[This review was published in the Summer 2014 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 242-250.]

 

Book Review

 

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

Nick Turse

Metropolitan Book, 2013

 

          One hesitates to generalize about readers’ reactions to a book based on laudatory blurbs cited by the book itself, but it is worth noting that a number of prominent commentators on the Vietnam War are quoted as speaking very highly of Kill Anything That Moves.   Some of these are on the left of the American ideological spectrum, others on the anti-war right.  The latter include Andrew J. Bacevich, a contributing editor to The American Conservative.  A review by Chase Madar in The American Conservative is highly favorable, and accepts the book’s thesis.

          What is that thesis?  It is best summarized by the book’s author himself: “From the start of the American War to its final years, from the countryside to the cities, Americans relentlessly pounded South Vietnam with nearly every lethal technology in their arsenal… The logic of overkill exacted an immense, almost unimaginable toll on Vietnamese civilians.”  “…[T]hroughout South Vietnam, the attitude of American forces was characterized by an utter indifference to Vietnamese lives – and, quite often, by shocking levels of cruelty.”

          It would seem unnecessary to point out that the literature on the Vietnam War is by no means unanimous in this perception.  Polarized opinion raged during the war and has continued for the more than four decades since American troops were pulled from the country in 1973.  There has probably never been a war in which ideological predisposition has had a greater impact on how the war was, and is, perceived.  The Turse thesis is hotly contested by such commentators as Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., whose views are apparent in the title to his article “Deliberate Distortions Still Obscure Understanding of the Vietnam War”;[1] and as Gary Kulik, who served in Vietnam as a medic, who reviewed Turse’s book in the April 22, 2013 issue of The Weekly Standard.[2] 

          In the present review we won’t try to resolve the substantive issues, even though they are important.  The literature is voluminous, and each conscientious reader can delve into it at length to reach his own conclusions.  As to the substance, we can only say that if Turse’s overall perception is correct, it is a devastating critique of what can only be called widespread and heinous American misconduct; and that if those who contest his view are correct, Kill Anything That Moves is contemptible as profoundly vicious toward both the United States and the men who fought there.

          Instead, we will confine our review to a discussion of the book as a book.  And here we must fly in the face of the many commendatory blurbs set out in a section inside the front cover.  Those who have praised it fail to see that the book is so poorly argued that, at least to those who read it critically, it does a disservice to its own point of view.  Those who hold unquestioningly to the thesis of American perfidy in the Vietnam War will jump at the chance to exalt it, but it is better to keep in mind Hamlet’s speech to the players, in which he warned them not to “make the judicious grieve” and reminded them that the censure of such a person “must… o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.”  We won’t presume to arrogate to ourselves an exclusive possession of Shakespeare’s “judiciousness,” but we do believe that the merits of Kill Anything That Moves should, as with all else, be judged not by the number of people who praise or condemn it, but by a careful  examination of the book itself.

          Here are ways in which the book is poorly argued and shows itself to be more a pointing-with-alarm than a work of scholarship:

          1.  Some of the things he mentions are so far-fetched that they lack all credibility, and thereby greatly weaken his own.  A striking example comes when he says “the standard-issue M-16 carried by most infantrymen… was not only potent – you could fire up to seven hundred rounds in a minute and tear off a limb at a hundred yards.”  When we consider that a fully-loaded magazine held twenty rounds, the firing of 700 rounds in a minute would require 35 reloading’s, all within that minute.  One wonders about a mentality that can report this without blushing.  A reader has to ask whether it reflects a mindset that casts a shadow over the many other things he reports, such as when he quotes (without questioning it) a speech at a meeting of “Vietnam Veterans Against the War” in which it was said that “rape was pretty much SOP” [i.e.. “standard operating procedure”].

          2.   His narrative is full of ambiguities, things that don’t spur his curiosity and for which he offers no explanations.  Some of this has to do with the “rules of engagement” for American forces, something he often mentions but never spells out in detail, which a scholarly book would do.   We are told that the rules were “ill-defined and porous,” but without being told what they were, a reader isn’t able to judge that for himself. 

Closely associated with the Rules of Engagement was “another command concept… the notion of the ‘free-fire’ or ‘free-strike’ zone, a label given to areas where everyone was assumed to be the enemy” (because efforts had been made to resettle all non-insurgents outside the zones).  He several times reiterates the point we have italicized.  Turse tells of an “Operation Order that had come down from higher [up]… which was to kill anything that moves.” And he says “free-fire zones took away, by definition, any need for discrimination.”  What are readers to make of it, then, when, interspersed among these many statements, they we are told the very opposite, that “the ‘free-fire’ label was not quite an unlimited license to kill” and that “it was illegal to order the killing of unarmed villagers.”  Readers proceed for many pages not knowing what to make of it.  Turse bounces back and forth between the two poles  – that the orders were to kill without distinction (i.e., “anything that moves”), and to kill only with distinction –, leaving readers to puzzle over it. 

