Vietnam – Massacre as Strategy

Review of ‘Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War In Vietnam’ by Nick Turse


If the old adage that history is written by the victors is true then the defeat of America’s South Vietnamese proxy army in 1975 following the withdrawal of US ground forces in 1973 must be the exception that proves the rule. Whilst credible estimates of Vietnamese war deaths count the casualties in the low millions, in one of the few studies conducted on the topic the American public was found on average to place the figure at a fraction of such estimates – at around just one hundred thousand deaths. As Nick Turse notes in his important book on the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War In Vietnameven scholarly apologists for the American war in Indochina accept that a minimum of a million Vietnamese died in the course of the war; yet refracted through the distorting prism of mainstream history, corporate media and popular culture, [1] the American public radically underestimates the scale of the tragedy which some refer to, not without reason, as the Vietnamese Holocaust.

As Noam Chomsky has long observed, many of the most basic facts about the war have been essentially erased from popular consciousness. Amongst those facts we might include the American invasion of South Vietnam in 1965 (the “defence of South Vietnam” in the terminology of responsible media commentators) or the fact that the American bombing campaign was largely waged against South Vietnam as the US Air Force, with uncontested control of the skies above, carried out an aerial onslaught that dwarfed the Allied campaigns against Japan and Germany during WWII in a country of just 19 million people. Down the memory hole has also gone US complicity in the periodic overthrow of its South Vietnamese client, in order to keep the army of their reluctant protégés in the field, all the while maintaining the fiction that the United States was merely aiding the sovereign government of South Vietnam.

The USAF’s extensive use of the “rainbow agent” herbicides, a practice pioneered by the British in their war in Malaya in the 1950s, has not entirely vanished from popular memory, largely because of the continued effects of the chemical war on the health of American veterans (a demographic that fortunately is not considered beneath moral consideration in the United States). Yet the massive use of the chemical agents, which continue to cause birth defects across Vietnam, was primarily targeted not at the forest canopy to deny cover to the NLF guerrillas (the usual portrayal) but rather at the agricultural land of South Vietnam in order to aid the “forced draft urbanization” of the country: threatening the population with starvation in order to generate a refugee influx into urban centres, a strategy that transformed Saigon into a gigantic slum and one of the most densely populated urban centres on the planet. Finally we might include the reality, which is the central focus of Nick Turse’s excavatory work, that the notorious My Lai massacre was not an aberration but rather that massacre of the South Vietnamese population was central to US policy in South Vietnam, as US commanders and their troops in the field happened upon a grisly solution to the problems posed by Maoist guerilla war doctrine, in which the guerrilla fighter seeks to move among the people as fish in a river, by “draining the river” in order to suffocate “the fish”.

Seeking to substantiate his claim, the litany of atrocities conducted by the United States and her allies described by Turse is truly staggering. From the levelling of Vietnamese villages by B-52s and helicopter gunships, to the torching of Vietnamese villages by “search and destroy” teams to the routine torture of suspected NLF guerrillas and the rampant sexual violence committed against Vietnamese women. What at first shocks soon numbs.

One of the examples Turse describes is Operation Speedy Express, carried out by the 9th US infantry division in the Mekong Delta in 1969:

Something dark had taken place in the delta: a mega–My Lai, a massacre that had gone on not for an afternoon but for a full six months… During the week of April 19, for instance, 699 guerrillas had been added to the division’s body count (at the cost of a single American life), but only nine weapons were captured…. Overall, an American official with long experience in the delta told [investigative journalist Kevin] Buckley that as many as 5,000 of the people killed by Speedy Express were noncombatants.

As Turse recounts, an internal Army investigation was to conclude that the figure of 5,000 was a low end estimate. Implausibly, the Army claimed that the low number of weapons recovered was because many of those killed were “unarmed guerrillas” (apparently failing to recognise that killing unarmed combatants is itself a war crime).

