BOOK REVIEW: History needed to understand current events, a review of 'Kill Everything that Moves'
[Editor's Note: As classical readers of Substance know, Substance began publication in 1975 - 1976 as the publication of S.U.B.S., Substitutes United for Better Schools. Our roots, including the format for the tabloid newspaper, were in the anti-war movement against the Vietnam War, with some of the Substance format borrowed from the format of an anti-war soldiers' newspaper "Vietnam G.I." One of the founding editors of Substance had served with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam following his time at Austin High School, while another had been doing organizing and legal assistance for anti-war military people as part of the "G.I. Movement." At the time, we saw the connection between the U.S. imperial wars in "Indochina" and the work we had to do in Chicago's public schools. With this review, we are returning to regular publication about the problems and costs of the U.S. empire, nearly 40 years after the "end" of the Vietnam War. For more reading and curriculum materials, see the Editor's Note at the end. George N. Schmidt, Editor].
BOOK REVIEW: Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. New York: Henry Holt, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-8050-8691-1 (hardback)—paperback in December 2013
NOTE: Nick Turse is speaking in Chicago on Friday, August 2: 21st Century American Militarism: Occupation Abroad and Resistance at Home. Friday, August 2nd, 7:00pm @ The Chicago Temple, 77 West Washington Featuring speakers Nick Turse and Christian Parenti + more $10 Suggested Donation, no one turned away. Facebook Event: https://www.facebook. com/events/128308194034854/
IVAW Event: http://www.ivaw.org/21st-century-american-militarism-occupation-abroad-and-resistance-home
After the publication of over 30,000 books, and a myriad of movies and television programs, the people of the United States have still been unable to come to grips with the reality of the war in Vietnam (and, in reality, across Southeast Asia). Nick Turse’s new book, Kill Everything That Moves, might be the straw that breaks the denying camel’s back: the United States military carried out an incredibly vicious war against Vietnamese civilians, the ones we were supposedly there to help.
Turse doesn’t pull any punches: he starts his book with an account of the March 16, 1968 massacre at My Lai, where over 500 unarmed victims — old men, women and children — were killed and/or raped by American soldiers. This was covered up by the US military. It was exposed by an American soldier, Ron Ridenhour, who heard about it, investigated, and when he got back to the US, worked with long-time journalist, Seymour Hirsch to reveal the massacres. The Army, unsurprisingly, said this was the work of a few “bad apples.”
Turse spent over 10 years investigating the US Army’s own reports of the war. As he writes in his Introduction:
"But the stunning scale of civilian suffering in Vietnam is far beyond anything that can be explained as merely the work of some ‘bad apples,’ however numerous. Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process—such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam. And as Ridenhour put it, they were no aberration. Rather, they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military" (emphases added, p. 6).
Turse points out the magnitude of the death and destruction. After discussing alternative estimates, he writes, “The most sophisticated analysis of wartime mortality in Vietnam, a 2008 study by researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, suggested that a reasonable estimate might be 3.8 million violent war deaths, combatant and civilian” (13). Turse suggests this might even be an underestimate; adding in the estimated number of 5.3 million wounded civilians, we get a possible total of 7.3 million Vietnamese civilian casualties. He further notes, “… official South Vietnamese [our allies] hospital records indicate that approximately one-third of those wounded were women, and about one-quarter were children under thirteen years of age” (13).
There were approximately six million people killed in the Holocaust.
Based on the Army’s own records, Turse writes in detail about the death and destruction that the US Army inflicted on the Vietnamese. (A Marine veteran friend of mine, Paul Cox, tried to find comparable USMC files, but had been told by several sources that the Marine Corps had destroyed all of its records of combat from the war.) Turse supplements these official stories with Vietnamese survivors who he was able to find and interview, who confirmed many of the details provided by the official records.
