The Secret History of the Vietnam War
If you thought you knew all there was to know about the Vietnam War, you were wrong. For example: ever heard of the "Mere Gook Rule," a code of conduct the US military came up with in order to make it easier for soldiers to murder Vietnamese civilians without feeling too bad about it? ("It's only a mere gook you're killing!")
Well, few people knew about this bit of history either until author Nick Turse discovered it in secret US military archives, which he used as the primary sources for his new(ish) book, Kill Everything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. The book is based on Turse's discovery of theretofore secret internal military investigations of US-perpetrated atrocities alongside extensive reporting in Vietnam and among American veterans, and it reminds us that the most significant fact about the Vietnam War is its most overlooked: massive and devastating Vietnamese civilian suffering.
The debate over the US's war in Vietnam continues to hang over this country's most recent and techno-futuristic imperial adventures. Nick's book makes for timely if extraordinarily painful reading, and I sat down with him recently to talk about the ongoing relevance of Vietnam, massacres, and secretly photocopying whole US government archives.
VICE: Your book documents how the American war in Vietnam was a fight systemically waged against the civilian population. How does this account that you documented differ from the Vietnam war as it's popularly remembered in the United States today?
Nick Turse: We have 30,000 books in print on the Vietnam War, and most of them deal with the American experience. They focus on American soldiers, on strategy, tactics, generals, or diplomacy out of Washington and the war managers there. But I didn't see any that really attempted to tell the complete story of what I came to see as the signature aspect of the conflict, which was Vietnamese civilian suffering. Millions of Vietnamese were killed, wounded, or made refugees by deliberate US policies, like the almost unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling across wide swaths of the countryside. That is, deliberate policies dictated at the highest levels of the US military. But any discussion of Vietnamese civilian suffering is condensed down to a couple pages or paragraphs on the massacre at My Lai.
This isn't the book that you initially intended to write. Tell me about the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group and the documents that you found.
I was working on a project on post-traumatic stress disorder among US Vietnam veterans. I would go down to the National Archives and I was trying to find hard data, military documents, to match up to the self-reports that we had from veterans about their experiences during the war. And on one of these trips I hit dead ends at every turn. After two weeks I had nothing to show for my research. I went to an archivist I worked with. I told him I couldn't go back to my boss empty handed. He thought about it for a second. He asked me, "do you think witnessing war crimes could cause post-traumatic stress?' I told him, "excellent hypothesis" and asked what he had.
Within an hour I was going through this box, many boxes actually, these reports of massacres, murders, rape, torture, assault, mutilation. Records put together by this Vietnam War Crimes Working Group impaneled in the Army Chief of Staff's office in the wake of the My Lai massacre, to track any war crimes cases or allegations that bubbled up from the field, to make sure that the Army wasn't caught flat footed again. And whenever it could it tried to tamp down these allegations.
So the War Crimes Working Group was not created to prevent or punish atrocities and war crimes.
That's exactly right. They didn't try and punish wrongdoers. They didn't try and put guidance out in the field. They didn't do anything to prevent war crimes. It operated out of [Chief of Staff] General [William] Westmoreland's office. He had been the supreme commander in Vietnam a couple years before, so he had a vested interest in the war and how it was portrayed. They just tracked things so they could make reports to the Secretary of Defense and to the White House to keep them appraised of possible scandals that were on the horizon.
So this group put together this massive collection of files. And after I found it I wrote my dissertation on these documents, and after I defended my dissertation I went to Vietnam.
Your reporting attempted to match up the atrocities you'd read about in these files with the actual villages where they had allegedly been committed. What did you find?
It was actually a lot easier than I expected to find witnesses and survivors of these particular incidents. Generally because the Vietnamese are so tied to their land, even people who were bombed out of the countryside into the shantytowns and slums and refugee camps, after the war they returned to their home villages, and were living there when I got there. But it really transformed my project, because I went to talk to Vietnamese about this one spasm of violence that I had in the records but what they would talk to me about was ten years of living under bombs and shells and helicopter gunships, and what it took to negotiate every aspect of their lives around the American war.
