My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Uncomfortable. Seemingly well-researched, if not comprehensive.
Basically, the author Nick Turse stumbled across a rich vein of government documents that described a series of incidents during the Vietnam War, many of which can be fairly called atrocities. (All of them are horrible.)
Way led onto way, of course, and after the opening of many file cabinets, Mr. Turse has constructed over the course of 200-some pages a broad and readable sketch of such incidents underscored by a well-reasoned analysis of possible explanations.
He anchors some of his reporting to the well-known My Lai massacre of 1968 — in which 347 people were killed, according to the Army — pointing out the probably-not-surprising fact that similar, smaller-scale events were widespread, if not widely reported by the news media, before (and after) that time.
What he doesn’t do is try to list them all. Probably, there are too many. But meaningful records exist for only a small fraction of the incidents.
…this book is almost guaranteed to reveal something that will drop your jaw…
I was not surprised by anything I read in the book — even though, I am led to understand, it breaks considerable new ground.
And I am not a historian, or even that world weary. Still, my collective, limited experience of the war — taken mostly from movies of probably dubious authenticity, like “Platoon” and “Hamburger Hill,” but also countless television shows and the fictional recollections of a friend of mine, who claimed for years to have been in the Green Berets — jibes neatly with the extraordinary stories recounted by Mr. Turse.
I had no trouble picturing some of it in my head; many of the quotes came to life in imaginary drawls. I am not sure if that is more about pop culture or my own cynicism. And I am not sure what it says about the potential reception of this book. I am guessing it will be well-regarded by a few commentators, but ignored by the public.
In any case, it is not exactly the kind of ready-for-the-History-Channel title that can be seen on The Times’s hardcover nonfiction best-seller list.
Mr. Turse reckons more than seven million civilian casualties in Vietnam, from the end of World War II to the withdrawal of the United States’ military. That includes more than two million dead in a country of not-quite 20 million.
It says here, that’s a lot.
That is so many that a person has to wonder how many more unreported incidents like My Lai there still are. In one part of the book, Mr. Turse is recalling a trip he made to Vietnam to find the site of a particular incident. He is told the village is just up the road. When he gets there, he finds a memorial to a massacre by American troops — but realizes after talking to the locals that he has the wrong place. The village he wants is up the road, the locals tell him. When he gets there, after finding another memorial, he realizes, again, that he has the wrong place. Lather, rinse, repeat.
If the number is even close to being true, it is the only evidence Mr. Turse needs to back up his assertion that the war was a keenly-managed slaughter. That many dead people is one of those Facts in Plain Sight that can’t be explained away by a government’s propaganda machine.
Not that anyone is really trying, anymore. In all the digging that Mr. Turse did, he never reports any obstinence from the authorities. He finds evidence of it, in missing and presumably destroyed files, and in some uncooperative former G.I.’s. But by now, most of the principal figures are too old to fight.
Mr. Turse contemplates military training in an early chapter. This is one part of the book that particularly interested me, though not because of his thesis that American troops were being “brainwashed” as killers.
“That bastard stood right in front of me,” said Haji Mohammed Naim, 60, his voice rising as he gestured toward Sergeant Bales. “I wanted to ask him: ‘What did I do? What have I done to you?’ ”
I get it. But what else would you expect?
I was more interested in Mr. Turse’s seeming alarm over those methods, and how it served as a broader indictment of war making. I mean, if it is distressing that some men are transformed by basic military training, then isn’t their existence as an organization in peace time appalling? On some level, the idea of a war crime is an absurdity.
With his training chapter, Mr. Turse is filling in the blanks for a bigger theme of his book, that is that a combination of the training techniques, the overwhelming firepower of American forces and a systematic dehumanizing of the Vietnamese people by government and military authorities added vastly to the body count. In other words, My Lai wasn’t the exception, it was part of a well-planned rule.
The natural thing is to reflect now on how these corrosive elements could have been ameliorated, how the massacres could have been mitigated. Is it possible to train soldiers to be cerebral and discriminating in the flash and grind of combat? And what does it say about the American way when so much of our national production is devoted to conducting exactly such an enterprise?
Somewhere out there is a courageous historian who is building, file folder by file folder, a similar book focusing on the so-called Allies in the Second World War.
- Book painstakingly recounts Vietnam War atrocities (stripes.com)
- ‘Kill Anything That Moves’ (3quarksdaily.com)