• Review: Ken Burns’ Vietnam

    October 2, 2017 // 5 Comments »



    Though Ken Burns’ 10-part PBS documentary The Vietnam War doesn’t try very hard, he can’t be blamed for failing as a filmmaker even if he had. It can’t be done. There are too many Vietnam War’s to accurately portray in a documentary, even one 18 hours long. So fair enough. But Burns’ real failure is not as a documentarian per se, it is one of courage.


    Burns teases us at the beginning of the series that there will be courage here, a reckoning of sorts, riffing off the final pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, showing war footage in reverse, so bombs return to their mothership’s belly, rockets are sucked out of the bush back onto helicopters, and, in case the point wasn’t clear yet, the 1st Cav walks backwards onto their Huey’s and departs the rice paddy. See, it’s an antiwar movie.

    Well, not really, or maybe not also. Burns quickly moves on to the next test, getting all the greatest hits in. There’s the iconic image of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head, and Nick Ut’s photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm raid, alongside that footage of bombs dropping, exploding Kodachrome orange against greener-than-green foliage. If the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black hadn’t been written during Vietnam, it would be necessary to invent time travel to place it alongside the war. And yep, there’s Dylan, a hippie chick with flowers, grunts in the jungle, Marlboro hard packs and M-16s at the ready. Check, check, check – Oh Suzy Q!

    No, wait, it’s one of those balanced documentaries. Burns treats us to the trope-ish story of Ho Chi Minh foolishly writing fan letters to American presidents over the years, starting way back with Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI, thinking the American love of freedom, ye olde tale o’ democracy, the experience as fellow colonialists, should in fact bond the United States to his side over the imperialist French. That didn’t happen, you see, so it’s ironic. There’s also a bunch of actual Vietnamese interviewed in Burns’ movie, albeit disproportionately far too many identified as formerly of the “South Vietnamese Army.” The ties to the CIA of several of those interviewed are also left obscured.

    For the Americans in the audience, there’s also a dollop of “Vietnam as a test of manhood/the test of manhood is actually a metaphor for broken American dreams of the 20th century.” Burns had no choice with this one, as it is required as much as the shots of Saigon whores in their tight ao dai’s. America loves the manhood story; it’s the version of Vietnam that allows us to revere a crusty old war monger like John McCain (Episode Four of Burns’ film even includes a shot of George W. Bush in the Air National Guard), and leaves people who took deferments like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton forever in shame.

    Burns does the manhood theme proud, though, slipping us both the noble grunt version via gritty personal anecdotes from guys you don’t know (though rough-and-tumble Marine guy Karl Marlantes pops up), and the Oliver Stone subreddit, where manhood is proved only after it is broken down (forget Platoon, his real telling was in Born on the Fourth of July.) Stone and his subject Ron Kovic don’t appear for Burns’ camera, but a non-celebrity grunt named John Musgrave is on camera to illustrate the journey from gungho killer to “it was all a lie, man.”

    OK, fair enough, Dad shouts at the TV screen, this is Ken Burns for heck’s sake. He does jazz, he does Americana, he gets baseball in a way that sends George Will reaching for the Viagra, of course he’s gonna go folksy. That’s why we donate and get the PBS tote bag each year. At least he filmed this one in color, all 79 individual interviews.

    But where Burns lets us down is where nearly everything that has or maybe will be written about Vietnam lets us down. He is too easy on the politicians who cynically manipulated the public, he is too easy on the bulk of the media who gleefully participated in the manipulation (everything short of proclaiming WMDs in Hanoi), too easy on individual soldiers who took advantage of lax leadership to, in historian Nick Turse’s words, kill anything that moves (My Lai was one, far from the only.)

    Burns drinks too deeply from the cup of “hate the war, not the warrior.” Deaths were committed because of a policy that demanded body counts, a number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. As Turse writes and Burns omits, “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.” In 2017 America, where the military is fetishized, personal responsibility is lost.

    Burns indeed lets all of us off too easy. Us, the American people, the voters, the spectators, the ones who bought the epic story that Vietnam was a struggle between two great forces for the soul of civilization, Communism versus Freedom. The American people in 1962 (or ’65, or ’68, or 1945, or 1954) were not yet cynical. They were easily convinced what was little more than a continuation of colonialism was instead a firewall of the Cold War. We had come out of WWII winners, with anything that would have made that less than the Good War hidden for another couple of generations. Vietnam was then our bad childhood, and should have left us with no such excuse for Iraq (Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya…)

    Burns lets us off too easy because he does not demand we not let it all happen again, and that is his sin, omission.

