Nick Turse: Exhuming Vietnam An interview with the author of 'Kill Anything That Moves' by Kelley B. Vlahos
Antiwar: The conventional wisdom is that war crimes and atrocities committed by U.S forces in Vietnam were isolated events perpetuated by a "few bad apples" – rogue units and platoons. How does your research – this book – shatter that perception?
Turse: The War Crimes Working Group offers irrefutable proof of atrocities committed by every major Army unit that deployed, every division and separate brigade that went to Vietnam. And just looking at the numbers, and then going to Vietnam and talking to people, I realized how pervasive the scale of that carnage was. This is what I try to convey in Kill Anything that Moves.
We’re talking about, according to the best estimates we have — two million Vietnamese civilian dead. Add to that five million wounded, and the best numbers that U.S. government came up with was about eleven million Vietnamese made refugees. On top of that, studies show that about four million Vietnamese were exposed to defoliants like Agent Orange.
Obviously, it’s beyond what a couple of rogue units, even a couple of rogue divisions could do. The level of carnage was almost unimaginable. I hope that Kill Anything that Moves helps to put the rest the idea of bad apples and rogue units.
Antiwar: The emphasis on body counts, the search and destroy missions, free fire zones, heavy artillery – are all tactical frameworks that you argue set the conditions for these war crimes and atrocities to happen, whether there were explicit orders to kill civilians or not. How do you counter the establishment histories, especially those that are used to teach officers today, that acknowledge many of these things but claim a) conditions on the ground made it difficult to do things much differently and b) most of our forces were indeed adhering to the proper rules of engagement.
Turse: I think it’s hard to argue against the fact that millions of Vietnamese were killed, wounded and made refugees. And this was due to deliberate U.S policies, like the use of unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling over a wide swath of the countryside, and due to search and destroy missions, and the overwhelming emphasis on body counts. It’s also irrefutable that these policies were dictated at the highest levels of the military. What I try to point out is that the American way of war did not just produce a random string of massacres but a veritable system of suffering. That system, the machinery of suffering and what it meant to the Vietnamese people, is what Kill Anything that Moves is meant to explain. I think it would be hard to look at those numbers and read the litany of daily events and come to any other conclusion. This was certainly policy, not bad apples.