More than 10 years of research and 80 pages of references testify to the comprehensiveness of Nick Turse's journalistic history of the Vietnam war, Kill Anything That Moves (Picador, 416 pages, $17). The results aren't pretty. This isn't John Wayne's The Green Berets—this is the Full Metal Jacket, Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now war Jane Fonda and Country Joe and the Fish were protesting, presented in studious, people's history prose.
The title refers to the fact that the Viet Cong were difficult to discern from civilians, so American soldiers killed everyone. The book is repetitive in its litany of atrocities, repeating the quote, "If it's dead, it's a VC," as casually as we might say, "If it's green, go." Turse identifies the brass's need for a body count—without regard for killing the actual enemy— as the cause of huge civilian casualties. "I firmly believe…the percentage of Viet Cong killed by support assets is roughly equal to the percentage of Viet Cong in the population," wrote U.S. soldier Louis Janowski in his 1969 end-of-tour report. "That is, if 8 percent of the population of an area is VC, about 8 percent of the people we kill are VC."
Turse starts with a visit to Trieu Ai, a South Vietnamese village where houses were burned and grenades were tossed into civilian bomb shelters in October 1967. Such massacres were common, he says. My Lai, in 1968, was treated by the media as an oddity, and quickly swept aside, though Turse argues such mass murders were standard operating procedure.
Turse also discusses how young American soldiers experienced culture shock after being dropped into the jungles of Vietnam with no direction other than to kill. Who were they killing? Anything that moves. And what for? In the name of democracy, to keep communism away from people who are oceans away from the United States. The numbers are staggering: By 1969, there were 540,000 U.S. troops demolishing the towns and countryside of Vietnam. Turse estimates they killed 2 million Vietnamese civilians, with 5.3 million wounded and 11 million left refugees. Ultimately, of course, such suffering was wrought for nothing.
Which is the ultimate question lingering from Turse's work: Was the Vietnam War unique in it's senseless killing, or was it just well-documented?
GO: Nick Turse appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Friday, Jan. 31, 7:30 pm. Free.