What I was told in the countryside was beyond my ability to grasp, something that I could have never have gotten from the records. And I would talk to Vietnamese who would tell me about what it was like just to try and eke out an existence in the war zone. About having their home burned down five, six seven times. And then finally giving up rebuilding and starting to live a semi-subterranean life in their bomb shelter. About how they figured out ways to get out of that shelter, to get water or food or relieve themselves. And how their entire lives were just predicated on figuring out a way not to get killed. They would talk about artillery called down on a hamlet, and they would run into the bomb shelter. And stay there. And then this whole calculus would begin where they would try and figure out exactly when the right time to leave that shelter was. You had to wait until the artillery shelling stopped, but you couldn't leave too soon or you were apt to be cut down by a helicopter gunship that was flying overhead. You had to make sure you weren't caught in a crossfire between departing guerrillas and the onrushing Americans. But you couldn't stay down there too long because the Americans were coming, and they would start rolling grenades into the bomb shelters because they saw them as possible enemy bunkers, fighting positions. There all of these decisions to be made, and it wasn't just your life that depended on making it, but maybe your entire family. The whole family could get wiped out if you left a second too early or a second too late.
Your academic advisor suggested that you copy those archives in a hurry before they disappeared?
I couldn't get the documents out of my head, and I went to a couple Vietnam War historians that I knew and tried to interest them in the project. I said, "You really should get down to the National Archives and work on these." And everybody at that time, they were burned out on the War or working on a different project. And one of them suggested that I ought to pursue it. I went to my advisor at Columbia, David Rosner, and I said to him, "Do you think I could write a book and my dissertation at the same time?" I was 200 pages in on another dissertation. He said that I was nuts. If the documents were that important, then I should get down to the National Archives and get the documents.
I was just a grad student at the time, I didn't have the money for this endeavor. I said to him, "I'm going to have to put together a grant proposal and it would be months before I got down there." And he just pulled out his checkbook and wrote me a check on the spot and said, "Go down there and get these documents."
Within 24 hours I was down at the Archives. I went in first thing in the morning and I copied until they threw me out at night. I put every cent that he gave me into copying. I slept in my car in the Archives parking lot and I collected this entire collection.
I always thought he was a little paranoid. I didn't think there was a real need to get all the documents. It turned out that it was a smart move because these documents, sometime after I first published from the files, they were pulled from the Archives' shelves and they haven't been publicly available in the same way since. Now you have to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
Your book describes, I think you call it, "suffering on an almost unimaginable scale." Artillery shelling, bombing, the destruction of villages by infantry, revenge missions, massacres, incredibly sadistic rapes, the gunning down of Vietnamese of farmers and fisherman from helicopter gunships, free fire zones. You cite an estimate of 3.8 million war deaths, the majority Vietnamese civilians. What turned so many young American men into such monsters?
It's a difficult question to answer. I went out and interviewed well over 100 American veterans for this book, and read sworn testimonies of many more. I don't know that I have a satisfactory answer. I talked to one veteran, he talked to me about the war. We were on the phone for several hours. He was very jovial. He had a really infectious laugh.
But he quieted down and said he wanted to tell me a story about a member of his unit. And he talked about how they were going through a village and burning it down, which was standard operating procedure. And in the midst of this, this woman runs up and grabs this GI by the sleeve, and is tugging at him and yelling at him—obviously because her home is being burned down, all her possessions are going up in flames. And she's angry, scared, upset. And he said this GI just pushed her off, and then took his rifle and hit her squarely in the nose with the butt. And he said her face just erupted in blood. She was screaming. And the GI just turned around and walked away laughing. And he paused a second and said, "Do you know that GI was me?" He had such a tough time figuring out how he could have done it. All these years later. At the time he didn't think anything of it, and in the years since, he couldn't help but think of it on a constant basis. And it really haunted him. And I had the same problem trying to match up the man that I was talking to with his 19-year old self.
He told me about how the training that he went through dehumanized the Vietnamese to the point where they didn't think of them as human. They thought of them as—they had a whole bunch of slurs that were used: dinks, slopes, slants, gooks. And he talked about how "I didn't become exactly like a robot but it was like that." You're trained to kill, you chant "Kill, kill kill." It psychologically readies you for this.
There was even a "Mere Gook Rule?"
There was a shorthand in Vietnam: the MGR, or Mere Gook Rule. The idea is that the Vietnamese weren't real people. They were subhumans. Mere gooks who could be abused or even killed at will. And this is something that was inculcated in troops from the earliest days of training. I talked to a lot of veterans who told me that as soon as they arrived at boot camp, they were told you never call them Vietnamese. You call them gooks, dinks, slants, slopes. Anything to take away their humanity. Anything to make it easier to kill them.
They were told by their superiors that all Vietnamese were likely the enemy. That children might carry grenades, women were probably the wives or girlfriends of guerillas, and they were probably making booby traps.
And even if there were rules of engagement on paper, or little cards handed out saying to treat the Vietnamese properly, the message that they were really given was that it was a lot safer to shoot first because no one was going to ask questions later.
