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Nick Turse Describes the Real Vietnam War

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Gunship.(Photo: Cal EMA / Flickr)Journalist Nick Turse describes his personal mission to compile a complete and compelling account of the Vietnam War’s horror as experienced by all sides, including innocent civilians who were sucked into its violent vortex.

Turse, who devoted 12 years to tracking down the true story of Vietnam, unlocked secret troves of documents, interviewed officials and veterans — including many accused of war atrocities — and traveled throughout the Vietnamese countryside talking with eyewitnesses to create his book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.

“American culture has never fully come to grips with Vietnam,” Turse tells Bill, referring to “hidden and forbidden histories that just haven’t been fully engaged.”


BILL MOYERS: Just like Susan Crawford, my next guest has been driven to tell a story the powers-that-be would rather we forget. He found it by chance in documents buried deep in the recesses of the National Archives in our nation’s capital. The discovery led him on a journey of twelve years that has now concluded with this beautifully written account of ugly horrors, “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam,” by Nick Turse.

There have been many memorable accounts of the terrible things done in Vietnam – memoirs, histories, documentaries and movies. But Nick Turse has given us a fresh holistic work that stands alone for its blending of history and journalism, for the integrity of research brought to life through the diligence of first-person interviews. Those interviews skillfully unlock the memories of American warriors and expose the wounds that to this day still scar the hearts and minds of villagers who survived the scorched earth of Vietnam. Here is a powerful message for us today, a reminder of what war really costs.

Ironically, Nick Turse wasn’t even around as the Vietnam War raged. He was born in 1975, the year it ended. Not until 25 years later, while pursuing his PhD in sociomedical sciences, did he discover the secret trove of documents that sent him on this long search. In addition to two earlier books and countless articles and essays, Nick Turse is managing editor of – the indispensable website if you want the news powerful people would prefer to keep hidden.

Nick Turse’s highly praised account of the atrocities committed by the US in Vietnam – “Kill Anything That Moves” – sets the precedent for today’s war on terror. Get this important new perspective on the Vietnam War directly from Truthout for a minimum donation of $35.00 (including shipping and handling). Click here.

Nick Turse, welcome.

NICK TURSE: Thanks so much for having me on.

BILL MOYERS: Of the more than 30,000 nonfiction books that have been published since the end of the war, this is one of the toughest. How did you come to write it? You weren’t even born until the year the war ended in 1975.

NICK TURSE: I really stumbled upon this project. I was a graduate student when I began it. I was working on a project on post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. Vietnam veterans. And I would go down to the National Archives. Just outside of D.C. I was looking for hard data to match up with, you know, self-report material, what veterans told us about their service. And on one of these trips, I was down there for about two weeks. And about every research avenue that I had pursued was a dead end. And I finally went to an archivist that I worked with there.

And I said to him, “I can’t go back to my boss empty-handed. I need something, at least a lead.” And he, you know, said a few words to me that really changed my life. He said, “Do you think that witnessing war crimes could cause post-traumatic stress?” And I said, “You know, that’s an excellent hypothesis. What do you have on war crimes?”

And within an hour, I was going through a collection of boxes, thousands and thousands of pages of documents. To call it, you know, an information treasure trove is the wrong phrase. It was a horror trove. These were reports of massacres, murders, mutilation, torture. And these were investigations that were carried out by the U.S. military during the war. A collection of documents called The Vietnam War Crimes Working Group Collection. And this was a taskforce that was set up in the Pentagon. And it was designed to track war crimes cases in the wake of the exposure of the My Lai Massacre.

BILL MOYERS: Where 500 men, women, and children were murdered by American G.I.s.

NICK TURSE: That’s right. The military basically, what they wanted to do was make sure they were never caught flatfooted again by an atrocity scandal. So in the Army Chief of Staff’s Office, there were a number of Army colonels who worked to track all war crimes allegations that bubbled up into the media that GIs and recently returned veterans were making public. And they tracked all these. And whenever they could, they tried to tamp down these allegations.

