‘Kill Anything That Moves’

Joel Whitney in the San Francisco Chronicle:

ScreenHunter_96 Feb. 10 18.30In early 1971, the New York Times Book Review splashed its cover with the question “Should We Have War Crimes Trials?” American perceptions of the war in Vietnam were at a sort of tipping point, and the military was nervous. A retired general and respected prosecutor at Nuremberg argued in the Times and on “The Dick Cavett Show” that Gen. William Westmoreland might be guilty of war crimes. “[O]ur army that now remains in Vietnam,” a colonel wrote at the time, “is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers … drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous.”

As Nick Turse tells it in his indispensable new history of the war, challenges to the military's perceptions of the conflict, which it pretended to be winning every day for years, started with Seymour Hersh's groundbreaking account of the My Lai massacre. American soldiers murdered 500 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968, and after Hersh's exposé, suddenly war crimes were a hot story. For a moment. But Turse insists that if the editors of Newsweek hadn't “eviscerated” an article that described a much larger death toll in 1972, the wool wouldn't still be pulled over Americans' eyes.

The problem, as described in Turse's “Kill Anything That Moves,” is the tension between the “bad apples” argument – which sees atrocities in Vietnam as the exception – and the reality of the broader, official “American way of war.”

More here.