operations, moreover, the U.S. military had 4,000 helicopters in country that flew 36 million missions during the war, often patrols with machine gunners who could and did fire at any Vietnamese civilian whose gait or movements were deemed somehow suspicious. (88).
With the killing machine in place, Turse moves on to two grisly chapters that show the application of this body-count strategy in the northern provinces of South Vietnam and in the southern Mekong Delta. In “a series of snapshots culled from a vast album of horrors” in northern Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces, Turse shows that “year after year ... in unit after unit, the atrocities were of the same type, the horrors of a similar magnitude, the miseries of the same degree.” (109)
In addition to the many atrocities in Quang Ngai recounted above, Turse cites the memoir of Marine squad leader John Merson, who, in April 1967, “sprang an ambush on sampans traveling on a river Dai Loc District [in Quang Nam], killing about twenty civilians -- all of whom turned out to be women, children, and old men.” (120) Though Turse treats this anecdote as just another in his catalogue of U.S. atrocities, it merits closer consideration to complicate this one-dimensional treatment, something we will return to at end of this essay.
In a penultimate chapter, elaborating upon a prize-winning exposé that he published in The Nation back in 2008, Turse explores the case of the 9th Division’s controversial “Operation Speedy Express.” The division commander, Major General Julian Ewell, known in the Army as the “butcher of the Delta,” declared much of the densely populated Mekong Delta “free fire zones” and then deployed helicopter gunships, artillery, and infantry to inflict high body count in what was supposed to be an aggressive pursuit of the enemy.
From December 1968 to May 1969, the Division’s “Operation Speedy Express” reported 10,889 killed with a suspiciously high kill ratio of 272:1 (i.e. 272 enemy killed for every American dead) -- far exceeding the usual 10:1 ratio and indicating indiscriminate fire against civilians. In May 1970, a decorated veteran of that operation, Sergeant George Lewis, sent a ten-page letter to General Westmoreland, by then back in Washington as Army chief of staff, charging that these operations were "a My Lay each month for over a year." He complained of “helicopter gunships mowing down noncombatants, of airstrikes on villages, of farmers gunned down in their fields while commanders pressed relentlessly for high body counts.” (214-19)
A U.S. adviser who witnessed the operation, Jeffrey Record, recalled, in a 1971 article for the Washington Monthly, watching as the division’s helicopter gunships strafed a herd of water buffalo and the six or seven children tending them, transforming the rice paddy “into a bloody ooze littered with bits of mangled flesh.” He added: “The dead boys and the water buffalo were added to the official body count of the Viet Cong.” (211)
Despite a Pentagon investigation that found these charges credible, Westmoreland quashed the inquiry and General Ewell was later assigned to write an official Army account of his operations as a combat manual for future U.S. officers. The brilliant war correspondent Kevin Buckley, assisted by his Vietnamese-speaking staffer Alexander Shimkin, wrote a searing 5,000 word exposé of Operation Speedy Express for Newsweek. But the magazine’s New York editors sat on the story for six months and then published an eviscerated 1,800 word version devoid of the convincing details its reporters had worked for months to assemble. (254)
By 1971, after five years of such atrocities, the “floodgates were about to burst” with Lieutenant Calley’s conviction for war crimes at My Lai and well-documented media reports of similar incidents elsewhere in South Vietnam. Speaking out publicly, the former U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, General Telford Taylor (ret.), said bluntly that American commanders in Vietnam could face war crimes charges for the shelling of civilians and their failure to protect villagers from atrocities. Shaken, Westmoreland, using his authority as Army chief of staff, ordered an official inquiry that found atrocities were “neither wide-spread nor extensive.” (233) Simultaneously, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division set out to systematically “intimidate potential witnesses and whistle-blowers, …entreated them to lie, and carried out overt surveillance to bully them into silence.” (243)
After finishing this fast-paced book in a single sitting, I paused, wondering what to make of its relentless succession of beatings, burnings, capricious killings, carpet bombing, random artillery shelling, systemic torture, and gang rapes visited upon the villagers of Vietnam. Clearly, Westmoreland’s cover-up has worked for nearly forty years: Most American still believe that My Lai was an aberrant, isolated incident. Clearly, if this book is widely read, Americans will have to reflect on the impact of their overwhelming superiority of firepower and airpower upon the civilians who suffer its collateral damage, whether in South Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. That alone is a substantial accomplishment for this book or any book.