    “With knowledge comes healing,” the filmmaker told Vanity Fair about his goal, but that is not the film he made.

    We should know better but we were the ones who bought the epic story that Iraq, et al, like Vietnam, was a struggle between two greats forces for the soul of civilization, Terrorism versus Freedom (feel free to substitute in Islam and Christianity.) We had to fight them over there (the beach at Danang instead of the beach at San Diego) or we’d fight them over here, the smoking gun a mushroom cloud over Cincinnati. We let Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon lie to us about the war, then let five successive modern presidents, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Kissinger also won the Peace Prize for ending the war he first helped prolong) lie to us about Iraq in a spin of our illusion of invincibility and moral rightness.

    Burns tips his hand in the first minutes of his series when the narrator intones the war was “begun in good faith.” Who could have known Vietnam was a war for independence, not a civil war as sold to the American people? That Pakistan supported the Taliban with U.S. aid money? That there gosh dang it weren’t any WMDs in Iraq? Burns doesn’t tell us that Vietnam was not an exception, it was a template.

    And so we all say “thank you for your service” today with the same uninformed conviction that we said “baby killer” back then. Americans need to die for freedom, yes, that’s standard, but civilians from the other side need to die in vast, angry clouds of millions, too, for their freedom. Agent Orange in the ‘Nam to punish the next generation of slopes, depleted uranium across the Middle East for the baby ragheads. There are no names of any Vietnamese civilians on that wall in Washington DC.

    Burns tried to be all things to all people, while failing at the most important task, making history valuable to the present. He does not seem in search of lessons, only in creating a catalog of Vietnam stuff and leaving it on the table for us to poke at, historical amuse bouche. By eschewing experts from his interviews to focus on “real people” and their anecdotes, Burns by default puts himself into the expert role. He then chooses not to responsibly occupy it.

    Ken Burns had a chance to reach for a higher goal with his work on Vietnam. Instead, there is no reckoning, and it is doubtful there ever will be. You can’t close the book on Vietnam if you want to keep it open for Syria, or Iran, or wherever America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits torture, assassinations, and mass killings all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public with the media’s financially-comfortable cooperation.

    Each of these wars is not the equivalent of stepping on a Lego in a darkened bedroom. It’s the same story, the same war. It has the same ending. It serves the same purpose. It’s Vietnam. We just slog through 18 hours of Vietnam documentary because it lasts 18 hours. After the 25th similar shot of helicopters landing, you may not even be sure why you’re still watching. You want to finish Burns’ documentary with the feeling the American people will rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but instead shut off the TV knowing we have, and will.



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    U.S. Garrisoning Chad

    November 21, 2014 // 3 Comments »

    chad


    Here’s a guest post from Nick Turse, first published on TomDispatch. All opinions are those of the author, though he is damn spot on with this update on America’s continuing efforts to militarize Africa.

    Admit it. You don’t know where Chad is. You know it’s in Africa, of course. But beyond that? Maybe with a map of the continent and by some process of elimination you could come close. But you’d probably pick Sudan or maybe the Central African Republic. Here’s a tip. In the future, choose that vast, arid swath of land just below Libya.

    Who does know where Chad is? That answer is simpler: the U.S. military. Recent contracting documents indicate that it’s building something there. Not a huge facility, not a mini-American town, but a small camp.

    That the U.S. military is expanding its efforts in Africa shouldn’t be a shock anymore. For years now, the Pentagon has been increasing its missions there and promoting a mini-basing boom that has left it with a growing collection of outposts sprouting across the northern tier of the continent. This string of camps is meant to do what more than a decade of counterterrorism efforts, including the training and equipping of local military forces and a variety of humanitarian hearts-and-minds missions, has failed to accomplish: transform the Trans-Sahara region in the northern and western parts of the continent into a bulwark of stability.

