DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. The My Lai massacre stands as one of the most shocking atrocities in American military history. For over four hours on March 15, 1968, American soldiers methodically slaughtered more than 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians.
But our guest, writer Nick Turse, says that the abuse and murder of civilians was far more common in the Vietnam War than most Americans imagine. His new book, based on a decade of research in military archives and extensive interviews with Vietnam vets and Vietnamese civilians, argues that murder, torture, rape, indiscriminate bombing and artillery fire, home burnings and forced displacement, were virtually a daily fact of life during the Vietnam War. And he says such acts were the inevitable outcomes of deliberate policies dictated at the highest levels of the U.S. military.
Nick Turse is the managing editor for TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. His reporting on Vietnam has earned a Ridenhour Prize for reportorial distinction, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a fellowship at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. His 2008 book on the influence of the military on American society is called "The Complex." His new book is "Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam."
Nick Turse, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, everyone knows the story of the My Lai massacre, more than 500 civilians killed by American troops. And it took more than a year for it to come to light, when an Army whistleblower did everything he could, wrote to senators. Eventually Seymour Hersh published the story. There was a military investigation. But your book essentially argues that such massacres, that civilian deaths were far more common than many realize.
And you got into this when you were studying post-traumatic stress disorder and happened upon a remarkable record in the National Archives. What was it?
NICK TURSE: These were the records of what was known as the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. This was basically a task force run out of the Pentagon, run out of the Army Chief of Staff's office. This was General William Westmoreland, who had just a couple years earlier been the supreme commander in Vietnam. So he had a vested interest in what the public perception of the war was.
And he convened this task force in the wake of the My Lai massacre to make certain that the military was never caught flat-footed again, as it was with the My Lai story. And basically it was several colonels in his office who kept tabs on all war crimes investigations being carried out by the U.S. Army, allegations that were made in public, and they tracked these for the secretary of defense's office, for the White House.
They kept tabs on everything that was going on, and whenever possible they tamped down allegations to make sure that they wouldn't become public, as My Lai did.
DAVIES: So these were records of reported atrocities and civilian deaths - over what period and how many incidents?
TURSE: Well, there were about 300 incidents that were founded in military terminology; that is, the military was able to corroborate them, and could have taken criminal action. Then there were hundreds more that are considered unfounded. Many of these were cases that were, you know, closed with little or seemingly no investigation done.
To give an example, in these records there were the allegations of mass atrocities by the 101st Airborne Division, a special unit from the division called the Tiger Force. And these are considered unfounded in the records. But back in 2003 the Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the atrocities carried out by this Tiger Force unit.
DAVIES: So in 2001, more than 25 years after the United States left Vietnam, you find this incredible record of reported atrocities that essentially had remained buried.
TURSE: It had. These records were sitting down in the archives basement for years. When they were brought to my attention, I asked the archivist, I said, you know, who's worked with these before? And he told me that people had looked at one or two individual case files but that no one had really worked with the records in total.
And when I took a look at them, I realized that these weren't in the secondary literature anywhere. Most of these cases had never been written about by historians. So I knew that there was, you know, that this was a significant collection. It took me a while, but I decided that I needed to work with it.
DAVIES: Did you rent a room at the National Archives or something?
TURSE: When I first found these records, I was a graduate student. I was working on another dissertation at the time, and I was about 200 pages in. So I contacted a couple Vietnam War historians that I knew and tried to get them to work on it. I said that they really need to get down there.
And one of them told me that he thought that I should, I should do this, that, you know, that he was burnt out on the war. He had moved on to another project. But this was something that I should do, but I should get down there right away.
So I went to my dissertation adviser and I said: Do you think that I can write a book and my dissertation at the same time? And he told me that he thought I was crazy. But he said, you know, if it's that important, then you should shift to this topic. And I said to him: OK, but, you know, I'll have to put together a grant proposal. You know, I didn't - I was, you know, a grad student at the time. I didn't have the funds for this project. And he wrote me out a check on the spot and he said to get down there right away before these records disappear.
So within 24 hours I was in my car and I drove down to the National Archives, and I put every cent that he gave me into copying. And I would copy from the moment the archives opened in the morning until they kicked me out at night, and then because I put all the money into copying, I went and slept in my car in the archives parking lot.
