Misrepresenting Atrocities: "Kill Anything that Moves" and the Continuing Distortions of the War in Vietnam

Peter Zinoman, University of California, Berkeley
Gary Kulik, former editor of "American Quarterly"

Nick Turse, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. New York: Picador, 2013. 416 pp. $30 (cloth); $17 (paper); $10 (e-book).

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While recounting a punishing accumulation of atrocity stories, Kill Anything That Moves advances four relatively straightforward arguments. First, it asserts that this grim dimension of the Vietnam War was ignored at the time, has been neglected in the scholarship, and is today forgotten in popular memory.  Second, it claims that American atrocities were pervasive in Vietnam, perpetrated on a massive scale by every military unit, in every theater of battle, during every period of the war. Third, it contends that the proliferation of atrocities and war crimes was largely caused by command policies devised at the highest levels of the U.S. military and government. And fourth, as its subtitle indicates, it suggests that the atrocious record of the U.S. military in Vietnam reveals both the “true nature of the war” (16) and the “true history of Vietnamese civilian suffering” (262) that it left in its wake.

In addition to being untrue, these arguments point to the isolation of Turse’s approach from current trends in the historical study of military violence against civilians. For example, most recent work on military atrocities—such as John Horne and Alan Kramer’s magisterial German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (2001)—insist that primary and secondary sources on the topic must be treated with special care since they are notoriously vulnerable to politicization and distortion. Turse’s misleading estimate of the size and significance of the existing literature on Vietnam War atrocities flies in the face of this advice. As we will show, academics, lawyers, journalists, activists, and creative artists have been agonizing over American atrocities and war crimes in Vietnam for almost fifty years...

Comments

I was personally defamed by Turse's disregard for truth. It is ironic that he talks about overkill and then with careless disregard for the truth trashes the reputations of honorable soldiers, having zero factual basis. Journalistic overkill at its worst. He interviewed no one regarding the incident and obviously did not even read the record he so liberally cites. I had to gather the official documents, gather witness statements and then prove I was not within a hundred miles of the alleged incident to get a retraction/correction! All new printing and the online version state I was NOT a participant. Shame on you Mr. Turse. https://www.prlog.org/12529094-agreement-reached-to-retract-story-that-…
Nothing irritates me more than the ignorance of fools who believe the lies of people like Turse. The facts don't matter. It's all about denigrating the US and veterans while claiming they just want to be honest about America's faults. If you want to be honest, you could start with the facts. - 1. Turse's claim of 2 million civilian dead is grossly exaggerated. According to RJ Rummel, the world's foremost expert on democide, the total dead from the entire war (troops and civilians) was just over 1 million to 1.5 million. Civilian deaths attributed to US military actions were in the range of 195,000-430,000 for the entire war, nowhere near 2 million. http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.CHAP6.HTM Rummel also estimates that the North Vietnamese may have killed as many as 2.5 million civilians after the US left. - 2. It was never American policy to commit atrocities, and Turse knows that, even though he chooses to ignore it and lie about what went on in Vietnam. The communist North has admitted to killing as many as 500,000 in land reform alone (and laughingly claims they may have gotten a bit carried away.) - 3. South Vietnam was not seeking independence from America. They were trying to stop the communist North from taking over their country and brutalizing their families. Unfortunately, the communists infiltrated Congress and fooled many Americans into believing the stories that Turse keeps claiming happened, so Congress abandoned their commitment to Vietnam and left them to be run over and destroyed by the communist North, at the cost of millions and millions of civilian lives. - 4. The claim that the North Vietnamese "attached the label of communism...to engender support" is laughable. Ho Chi Minh joined the communist party in the 1920's and was a devoted party apparatchik long before he returned to Vietnam to take over the country with the full support of the Chinese and Russian communists. He invaded the South long before the US engaged fully in the war (1959 according to documents obtained from the North), and the South sought help from the US to stave off the invasion because the North was well armed with communist arms supplied by China and Russia (as well as "advisers" from both countries.)
Vietnam War Facts: (1) The war in Vietnam (right or wrong) was constitutional. (2) The North Vietnamese were actively trying to take over the South (a free and independent nation) and created the Viet Cong for their purposes. It was less a civil war (although obviously fought within one culturally homogenous group of people) than a hostile war between two states, with the North the aggressor. The Viet Cong was not a homegrown freedom movement but an instrument of the North for invasion. (3) The North was a fervent communist society and was expansionist, it was not just adopting communism as a matter of convenience nor was it merely seeking final freedom from outside occupation. (Both countries achieved this with the withdrawal of the French after Dien Bien Phu.) (4) After the communist conquered South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia did fall to communism as a result of the North Vietnamese efforts to spread communism. Thus two dominoes actually did fall, causing the death of 2 million people at a minimum. (The straw man explanation of the domino theory seems to be popularly accepted on the other hand, that once the south fell the entire world would instantaneously poof and become communist. Since that obviously didn't happen the domino theory is now taught as a completely farcical "red scare" or a ridiculous commie witch hunt on par with how McCarthyism is taught. A strong case can be made however -but you can never prove something that didn't happen- that had American not fought in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia could not have suppressed their own communist insurgencies in the late '60's -often brutally- that those two countries would have fallen as well putting the Sunda and Malacca straits and massive oil reserves in communist hands, and causing far more deaths as well.
Turse is an anti-American propagandist. He received financial support for writing the book from Communist Vietnam. Turse’s writings are full of lies, half-truths, and distortions! For example compare a and b below: a. Turse’s New York Times opinion: “some TWO MILLION VIETNAMESE CIVILIANS WERE KILLED, and millions more were wounded and displaced, during America’s involvement in Vietnam, researchers and government sources have estimated” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/10/opinion/for-america-life-was-cheap-in… b. Professor RJ Rummel, the world's foremost expert on democide, has this to say about VIETNAMESE CIVILIANS KILLED - Table 6.1a for the period 1960-1975, TOTAL CIVILIAN WAR DEAD (LINE 193), midcase 663,000 - Many civilians were killed by the communist. For example "The estimated range of refugees killed in one case (line 454) may seem relatively high but is probably conservative. Of the 200,000 refugees that fled the Highlands offensive by the North in March 1975, only 45,000 made it to Tuy-Hoa. MANY OF THE 155,000 MISSING WERE KILLED BY NORTH VIETNAMESE TROOPS" http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.CHAP6.HTM