• Review: Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

    April 25, 2013

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Iraq, Military

    There are ghosts in Washington that few will talk about, roaming the halls of the Pentagon, inside the State Department and the CIA, and at the White House, moaning “Vietnam, Vietnam.” Nick Turse, in his new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, awakens those ghosts and gives them a voice, and in the process has written one of the most important books about the American War in Vietnam. As America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits again torture, assassinations, mass killings and keeps secret prisons while all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public, that Turse’s book was published in 2013 is no accident.

    Kill Anything That Moves is a painstaking, detailed, minutely-cataloged 370 pages of the atrocities America committed in Vietnam . Like much of the scholarship of the Holocaust, Turse seeks to document in straight forward, simple language what happened so that no one will be able to someday pretend—as the men who run from the ghosts in Washington now do—that it never happened. To make clear his intent, Turse gives us a trail to follow, 85 dense pages of sources and footnotes.

    What Happened

    The slaughter at My Lai is the signature event for most Vietnam war historians (the massacre took place almost 45 years ago to date, on March 16, 1968), the single instance, the aberration, the time when a small group of poorly-led soldiers went rogue and gunned down civilians. There were photos this time. Everything else, TV and movies tell us, is an exaggeration, propaganda, the drunken and drugged memories of freaked out veterans who came to hold Jane Fonda in too high a regard.

    What really happened is Turse’s story. His book began with a different focus when as a graduate student in Public Health, Turse began looking into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam vets. By chance an archivist asked Turse whether he thought witnessing war crimes might be a cause of PTSD and directed Turse to the forgotten papers of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. That group had been set up by the military in the wake of My Lai to compile information on atrocities, not so much to punish the guilty as to “to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” Turse tells us the group’s findings were mostly kept under cover and the witnesses who reported the crimes were ignored, discredited or pushed into silence.

    Until Now

    Kill Anything That Moves is a hard book to read. You want to look away but finally turn the pages and read of mass killings and targeted assassinations of Vietnamese civilians, rape committed casually and coldly in sight of officers, sport killings and road rage incidents. Turse painstakingly documents each incident, in many cases starting with the War Crimes Working Group reports and then adding his own first-person interviews conducted in Vietnam with eye witnesses. Mostly aged, the witnesses speak calmly now, and Turse reports what they say without embellishment. Still, the ghosts are there and you half expect to see drops of sweat on the pages.

    But however horrific the many, many individual acts of brutality are to read about, Turse’s larger conclusion is even worse. Turse comes to understand that most of the atrocities were committed with official sanction, in fact, were committed because of U.S. policy that demanded body counts, number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. He writes, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.”

    Officers, seeking validation and promotion, made it clear in case after case that their troops must come back from the field with a high body count. Given that demand, standards of accountability were purposefully loose. Any Vietnamese man killed was labeled Viet Cong (VC). When that number was not enough, orders were given to sweep through areas and kill anything that moved or ran, man, woman or child, on the assumption that only a Viet Cong would run. When even that tally was insufficient, civilians were executed in place, the soldiers planting captured Chinese weapons on them to justify the ‘Count. Once reality became so flexible, soldiers lost touch with any standard, creating “rules” that allowed them to kill everyone—if she stands still she is a trained VC, if she runs she is a VC taking evasive action. If men are present the village is VC, if men are missing the village has sent its males off to fight with the VC and so either way, burn it all down.

    America’s actions were, in Turse’s words, “Not a few random massacres… But a system of suffering.” The deaths were “widespread, routine and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.”

    In short, the atrocities were not war crimes, they were policy.

    Iraq is the Arabic Word for Vietnam

    Nick Turse’s book wasn’t published by accident in 2013. While it details terrible, terrible things Americans did in Vietnam some 45 or more years ago, one need only open a web browser to see that the atrocities have not stopped—call them out now, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the secret CIA prisons across the world, the black sites in Afghanistan.

    As the Iraq War sputtered to a close, at least for America, Liz Sly of the Washington Post wrote a sad, important story about the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

    The story highlights, if that word is even permissible here, some of the long series of atrocities committed by the U.S. in Iraq, instances where our killing of civilians, whether by accident or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance that the U.S. could in fact capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. It was true in Vietnam, and it will be true in Syria or the Horn of Africa or wherever we drag the fight on to next. Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.