And I did this for a couple of nights, and by the end of it I had the whole collection, and you know, I thought my advisor was being a little paranoid, but you know, it turned out to be excellent advice because sometime after I published my first article on this, the records were pulled from the archive shelves, and they haven't been on the public shelves since.
DAVIES: You spoke to a lot of servicemen. You said most of them were willing to talk to you. And you were particularly struck by a former medic named Jamie Henry(ph). Tell us his story.
TURSE: Jamie Henry really affected my life. He was a self-described hippie living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District before the war. But he was drafted and he became a medic, and by all accounts a very good one. He saved a lot of American lives, and he was universally praised by the men who served with him.
But he was also exceptionally shocked by what he saw in Vietnam. He told me that on his first day in the field, he watched the point man, the lead man of his patrol, detain a young girl and molest her. And he thought to himself, you know, my God, what's going on here? And over the ensuing months, he watched a litany of atrocities take place: a young boy executed for no reason; an old man who was used for target practice; a prisoner thrown off a cliff; a man who was held down to be run over by an armored personnel carrier, basically a small tank.
And when he first spoke up about brutality, his life was threatened. And even his friends came up to him afterwards and said, you know, listen, you better keep your mouth shut, or you're going to get a bullet in the back during a firefight.
So Jamie did keep his mouth shut, but he kept his eyes open. He kept cataloguing everything he saw. And the culmination of this was on February 8, 1968, his unit rolled into a very small hamlet, and the commanding officer, a West Point-trained captain, ordered the civilians in that hamlet rounded up, and a lieutenant asked what should be done with these civilians.
And the captain answered: Kill anything that moves. Jamie heard this over the radio. He had sat down to take a break and was smoking a cigarette. He heard this order, kill anything that moves. And he got up, and he tried to make his way towards the caption to see if he could intervene and rescind this order in some way.
But he was just seconds late. He arrived on the scene to see five men arranged around these civilians open up on full automatic with their M-16 rifles and kill about 20 women and children.
DAVIES: And he tried to raise these issues publicly after he got out of Vietnam. And what's fascinating about his story is that as far as he knew, no one had ever taken him seriously. When you looked at the records, you found that in fact he'd had some impact.
TURSE: That's right. You know, Jamie told me that 30 seconds after the massacre, he vowed to blow the whistle on it. And he came home and he reported it to an Army lawyer, but this Army lawyer told him to keep quiet because there are a million ways that the Army can make you disappear.
He talked to an Army criminal investigator, but that man threatened him. He wrote to two congressmen, but he got no reply. He joined with other (unintelligible) spoke out at public forums. He published an article. He held a press conference. But he could never get any real traction. And eventually he gave up.
And it was only when I showed up on his doorstep, you know, decades later with phonebook-size stacks of records, that was the first time that he knew that the Army conducted a serious investigation and that they had corroborated everything he'd said and talked to his fellow unit members, who told an even more, an even grimmer story, because they had seen things that Jamie hadn't.
And - but of course that was kept secret from him and from the American public for 40 years.
DAVIES: And was anyone punished at all?
TURSE: No, the Army determined that charges could be - about 30 charges could be brought in connection with the crimes that Jamie and others in the unit had given testimony about. But no one was ever court-martialed or disciplined in any way.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Nick Turse. His new book is "Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Nick Turse. He's written a book about civilian deaths and atrocities by American troops in Vietnam. It's called "Kill Anything that Moves."
Your book is remarkable in its detail of civilian deaths and atrocities. But you make the point of the book, that it wasn't simply the actions of individual soldiers but that there were command policies which led to that. And I want to talk about some of those issues here.
One of the things that we used to hear a lot back in the Vietnam era was the body count. In the nightly news there would be how many enemy troops had been killed. Explain what - where the phrase comes from and how it affected civilian casualties.
TURSE: Sure. The United States fought the Vietnam War using an attrition strategy, something that came out of the second half of the Korean War. They pursued the idea of a crossover point where they could kill more Vietnamese guerrillas than the enemy could put into the field.
The idea was - this was Robert McNamara's Pentagon. He had an idea that war could be effectively managed like a business. So the enemy would see more debits than credits on its ledger sheet and decide that they would just give up the war when they saw that it was a futile effort.
And the way to achieve this attrition strategy was body count, basically killing your way to victory, piling up Vietnamese bodies. And, you know, this ended up having a - it was ruinous for Vietnamese civilians because American troops in the field learned rather quickly that their commanders weren't all that discerning about what bodies were turned in, that you could have a very high body count and very few or no weapons to show for it, and the military command would look the other way.
