Massacres of civilians by U.S. forces in Vietnam were not rare aberrations but everyday occurrences, an authoritative new book on the subject charges.
Worse, the massacres were a result of deliberate Pentagon policies handed down from the very top, often to build false “body count” figures that could lead an officer to promotion. The inflated body counts reported civilian dead as combatant Viet Cong when they were actually women, children and old men.
The massacre of more than 500 civilians at My Lai on March 15, 1968, by the Americal division’s Charlie company, 1st battalion, 20th infantry, has long been portrayed as a solitary episode ordered by Lieutenant William Calley. He was the only one of 28 officers involved who was convicted and although sentenced to life imprisonment was paroled after just 40 months.
Yet episodes of such barbarism “were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam,” writes Nick Turse in his new book, “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam”(Metropolitan Books). Turse is a fellow at The Nation Institute whose investigations of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam have gained him a Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction and a fellowship at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He writes that he spoke with more than 100 American veterans across the country “both those who had witnessed atrocities and others who had personally committed terrible acts.”
Turse reports the Pentagon has gone to great lengths to cover up the true record of U.S. atrocities in Vietnam: “Indeed an astonishing number of Marine court-martial records of the era have apparently been destroyed or gone missing. Most Air Force and Navy criminal investigation files that may have existed seem to have met the same fate.”
“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,” writes Turse. “Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process—such occurrences were a virtually daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam…they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.”
In researching his book, Turse said some of the veterans he tried to contact wanted nothing to do with his questions and would slam down their phone receiver. “But most were willing to speak to me, and many even seemed glad to talk to someone who had a sense of the true nature of the war,” he added.
Some veterans told Turse of operation Speedy Express where civilians from Dec., 1968, through May, 1969, were systematically slaughtered in huge numbers by U.S. 9th Division troops in the Mekong Delta, “month after month, hamlet after hamlet.” As one veteran told Turse, “A Cobra (helicopter) gunship spitting out 600 rounds a minute doesn’t discern between chickens, kids, and VC.”
“Trigger-happy Americans hovering in their gunships weren’t the only threat to Vietnamese civilians during Speedy Express,” Turse writes. The military ordered almost 6,500 tactical air strikes, dropping at least 5,078 tons of bombs and 1,784 tons of napalm. “It was the epitome of immorality,” said Air Force Captain Brian Willson, who made bomb-damage assessments in so-called “free-fire” zones in the region. “One of the times I counted bodies after an air strike—which always ended with two napalm bombs which would just fry everything that was left—I counted 62 bodies…women between 15 and 25 and so many children—usually in their mothers’ arms or very close to them—and so many old people.” When Willson later read the official report of the dead, he said it listed them as 130 VC killed.”
Turse says, “The jellied incendiary napalm, (used in Vietnam) engineered to stick to clothes and skin, had been modified to blaze hotter and longer than its World War II-era variant. An estimated 400,000 tons of it were dropped in Southeast Asia, killing most of those unfortunate enough to be splashed with it. Thirty-five percent of the victims died within 15 to 20 minutes, according to one study. Another found that 62 percent died before their wounds healed. For those not asphyxiated or consumed by fire, the result could be a living death.”
Gang rapes, quite apart from the rapes reported at My Lai, also “were a horrifyingly common occurrence,” Turse continued. One army report detailed the allegations of a Vietnamese woman who said she was detained by troops from the 173rd Airborne brigade and then raped by 10 soldiers. In another incident, 11 members of the 23rd Infantry division raped a Vietnamese girl, and in another incident, an Americal GI recalled seeing a Vietnamese woman hardly able to walk after being gang-raped by 13 soldiers. These assaults were anything but isolated. One 198th Light Infantry brigade testified he knew of 10 to 15 incidents within a 7-month span in which soldiers from his unit raped young girls. Another GI told of his buddies raping women every couple of days.
Turse writes that he found atrocities were committed by members of “every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division…by every major army unit in Vietnam.” In Chapter Four of his book, Turse lists “A Litany of Atrocities,” some on a scale comparable to My Lai, some of them involving fewer civilians, but all of them war crimes. Selected here are just few the villages Turse cited that were subjected to U.S. attack:
Chan Son: Attacked Aug. 2, 1965, with 1,000 shells, followed by invasion of U.S. Marines, one of whom shouted, “Kill them. I don’t want anyone moving.” U.S. sources said 25 civilians were killed; the National Liberation Front reported more than 100.
Phu Nhuan: On June 4, 1967, American troops killed scores of civilians, including one woman roped to an armored vehicle and dragged around the hamlet.
Thy Thi Ly: U.S. troops opened fire on the villagers in their homes, killing 52, wounding 13, most of the dead were children, elderly men, and women.
Phi Phu: In 1967, U.S. troops killed 32 women and children, including the massacre of 20 non-combatants who were forced into a trench and blown up.
Dien Nien: On Oct. 19, 1966, U.S. and Korean troops massacred 112 civilians, some of the wounded drowned in nearby rice paddies by the boots of pursuing soldiers pressing their faces into the water.
Nhon Hoa: U.S. troops and their Korean allies on March 22, 1967, herded together, and killed, 86 villagers, plus 18 more at a nearby site.
My Khe: At a hamlet near My Lai and about the same time, 155 civilians were killed by men from Bravo company, 4th Battalion, 3rd infantry, which one soldier described “was like being in a shooting gallery.”
Accounts of the torture of Vietnamese civilians and military captured by the U.S. are too numerous to cite in this essay, except to note that in 1971 an Army investigation concluded that violations of the Geneva Convention were “widespread” and that torture by U.S. troops was “standard practice,” Turse reports. A Pentagon task force, however, called war crimes allegations against General William Wesmoreland “unfounded,” explaining that while isolated criminal acts may have occurred “they were neither widespread nor extensive enough to render him criminally responsible for their commission.”
Terming this a brazen rewriting of history, Turse says Westmoreland was never judged by the policies associated with his tenure, namely: “search-and-destroy operations, free-fire zones, and the ‘application of massive firepower.’”
In “Kill Anything That Moves,” Turse has given the public a factual, if distressing, picture of the real Vietnam war, with all the barbarian brutality inflicted by U.S. forces so reminiscent of Nazi atrocities during World War II. It should be made compulsory reading in every high school classroom, particularly in those regions or places where the arrogant philosophy exists that the U.S. has some divine right to refer to this as “the American Century” on grounds that Americans have somehow earned the right to lead the world. It should be remembered that two million Vietnamese civilians didn’t die by accident.
Sherwood Ross is a Florida-based author and public relations consultant “for good causes” who formerly reported for major dailies and wire services. Reach him at [email protected].
Sherwood Ross is an award-winning reporter. He served in the U.S Air Force where he contributed to his base newspaper. He later worked for The Miami Herald and Chicago Daily News. He contributed a weekly column on working for a major wire service. He is also an editorial and book publicist. He currently resides in Florida.