BILL MOYERS: The book, your book is very important to me. I was there at the White House in the 1960s, when President Johnson escalated the war. My own great regret is that I didn’t see the truth of the war in time didn’t see what was happening there. And yet, as I said, you didn’t even come to the experience until after it was all over. And yet you have become obsessed with telling this story. You had no money. You had no advance. You didn’t, you had no means of support when you left graduate school to do this.

NICK TURSE: That’s right. But I thought that this story was, I really thought it was just too important. And one Vietnam War historian that I, you know, really respected recommended that I pursue it. And once I did, once I got involved with it, you know, I could never get those records out of my head. And, you know, then I went you know, I traveled the country. I spoke to a lot of American witnesses and perpetrators.

BILL MOYERS: There are 80 pages of notes in here, tiny little notes. You seem almost determined that nobody would accuse you of not having sourced the information.

NICK TURSE: Well, I know that this it’s not a popular narrative of the war. And you know, it’s they’re hard truths. And I know it’s you know, there are a lot of people who are predisposed to disbelieve this. It is in many cases, it’s shocking. And it’s hard to believe. This isn’t the type of warfare that most Americans think that their fellow Americans pursue.

So I wanted to make sure that it was documented as meticulously as I could. And this is the story of Vietnam veterans told by Vietnam veterans. I used you know, hundreds of sworn statements, sworn testimony that active-duty GIs and recently-returned veterans gave to army criminal investigators. So it’s the veterans in their own words.

BILL MOYERS: But let me play for you what John Kerry said back in 1971, when he returned from Vietnam and he joined with other Vietnam veterans to talk about the kind of war they had experienced. Here’s what he said.

JOHN KERRY TALKING BEFORE THE SENATE: Not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It is impossible to the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do. They told stories that, at times, they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.

BILL MOYERS: All these years later, this book you’ve been working on for ten years, based upon these documents buried at the National Archives, confirmed what John Kerry was saying then.

NICK TURSE: All the atrocities that Kerry mentions by name there I found evidence of all of those types of crimes represented in the records of this Vietnam War Crimes Working Group in the government’s own files. So at the same time that— you know, that Kerry and the veterans that he was referring to there were being smeared as fake veterans or as liars, the military had all these records that proved that these were just the very crimes that were going on in Vietnam.

BILL MOYERS: And the military had these records in 2004, when John Kerry was being swiftboated.

NICK TURSE: That’s right. You know, these records existed then. There was proof at the time that the military they knew about it and they didn’t disclose it to the public. And it was still, you know, under wraps when he was running. The military definitely didn’t want these records out there. I talked to several members of this Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, this Pentagon taskforce.

And I asked one of the colonels, who he ended up retiring as a general. And he says that, at the time, he thought it was right that these records need to be kept secret. It was for the good of the country, for the good of the war effort, but in the years since, he recognized that he thought it was the wrong thing to do.

I talked to him during the Iraq War. And he said, you know, “Perhaps if these things had been aired at the time, if we had been honest with the American people and open with these records, then maybe we wouldn’t have had Abu Ghraib— you know, the torture scandal there.” He came to see it as a real failing on his part.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of reception did you get when you went out to call on these veterans who had been there, whose testimony was included in these secret files and who must have been disturbed when this young reporter calls and said, “I’d like to talk to the two of you about war crimes in Vietnam”?

NICK TURSE: There were times when I had a door slammed shut in my face or the phone slammed down on the receiver. But most of the time veterans were willing to talk.

And a lot of them told me that they were— they were happy to talk about it, in some ways. Even if we were talking about, you know, horrific events— you know? A lot of them said that they couldn’t tell their families about this. You know? It’s not something they were able to talk about. But I knew something of their experience. And they were willing to walk that road with me.

BILL MOYERS: There was a medic, Jamie Henry, who seems to epitomize the stories of everyone else with whom you’ve talked. Tell me about Jamie Henry.

