The Real Vietnam War
Aberrations, bad apples, one-offs. These are the explanations usually marshaled to explain the abhorrent crimes committed during the U.S. military’s war in Vietnam. The now well-known horror of the My Lai massacre, in which hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were butchered, women and girls raped, and homes burnt, was used as a rallying cry for anti-war protestors as news of its existence exploded into public with the investigative reporting of Seymour Hersh. We owe a great deal to his work, together with a single Vietnam veteran named Ron Ridenhour, who did all the ground work of collecting eyewitness testimony. But there was an unfortunate paradox to My Lai. Its almost unspeakable barbarism muted smaller-scale violences mete out in South Vietnam. And as a “singular event” it worked to minimize, even hide, the institutional background against which it occurred and was nurtured by. For Ridenhour, speaking in Nick Turse’s indispensable new book “Kill Anything that Moves“, My Lai was not an aberration, it was an operation.
The book is unwavering in its message: the Vietnam war was a system of violence of industrial scale, that was at best indifferent to the targeting of civilians, and at worst, was squarely directed towards them.
Turse uses documents from the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret Pentagon task force created after the My Lai massacre. The files included more than 300 allegations ranging from rapes to massacres to mutilations. It contained a further 500 allegations that weren’t substantiated. “Still, the War Crimes Working Group files alone demonstrated that atrocities were committed by members of every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed without the rest of its division—that is, every major army unit in Vietnam” (p.21).
The first “official” American combat troops landed in Vietnam in 1965, although the roots of the conflict go back to French colonialism. In the 19th century, France took control of Vietnam as well as Cambodia and Laos, naming the annexed region as “French Indochina”. Rubber, or “white gold”, was a key export. By the early twentieth century, anger at the French had grown to a national movement for independence; its leaders finding inspiration from Russian communism in particular. During the Second World War it was occupied by the Japanese. To combat the Japanese forces and their French administrators, a guerrilla, anti-colonial organization was formed – Viet Minh. These guerrillas actually aided the U.S. war effort, and received support from the OSS (the predecessor to the CIA in turn. And yet, after the war, the U.S. and saw little value in sanctioning a communist-led independence movement in a former French colony. “Instead, U.S. ships helped transport French troops to Vietnam, and the administration of President Harry Truman threw its support behind a French reconquest of Indochina” (p.7)
By 1953, the U.S. was shouldering most of the bill to help the French, and the conflict soon evolved from guerrilla warfare into a more conventional campaign. At an international peace conference in Geneva in 1954, the French agreed to temporarily partition the country into the North and South, which were to be rejoined as one nation following a reunification election in 1956. Fearing a landslide victory to the Communist north under Ho Chi Minh, the U.S. began piling its army into the South. This paved the way of the Republic of Vietnam in the south, led by a Catholic autocrat called Ngo Dinh Diem. The US supported this corrupt and repressive southern state throughout the 1950s, while steadily increasing its presence, with thousands of “advisers” trickling into the country in the early 1960s. Under Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the fiction of advisers ended and a full-scale war was declared. At the peak of operations in 1969, the war involved more than 540,000 troops, plus some 100,000 to 200,000 troops outside of Vietnam assisting in operations, as well as numerous CIA operatives. Officially this lasted until 1973 when a ceasefire was signed, although support would continue until the fall of Saigon in 1975.
From the U.S. perspective, the enemy was composed of two distinct groups: members of the North Vietnamese army and indigenous South Vietnamese fighters loyal to the National Liberation Front – the revolutionary organization that succeeded the Viet Minh and opposed the U.S.-Saigon relationship. These fighters included peasants and uniformed professionals. The U.S. invented the moniker “Viet Cong” for anyone that was a Vietnamese Communist in the south. Often, however, the guerrillas were driven more by nationalism than communism. Indeed, many in the U.S. characterized the war from the outset: believing it to be a war of North versus South, of Communism versus Democracy–when in fact, the conflict was for many Vietnamese, if not most, a “people’s war”, a revolutionary battle no different from French or Japanese occupation. Of course, not every Vietnamese villager believed in the revolution – there were plenty of Saigon supporters, and many more farmers that simply wanted nothing to do with the fighting.