But that anecdote about Marine John Merson and his ambush of sampans on page 120 raises some questions that neither Turse nor any of the authors of America’s 30,000 non-fiction books about the Vietnam War have yet to consider. The seriousness of his subject compels us to ask: Might not there be some larger, unexplored significance to all this violence that Turse catalogues so carefully?
(Gen. William Westmoreland)
Back in 2007, John Merson, whom I knew in high school, sent me the manuscript for a memoir that he later published as War Lessons -- the book that Turse now cites. I read casually until I reached the description of that night on the river. Acting on detailed intelligence that a heavily armed Viet Cong unit would be coming down that river in sampans, Merson ordered his squad of Marines to set an ambush on a river bank in Dai Loc District, Quang Nam Province. So when the sampans appeared in the darkness that night, just as the intelligence had predicted, Merson’s squad opened up with automatic weapons, blasting away into the dark. Once the firing was done, they found the sampans filled with twenty corpses -- all unarmed women, children, and old men. When I read that passage, I could feel John’s horror and understand why he has gone back to Vietnam eight times to work with villagers on development projects and why he still speaks out for peace in schools, synagogues, and churches.
Since I was reading John Merson’s memoir over Christmas break, I shared the story of the ambush with his fellow Marine veteran, my stepfather, whose thirty-year career in the Corps had taken him to Saigon as a staff officer in Westmoreland’s headquarters. When I got to the part where John's squad sees the women and children dead in the sampans, my stepfather interrupted: “Good counter-intelligence by the enemy.” What do you mean, I asked? “Marines demoralized. Villagers hate Americans. Hate our Saigon allies. Effective,” this retired Marine colonel replied, cutting off the conversation.
A few years later, I recalled those incisive words when I was reading Merle Pribbenow’s retrospective analysis, on the CIA’s website, of the famed case of the captured communist counter-intelligence operative, Nguyen Tai. As many will recall, CIA operative Frank Snepp began his best-selling memoir of Saigon’s fall, Decent Interval, with recollections of the Agency’s years of torturing Tai that end during South Vietnam’s last days when he was dumped into the South China Sea. Except he wasn’t, Pribbenow now tell us. Though beaten almost to death by South Vietnamese interrogators and subjected to years of brutal psychological torture by their CIA counterparts, this “sophisticated, intelligent” communist, “who had run intelligence and terrorist operations in Saigon for more than five years,” still manipulated everyone, withholding the names of his Saigon assets and surviving the war to win medals, serve in the National Assembly, and write his memoirs. In Pribbenow’s summary of these memoirs, Tai started his career in communist intelligence at age eighteen and served, at only twenty-one in 1947, as Chief of Public Security during the French occupation of Hanoi. To survive under the Argus-eyed French colonial Sûreté, the Vietnamese Communist Party had, from its foundation in the 1920s, created a skillful intelligence apparatus, forging another of those communist counter-intelligence services that defeated the CIA on every Cold War battleground -- Eastern Europe, Russia, China, Cuba -- and which remains, even today, a bastion of communist state power in Vietnam.
Juxtaposing these two memoirs, by John Merson and Nguyen Tai, indicates that there might be a significant facet to the U.S. defeat in South Vietnam that the many accounts of this war have yet to explore. Wrapped in imperial hubris of U.S. power, no American analyst has canvassed the possibility that communist counter-intelligence in a poor Third World nation could have manipulated all this awesome U.S. violence, flipping the Phoenix apparatus to clog the CIA’s killing machine with neutralists or anti-communists, eliminating enemies in advance of their inevitable victory; directing the combat violence, through mis-information, to punish villages of insufficient loyalty; or using American atrocities for propaganda to discredit the Saigon regime.
Turse does take some important steps in this direction, telling us that the CIA’s Phoenix Program, which was responsible for over 20,000 extra-judicial killings, was a “corrupt, informant-driven enterprise in which a significant number of non-combatants were captured, interrogated or assassinated…merely to meet quotas, win bounties, or settle grudges.” (190)
American conservatives might revel in the awesome application of U.S. firepower in Vietnam and critics like Turse have documented its propensity for atrocity. But neither side of this political divide has engaged the possibility that dedicated communist cadre could have somehow flipped all that awe-inspiring strength, using America’s withering firepower and willful ruthlessness to somehow hasten a U.S. defeat in Vietnam. But all that is a topic for another book so counter-intuitive, so humbling for America, and so sensitive for Hanoi’s current regime that it will probably never be written.
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation (University of Wisconsin, 2012) and editor of Endless Empire: Spain’s Retreat, Europe’s Eclipse, America’s Decline (University of Wisconsin, 2012). He writes for the History News Network, from where this article is adapted.