NICK TURSE: Yeah, Jamie had a tremendous impact on my life. And— you know, I found him through this collection of records to begin with. And then I sought him out. And Jamie was a self-described hippy living in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District before the war. But he was drafted. And became a medic and a very good one.

The men who served with him said that he was among the best soldiers that they had served with. He saved a lot of American lives. And they really lauded his performance in the field. But Jamie saw things in Vietnam that really disturbed him. He told me that on his first day in the field, he watched as the point man, the lead man of his patrol stopped a young girl on a trail and molested her right there. And, you know, Jamie said to himself, you know, “My God, what’s going on here?” And over the next— several months, he just saw a litany of atrocities take place.

He watched a young boy who was just— you know, detained and beaten and shot dead for no reason— an old man who was used for target practice, a prisoner who was beaten up and then thrown off a cliff— another man who was taken and held down to be run over by an armored personnel carrier, basically a small tank.

And Jamie saw these things. And when he first spoke up about brutality his life was threatened by fellow unit members. And even his friends came to him and said, “Look, you have to keep your mouth shut or you’re going to get shot in the back during a firefight and no one’s going to be the wiser.” So Jamie did keep his mouth shut, but he kept his eyes open. And he kept cataloguing everything he saw.

And this culminated in— it was February 8th, 1968. And his unit moved into a small hamlet. And his commanding officer, a West Point trained captain— ordered all the civilians there rounded up. It was about 19 civilians, women and children. And Jamie was taking a break, smoking a cigarette. And over the radio he heard this captain give an order. And it was to kill anything that moves.

And Jamie heard this. And he jumped up. And he went to go try and intervene. But he was just seconds late. He showed up just as five men arrayed around these civilians, opened up on full automatic with their M-16 rifles, and shot them all dead. And Jamie told me that 30 seconds after this took place, he vowed that he would make this public.

And he made it, you know, his duty to do so. As soon as he got home from Vietnam, he sought out an Army lawyer. And he told them everything that he saw. And this Army lawyer told him that he needed to keep quiet, because there were a million ways that the Army could make him disappear. He went to spoke to an Army criminal investigator. But that man threatened him. He went and sought out a civilian lawyer who told him to get some political backing.

He wrote to two congressman. Neither of them returned his letters. Then he started speaking out. He went on the radio. He went to public forums. And even the winter soldier investigation He spoke out there. But he could never get any traction. And finally, you know, it was years later that Jamie just gave up. And you know, he decided that he just had to move on with his life.

BILL MOYERS: Until you tracked him down.

NICK TURSE: He was. I showed up on his doorstep with several phone books, stacks of documents. And this was the first time that Jamie knew the Army had investigated his allegations, had corroborated everything he said. And, in fact the documents even painted a grimmer picture than Jamie had told. Because other members of his unit finally spoke up. And they talked about things that Jamie hadn’t seen— you know? Additional atrocities.

BILL MOYERS: So this is where you got the title for your book, “Kill Anything that Moves”? That’s what he overheard?

NICK TURSE: Yes, this was— this was the order that his commanding officer, the West Point trained captain gave. And this was the first time that I really took note of the phrase. But then as I continued, you know, working on this topic, I noticed it coming up again and again. I realized that this was the order that was given out by Captain Medina, the commanding officer, to the troops who carried out the My Lai Massacre, that was his order to them to kill anything the moves.

And I found it listed in court-martial documents from a Marine Corps massacre that took place in 1967. And it seemed that everywhere I looked, there were variations on it. “Shoot anything that moves. Kill anything that breathes.” And I came to see it as really a shorthand for the war.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think this will strike some people as old news?

NICK TURSE: Well, I think that in some ways the story of atrocities in Vietnam is kind of a half-known history. People have, you know, maybe some inkling of it. They know a little bit about My Lai. Or they’ve seen glimpses of civilians suffering in “Apocalypse Now” or “Platoon” or “Casualties of War”, these movies.

