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When Military Groupthink Condones the Mass Killing of Civilians

Nick Turse. (Photo: Tam Turse)

Nick Turse, author of the best-seller “Kill Anything That Moves”, talks to Truthout about the US Military’s concerted effort over decades to cover up its torture and atrocities in Vietnam, much more common than news coverage of the My Lai slaughter led the public to believe, to create a false narrative of the war.

If past is prologue, then Nick Turse’s account of the conduct of the US military in Vietnam, Kill Anything That Moves deserves a large readership.

Support Truthout’s mission. “Kill Anything That Moves” (hardcover edition) is yours with a minimum donation to Truthout of $35 (which includes shipping and handling) or a monthly donation of $15. Click here.

Truthout talked with Nick Turse about his bestseller.

Mark Karlin: In your introduction you state about tracking down US military atrocities in Vietnam: “I’d thought that I was looking for a needle in a haystack; what I found was a veritable haystack of needles.” Why has it taken so long to identify that My Lai was not the exception to the rule?

Nick Turse: That’s a great question. I think a variety of factors, which I try to lay out in detail in Kill Anything that Moves, contributed to this. There were failings on the part of the press and on the part of American citizens, but perhaps most important was the concerted effort of the US military to tamp down allegations, cover up atrocities and create a false narrative of the war. The evidence indicates that this took place at all levels, from troops in the field, through the chain of command up to and including the highest reaches of the Pentagon.

MK: Reading Kill Anything That Moves one can’t help thinking about how your detailing of the rampant and savage attacks on civilians in Vietnam set the precedent for the untold “collateral damage” in recent US wars, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

NT: I’ve studied today’s wars and have to say that I don’t think that the killing of civilians by US forces is anything near the scale of the carnage that occurred in Vietnam. Specifically, the ways that artillery and airpower are used, I believe, are radically different. That said, civilians still die on a regular basis in our war zones, be it Iraq or Afghanistan. Still more have been wounded. Others have been made refugees. Despite the best efforts of the United Nations and other NGOs, we don’t have good numbers on the civilian toll, but we know there has been immense suffering. And, if history is any guide, it may be decades before someone is able to put together the real story of these wars, let alone the semi-covert campaigns in places like Pakistan and Yemen.

MK: Indeed, you conclude Kill Anything That Moves with: “The true history of Vietnamese civilian suffering does not fit comfortably into America’s preferred postwar narrative – the tale of a conflict nobly fought by responsible commanders and good American boys.” Isn’t this still our narrative about “our soldiers,” that their conduct is countenanced with rare exceptions because they are “fighting for us”?

NT: I think so – at least to the extent that Americans consider US troops and US wars at all. Americans tend to view their country as an exceptional nation, their wars as moral and their troops as uniformly in the right. There really isn’t much room for discussion of anything that deviates from this narrative. Even when troops return from war and offer a counter-narrative, they’re often smeared as fake veterans or liars. So I think, it’s hard for most Americans to believe otherwise.

MK: Interestingly, as a side note, you note that waterboarding was not an uncommon form of torture used by interrogators in Vietnam. So Dick Cheney wasn’t bringing anything new to the table in the way of torture?

NT: Not at all. Water torture has actually been employed by American troops since at least the Philippines Insurrection at the turn of the 20th century. And the evidence indicates that, in Southeast Asia, it was used extensively by America’s South Vietnamese allies as well as by American forces. What was new during the Bush years was the intimate involvement by the White House in torture. Documents indicate that President Lyndon Johnson was made aware of mistreatment of prisoners in Vietnam, but there’s no evidence that his top advisors were consulted, much less gave the go-ahead, for water torture to be carried out.

MK: Adding to that thought, in your chapter “Unbounded Misery,” you talk about a tacit policy of torture in 172nd MI compound. Then you note that the 172nd was not likely an exception. Citing an official Army investigation, you comment that “violations of the Geneva Conventions were ‘widespread’ and that torture by US troops was ‘standard practice.’ “

NT: While comprehensive records exist for just this one unit – and those exist only due to a relatively minor complaint by a lone whistleblower – the available evidence indicates pervasive use of torture in Vietnam. Extreme brutality, from beatings and mock executions to electrical and water torture to more exotic forms that I document in some detail, appears to have been much more widespread and common than most Americans have ever known.

MK: Is there some credence to the theory that just as the right-wing militaries and paramilitaries in Latin America, supported by the United States, have periodically committed massacres of peasants and tortured them because they assumed peasants could be de facto sympathetic to leftist guerillas, the US military in Vietnam regarded all rural South Vietnamese as potential “Viet Cong”?