    That the U.S. is doing more in Chad specifically isn’t particularly astonishing either. Earlier this year, TomDispatch and the Washington Post both reported on separate recent deployments of U.S. troops to that north-central African nation. Nor is it shocking that the new American compound is to be located near the capital, N’Djamena. The U.S. has previously employed N’Djamena as a hub for its air operations. What’s striking is the terminology used in the official documents. After years of adamant claims that the U.S. military has just one lonely base in all of Africa — Camp Lemonnier in the tiny Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti — Army documents state that it will now have “base camp facilities” in Chad.

    U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) still insists that there is no Chadian base, that the camp serves only as temporary lodgings to support a Special Operations training exercise to be held next year. It also refused to comment about another troop deployment to Chad uncovered by TomDispatch. When it comes to American military activities in Africa, much remains murky.

    Nonetheless, one fact is crystal clear: the U.S. is ever more tied to Chad. This remains true despite a decade-long effort to train its military forces only to see them bolt from one mission in the face of casualties, leave another in a huff after gunning down unarmed civilians, and engage in human rights abuses at home with utter impunity. All of this suggests yet another potential source of blowback from America’s efforts in Africa which have backfired, gone bust, and sown strife from Libya to South Sudan, the Gulf Guinea to Mali, and beyond.


    A Checkered History with Chad

    Following 9/11, the U.S. launched a counterterrorism program, known as the Pan-Sahel Initiative, to bolster the militaries of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad. Three years later, in 2005, the program expanded to include Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and was renamed the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP). The idea was to turn a huge swath of Africa into a terror-resistant bulwark of stability. Twelve years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, the region is anything but stable, which means that it fits perfectly, like a missing puzzle piece, with the rest of the under-the-radar U.S. “pivot” to that continent.

    Coups by the U.S.-backed militaries of Mauritania in 2005 and again in 2008, Niger in 2010, and Mali in 2012, as well as a 2011 revolution that overthrew Tunisia’s U.S.-backed government (after the U.S.-supported army stood aside); the establishment of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2006; and the rise of Boko Haram from an obscure radical sect to a raging insurgent movement in northern Nigeria are only some of the most notable recent failures in TSCTP nations. Chad came close to making the list, too, but attempted military coups in 2006 and 2013 were thwarted, and in 2008, the government, which had itself come to power in a 1990 coup, managed to hold off against a rebel assault on the capital.

    Through it all, the U.S. has continued to mentor Chad’s military, and in return, that nation has lent its muscle to support Washington’s interests in the region. Chad, for instance, joined the 2013 U.S.-backed French military intervention to retake Mali after Islamists began routing the forces of the American-trained officer who had launched a coup that overthrew that country’s democratically elected government. According to military briefing slides obtained by TomDispatch, an Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) liaison team was deployed to Chad to aid operations in Mali and the U.S. also conducted pre-deployment training for its Chadian proxies. After initial success, the French effort became bogged down and has now become a seemingly interminable, smoldering counterinsurgency campaign. Chad, for its part, quickly withdrew its forces from the fight after sustaining modest casualties. “Chad’s army has no ability to face the kind of guerrilla fighting that is emerging in northern Mali. Our soldiers are going to return to Chad,” said that country’s president, Idriss Deby.


    Still, U.S. support continued.

    In September of 2013, the U.S. military organized meetings with Chad’s senior-most military leaders, including Army chief General Brahim Seid Mahamat, Minister of Defense General Bénaïndo Tatola, and counterterror tsar Brigadier General Abderaman Youssouf Merry, to build solid relationships and support efforts at “countering violent extremist operations objectives and theater security cooperation programs.” This comes from a separate set of documents concerning “IO,” or Information Operations, obtained from the military through the Freedom of Information Act. French officials also attended these meetings and the agenda included the former colonial power’s support of “security cooperation with Chad in the areas of basic and officer training and staff procedures” as well as “French support [for] U.S. security cooperation efforts with the Chadian military.” Official briefing slides also mention ongoing “train and equip” activities with Chadian troops.

    All of this followed on the heels of a murky coup plot by elements of the armed forces last May to which the Chadian military reacted with a crescendo of violence. According to a State Department report, Chad’s “security forces shot and killed unarmed civilians and arrested and detained members of parliament, military officers, former rebels, and others.”