They had this, only this one metric, really, to go by - body count. And they really never rethought how to fight the war. So when they weren't able to achieve victory through attrition, through the body count, basically the only recourse was to increase the firepower, and this was just turned loose on the Vietnamese countryside.
DAVIES: And you found evidence in your research that commanders either knew of or tolerated civilian deaths being included in body counts. I mean there were tote boards on rooms and - what, instructions and commands given?
TURSE: Yeah, you know, one particular case that I go into in some detail was Operation Speedy Express. That was the codename. It was carried out in the deep south of South Vietnam, in the Mekong Delta area. And there was a commander down there who became rather notorious within the military and without. He was known as the Butcher of the Mekong Delta.
And his name was General Julian Ewell. His subordinates said that he was a body count fanatic. He just, he just demanded bodies. And he leaned hard on the troops to produce them. And lower-level officers knew that they couldn't really come in from the field without a body count, and they were really forced to stay in the field. So they were courting injury and exhaustion.
And so they were hard-pressed, and they knew they needed to bring in the bodies for Ewell. And during an - this Operation Speedy Express, the Ninth Infantry Division ended up with an enemy body count of close to 11,000 Vietnamese, but only had 748 weapons to show for it.
And I would eventually find evidence in the records of a whistleblower who talked about the fact that the unit's policies were to unleash firepower on villages rather indiscriminately, and civilians were regularly called in as enemy dead, and commanding officers just looked the other way.
And I found in the military's own records, they eventually did a study of Speedy Express, and they determined that between 5,000 and 7,000 of the dead were civilians.
DAVIES: And you described - a lot of these deaths would occur when troops in helicopters would encounter someone on the ground, perhaps somebody in a rice paddy or on the Mekong River in a sampan boat. And what were the rules of engagement which allowed them fire upon people who might or might not be, you know, hostile forces?
TURSE: Well, they made it very easy to fire because evasive action was the term that was used. So basically anyone who ran became fair game in what were called free fire zones. So it wasn't - it wasn't odd for a helicopter to hover over people in a field until they got too frightened to stand still anymore, and they would make a break for cover or for a bunker, and then they would be gunned down.
Sometimes troops on the ground did this too. They frightened people into running and then used that as the pretext to kill them. And it was called in as guerrilla taking evasive action. And a lot of times, I mean the American troops at the time were generally 18, 19, 20 years old. They were operating in a very harsh environment. They were under a great deal of pressure. They had a lot of incentives to turn in a high body count that would help get them out of the field.
And you know, they would see someone running in what they called black pajamas, which were the loose-fitting black clothes that just about everyone in the countryside wore, farmers and guerrillas, and it was in their estimation a lot of times safer to just shoot first because they knew that no one would ask questions later.
DAVIES: Explain what free fire zones were.
TURSE: Sure. This was a legalistic-sounding term that the military came up with. The idea was that you would warn people in a given area, a large swath of the countryside, that the area would be opened up to unrestricted fire. And the people would - you know, the idea was that they would leave this area and that this would break the connection between the people and the guerrillas.
You know, the U.S. tried to accomplish this by announcements from the loudspeakers on planes or helicopters or by dropping leaflets on a generally illiterate population. And they tried to get people to, you know, leave the countryside for refugee centers, where there was a great deal of privation, or city slums. And generally they did a poor job of this.
But once they created this legal fiction of the free fire zone, then they believed that they could just blanket the countryside with heavy firepower, with bombs and artillery, and open it up for the helicopter gunships, and that everyone out there would then be a de facto enemy.
And, you know, the Vietnamese were exceptionally tied to their land. They weren't apt to leave it because this was the place where their ancestors were buried. They believed that they had to be there to venerate them. This was their rice fields were. So the Vietnamese generally tried to eke out an existence in these free fire zones. Even when they went into the refugee camps, generally they filtered back out because even in that, the horrific circumstances in the countryside, they found life there somewhat more bearable.
DAVIES: Right. Now, we're speaking in general terms here, but the book is full of many detailed accounts of Vietnamese civilians, rural villagers, peasants who happened to be in areas that were regarded as free fire zones who were simply cut down with machine guns or killed by artillery fire.