There was no reason for him to have let this ambiguity hang.  It would, in fact, have strengthened Turse’s criticism of the American conduct of the war to let readers know early on that the ambiguity was rooted not simply in his own lack of conceptual clarity, but  also in what appears to have been General William Westmoreland’s indecisive thinking (a confusion that necessarily bled down to the lower ranks, with unmerciful consequences both for the Vietnamese villagers and for the soldiers who had to go into the villages).  In his book A Soldier Reports, General Westmoreland, who was the field commander and Army Chief of Staff during the war, says at one point (p. 285) that “It was essential from the first to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties… That was one of the reasons for evacuating civilians from villages where they were intermixed with the Viet Cong, for forcing them to endure the indignity and hardship of refugee camps, for creating much-maligned ‘free-fire zones’ where anybody who remained had to be considered an enemy combatant” (our emphasis).  Since women and children were known sometimes to fight in support of the Viet Cong guerrillas,[3] Westmoreland’s statement just quoted would seem a carte blanche authorization to the troops whose task it was to go into the free-fire zones at great risk to themselves, and to commanders who issued the “kill everything that moves” orders.  This is contradicted later in Westmoreland’s memoir, however, when he says with respect to the My Lai massacre that “the enemy’s presence among the people was no justification or rationale for the conscious massacre of defenseless babies, children, mothers, and old men” (again, our emphasis).  Surely he knew when he wrote this that the My Lai village was in a free-fire zone. [4]

3.  It has to baffle a critical reader when Turse opposes all strategic options and then fails to explain why (other than bitterly to describe each).  We will discover an implicit premise which, if he had made it explicit, would have allowed readers to know, as Turse went along, where he was coming from.  This leads us into a discussion of those military choices..

Turse neither mentions nor criticizes the political constraints that – by allowing the Communists’ sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, barring American forces from cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and severely limiting target selection in the bombing of North Vietnam – channeled the war into being fought almost entirely within South Vietnam on the backs, so to speak, of the Vietnamese people themselves.  Without making such a criticism, he seems to accept the fact that the war was to be fought internally in the south; but then readers find, as we have said, that he opposes all strategies for how the war could be conducted there.     

Turse has no sympathy for the free-fire zone policy, which, for the reasons Westmoreland stated in what we’ve quoted above, involved the evacuation of villagers to refugee camps.  Turse doesn’t accept the camps, criticizing them as harsh and miserable (which would hardly have been avoidable for any resettlement of large masses of people under wartime conditions), and at no point expresses any sentiment that the villagers had a responsibility to separate themselves from the Viet Cong so that combat could be conducted without injury to themselves.  It would seem from his perspective that if they stayed in their villages, they did so as innocent neutrals just trying to live their lives, and therefore were not legitimately to be treated as enemies.  What Turse overlooks is that these villagers, as well as those who complied with resettlement, were the leading victims of the constraints that limited the war to the boundaries of their homeland.  Instead of seeing that, he chooses to perceive  them as victimized by American brutality.

            An alternative to clearing the rural areas would have been to penetrate each village, sorting out the guerrillas from the other people there, and continuing a presence within the village.  Turse at one point says he favors that, wanting the use of “trained counterguerrillas and political cadres.”  This would have been a more discriminating policy, but one that would have been prohibitively costly in American soldiers’ lives if they had been called upon to carry it out themselves.  (For reasons the American public can well appreciate, a husbanding of American casualties was itself one of the political constraints under which the war was  fought.)  If this were his preference, it would seem that Turse would speak well of the PHOENIX Project, which sent South Vietnamese Army counter-insurgent experts into villages, acting under American advisers.  But he doesn’t.  When he disapproves of that, he in effect rules out his own expressed preference. 

What it boils down to is that Turse is not really concerned about how the United States might best have prevented the Communization of South Vietnam.  He doesn’t say that he is among those who altogether opposed U.S. entry into the war, but that would seem to be an implicit and very important premise behind his book.  For him to oppose American intervention altogether would be an understandable, though arguable, position.  If he made that premise explicit, readers would go through the book with a clear view of why he doesn’t accept any of the military options.

His implicit premise is revealed in part by his biased perceptions and choice of semantics.  While Ho Chi Minh was “charismatic,” the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem was an “autocrat.”  The Communist thrust was “a true people’s war.”  Americans possessed “a deeply ingrained racism” (brushing aside the anti-Communist participation of millions of South Vietnamese, of soldiers from South Korea, and of a great many black American soldiers).  He speaks of “hamlets deemed loyal to the NLF” [i.e., the Communist “National Liberation Front”] as “’enemy’ hamlets,” putting the word “enemy” in quotation marks as though those loyal to the Communists were not in fact enemies.  Instead of seeing the South Korean participation favorably, he turns them into minions: they “essentially functioned as American mercenaries.”