    After Chad reportedly helped overthrow the Central African Republic’s president in early 2013 and later aided in the 2014 ouster of the rebel leader who deposed him, it sent its forces into that civil-war-torn land as part of an African Union mission bolstered by U.S.-backed French troops. Soon, Chad’s peacekeeping forces were accused of stoking sectarian strife by supporting Muslim militias against Christian fighters. Then, on March 29th, a Chadian military convoy arrived in a crowded marketplace in the capital, Bangui. There, according to a United Nations report, the troops “reportedly opened fire on the population without any provocation. At the time, the market was full of people, including many girls and women buying and selling produce. As panic-stricken people fled in all directions, the soldiers allegedly continued firing indiscriminately.”

    In all, 30 civilians were reportedly killed and more than 300 were wounded. Amid criticism, Chad angrily announced it was withdrawing its troops. “Despite the sacrifices we have made, Chad and Chadians have been targeted in a gratuitous and malicious campaign that blamed them for all the suffering” in the Central African Republic, declared Chad’s foreign ministry.

    In May, despite this, the U.S. sent 80 military personnel to Chad to operate drones and conduct surveillance in an effort to locate hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria. “These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area,” President Obama told Congress. The force, he said, will remain in Chad “until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required.”

    In July, AFRICOM admitted that it had reduced surveillance flights searching for the girls to focus on other missions. Now AFRICOM tells TomDispatch that, while “the U.S. continues to help Nigeria address the threat posed by Boko Haram, the previously announced ISR support deployment to Chad has departed.” Yet more than seven months after their abduction, the girls still have not been located, let alone rescued.

    In June, according to the State Department, the deputy commander of U.S. Army Africa (USARAF), Brigadier General Kenneth H. Moore, Jr., visited Chad to “celebrat[e] the successful conclusion of a partnership between USARAF and the Chadian Armed Forces.” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus arrived in that landlocked country at the same time to meet with “top Chadian officials.” His visit, according to an embassy press release, “underscore[d] the importance of bilateral relations between the two countries, as well as military cooperation.” And that cooperation has been ample.

    Earlier this year, Chadian troops joined those of the United States, Burkina Faso, Canada, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Senegal, the United Kingdom, and host nation Niger for three weeks of military drills as part of Flintlock 2014, an annual Special Ops counterterrorism exercise for TSCTP nations. At about the time Flintlock was concluding, soldiers from Chad, Cameroon, Burundi, Gabon, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, the Netherlands, and the United States took part in another annual training exercise, Central Accord 2014. The Army also sent medical personnel to mentor Chadian counterparts in “tactical combat casualty care,” while Marines and Navy personnel traveled to Chad to train that country’s militarized anti-poaching park rangers in small unit tactics and patrolling.

    A separate contingent of Marines conducted military intelligence training with Chadian officers and non-commissioned officers. The scenario for the final exercise, also involving personnel from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mauritania, Senegal, and Tunisia, had a ripped-from-the-headlines quality: “preparing for an unconventional war against an insurgent threat in Mali.”

    As for U.S. Army Africa, it sent trainers as part of a separate effort to provide Chadian troops with instruction on patrolling and fixed-site defense as well as live-fire training. “We are ready to begin training in Chad for about 1,300 soldiers — an 850 man battalion, plus another 450 man battalion,” said Colonel John Ruffing, the Security Cooperation director of U.S. Army Africa, noting that the U.S. was working in tandem with a French private security firm.

    In September, AFRICOM reaffirmed its close ties with Chad by renewing an Acquisition Cross Servicing Agreement, which allows both militaries to purchase from each other or trade for basic supplies. The open-ended pact, said Brigadier General James Vechery, AFRICOM’s director for logistics, “will continue to strengthen our bilateral cooperation on international security issues… as well as the interoperability of the armed forces of both nations.”


    The Base That Wasn’t and the Deployment That Might Be

    In the months since the Chadian armed forces’ massacre in Bangui, various U.S. military contract solicitations and related documents have pointed toward an even more substantive American presence in Chad. In late September, the Army put out a call for bids to sustain American personnel for six months at those “base camp facilities” located near N’Djamena. Supporting documents specifically mention 35 U.S. personnel and detail the services necessary to run an austere outpost: field sanitation, bulk water supply, sewage services, and trash removal. The materials indicate that “local security policy and procedures” are to be provided by the Chadian armed forces and allude to the use of more than one location, saying “none of the sites in Chad are considered U.S.-federally controlled facilities.” The documents state that such support for those facilities is to run until July 2015.