    While focusing on the massacre at Haditha, Sly also referenced the killings at Nisoor Square by Blackwater under the “control” of the State Department and several other examples. In a sad coda to the war, even online she did not have space to touch upon all of the incidents, so ones like the aerial gunning down of civilians captured so brilliantly in the film Incident in New Baghdad, or the rape-murder of a child and her family from the book Black Hearts, are missing. There are just too many.


    Sly’s article quotes retired Army Colonel Pete Mansoor, who commanded a combat brigade in Baghdad in 2003-04 and then returned as executive officer to David Petraeus during the Surge, explaining the fog of war, the ambiguity of decision making in a chaotic urban counter-insurgency struggle, and exonerating those who made wrong, fatal decisions by saying “when you look at it from the soldiers’ point of view, it was justified. It’s very hard.”

    Though I doubt he would find many Iraqis who would agree with him, and though I do doubt Mansoor would accept a similar statement by an Iraqi (“Sorry we killed your soldiers, it was hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones”), his point carries some truth. I cannot let this review of Nick Turse’s book end without asking the bigger questions outside of his scope as a documentarian.

    The issue is not so much how/when/should we assign blame and punishment to an individual soldier, but to raise the stakes and ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 19-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of a kid who shot when he should not have done so, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity? The chain of responsibility for the legacy left behind in our wars runs high.

    In this rare moment of American reflection Turse’s book offers, ask the bigger question, demand the bigger answer. Those Vietnamese, those Iraqis, those Afghans — and those Americans — killed and died because they were put there to do so by the decisions of our leaders. Hold them accountable for their actions, hold them accountable for America.

    Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is available from Amazon.com

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...


      PVB. I guess my last entry on your earlier essay applies to this one and should answer why Americans don’t hold their “own” accountable. They are obedient to power. I can easily hear Obama riffing on JFK. “Ask not what your government can do for you, ask only to be kept safe from the knowledge of what it is doing in your name.” Americans would have no issues with such a request since it frees them from any uncomfortable musings about a possible complicity of “sinful” actions.

      04/25/13 12:49 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      When you begin to travel a road paved with lies, don’t be surprised where it ends. PS, we are running out of space on the Mall.

      04/25/13 3:45 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote::”why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity? The chain of responsibility for the legacy left behind in our wars runs high.”unquote

      PVB, cynicism notwithstanding, with all due respect, WTF are you talking about? Most of the “we” you refer to, doesn’t give a flying fuck. In fact, I’d submit a lot of “we” would label the effort to hold war criminals in this country accountable..as TRAITOROUS! I mean, read Glenn Greenwald’s comment section any day of the week and you’ll find living proof.
      Ok, ok..I know. I’ve turned totally cynical. But after 45 years of living through this shit, especially now that the only people prosecuted are whistleblowers..I’ve given up all hope. This country is doomed to go down as the UNO NUMERO in the annuls of GREAT MOMENTS IN DENIAL.
      But…just to play the devils advocate for a second…just WHO in this “we” are gonna MAKE IT HAPPEN…hmmmmmmmm? Holder? Congress? MSM? Independent Journalists? World wide contempt?

      Spare me. Supranational Sovereignty raises it’s middle finger to the world and it cowers. Frankly, HISTORY will be the ONLY Judge. And that makes me sick to my stomach. Lot’s of people, me included, have been screaming at the top of their lungs to anyone who will listen for over 40 years…and it hasn’t done diddley fucking squat.
      On the other hand… let me tell you WHO is screaming the loudest. Here’s a clue. It begins with a T, and Boston was their latest pulpit. That innocent blood has to spill before America listens is living testment to the arrogance of “we” the people of Amerika. Unfortunately, they still don’t understand why the “T”‘s of the world hate us.” After all…we gave them CocaCola and Mcdonalds, right? priceless.

      Let me put it this way. In the aftermath of Boston..”we’re” still trying to figure out their ..ahem…motive. sheeeezushfuckingcrist. In plain language..America is fucking clueless, monumental shamelessness notwithstanding.

      Cynical is a massive understatement.

      04/25/13 3:46 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      ps…I really meant “with all due respect”. Please forgive my lack of trust in America’s ability to hold it’s REAL criminals accountable. Should this EVER happen though…I’ll be the first to apologize. Until then, I’m not holding my breath.

