Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves is not a comfortable book. I did not read the whole of it, and I cannot imagine the depression that would set in for those who did. Turse continually hits the reader over the head with atrocity after atrocity that Americans perpetrated in Vietnam. By midway through, one feels a bit numb.
Turse’s subject matter hits hard, but only skin deep. There is not enough context, not enough logical build up, and this may be the reason why his book may not have the impact Turse hopes for. The work bears the mark of solid research and urgency but not sober reflection. Apparently Turse has recently come across some documents just made available from the army, which kept them secret for many years.
Kill Anything that Moves bears the hallmarks of someone desperate to share something that they have just discovered. It comes out all at once.
I know that in my experience as a teacher I am at my worst when newly excited about something. I remember how I rambled incoherently through the French Revolution for three weeks with students just after I read Simon Schama’s excellent Citizens (This happened! And then this! And then Danton did this! And Robespierre did that! Are you getting this down?).
Turse’s basic contention is that what happened at My Lai was not an accident, but a direct result of standard policies and orders routinely given by the military. That is, My Lai’s happened frequently, if perhaps on a slightly smaller scale. Of course untold thousands of civilians died due to the blanket B-52 bombing runs. But troops also deliberately targeted civilians on their “Search and Destroy” missions. “Kill anything that moves,” comes from typical scenarios where troops received orders to do this almost literally. Telling friend from foe on the ground posed terrible difficulties. They solved it by the simple formula, “If they run from our helicopters, they can be shot as enemies.” Civilians killed by mistake could be given a weapon and called “VC.” No one asked too many questions higher up because of their interest in body counts.
The book also details the “Destroy the village to save it,” strategy that we clumsily employed in various sectors. The strategy had some merit and history behind it, which Turse should have brought up. A typical mantra of insurgent warfare is that, “The peasants are the sea in which the fish swim.” If you dry up the sea, the fish perish. So if the peasants all came to our refugee camps, the VC would slowly suffocate. I believe that Alexander the Great used this strategy effectively against the Bactrians. Some say Vercintgetorix should have done this in Gaul against Caesar. The British used this with at least short-term benefits against the Boers. The fact, then, that U.S. tried some variation of this strategy should not shock us, and Turse should have discussed this. It is symptomatic of his narrow focus that he did not.
However a significant difference existed between the U.S. and these previous armies. Not every army can attempt every strategy. For a strategy to work it needs to have consistency with the society in which it originates. An army that fights against the values of its own culture will not march with any weight or support behind it, and will almost certainly lack real effectiveness.
Alexander and Vercintgetorix did not rule from consent. People expected them to do as they pleased. In South Africa the British interred not their allies but their civilian enemies. Also, the Victorian British army represented not a democratic consent-based society but an oligarchic “father knows best” ethos that could allow for more “dramatic” treatment of civilians.
The U.S’s strategy with Vietnamese peasants had nothing to recommend it. In theory the U.S. was a democratic, consent based society. For its army to then willy-nilly take peasants from their land had no internal rationale. Secondly, the U.S. had no history in Vietnam, and thus no build-up of goodwill from which to draw. And third, the U.S. executed the policy in such a clumsy and morally lazy way that it had to fail. The British at least knocked door-to-door like proper gentlemen and provided an escort. Though I do not praise the British in this strategy, at least they attempted some personal connection and took measures to protect Boer civilians, whereas the boorish Americans simply bombed and torched villages and then expected the locals to go to their refugee camps by default. Add to this, their refugee camps were dirty, unsanitary places. Nothing about this policy matches a society based on equality and consent, and everything about this policy suggests a people and an army that wanted nothing to do with this conflict in the first place.
Turse details many such blunders and moral darkness. His most compelling chapters detail the army’s policy about weeding out combatants from non-combatants. Being able to tell them apart in Vietnam would have required a great deal of patience and “on the ground” intelligence. Instead troops routinely received orders that ordered them to shoot at anyone who ran away from their helicopters. If they ran, they were VC. If they made a mistake, no problem. Put a gun in their hand, take their picture, and add them to the body count. Air Force pilots patrolling the Ho Chi Minh trail had orders to blow up anything moving south, be it man or machine, indiscriminately. God could sort them out in the end.
These chapters hit the reader in the gut but don’t get at the roots of why this happened. He doesn’t go for the head, only our emotional reaction.
So why did this happen? I have a theory. . .
Vietnam was a war no one wanted.
Johnson inherited the problem from Kennedy. No one “wants” a war, but Johnson seemed specifically ill-suited to foreign policy. It was not in his wheelhouse. He often commented how he wished Vietnam would go away so he could do what he really wanted to do — the Great Society.
Congress did not want to deal with the war either. With the Gulf of Tonkin resolution they signed away their responsibility and oversight to the president.
At least at the beginning of the war, we drafted troops from sections of society without much political importance, another way to pass the buck and avoid domestic conflict over the war.
Every manual on leadership prescribes leaders sharing burdens and sharing space with those they lead. In Vietnam, very few higher officers ever patrolled with their men. They led from desks. They too wanted nothing to do with the messiness the war entailed. So it is no coincidence that when they received casualty reports that in no way matched the weapons troops recovered, they looked away. They were already “looking away” by sitting at their desks.
With all this, we should be slow to place the brunt of the blame on the ground troops themselves. All of America owned this problem, and all of America contributed to these atrocities. Turse makes a valuable contribution to the literature on Vietnam, but I think it will take an historian with a more prophetic bent to make the most of his findings.