    After AFRICOM failed to respond to repeated email requests for further information, I called up Chief of Media Operations Benjamin Benson and asked about the base camp. He was even more tight-lipped than usual. “I personally don’t know anything,” he told me. “That’s not saying AFRICOM doesn’t have any information on that.”

    In follow-up emails, Benson eventually told me that the “base camp” is strictly a temporary facility to be used by U.S. forces only for the duration of the upcoming Flintlock 2015 exercise. He stated in no uncertain terms: “We are not establishing a base/forward presence/contingency location, building a U.S. facility, or stationing troops in Chad.”

    Benson would not, however, let me speak with an expert on U.S. military activities in Chad. Nor would he confirm or deny the continued presence of the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance liaison team deployed to Chad in 2013 to support the French mission in Mali, first reported on by TomDispatch this March. “[W]e cannot discuss ISR activities or the locations and durations of operational deployments,” he wrote. If an ISR team is still present in Chad, this would represent a substantive long-term deployment despite the lack of a formal U.S. base.

    The N’Djamena “base camp” is just one of a series of Chadian projects mentioned in recent contracting documents. An Army solicitation from September sought “building materials for use in Chad,” while supporting documents specifically mention an “operations center/multi-use facility.” That same month, the Army awarded a contract for the transport of equipment from Niamey, Niger, the home of another of the growing network of U.S. outposts in Africa, to N’Djamena. The Army also began seeking out contractors capable of supplying close to 600 bunk beds that could support an American-sized weight of 200 to 225 pounds for a facility “in and around the N’Djamena region.” And just last month, the military put out a call for a contractor to supply construction equipment — a bulldozer, dump truck, excavator, and the like — for a project in, you guessed it, N’Djamena.

    This increased U.S. interest in Chad follows on the heels of a push by France, the nation’s former colonial overlord and America’s current premier proxy in Africa, to beef up its military footprint on the continent. In July, following U.S.-backed French military interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic, French President François Hollande announced a new mission, Operation Barkhane (a term for a crescent-shaped sand dune found in the Sahara). Its purpose: a long-term counterterrorism operation involving 3,000 French troops deployed to a special forces outpost in Burkina Faso and forward operating bases in Mali, Niger, and not surprisingly, Chad.

    “There are plenty of threats in all directions,” Hollande told French soldiers in Chad, citing militants in Mali and Libya as well as Boko Haram in Nigeria. “Rather than having large bases that are difficult to manage in moments of crisis, we prefer installations that can be used quickly and efficiently.” Shortly afterward, President Obama approved millions in emergency military aid for French operations in Mali, Niger, and Chad, while the United Kingdom, another former colonial power in the region, dispatched combat aircraft to the French base in N’Djamena to contribute to the battle against Boko Haram.


    From Setback to Blowback?

    In recent years, the U.S. military has been involved in a continual process of expanding its presence in Africa. Out of public earshot, officials have talked about setting up a string of small bases across the northern tier of the continent. Indeed, over the last years, U.S. staging areas, mini-bases, and outposts have popped up in the contiguous nations of Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and, skipping Chad, in the Central African Republic, followed by South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. A staunch American ally with a frequent and perhaps enduring American troop presence, Chad seems like the natural spot for still another military compound — the only missing link in a long chain of countries stretching from west to east, from one edge of the continent to the other — even if AFRICOM continues to insist that there’s no American “base” in the works.

    Even without a base, the United States has for more than a decade poured copious amounts of money, time, and effort into making Chad a stable regional counterterrorism partner, sending troops there, training and equipping its army, counseling its military leaders, providing tens of millions of dollars in aid, funding its military expeditions, supplying its army with equipment ranging from tents to trucks, donating additional equipment for its domestic security forces, providing a surveillance and security system for its border security agents, and looking the other way when its military employed child soldiers.

    The results? A flight from the fight in Mali, a massacre in the Central African Republic, hundreds of schoolgirls still in the clutches of Boko Haram, and a U.S. alliance with a regime whose “most significant human rights problems,” according to the most recent country report by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “were security force abuse, including torture; harsh prison conditions; and discrimination and violence against women and children,” not to mention the restriction of freedom of speech, press, assembly, and movement, as well as arbitrary arrest and detention, denial of fair public trial, executive influence on the judiciary, property seizures, child labor and forced labor (that also includes children), among other abuses. Amnesty International further found that human rights violations “are committed with almost total impunity by members of the Chadian military, the Presidential Guard, and the state intelligence bureau, the Agence Nationale de Securité.”