      04/25/13 3:58 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      04/25/13 4:04 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      ps3..speaking of cynicism..here is the Master.

      04/25/13 4:13 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      We Meant Well: Screw Good Intentions, the Road to Hell is paved with the bones of the innocent.


      04/25/13 5:26 PM | Comment Link

    • teri said...


      Well, now, Eric Holder is taking one dude to court, finally. For “unfairly profiting” by “cheating” the system. Would this be the CEO of one of the big banks who stole millions of houses through mortgage fraud and stole billions of dollars from people’s IRA accounts (still ongoing)? The CEO of Halliburton? Dick Cheney, who hid his Halliburton profits behind grandfathered-in clauses while giving that same company no-bid contracts in Iraq? Obama, for giving Blackwater/Xe/Academi their contracts back after they had been found guilty of war crimes and overcharging the US gov’t? Members of Congress, for giving themselves exemption from insider trading laws? (I could do this all day, but will stop here. You are welcome.)

      No, the scofflaw that Holder is going to spend millions of your tax dollars pursuing in US court is Lance Armstrong. Just in case he has any liquid assets left after they stripped him of his Tour de France titles and winnings. The DoJ steps up to the plate!

      This is free-for-all justice in the Land of the Free, now in free-fall.


      04/26/13 10:44 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Teri- Too much scrutiny of this empire in your noted free-fall stage will inevitably lead to an overtaxed wincing reflex. Pitch noted the subtle pun in that phrase.

      04/26/13 2:31 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote:”This is free-for-all justice in the Land of the Free, now in free-fall.”unquote

      youbetcha and the best living proof of “make it up as you go” is Bradley Manning’s “trial” brought to you by Barnum & Baily. Unbelievable. Had I been there, I’d have been arrested for rolling on the floor in gut splitting laughter.

      Speaking of laughter…Lance Armstrong…what in the world is Congress/DOJ involved in the lives of athletes…er..wait. now I understand..it’s a shell game..hahahahahahahahaha! Keep your eye on the athlete prosecutions so the real criminals can keep their game going. ya know, Holder et al deserve an award for keeping a straight face while lying through teeth for 5 years, so I nominated them for this years BEST LIARS OF THE DECADE. I’d love to deliver it myself.

      04/26/13 4:12 PM | Comment Link

    • Michael Murry said...


      Concering Nick Turse’s recent book:

      David Halberstam won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting from South Vietnam. In 1967, he published a novel entitled, One Very Hot Day, which accurately portrayed a typical U.S./ARVN patrol which ran into a typical ambush which produced the typical “friendly” casualties, one or two dead “Victor Charlies” for the body-count statistics, no enemy automatic weapons captured, and the air force finally arriving once the engagement had already broken off. Not one to pass up extra ordnance once finally made available, however, the U.S. Army captain/adviser instructs the U.S. chain-of-command where to have the incoming pilots lay their explosive eggs:

      “I want it all over the goddamn place. I want it where they were supposed to get us, and I want it north, because they’ll probably head north, and you tell the zoomies that if they see anything moving, any mother’s sons, white pajamas, black pajamas, no pajamas to zap their goddamn yellow ass. Anything moves, kill it. I’ll take the responsibility.” [emphasis added]

      Apparently, Nick Turse has filled in some more of the gruesome background details in support of what Halberstam and others at the time wrote about the American military killing some impoverished foreigners for “moving their goddamn yellow asses” in their own country.

      In a similar fashion, those damned Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistani/Yemeni/Somalians had better watch that “moving” business. If they would only just stand still out in the open …

      04/26/13 8:20 PM | Comment Link

    • Jhoover said...


      Nagl’s op-ed, “What America Learned in Iraq,” would have been better addressed by two Vietnam combat veterans, Andrew Bacevich and former senator Jim Webb, who served honorably in a war only slightly less pointless and self-destructive than Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bacevich’s and Webb’s sons both served in Iraq — the former’s died, the latter’s survived — so one would think they possessed sufficient prestige for the task. But instead of Bacevich or Webb, Fareed Zakaria hosted Wolfowitz on his CNN show to “discuss the human and opportunity costs of what the U.S. won and lost in Iraq.”

      No Reward for Being Right on Iraq

      04/29/13 7:39 AM | Comment Link

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