In any case, by 1968 there were an estimated 50,000 North Vietnamese troops, plus 60,000 uninformed PLAF personnel (Viet Cong, or VC), as well as hundreds of thousands of part-time fighters. In short, there were fighters from the North Vietnamese Army (referred to as NVA at the time, but properly named the Vietnam People’s Army ) and fighters from the Vietcong, the South’s equivalent, a sub-branch under the same command structure. From 1955 to 1975, the U.S. lost more than 58,000 military personnel, with many more injured and wounded. The military of the Republic of Vietnam lost more than 254,000, with over 783,000 wounded. As for the revolutionary forces – perhaps 1.7 million casualties, with a million killed in battle, with 300,000 still officially “missing”. Civilian causalities were far worse: 65,000 North Vietnamese were killed, mainly from U.S. air raids. In South Vietnam, it is likely that between 2 and 4 million were killed, and many more suffered injuries.
A System of Suffering
By the mid-1960s, the American military had revolutionized its war machine, executing what James Gibson famously called a “technowar” that resembled a corporatized, quantitatively engineered system. Vietnam, in many ways, was the crucible for the conduct of modern warfare. As Turse summarizes, “The philosophy behind it was simple: by combining American technological and economic prowess with sophisticated managerial capacities the Pentagon meant to guarantee ultimate success on the battlefield. The country’s unmatched military capability would allow it to impose its will anywhere in the world, with the war machine functioning as smoothly and predictably as an assembly line” (p.41). Technowar would find in Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense between 1961 and 1968, its architect. McNamara was keen to convert the Pentagon into a system based on the business principles he learned during his time at Ford Motor Company and Harvard Business School. “McNamara and his national security technocrats were sure that, given enough data, warfare could be made completely rational, comprehensible, and controllable” (p.42). Rationality was the Grim Reaper.
Two statistics circulated in this system like adrenaline coursing through the arteries of the human body: the “crossover point” at which more Vietnamese were dieing than could be replaced, and the “body count”. The latter is crucial to understanding the development of the entire war. Although it derived from the Korean War, calculating the number of war dead was the U.S. military’s raison d’être in Vietnam. It was the body count that often drove the atrocities that would begin to emerge with frightening regularity, “incentivizing brutality”. Some units even competed with each other, translating death into sports statistics, displayed on charts and chalkboards at military bases.
Circulating with these morbid numbers was the institutional racism that came from high above, crystallized in the ubiquitous use of “gook”. This epithet entered the military’s vocabulary during the Philippines. That the Vietnamese were somehow less than human was summed up in the “mere-gook rule”, or MGR. “The MGR mentality excused all manner of atrocities and encouraged troops to kill without compunction” (p.50)
Of course, the Vietnam war was a conflict that, on paper, followed the Rules of Engagement. Yet specific command policies encouraged civilian slaughter – such as “search and destroy” missions and “free-fire zones”. The former was the main mission of U.S. troops – to locate Vietnamese revolutionaries, or “find, fix, and finish”, flushing them out of hiding. To many, it was shorthand for the systematic destruction of hamlets, and sometimes everyone inside of them. Often U.S. patrols were used to “bait” the enemy. But the Vietnamese didn’t always take the bait – and when they did – it was on their terms – meaning the U.S. was invariably on the back foot.
The notion of the “free-fire” or “free-strike” zone did away with the distinction between civilians and combatants altogether. In such spaces, everyone was assumed to be the enemy. Yet it wasn’t quite the license to kill, as the laws of war still applied in these areas. But many failed to make that distinction. In September 1965, General Westmoreland issued MCAV Directive Number 525-3, which turned vast swathes of the South Vietnamese countryside into free strike zones. Most of the countryside was theoretically open to attack. Loudspeakers were meant to warn civilians, but often no warning came. generations. The second aim of free-fire zones was to forcibly remove villagers from territory controlled by the NLF into Saigon-controlled areas, a process known as “pacification”. Those villagers who did elect to leave their ancestral homes arrived to government conditions so squalid they were indistinguishable from concentration camps.