How did high-level policies connect down to village level atrocities?
The Vietnam War was fought using an attrition strategy. This wasn't a war like World War I, where you had two armies facing off across a well defined battlefield. It's a guerrilla struggle, where the Vietnamese revolutionaries are radically outgunned. So they're not going to stand toe to toe with the Americans. And the Americans aren't trying to take territory or capture an enemy capital.
They were searching for some metric, some measure to show that they were winning a war. They settled on the attrition strategy which was used during the second half of the Korean War, and the main measure was body count. You would kill your way to victory by piling up Vietnamese bodies, and the Americans were always chasing this crossover point when they would be killing more Vietnamese guerrillas than the enemy could put into the field. And the idea was that at that moment, the enemy would give up the fight.
Because they would view the war as a rational effort the way the Pentagon did: this was a ledger sheet. And once the debits outweighed the credits, then they would end the war. They didn't think the way the Vietnamese did, that this was a revolutionary struggle. The Vietnamese saw it as a continuation of their anti-colonial fight against the French.
The troops in the field, they were pressed for bodies. Their commanders were leaning on them heavily. You were told to produce Vietnamese bodies, and if you didn't you were going to stay out in the field longer. They learned pretty quickly that the command wasn't discerning about what bodies were turned in, that just about any Vietnamese bodies would do. This pushed American troops toward at least calling in all Vietnamese who were filled as enemies, and also to the killing of detainees and prisoners and civilians, and calling them in as enemy dead.
This coupled with the much higher level of strategic thinking like the use of "free fire zones," which was basically a legal fiction that the US came up with to open wide swaths of the countryside to unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling. This caused tremendous amounts of death and destruction in the country side. And it opened it up to all this heavy firepower and made it inevitable that large numbers of civilians would be killed or wounded.
You write about particular commanders, like Lieutenant General Julian Ewell, who oversaw atrocities.
Ewell was one of the most notorious commanders who served in Vietnam. He was body count obsessed in a military world where body count was king. Even in the military he was known as the Butcher of the Delta.
What Ewell did was unleash heavy fire power across the Mekong Delta, which was the rice bowl of Vietnam and the most densely populated area. He opened the countryside to unrestrained artillery fire, bombing, and pushed his troops hard. His subordinates, the colonels under his command, were constantly badgered about body count. He demanded it, and if you didn't produce body count you were going to be sacked, and somebody else would be brought in until he got it.
Ewell's signature operation was code-named Speedy Express. It began in December 1968 and ran until the end of May 1969. Ewell's troops reported almost 11,000 enemy dead, but they only recovered less than 750 weapons. This great disparity was somehow ignored, as it often was across the country, by reporters in Vietnam. But a couple of years after Speedy Express ended, a stringer at Newsweek got wind of the story. Alex Shimkin. He felt that something extremely bloody had gone on in the Delta, and he amassed some evidence and brought it to his bureau chief Kevin Buckley. They caTheir report was heavily truncated by Newsweek, and the story never got out in the fullest way that it could have. What they didn't know is there had been a whistleblower in the military who had let the high command know exactly what was going on in the Delta. And what they also didn't know was that the military conducted their own investigation, because they were afraid that the Speedy Express story that Newsweek had would blow up and become as big or bigger than the My Lai massacre story. I found this in the National Archives. It had been buried for decades. But the military's own estimate showed that Newsweek probably underestimated the toll there, total. The military estimated as many as 7,000 of the dead were civilians. So 7,000 of 11,000. Just a devastating conclusion that no one knew about for decades.me up with an estimate of 5,000 civilians killed during the operation.
Was Ewell ultimately punished since the military did indeed find that these atrocities had taken place?
No, far from it. After Speedy Express, Ewell was hailed as a hero. This was seen as a major victory. He was promoted to something called II Field Force Vietnam, the largest combat command in the world at the time. And from there he was promoted to become the military attache to the Paris peace talks. This was probably the least peaceful man in the military and the one least suited for the peace talks sent because what he'd done in Vietnam was considered such a success.
Ewell's crimes were understood and known by Westmoreland and other top officials. And instead of any effort to discipline or reign him him he was promoted?
That's exactly right. Westmoreland had received a letter at the end of Speedy Express from a soldier who had served within the division, and seen what had gone on firsthand. And he just set this letter aside. And this whistleblower wrote other letters to other top commanders, and eventually the military looked like they were going to conduct a full investigation, or at least begin one. They set about tracking down the whistleblower, and that's where the trail kind of ends. You could see that they identified him, they were going to make efforts to speak to him, and then shortly thereafter the investigation was killed. Subsequent investigations into Speedy Express were all suppressed, none of them ever made public. It was all disappeared.