    With Chad, the United States finds itself more deeply involved with yet another authoritarian government and another atrocity-prone proxy force. In this, it continues a long series of mistakes, missteps, and mishaps across Africa. These include an intervention in Libya that transformed the country from an autocracy into a near-failed state, training efforts that produced coup leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso, American nation-building that led to a failed state in South Sudan, anti-piracy measures that flopped in the Gulf of Guinea, the many fiascos of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, the training of an elite Congolese unit that committed mass rapes and other atrocities, problem-plagued humanitarian efforts in Djibouti and Ethiopia, and the steady rise of terror groups in U.S.-backed countries like Nigeria and Tunisia.

    In other words, in its shadowy “pivot” to Africa, the U.S. military has compiled a record remarkably low on successes and high on blowback. Is it time to add Chad to this growing list?



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    Posted in Iraq

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

    April 25, 2013 // 12 Comments »

    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.

    Accountability?

    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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    America’s Shadow Wars on the Rise

    August 11, 2012 // 4 Comments »

    Nick Turse’s changing face of empire series has been especially popular at TomDispatch. His most recent piece on how the U.S. military presence is spreading in Africa was publicly disputed by U.S. Africa Command, leading to a debate between AFRICOM and Turse about American actions. Now, his latest on proxy wars fills us in on where the American way of war is going: Washington Puts Its Money on Proxy War, The Election Year Outsourcing That No One Is Talking About.

    The U.S. fought a proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, arming the mujahedeen against the Soviets and look where that got us: to 9/11 and into an Afghan War all our own. Nonetheless, tired of vast numbers of American combat boots on the Eurasian mainland, Washington has looked over history and decided to try again, writes TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse in the latest piece in his “changing face of empire” series.

    Proxy war, he tells us, is going to be a major component of the American way in the decades to come. While it may sound like a formula for success on the cheap, it is, he writes, a potential danger of the first order. “Right now, the U.S. is once again training, advising, and conducting joint exercises all over the world with proxy war on its mind and the concept of ‘unintended consequences’ nowhere in sight in Washington. Whether today’s proxies end up working for or against Washington’s interests or even become tomorrow’s enemies remains to be seen. But with so much training going on in so many destabilized regions, and so many proxy forces being armed in so many places, the chances of blowback grow greater by the day.”

    From Afghanistan to Honduras, Asia to Africa, Turse explores the stunning myriad of training missions the U.S. military has undertaken, something most Americans know nothing about. He explores our present proxy war in Somalia and other potential proxy battles to come. He considers how Washington is planning to outsource fighting duties to local proxies around the world, and just how it’s laying the groundwork for the extensive use of surrogate forces in the future, training “native” troops to carry out missions — up to and including outright warfare.



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    Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050

    May 31, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    The future is now. This new Ebook Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 is the first unclassified history of US drone warfare, written as it happened.

    From the opening missile salvo in the skies over Afghanistan in 2001 to a secret strike in the Philippines early this year, or a future in which drones dogfight off the coast of Africa, Terminator Planet takes you to the front lines of combat, Washington war rooms, and beyond.

    Drawing on several years of research, including official documents, open-source intelligence, and interviews with military officers, two of the foremost analysts specializing in drone war offer a sobering, factual account of robot warfare combined with critical analyses found nowhere else.

    Loaded with rarely seen Pentagon photos, Terminator Planet provides a rich history of the last decade of drone warfare, a clear-eyed look at its present, and a far-reaching guide to its future.

    Want more drone? Check TomDispatch for a devastating look at a weapons system that’s failing to perform as promised, but ever more disastrously embedded in our world — Nick Turse, “A Drone-Eat-Drone World, With Its ‘Roadmap’ in Tatters, the Pentagon Detours to Terminator Planet.”

    People, we’ve left behind the fiction of Hollywood for a less high-tech but distinctly dystopian reality. It isn’t quite the movies and it isn’t what the Pentagon mapped out, but it indisputably provides a clear path to a grim and grimy Terminator Planet.



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