Another illustration is provided by an example Turse describes as “selected more or less at random” from similar incidents in Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces between 1965 and 1968:

On July 12, 1965, marines entered the village of Cam Ne and met stiff resistance, suffering three dead and four wounded. The next month, the Americans had their revenge. With the CBS correspondent Morley Safer and a cameraman in tow, the troops set out for the area in armored vehicles. “They told us if you receive one round from the village, you level it,” recalled marine Reginald Edwards. Safer heard much the same. “I talked to a captain, trying to get some idea what the operation was about. And he said, “We’ve had orders to take out this complex of villages called Cam Ne…And I thought perhaps he’s exaggerating… The troops walked abreast toward this village and started firing. They said that there was some incoming fire. I didn’t witness it, but it was a fairly large front, so it could have happened down the line. There were two guys wounded in our group, both in the ass, so that meant it was “friendly fire.” They moved into the village and they systematically began torching every house—every house as far as I could see, getting people out in some cases, using flame throwers in others…” About 150 homes in Cam Ne were burned; others were bulldozed, as marines razed two entire hamlets. Artillery was then called in on the wreckage.

American reliance on coercion of the civilian population and their dependence on the use of massive firepower, as documented by Turse, was the consequence of the political weakness of the United States and the quisling regime it established in the South, coupled with the American military’s historical aversion to unconventional warfare and its preference for relying instead on its overwhelming technological superiority. Initially giving tacit acceptance to French efforts to re-impose French colonial rule in the wake of WWII, the United States became in 1950 the chief sponsor of the French effort, providing lavish military and economic aid. French rule in Vietnam was based on the severe exploitation of the mass of the Vietnamese peasantry in collaboration with a Europeanised Vietnamese elite. As a consequence of French policy, by 1954 land ownership was concentrated in the hands of the landlord class with more than half of the impoverished peasantry compelled to rent their lands. It was much the same social strata (in many cases even the same military and political personnel) that the United States was to ally itself with following the French defeat at the hands of the Vietminh.

US officials were not blind to the nature of the regime they instituted in South Vietnam. In 1965 US Undersecretary of State George Ball described the southern regime as “by and large… a joke” and the Republic of Vietnam as “a country with an army and no government”. Two years later US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was describing the Ky-Thieu government as “largely corrupt, incompetent, and unresponsive to the needs and wishes of the people.”

In contrast, in the areas it controlled, the National Liberation Front (the so-called Vietcong) carried out a rigorous land reform program – initially opposed by the Vietnamese Communist Party – that broke the back of the feudal society presided over by the French (peasant hostility to the landlord class was a key factor in the appeal of communism in Asia in the period). The NLF also enjoyed the prestige of its association with the Vietminh, the victors over American-backed French imperialism, and Ho Chi Minh, the president of communist North Vietnam, whom it was understood would have handily won the nationwide elections scheduled for 1955, had they not been blocked with US support by Ngo Dinh Diem. The contrast between a regime backed by the United States that in many respects replicated French colonialism, and an opposition which had a nationalist, egalitarian agenda, responsive to the material interests of the mass of population was the key reason for the absence of US political support within South Vietnam.

In the history of counterinsurgency two principal strategies have been employed. The first is a strategy of annihilation: attempting to seek out and destroy, or force the surrender, of the insurgent forces in their entirety, with little or no regard for the civilian population (Wehrmacht anti-partisan operations in eastern Europe during WWII being a classic example). The second depends upon so-called “hearts and minds operations”, which seek to reduce the support network of an insurgency by winning the allegiance, or at least neutralising the support base, of the guerrilla forces. In spite of some half-hearted efforts at the latter approach the United States largely pursued the former strategy. A study by the RAND corporation, sympathetic to the goals of the American war, described the American strategy in Vietnam:

General Westmoreland provided a one-word summary of his antiguerilla strategy: “Firepower.” In a less terse summary, General Westmoreland stated that if the enemy did not quit, the U.S. forces would “just go on bleeding them to the point of national disaster for generations.” General Westmoreland’s operations officer… William Depuy, summarized the strategy in a statement to the press: “We are going to stomp them to death.” After being promoted to major general and receiving command of the 1st Infantry Division, General Depuy described the approach in more detail…: “The solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm . . . till the other side cracks and gives up.