The logic of the “free-fire” zone was not exclusive to the countryside. Following the NLF’s “Tet Offensive” in January 1968, the U.S. responded in kind by targeting vast swathes of urban areas in the same way they had subdued the rural. In Saigon, more than 125,000 were left homeless (p. 102). Hue, a city in South Vietnam, also suffered severely. There, the U.S. unleashed “an astonishing six hundred tons of bombs, plus barrages from artillery and tank cannons” (p. 103). More than 14,000 civilians were killed during the Tet (Counter-)Offensive, most of them by U.S. firepower, and 627,000 people were made homeless (p.104)
In Vietnam, the U.S. mustered a weapons arsenal like never before – from electronic sensors, to drones, to millions of gallons of chemical defoliants, chemical gases, and canisters of napalm. There were several advancements in anti-personnel weapons made too, with cluster bombs containing razor-sharp fragments (the “pineapple”and “guava” bomblets were particularly ruthless and indiscriminating). Vietnam thus served as a “laboratory” for new concepts and equipment. That this armada might not prevail against guerrillas in an agrarian country was inconceivable to the military mind.
The statistics Turse highlights are staggering. On average, between 1965 and 1968, 32 tons of bombs per hour were dropped on the North. Yet the South received the majority of bombs dropped in Southeast Asia – equivalent to 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. Millions of combat sorties were flown – with 126,615 B-52 combat sorties carrying out devastating strikes. Most strikes, however, were carried out by fighter-bombers, F-4 Phantoms. It was “the most intense bombing campaign in history” (p.80).
In addition to the hailstorm of antipersonnel weapons, the U.S. directly attacked the ecosystem of the Vietnamese, which produced equally adverse and deadly environmental effects. Rice paddies, orchards, farms, gardens, and water buffalo were deliberately targeted. The slaughter of animals was a key component of American destruction. This is in addition to the millions of acres of forest subject to saturation bombing and defoliants. The U.S. military sprayed more than 70 million liters of herbal agent, including the infamous Agent Orange. Defoliation led to crippling hunger, and caused a rupture in the fabric of rural civic life. Such was the scale of devastation that Vietnam soon became a rice importer. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, by 1970, 600,0000 people had had their food supply disrupted by the defoliation campaign.
It was a war against life, a war that didn’t differentiate between the human and the nonhuman, a war that used napalm, tanks, tractors, and defoliants to punish, pacify, and eradicate an entire ecosystem: ecocide.
Sexual Violence and Torture
Women and children bore the brunt of some of the most depraved acts committed by American soldiers–troops that were still teenagers, ripped from suburbia and thrown into an otherworldly jungle, guided only be the endless institutional injunction to “kill anything that moves”. Perhaps as many of 500,000 women and girls turned to prostitution, many crowded into Saigon, which became one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Sexual violence and sexual exploitation was an omnipresent part of the American war according to the evidence gleaned from Turse. Many rapes took place in the field: “double veterans” was the name given to GIs that raped then murdered a woman. The stories that Turse tells can be found in the book – some are simply too awful to repeat here, replete as they are with tails of gang rape and vaginal mutilation.
Since 1950 the CIA had worked on perfecting several torture techniques – culminating in the 1963 handbook ‘Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation’ manual. Working through USAID, from 1962 to 1974, the CIA helped teach its technique to security forces around the world, including many Vietnamese. The CIA helped modernize and expand the South Vietnamese intelligence infrastructure. “By the end of 1965, South Vietnam had an interrogation center in every province, where electrical torture, beatings, and rape were commonplace. By 1971 the CIA techniques had been taught to 85,000 South Vietnamese government agents” (174). Just in case you missed it: the CIA, in a policy repeated in South America, taught torture techniques to the Saigon intelligence infrastructure. One of the most outrageous nodes in this disciplinary archipelago was Con Son Prison and its infamous “tiger cages” – a prison rebuilt by U.S. defense contractors. According to Turse, U.S. interrogators used torture as a matter of routine, and detainee abuse was often covered up, as was summary execution.