What Newsweek had was the stuff of Pulitzers or Congressional investigations.
Why did editors suppress it?
They kept pushing back on it. I've read the cable traffic between Newsweek and Buckley, and they objected to him linking My Lai and Speedy Express together. They said they felt the Army and the White House had been through so much with the My Lai scandal, they didn't think it was fair to put them through that type of thing again.
Exactly. So what had been a 5,000-word article, a really devastating piece of reporting, was truncated down to something around 1,800 words. And Julian Ewell's name wasn't even in the piece.
You write about many failures of journalism during and after the war. Seymour Hersh nearly couldn't even find a publisher for his My Lai investigation.
Yeah, Hersh took this story to Look magazine, Life magazine, a whole bunch of publications. Nobody was interested. Some of these publications had even heard about it previously from the whistleblower who got the entire My Lai investigation started, Ron Ridenhour. Hersh finally had to take it it to Dispatch News Service, which was a brand new, fledgling anti-war news service. They were able to distribute it into the mainstream, but really second tier newspapers. And it was only after it became public, and some photos of My Lai were published, only then did the story really start to gain steam.
I always thought it was very telling that at the time the My Lai massacre took place there were somewhere between 500 and 700 reporters in Vietnam. But when it was reported in the US, it was just a major victory over enemy forces: 128 enemies killed at a cost of no US lives. There was only a handful of weapons collected, but nobody thought to ask any questions. Basically the military press releases were just copied and put into the newspapers. It took a reporter back in the US to finally break the story.
My Lai has become the single atrocity through which the bad of the war is remembered. How did that happen, and what does that do to the way we think about Vietnam
It really gives a false impression of the war. Most histories just distill down all discussion of Vietnamese civilian death and civilian suffering to the My Lai massacre. Two things were atypical about it: one, 500 civilians killed over a four hour period is an anomaly. But My Lai was also an anomaly because it was the one war crime that was completely and thoroughly investigated. Even the other investigations that I had in the files, nothing is the scope of My Lai. It came to stand in for a lot of what was going on in Vietnam. And after that, when other atrocity stories would come to light, a lot of editors felt that it was old hat. We've heard about My Lai. We know about that. The war was wrapping up and people weren't interested in revisiting this.
In histories of the war, academics and scholars haven't wanted to draw on what existed during the war, a fairly substantial anti-war literature that talked about atrocities. Most of this was written off as propaganda, and I think what seemed safe to talk about was My Lai. And because Americans generally focus on the American side of the war, it made it easy to do.
This seems like such a profound and outrageous failure on the part of both reporters and academics. You write, it went from being considered "propaganda and leftist kookery" one day to "yawnworthy common knowledge" the next.
I think that was really the case. There was only a brief window of opportunity, maybe one year in 1971, when it seemed that the issue of war crimes and the issue of Vietnamese suffering was gaining some traction. The military was having a tough time keeping a lid on it as it had done for years before. But with the war wrapping up, Vietnam started to migrate off the front pages. It was no longer leading the nightly news. The press seemed to be moving on and a lot of people wanted the war to go away. And of course the military had wanted this to go away to and took active steps to suppress the story whenever it could.
You write that civilian support for the National Liberation Front made such civilians legitimate targets as far as the US was concerned.
A lot of the places I talk about in the book, they were what the US called "hardcore revolutionary areas" because of strong nationalist revolutionary support. They and their allies in Saigon were never able to win over the population in that countryside. The governments that had ruled these areas for years, that represented the people, that provided the services: this was the revolutionary government. They were inextricably tied to the population. So they're unable to win them over, and they really couldn't break that bond. All the US really had was firepower. They tried to drive the people out of the countryside, to drive them into refugee camps. When people would get driven into refugee camps, most didn't have adequate housing, there wasn't potable water, there wasn't sufficient food. And they would filter back to the countryside. It was easier to take your chance even amidst the firepower and free fire zones than to try to eke out a living in one of these camps.
There was this explicit campaign to break the ties binding Vietnamese people to their land, to drive them into cities. You quote a 1968 Foreign Affairs article by Samuel Huntington arguing that this, "forced urbanization and modernization" was a good thing.
This was seen as the one means to break Vietnamese support for the guerillas, to physically move the Vietnamese population. But the Vietnamese were so tied to their land, tied to their rice fields. This is where their ancestors were buried. And it's very important to Vietnamese to venerate their ancestors. So people were very reluctant to move. The only thing they had at their disposal was destructive force.