NT: I’m afraid that I’m not well-versed enough in Latin American history to weigh in on the exact parallels, but I can say that many American troops were taught that all Vietnamese were enemies or at least potential enemies. They were often told that anyone in the loose-fitting Vietnamese clothes that Americans called “black pajamas” – worn by farmers and guerrillas alike – was a potential adversary. Or as one veteran I interviewed put it, his training made it clear that the enemy was anyone with “slant eyes.” Further, American troops – and it’s important to remember we’re talking about very young men, either in their teens or barely out of them – often could not locate and engage the enemy and would take out their anger on the only Vietnamese they could locate – women and children in the villages. Another critically important aspect of the story is the US use of “free fire zones” – a legal fiction that branded all residents of wide swaths of the countryside as de facto enemies.

MK: I’ve been reading a book, Beautiful Souls, about individuals who take a stand against barbaric actions, such as Ron Ridenhour, who tried to bring to light the slaughter committed by his unit, as did Jamie Henry, as described in the book. In Beautiful Souls, it quotes a chronicler of the mass killings in Rwanda who observed that the frenzy of bloodletting “was like a festival,” that it united the killers in a communal bond. Does this apply at all to the soldiers who engaged in such activity in Vietnam?

NT: Many men who committed and witnessed atrocities were certainly united in a bond of sorts. Most engaged in a conspiracy of silence. You mentioned Jamie Henry. He was the only man in his unit to speak out about the litany of atrocities that his fellow troops had committed – including a My Lai-style massacre. When he did complain about brutality, his life was threatened. Even his friends, fearing for his safety, told him to keep quiet. And once the men from his unit returned from Vietnam, all kept silent – except for Jamie. Even men who thought the atrocities were wrong. Still, it was only after he more or less forced the US Army to launch an investigation that other veterans from his unit began to admit what they had seen or done to criminal investigators. Still, Jamie was the only man, among dozens of witnesses, from the unit to ever go public with the story. So there is a bond, of sorts, even if it might be quite different from that of the Rwandan experience.

MK: What became of the Winter Soldier investigation?

NT: The more than 100 Vietnam veterans – who served in all major units, from all service branches – who spoke in early 1971 at the Winter Soldier investigation, painted a very grim picture of the war, attesting to massacres, murders, rapes and acts of torture they had witnessed or carried out. The FBI put the three-day gathering in Detroit under surveillance, and Nixon administration officials worked behind the scenes to discredit the veterans as impostors and liars. The campaign largely worked, and in the years since, most recently during John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, the Winter Soldiers have regularly been cast as fakes or fabricators. This was always a sore spot with Jamie Henry. He was one of those 100-plus veterans who testified at the Winter Soldier Investigation. Only decades later, when I showed up on his doorstep with several phonebook-sized stacks of documents, did he know that the government investigated his allegations and corroborated the atrocities he had spoken out about.

MK: In his April of 1971 testimony, after serving in Vietnam and becoming an advocate to end it, Kerry stated, “We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We saw America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly a My Lai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum. We learned the meaning of free-fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives of orientals [sic].”

What’s your reaction to his assessment at that time?

NT: Kerry was merely summarizing what his fellow veterans had recently testified about – the real war as they had seen it. It was a war in which deliberate military policies like the utilization of “free fire zones” or orders to shoot or kill “anything that moves” made it inevitable that huge numbers of Vietnamese would be killed, wounded or made refugees. And this is very much the war as I came to know it from readings thousands and thousands of pages of military criminal investigation documents, from interviewing well over 100 American veterans and from interviewing scores and scores of Vietnamese witnesses and survivors of the war.

MK: Can you comment a bit about “gook hunting” from helicopters as described in Kill Anything that Moves. It evokes a macabre, horrifying scene.

NT: “Gook hunting” was an all-too-common practice in Vietnam, heavily influenced by the centrality of the “body count” – the main metric governing the American war effort. In Kill Anything that Moves, I recount one string of killings carried out, according to the military’s own records, by a “gook hunting” general during 1968 and 1969. Basically, he was taking pot shots at noncombatant Vietnamese – or ordering subordinates to do so – from his helicopter. Army investigators built an impressive case against him. But the records indicate that after he began contacting witnesses who had offered testimony against him, the case fell apart. As a result, he was never court-martialed, much less convicted and punished.


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