The attritional approach also meshed well with the bean-counting technocratic tendencies of post-war American war planners influenced by behavioural science, game theory and an unfounded assumption that the NLF insurgents relied primarily on coercion of the civilian population – with the corollary that American counterinsurgents simply needed to coerce the population more effectively than their enemies. Turse recounts the brutal rationality employed:

In Vietnam, the statistically minded war managers focused, above all, on the notion of achieving a “crossover point”: the moment when American soldiers would be killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace. After that, the Pentagon expected, the communist-led forces would naturally give up the fight—that would be the only rational thing to do.

The attritional strategy, which measured success by body counts (and provided material incentives to units which achieved high numbers of kills), was to have horrific consequences for the Vietnamese:

Sometimes, when units were short of “kills,” prisoners or detainees were simply murdered. On September 22, 1968, for example, members of the 82nd Airborne Division captured a wounded Vietnamese in Thua Thien Province. “I got on the radio and told the CO [commanding officer] that the man was wounded, unarmed and had surrendered,” said Lieutenant Ralph Loomis. According to Loomis’s testimony to an army criminal investigator, his superior officer, Captain John Kapranopoulous, replied, “Dammit, I don’t care about prisoners, I want a body count.” Although Loomis ordered his men not to execute the prisoner, his radioman, Specialist Joseph Mattaliano, “opened up with a burst of automatic fire from his M-16 killing the Vietnamese instantly.”… Such cold-blooded killings went on in unit after unit, all for the sake of the body count…The practice of counting all dead Vietnamese as enemy kills became so pervasive that one of the most common phrases of the war was: “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.”

Perhaps more depressing than the litany of horrors to be found in Turse’s work is the knowledge that his book is unlikely to have much of an impact within a political culture where acceptance of the fundamental benevolence of the United States and her allies is the first requirement of those who wish to be admitted to polite discourse within the mass media and mainstream scholarship. Indeed it seems doubtful that Turse himself believes his book will have much success in helping the American public to recover from their historical amnesia:

Vietnam War bookshelves are now filled with big-picture histories, sober studies of diplomacy and military tactics, and combat memoirs told from the soldiers’ perspective. Buried in forgotten U.S. government archives, locked away in the memories of atrocity survivors, the real American war in Vietnam has all but vanished from public consciousness.

The British and American public’s apparent ignorance of the scale of Iraqi suffering since the coalition invasion in 2003, as in the case of Vietnam, points to the remarkable effectiveness of the mainstream media to shape understanding of both contemporary crimes and their historical analogues. Absent a radical change in the internal nature of the imperial societies it would seem that accurate popular understanding of the Vietnam war and subsequent crimes may have to wait until those conflicts are seen (as in the cases of slavery or the genocide of the Native population of the Americas) as of sufficient temporal distance so as to be largely irrelevant to the maintenance of the image of the United States and her allies as benign actors in world affairs. It is sad to reflect that we may be waiting a very long time for a true reckoning with the history of America’s war in Indochina, but when it comes, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War In Vietnam will prove invaluable in coming to terms with the terrible reality of America’s war in Vietnam.

Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project. He has written for Open Democracy, Z Magazine and Dissident Voice.



[1] In American popular culture the war has primarily been portrayed as an American tragedy – from the Deer Hunter’s portrayal of North Vietnamese soldiers forcing captured GIs to play Russian roulette (no evidence of such a practice exists and torture in Vietnam was overwhelmingly the province of South Vietnamese forces under American tutelage) to Apocalypse Now’s use of the war as a mere backdrop for the pretentious nihilistic musings of Francis Ford Copella and John Milius.

[2] The first president of South Vietnam.


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