You write about the US troops widespread dismembering of Vietnamese corpses. Why did this become such a common practice?
There are a lot of factors at play. Body count, and the way to prove the body count was to bring in an ear. This was a practice in some units. There were incentives tied to body count, winning R&R at a beach resort in country or extra beer, medals, badges.
In other cases, troops had this belief that Vietnamese spirituality said that if the corpse wasn't intact, they wouldn't be able to move into the afterlife. A lot of Americans would call it "Buddha heaven." So they had this belief that dismembering Vietnamese would be a form of psychological warfare. They would leave a "death card," either an ace of spades playing card or a specially made up, like a business card, with the unit's name on it and generally some sort of grim motto attached.
There was also an active trade in body parts in Vietnam. Ears were worn on necklaces, one ear or maybe even a whole chain of ears. Some guys wore these to show their combat prowess. Others would collect these ears and sell them to people who wanted to project this image. In one unit they were cutting off the heads of enemies, and anyone who presented it to the commander got an extra beer ration. In one case, a sergeant had cut off a head and he boiled the flesh of it, and then traded the skull for a radio.
They were forced into catering to the US war machine one way or another, and one of the prime ways was prostitution. A lot of girls who were sent to it, their villages had been destroyed and they were forced into the cities. And this was a way to provide for their families. The Americans had lots of money to spend and these were young guys, 18, 19, 20 years old.
So it was this flourishing sex trade and then out in the countryside there was what seems to be a tremendous amount of rape and sexual assault.
What I found was extremely disturbing. I recount a few cases where the sexual violence is really shocking. A lot of times I found myself, I felt I didn't have the language to describe exactly what I found in the cases, because rape or even gang rape didn't seem to convey the level of sexual sadism. These are extremely violent gang rapes, or raping women with inanimate objects like bottles or even rifles.
You write about an archipelago of American and South Vietnamese prisons that practiced not only torture but also placed prisoners in "tiger cages," small, submerged, windowless stone cells where they were shackled to the floor. Guards would throw lime powder onto prisoners as punishment.
The most infamous were at a prison island called Con Son. There were men and women who were imprisoned for sometimes years on end without ever being charged, let alone tried. And these were people who spoke out against the government or spoke up for peace. They were sent to Con Son as political prisoners and chained in these very tiny cells that had been built by the French in the 19th century. There had been for years rumors about what had gone on at Con Son, and it was only in the 1970s a US aid worker turned activist was able to sneak a couple of American congressmen in to get a first-hand look at these tremendously deplorable conditions.
When some tiger cage prisoners were released, a Time magazine report said 'you can't really call them men anymore. They're more like shapes.' They talk about them scuttling on the floor like crabs. If you watch the video of it, that's really the case. It happened to women too. Lower-limb paralysis from being chained so long in stress positions. They can no longer stand and they had to crawl in a very unnatural way.
And the US was fully aware of this?
There were US advisors inside the entire prison system. Con Son was the most infamous, but there were around 500 South Vietnamese detention centers around the country, mostly set up by the Americans, paid for by the Americans. The US also operated its own detention system on bases, where there were military intelligence units that held prisoners for varying lengths of time before they sent them on to joint American and South Vietnamese facilities, and most of them ended up in strictly South Vietnamese facilities.
And torture and summary execution were common in US-run facilities as well.
The anecdotal reports, and the few comprehensive investigations, show that torture was widespread. Things like electrical torture, water torture, what we now call waterboarding. And routine beatings.
Waterboarding, of course, has been at the center of the controversy over the treatment of War on Terror detainees today. Are there other parallels in your book? Does the US wage war differently than it did in Vietnam?
I've studied today's wars fairly closely, and I have to say that I don't think that the scale of killing of civilians by US forces is anything near the scale of the carnage in Vietnam. I think specifically the ways that artillery and airpower are used are radically different. That said, civilians still die on a regular basis in our war zones, be it Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of them due to violence set off by America's invasions and occupations and the resulting civil strife. Then of course others have been killed directly from US bombing, from helicopter gunships, troops on the ground. And still more have been wounded and still more made refugees. And I think that even despite the best efforts of the United Nations and some other NGOs, we still don't have good numbers on the civilian toll. And I'm afraid that if history is any guide it might be decades before someone is able to really put together the real stories of these wars, let alone the semi-covert campaigns in places like Pakistan and Yemen. So while I don't think it's as bad as it was in Vietnam, I think it remains to be seen exactly what the toll of these wars has been.
This interview has been edited and condensed.