4.  There are a number of items he mentions but then doesn’t adequately discuss.  At several places, he tells of American troops’ walking through “hamlets of unarmed women and children.”  A critical reader wants to know how the troops were to have known the women and children were unarmed, but Turse oddly never discusses that.  He mentions a U.S. “compensation” program, which he criticizes as a commodification and devaluing of Vietnamese life, and quotes one American’s explanation that the small payments were intended solely as an expression of condolence and nothing more, but the brief discussion offers no scholarly depth about the program.  At another point, Turse quotes a woman who says there was starvation in her refugee camp.  This is left hanging, with no information about the camps, the provisions provided to them, the mortality rates, and other details – i.e., all of the things readers might expect to be told by an objective scholar.   Nor is there a scholarly overview of the resettlement program (or of any other part of the war, including an explanation of how things were seen from, say, the White House or top command levels).

5.  Some of this involves out-and-out contradiction.  He tells of one episode in which there were “five days of air strikes by American Phantom jets and helicopter gunships,” and quotes a photographer who reported that “U.S. helicopters were killing everything that moved.”  What is a reader to think, then, when it turns out  that Turse says there were “at least 100 civilians killed”?  Five days of killing everything that moved, and that’s the total?  We are told repeatedly that the American emphasis was on “body count production,” with all sorts of things done to inflate the figure; but then Turse flies in the face of this by saying that “many of the weapons that Americans brought to Vietnam were designed specifically to maim and incapacitate people, on the theory that horribly wounded personnel sapped enemy resources more than outright killing.”  And throughout the book, there are details that contradict the thesis that troops were killing freely pursuant to a policy of unrestricted killing.    Turse says troops planted rifles on dead civilians to make them look like insurgents; that they killed people “if they ran”; that troops ordered people to leave an area that was already a free-fire zone; that (even though they are said to have done plenty of torturing themselves) they were concerned about “leaving a mark” or transferred a prisoner to the South Vietnamese for them to do the torturing; that they killed as an alternative to taking prisoners; and that some prisoners were held for years.  If the picture Turse paints of  “kill them and be done with it” were correct, there would have been no occasion for these subterfuges and evasions.  At the very least, they call for an explanation.

5.  It isn’t surprising that a book geared to sensationalism rather than scholarship will lack historical perspective.  The horrors of the Vietnam War are left to stand by themselves, so readers aren’t called upon to recall (to cite just a few examples) the estimated 100,000 killed in one night’s fire-bombing of Tokyo in 1945[5] or the indeterminate tens of thousands of people roasted alive in Dresden.  When Turse says “some American troops hacked the heads off the dead and mounted them on pikes,” he might do well to recall that Japanese heads were mounted on the front of tanks in the battle of Okinawa – and that Eleanor Roosevelt thought the troops ought not to be allowed home without first going through a course for re-civilization.  When he says that “sexual violence and sexual exploitation became an omnipresent part of the American War,” would it add some balance to recall the mass rapes by the Soviet forces in eastern Europe and how there were Allied troops eager to accept the sexual services of starving German women in the aftermath of World War II in exchange for a scrap of food?[6]   Even these examples hardly scratch the surface of all that has happened historically.  Most apropos to the Vietnam War would be some memory of the 85 to 100 million people a study by French scholars estimates were killed by Communist regimes.[7]

 

Concluding comments are probably unnecessary.  For all the reasons stated, Kill Everything That Moves does a disservice to those who oppose the American role in the Vietnam War; and it falls far short for others who simply desire an objective, well-reasoned, thoughtful critique.

 

Dwight D. Murphey

 

 

 



[1]  Vietnam Magazine, August 1989.

[2]  The Summers and Kulik pieces are readily available on the internet by Googling the respective author’s name.

[3]   Indeed, Turse tells us that “the revolutionaries’ paramilitary forces – part-time, local guerrillas – likely reached into the hundreds of thousands.”  They were, he says, “part-time farmer-fighters,” and it should be noted that they did not identify themselves as combatants by wearing uniforms.  We know from other sources, although Turse doesn’t mention it, that they had been terrorizing villages for several years, assassinating thousands of village leaders.  From all this, it is apparent that the problems of separating the guerrillas from the civilian population or of distinguishing the one from the other were formidable.

[4]  It is worth understanding the human side of why Westmoreland was conflicted.  He saw the need for areas in which his forces would be free to conduct combat operations, and he hoped that resettlement would work to save civilian lives.  But when a significant part of the rural population hunkered down in place, in effect nullifying his envisioned strategy, his personal decency made him recoil at the human consequences.  In a broader perspective, these were consequences forced upon him, and upon every soldier in the field, by the constraints that limited the field of battle to the homeland of the very people whom the American effort was intended to help. 

[5]   See www.historylearningsite.co.uk for the 100,000 estimate.

[6]   See Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation (New York: Basic Books, 2007), pp. 370-1.

[7]   See Stephane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panne, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Harvard University Press, 1999).