But I think that, you know, this society and the American culture has never fully come to grips with Vietnam. It’s this half-known history there. These hidden and forbidden histories that just haven’t been fully engaged. So while I think people might know a little bit of it, I doubt that they know the full story as I came to know it.

BILL MOYERS: It’s not just a litany of atrocities, you reach some very significant conclusions about the way the war was fought, how it was not just some bad apples that were conducting these brutal acts, but that it was a pattern which was inevitable given the pressures from the top.

NICK TURSE: I talk about individual micro-level atrocities, things like murders and massacres. And they do punctuate the book. But really I’m telling the story of civilian suffering. And the sheer number of Vietnamese who were killed or wounded in Vietnam or became refugees— this wasn’t due to simply bad apples, simply— troops on the ground. It was command-level policies, things like the use of unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling on heavily-populated areas of the countryside, policies that were promulgated at the highest levels of the U.S. military. This is what made it inevitable that there would be this much civilian suffering, that there would be, you know, an estimated two million Vietnamese civilians killed.

I mean, the Vietnam War in Vietnam took such a tremendous toll. It’s almost as I came to understand, it was almost unfathomable suffering on the part of the Vietnamese people. You know, the best estimates that we have are 3.8 million Vietnamese deaths overall, combatants and noncombatants, two million of them civilians. 5.3 million civilians wounded using a very conservative method of estimation.

NICK TURSE: The U.S. government came up with a number of 11 million Vietnamese who were made refugees during the war. And the latest studies show that up to four million Vietnamese were exposed to toxic defoliants like Agent Orange. So this is— it’s suffering on a scale that I don’t think that most Americans can fully wrap their head around.

BILL MOYERS: I was struck by your writing that by the mid-’60s, the American military— the American military had turned war making into “a thoroughly”— I’m quoting you, “thoroughly corporatized, quantitatively-oriented system known as techno war.” And you say that became, in Vietnam, the American way of war. And this led to what you call the indiscriminate death of civilians, as well as the atrocities that occurred against individuals.

NICK TURSE: That’s right. You know, the military fought this war with an attrition strategy. The U.S. was fighting a guerilla war. And they were looking for a metric to show that they were winning. And the attrition strategy provided that by making body count the way that you could tell. Basically, you would kill your way to victory. You would pile up Vietnamese bodies. You would kill more enemy guerillas than the enemy could put into the field.

BILL MOYERS: That was the crossover point?

NICK TURSE: That was the famed “crossover point?

BILL MOYERS: So this crossover point that— that we were supposed to reach when we were killing more Vietnamese than could be replaced led, as you point out here, step by step, to the whole notion focus the body count as the measure of success in Vietnam?

NICK TURSE: That’s right. Sometimes I found that— you know, American troops would take prisoners in the field. And they’d call in, you know, “I have a prisoner.” And the commander would call back, “Well, I want a body count.” And then the prisoner would be killed and then called in as an enemy who was shot while fleeing or shot during a firefight.

BILL MOYERS: You say, “So entire units would be pitted against each other in body count competitions with prizes at stake.”

NICK TURSE: Yes. You know, one veteran that I talked to, he said there was a great— he called it an “incentivization of death”. And I talked to many veterans who talked about this. They said that that this really messed with their value system, that they were told to— you know, if they brought in a dead Vietnamese, that they proved a body count, they would get three days of R&R at a beach resort— in Vietnam or they would get extra beer or light duty when they were back at basecamp or medals, badges.

So there were all these incentives that were pushing them to produce bodies. And then there were disincentives. There were— along with those carrots, there were sticks. They knew if they didn’t produce bodies that they’d be that they’d have it tougher. They’d be kept out in the field longer. They wouldn’t— they’d have to march out instead of getting an airlift and a helicopter. So there were real reasons to produce bodies.

BILL MOYERS: And you describe, you know, almost a sporting event, sport statistics, box scores— and those scores being padded by including civilians?