TURSE: Yes, this was, you know, an all-too-common story. And this is how most Vietnamese died. You know, we'll never know exactly how many Vietnamese civilians died in the war. But the best estimates we have indicate that about two million civilians were killed. Add to that about 5.3 million civilian wounded, around 11 million refugees, and as many as four million exposed to toxic defoliants like Agent Orange.
It's suffering on an almost unimaginable scale, and it was generally due to heavy firepower. It's not these micro-level atrocities in most circumstances.
DAVIES: Nick Turse's book is "Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who is off this week. We're speaking with journalist Nick Turse who spent years researching reports of civilian deaths in Vietnam - going through military archives and interviewing Vietnam vets and Vietnamese citizens. He concludes that murder, rape, torture and other abuses were far more common in the war than most Americans ever knew. His book is called "Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam."
You know, I want to note that there are 80 pages of footnotes in your book and a lot of these cases are very detailed and they're very troubling. But, you know, the scale of it matters here because we're talking about a war that lasted for, I mean in terms of active American presence, seven or eight years. A big country, 19 million people, civilians and two and a half million Americans served in Vietnam. And if there are several hundred cases, I mean one is too many. They're all very troubling. But how do you know that looking at them you might not be exaggerating their frequency in a country in which there was so much war involving so many millions of people over such a long period. I mean how do you judge the scale of this?
TURSE: Well, I, you know, I spent 12 years working on this project. I used U.S. government records. I spoke to well over 100 veterans. I did fieldwork in Vietnam. And I also, I mean I'm on the press reports at the time, the secondary literature. I really worked to try and understand this and make sure that I was giving an accurate interpretation. I hope that it comes through in the book that I'm not casting all, you know, U.S. troops as murderers. This certainly isn't the case. It's not the case that every unit called in artillery on a village, you know, whenever they could. This was - a lot of troops took pains to treat the Vietnamese with respect. And I think that, you know, at least I hope that my book shows that if there are any heroes in this story, it's Americans who spoke up, who spoke out, did the right thing, who protected the Vietnamese when they could.
What I saw, you know, firsthand in speaking to Vietnamese and what I found in the records was a history that wasn't in much of the existing literature, but this was really the signature aspect of the conflict, the Vietnamese civilian suffering. And the best estimates that we have, work that was done by Harvard Medical School and Washington State University on the scale of dessen(ph) in Vietnam during the war, it really does point to this suffering on a huge scale, a tremendous amount of carnage and this is the story that I thought needed to be told.
DAVIES: You know, something you must have confronted again and again is the question of how do you explain these American men, and in many cases American commanders and some cases people, you know, educated at West Point, participating in or observing and tolerating these atrocities seemingly so routinely.
TURSE: Well, I think that a lot of these actions really stem from deliberate policies that were dictated at the highest levels of the U.S. military. The way that the war was fought from the command level made it inevitable that large numbers of civilians would be killed. You know, a lot of times U.S. troops were really in untenable circumstances. They were under tremendous pressure to produce a body count but they couldn't find the enemy. The enemy would not fight, you know, toe to toe with them. You know, they would go out on an operation, board and helicopter and fly over paddy fields that were filled with artillery and bomb craters. They saw that, you know, artillerymen and pilots who weren't generally in direct danger were allowed to blanket the countryside with all this heavy ordnance. But they were called upon to walk through extremely treacherous terrain, to risk death from booby-traps and snipers and I think, you know, this wore down a lot of, you know a lot of American officers and a lot of troops and eventually they found that the military command was not going to hold them accountable and that a lot of times it was easier to pull the trigger than not.
DAVIES: Well, and I think you also describe that when the soldiers that you spoke with talked about their training, their experience in boot camp. I mean there was a dehumanizing of the enemy of Vietnamese civilians.
TURSE: That's right. There was an acronym at the time, the MGR or the mere gook rule. And a lot of men told me that they were really steeped and this from their first days of boot camp of basic training. The idea was that the Vietnamese were, they weren't really people, they were subhuman, mere gooks who could be killed or abused at will. You know, veterans that I talked to told me that from the moment they got into basic training they were told never call them Vietnamese. Call them gooks or dinks, slopes, slants, rice eaters, anything to take away their humanity, to dehumanize them and make it easy to see any Vietnamese, all Vietnamese, as the enemy.