In addition to the known violence, the Army lied and did everything it could to conceal this from the American people: for some reason, most Americans don’t seem to see killing old men, women and young children to be a noble cause. After the Army command received a detailed report on My Lai from Lieutenant General William Peers—which concluded “the crime visited on the inhabitants … included individual and group acts of murder, rape, sodomy, maiming, and assault on noncombatants” and “concluded the number of Vietnamese killed ‘may exceed 400’” (229)—the investigation’s report was bottled up for over four years. The Army established a Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, not to bring accused war criminals to justice, nor to prevent war crimes from occurring in the first place, and it did not publicize the growing number of accounts of war crimes from soldiers and veterans, but it addressed these as something that needed to be “managed,” so as to not sully the Army’s image. “Over time,” according to Turse, “the group became a key part of the Pentagon’s system from hiding the true nature of the war from the American people” (231).
But the military was aided and abetted by the American news media. Obviously some things made it into print and on to TV, but much didn’t. Turse recounts that, in 1969, after Esquire published an account of Marines rampaging a hamlet in 1966—including the gang raping of an 18 year-old woman and the slaughter of her family—Esquire “sent proofs of the story to every major newspaper in the country, but none showed the slightest interest” (223). He details several experiences. But perhaps the biggest cover-up of the war was failure to report the Winter Soldier Investigations, held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in April 1971:
The Winter Soldier Investigation included testimonies from every branch of the US military and almost every major combat union from all periods of the war. By their very act of testifying, these veterans put the lie to any notion of bad apples and isolated incidents. And many went beyond merely rattling off a list of individual atrocities. Instead, broadening their focus, the Winter Soldiers explicitly pointed to the superior officers and command policies as the ultimate sources of the war crimes they had seen or committed (239).
In short, Turse tears the scab off of the festering wound of the Vietnam War, helping the pus of the death and destruction, denial and cover up to seriously begin to emerge, as an early part of the healing process. But how do we, as Americans, respond to this truth? I think the role of American high school teachers is absolutely central to this process: we must get this book out in paperback and assign it to our students. As a former high school social studies teacher, who now teaches at a regional campus of Purdue University in Northwest Indiana, I have seen how little our students today know about Vietnam—they are confused, at best, and often flatly ignorant. I argue that understanding the Vietnam War is essential to understanding the international behavior of the United States in the post-War War II period: it shows that the US Government (under both Democrats and Republicans) has been continuously lying to the US public, that our military and civilian leaders have been leading us into horrific wars and destructive invasions, while supporting dictators, not to support or defend democracy but to strangle efforts by people to achieve the democracy we supposedly have achieved in this country. Of course, the “big boys” (and increasingly, “big girls”) don’t suffer from what they did or saw in combat, but the grunts on the ground—many of them our former students—will carry these wounds all their lives, along with the remnants of Agent Orange still in their bodies. (The Vietnamese are still suffering today from unexploded ordinance and Agent Orange remaining from a war that supposedly ended almost 40 years ago.)
Understanding Vietnam allows Americans to then begin to understand the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “skirmishes” in Libya and Syria, the drone attacks in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia—and the increasing use of drones in the United States. It will allow us to begin to understand why 22 veterans a day are killing themselves. It can—if teachers are bold, and refuse to shy away from the realities—show that the United States has a global empire, not based on territorial expansion but on political and economic domination. It can, then, lead to questions about cut-backs on schools and public education: do we want to dominate the world, or do we want an excellent public school system that works for all students and teachers in this country? We can only do one or the other, we cannot do both: which one will it be?
[Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is a former Sergeant in the US Marine Corps, serving from 1969-73, although staying in the States the whole time. He currently works as an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN, while living in Chicago and serving as the Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Writers Union (www.nwuchicago.org).]
[Editor's Endnote. With the U.S. government pushing "Common Core" and demanding that students read non-imaginative literature, it is time to demand that history be taught as it happened, not as a subsequent group of propagandists rendered it. In order for the current generation to better understand what happened during the U.S. war in Vientam (and the other nations of that region: Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand), students and teachers can find a large amount of material that tell the truth, as opposed to the Tea Party and Chicago Boys lies about those histories. A video of the Winter Soldier Investigation -- which some early Substance staff members helped with -- is available through http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPXAxNr8Cno. The movies "Heart and Minds" and "Sir No Sir" also will help today's students understand the truth that is reported now in the book under review above].