NICK TURSE: Yeah, there were— you know, everywhere in Vietnam, there were kill boards, they were called, up that showed each unit’s number of kills. Some men talk about it— you know, the being like box scores up in the mess hall in military publications. This idea of body count was just drilled into them at every turn. And they really couldn’t get away from it. I mean, this was the way the war was fought. And it turned out to be disastrous for Vietnamese civilians.

BILL MOYERS: And so that led, as you say, to the body count as the measure of success. Nick, you make it clear that this pressure that led to this kind of killing came down from the top in Washington, as well, from Secretary of Defense McNamara at the Pentagon and clearly from the White House.

NICK TURSE I think it did. And there was rarely any distinction made between enemies and the civilian population. They were— you know, and I should make the point that these are very young men, 18, 19, 20 years old. So they get to boot camp as mere boys. And they’re really told that all the Vietnamese are dangerous. And they learn pretty quickly that it was okay to shoot first, because no one was going to ask questions later.

BILL MOYERS: How were you affected when you went to Vietnam for the first time?

NICK TURSE: Well, I was. It really changed— you know, the project that I was working on. And I think it changed me in profound ways. I went to—


NICK TURSE: I went to Vietnam— you know, with these stacks of documents. And I was looking for witnesses and survivors to individual atrocities, the cases that I had read about. And I went to these villages. And I talked to Vietnamese. And I was asking them about one specific spasm of violence.

But what I’m— what they kept telling me, the stories that I kept hearing, what it was like to live for 10 years under bombs and shells and helicopter gunships and how they had to negotiate their live around the American war, what it was like to have your home burned down five, six, seven times, and to finally give up rebuilding it and start to live a subterranean or semi-subterranean existence in a bomb shelter and have to— you know, to make all these calculations about how to survive, when to leave the bomb shelter to forage for food or to find water or to relieve yourself, when to farm.

And all these decisions could have a profound affect that your life depended on it and the life of your family. You had to know— to get into the bomb shelter in time, when artillery started raining down. But you had to get out of there before the American troops came through and started grenading the bunkers because Americans didn’t see these as bomb shelters, they saw them as enemy bunkers that could be hiding guerillas. And the Vietnamese lived with this war for 10 years straight. And as they told me these stories again and again, I realized that this was really the story that I needed to tell, the one of Vietnamese civilian suffering, the one of—

BILL MOYERS: You called it a system of suffering.

NICK TURSE: Yeah, I— you know, with the way that the American war was engineered, I think it turned it into a veritable system of suffering.

BILL MOYERS: Did you encounter animosity, an anger towards you as an American?

NICK TURSE: I didn’t. And it was one of the most shocking things to me that— you know, I would go into a village. And I would often be the first American they had seen since the war. And— you know, I’d ask them to dredge up the most— you know, horrific events imaginable, the most horrible days of their lives. And then I’d ask these people to do it again and again, to make sure that I got the stories exactly right.

And afterwards I would be shocked to find them thanking me. That they would— they expressed a great gratitude. They were amazed that an American knew something of the story of what they lived through, the story of their hamlet. And they couldn’t believe that someone had traveled halfway around the world to listen to this.

BILL MOYERS: Why are we talking about this? Do you we think any good is going to come out of resurrecting the skeletons in the closet and bringing them out and exposing them in your book or in a conversation like this?

NICK TURSE: Well, I’m hoping that it will have some bearing on the present. You know, the U.S. is, of course, involved has been involved in constant warfare in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia. There’s you know military interventions taking place all over the world, over the last decade plus.

But I don’t think that Americans really have a clear picture of those wars. And what they’ve meant for people overseas, what they’ve meant to civilians around the world. So I hope that my book might be able to, you know, to add to that conversation, to open America’s eyes to what wars mean for people overseas. And if we’re asked to send our brothers and sisters and sons and daughters to war, I think we should have some idea of what it means for the sons and daughters of people overseas.

BILL MOYERS: The book is “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” Nick Turse, thank you for joining me.

NICK TURSE: Thanks so much for having me.