DAVIES: When you went to find Vietnam vets, I mean you interviewed some of these folks who had participated in some of these atrocities. How did they regard it? How did they recall it? How did they think about it?
TURSE: Well, the, I mean the responses were basically across the spectrum, as you might imagine. Some were unrepentant. I got in touch with a man who had confessed to carrying out acts of torture on enemy prisoners and civilian detainees, and he told me that if he was faced with a Vietnam type situation again he would do the exact same thing. He was proud of his service. There were other people, you know, who had very, very different response. One veteran who sticks out in my mind, I remember talking to him, he's very jovial, had an infectious laugh and he got, kind of, quiet as we were talking, and he told me about going into a village one time and he told me about a member of his unit.
They were burning down a village and this woman came up to this GI he was talking about, and began grabbing him on the arm and yelling at him, I'm sure because her home was being burned down. And, you know, he said that the soldier took the butt of his rifle and hit her squarely in the face. And as the blood was pouring out, you know, out of her face and she was wailing, he walked away laughing. And then, you know, a minute or two later he said, you know, that GI that I told you about? He said that was me. And I had a real tough time connecting up the man that I was talking to to his 19-year-old self and he had the same response. He told me that he couldn't imagine how he had done that and done other things in Vietnam. He just couldn't believe that he had broken this woman's nose and walked away laughing, you know, after burning her home down. But, you know, he said at the time he didn't think anything of it and since then, you know, not a day goes by that he doesn't think of it.
DAVIES: There were a lot of American reporters in Vietnam when the American military was there. Did they miss this story?
TURSE: Well, if you do read the press reports at the time, there are a lot of reporters, a lot of them foreign - or I should say, not American reporters there, who talked about the carnage in some detail. But American reporters, you know, were I think less apt talk about this darker side of the war and it wasn't popular among editors stateside. I think there was a fair amount of self-censorship going on. There were reporters who say that, you know, if they came in with a story that said like, you know, my god civilians are being killed in the countryside, they wouldn't be taken seriously. I think that one of the most telling aspects of the war is the fact that the one atrocity, the one massacre that people know about, My Lai, was committed when there were hundreds, maybe 500 American reporters in the country at the time. But it took a stateside reporter, Seymour Hersh, to eventually blow the lid off My Lai. When My Lai was reported, just afterwards, it was a major U.S. victory, 128 enemy killed at the cost of no American lives. And no one thought to look into this extremely lopsided body count and ask why no weapons were recovered, why fighting this hardcore enemy force no Americans were killed. It was just reported as another American victory.
DAVIES: And remind us how many civilians were killed at My Lai?
TURSE: Over 500 civilians, mostly women, children and elderly men were killed there.
DAVIES: Well, and in the book you describe a number of cases in which American editors weren't that interested in some stories of massive civilian deaths and atrocities. And it's interesting that Seymour Hersh even had a hard time getting the My Lai story out, didn't he?
TURSE: He did. Seymour Hersh shopped the story to a number of magazines, "Look" and "Life," he brought it to newspapers but no one was interested in the story. And some of them had even heard the story before that from a young veteran, the My Lai whistleblower Ron Ridenhour but even then they weren't interested in the story and Sy Hersch had to take the My Lai expose to a fledgling new service called "Dispatch News Service." It was a liberal or a left news agency that had just come into existence, and it was the only one that would take a chance on his story.
DAVIES: You know, a lot of the writing you've done has been for publications many would consider liberal or progressive and this book is going to be provocative. I mean you've really found what seems to be a very troubling pattern of widespread kind of abuse, atrocity and killing of the civilian population. Have you gotten much reaction? Have people in the military said you've got this wrong?
TURSE: Well, you know, I've covered this subject over the years and, you know, I always, there's always some pushback on this and there's always some negative feedback. It isn't a popular topic and it's not something that, you know, that most Americans and I think that most veterans would want to hear. But I did speak with well over 100 veterans in writing this book and they gave me some of the most detailed information. I rely heavily on sworn testimony of veterans, so this is in many ways the story as told by Vietnam veterans. And I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from men who served there who said that this is truly the war that they saw up close and personal.
DAVIES: Well, Nick Turse, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
TURSE: Thanks so much for having me on. I really appreciate it.
DAVIES: Nick Turse's book is "Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam."
Coming up, we remember journalist and historian Stanley Karnow who died Sunday. This is FRESH AIR.