Image: Vietnamese women and children in Mỹ Lai before being killed in the massacre, March 16, 1968. According to the testimony, they were killed seconds after the photo was taken.Photo by Ronald L. Haeberle
From this lethal infrastructure of murder, abuse, and torture, it was only a small step to systematic targeted killing. The CIA was involved in the engineering of one such project, the Phoenix program. This employed U.S .troops as well as South Vietnamese, and other hired guns, to assassinate members of the NLF and those that supported the NLF. In 1969, the program reported 18,534 enemy “neutralizations”, including 4,832 killed. Thousands of those neutralized, most even, were not senior NLF, and were killed, captured, or interrogated to meet quotas or as a result of malicious grudges. The program was another instance of uncontrolled violence that probably killed upward of 20,000 people (p.190). “Phoenix was a program run amok, but it was also the logical result of a military campaign driven by the body count and run under the precept of the mere-gook rule” (p. 191).
Speedy Express and the Butcher of the Delta
Turse documents two of the most effective killers in Vietnam. The first is Sergeant Roy Bumgarner, of the army’s 1st Cavalry Division and then 173rd Airborne Brigade. Bumgarner led “wildcat” teams that killed many innocent civilians. After notching up a 1,500 plus body count, he was convicted of murdering three innocent and alleged to have killed many more during the war. Colonel John Donaldson was another “bad apple”. While standing as a General he was charged with committing war crimes. But the witnesses fell through.
But here Turse circles back to the main message of the book. Their individual, subjective acts of violence pale in comparison “with the industrial-scale slaughter that was set in motion around the same time by Julian Ewell, a battle-hardened World War II hero” (p.204). He soon became known as “the Butcher of the Delta”.
Ewell was in charge of the Mekong Delta region. The region was intersected with canals and waterways. Some 5 to 6 million were packed into an area of less than 15,000 square miles. The delta was South Vietnam’s most fertile region, and it was a revolutionary stronghold. After the 9th Division arrived in February 1968, Ewell, along with his chief of staff, Colonel Ira Hunt, set about reshaping into a force that would wage unrestrained war. Total war. Ewell was obsessed with the body count. Before he took over, the 9th Infantry Division had a ratio of around eight dead for every American killed during large unit operations. Ewell and Hunt wanted it to be the highest ratio in the land. By July, these “elimination ratios” had almost doubled to 14:1.
That summer, planning began for a large scale offensive for the dry season. Known as “Speedy Express”, this offensive would run from December 1968 to May 1969, with 9th Division troops conducting missions across most of the delta provinces. The U.S. brought everything it could bring to bear on the Mekong Delta – helicopter gunships, B-52s, Phantoms carrying canisters of napalm, Navy ships shelling from the seas, Swift Boats, elite tams of Navy SEALS, snipers, and the regular infantry by the thousands. The kill ratio eventually climbed to 134:1 in April, twice the kill ratio of the next most prolific division. And yet, even by the army’s own estimates, the number of enemy forces never declined (p.209). In the first month of Speedy Express, nighttime “hunter killer” missions were introduced. Troops fired with primitive night-vision devices, identifying targets with tracer fire, which then clued in a helicopter to fire upon an approximate area. The night missions were wildly inaccurate.
Speedy Express was a living hell for civilians in the delta. Two Newsweek workers, Kevin Buckley and Alexander Shimkin put the pieces together and first uncovered Speedy Express (by looking at the enemy deaths to weapons found ratios, which were massively skewed, indicating that most killed were civilians, not combatants). This was the game-changing revelation left after My Lai, and Westmoreland new it. But its details would never reach the public.
So what was the “real” Vietnam war? It was certainly more than My Lai. It was certainly more than a few bad apples–such as the single individual prosecuted for the the butchering. The war was underwritten by policies that engineered industrial slaughter. Encouraging troops to “kill anything that moves”.
Turse laments that the Vietnam war has been lost to a vast literature that downplays the systematic violence of the period, either by narrowly focusing on My Lai, or worse yet, simply ignoring the trails of massacres.
These are the wandering ghosts that still haunt the U.S. today, writes Turse.
His book, researched for over a decade, at least finds a resting place for those spirits that can no longer talk, and for those stories that cannot–and should not–be ignored.