A Nation Unhinged: The Grim Realities of “The Real American War”


Tom Gallagher review Nick Turse's Kill Anything that Moves, in the LA Review of Books:

[N]o one came away from the war unfamiliar with the killing of Vietnamese civilians, if only due to the public exposure of the March 15, 1968 My Lai massacre, where American troops murdered an entire village of 300–500 unarmed South Vietnamese, in addition to raping civilians, killing their livestock, mutilating corpses, burning down houses, and fouling drinking water. (In the official record, the Americans recorded killing 128 enemy troops and suffering no casualties.) But where My Lai, Turse writes, “has entered the popular American consciousness as an exceptional, one-of-a-kind event,” his investigation caused him to see “the indiscriminate killing of South Vietnamese noncombatants” as “neither accidental nor unforeseeable.”

For Turse, a journalist and the author of a previous book on the military industrial complex’s impact on daily life, the first glimmer of understanding came in 2001 when, as a graduate student researching post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans, he happened upon the records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. This was “a secret Pentagon task force that had,” he writes, “been assembled after the My Lai massacre to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” The papers “documented a nightmare war that is essentially missing from our understanding of the Vietnam conflict.”

In this book, the devil is truly in the details. There were, for instance, the military units placed in kill-count competition so that, one soldier recalled, “as you passed through the chow line you were able to look up at a chart and see that we had killed so many.” How to decide if a corpse was Viet Cong, and thus merited a chow line check mark? As the saying went, “If it’s dead and it’s Vietnamese, it’s VC.”