Vietnam: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Jonathan Schell‘s probing review of Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves originated on Tom Dispatch and migrated to Salon, where is appeared under the head, “Vietnam was even more horrific than we thought.”

Really?  While Jonathan Schell is not accountable for the Homer-moment in Salon’s headline, he nonetheless seems convinced that Nick Turse’s recently published book justifies such hyperbole.  Schell, of course, produced some of the finest reporting to come out of the Vietnam War, and one is inclined to take seriously his views on this subject.  Yet Shell immediately undermines the authority conferred by his masterly reporting during the war’s earlier stages with the disclaimer that, “like so many reporters in Vietnam, I saw mainly one aspect of one corner of the war… not enough to serve as a basis for generalization about the conduct of the war as a whole.”

This retroactive blind spot on Schell’s part, I’d wager, did not prevent his many readers from doing precisely what he says he shied from, extrapolating from his gripping accounts the  strong suspicion that the air war he witnessed so intimately in Quang Ngai Province was a template for the use of American air power and massive bombing throughout South Vietnam.  It’s a tangential point, but it does set up the clouded historical perspective Schell applies throughout this review.

I cannot comment here directly on Turse’s book for the simple reason that I won’t see the copy I ordered for another week   But as I sit here midwinter in a small village on the coast of Maine, with only limited reference materials at hand, I must take issue with some of the claims Jonathan Schell makes for this book that are independent of any future evaluations on my part concerning its quality, timeliness, and scholarly contribution.

It seems that only now with the publication of Nick Turse’s book has the narrow window through which Schell says he once observed the war expanded to reveal a source that “has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture…. of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam.”  What Shell had “once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm.”

Turse’s achievement, according to Schell, is “an accurate overall picture of what… has never been assembled… for instance, the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed…,” hardly news when you consider that the Vietnamese themselves have been loudly proclaiming this carnage for decades.  Nonetheless Shell goes on to argue, “It has not been until the publication of Turse’s book that the everyday reality of which these atrocities were a part has been brought so fully to light.”

Perhaps the key word here is “fully.”  What Schell seems to be arguing is that, what had been and remains common knowledge to many – antiwar Vietnam veterans like myself for killturseexample – only constitutes true knowledge of the war’s “everyday reality,” if it is repackaged years later between the covers of a single volume in which the author is said to have formulated “the actual facts of the case.”

Schell then concedes that it wasn’t exactly that the “actual facts” of the war were shrouded from public view, but that they were presented within the frame of a false dichotomy.   As accounts of atrocities began to accumulate dramatically after the revelation in November 1969 of the My Lai massacre, these barbarisms by the troops were presented by the government as “aberrations“ and by antiwar forces as “orders from the top,” which is to say, “policy.”  For Schell, however, “the relationship between policy and practice in Vietnam was… far more peculiar than the two choices suggest.”

American troops invading Vietnam in 1965 were, he reflects, “expecting to be welcomed as saviors.” But instead they “found themselves in a sea of nearly universal hostility.”  Built on this observation – and presumably distilled from Turse’s text – is perhaps the most convoluted passage in Schell’s lengthy essay.  Essentially he concludes that since Washington had not provided a “manual,” which is to say clearly stated policy guidelines, “it was left to the soldiers to decide what to do.”  And, therefore, “to this extent, policy was indeed being made in the field.”  In this scenario U.S. soldiers were trapped between the “impossible mission dictated from above (to win “hearts and minds” of a population already overwhelmingly hostile, while pulverizing their society) and locally conceived illegal but sometimes vague orders that left plenty of room for spontaneous, rage-driven improvisation on the ground.”

“Locally conceived illegal but sometimes vague orders,” is definitely a mouthful for any poor grunt to digest.  But let’s just isolate the words “vague orders” to highlight the flaw in Schell’s thinking here.  Well, were they orders or weren’t they?  Or to put it more clearly, did the troops understand them as orders or didn’t they?  Somehow erased from Schell’s portrayal of American soldiers “in the field” is the fact that they were commanded by senior field grade officers (lieutenant colonels), and on occasion by officers of even higher rank (as in my own experience with the 11th Infantry – the My Lai brigade – under the notorious “gook hunter,” Colonel John Donaldson).  While I suspect these names are not overlooked by Nick Turse, there’s no mention by Schell of Hatchet Hank Emerson, or George S. Patton, Jr. and other notoriously blood thirsty battalion commanders who were constantly in the field directing and cheering on the “rage-driven” mayhem carried out by their troops.

To extricate himself from this apparent slippage in his analysis, Schell mounts a deus ex machina that in one magic stroke replaces an anarchic battlefield reminiscent of Lord of the Flies with a war suddenly and unambiguously conducted by “orders from the top.”  Schell cues the next scene with actual stage directions: “Enter General [Julian] Ewell and his body count.”  Schell’s contention being that the high command has finally come to understand that counting the bodies is the only yardstick available to them in a People’s War for measuring progress on the battlefield, and thus, “the improvising moved up the chain of command until the soldiers were following orders when they killed civilians.”

The problem is that by the time General Ewell took command of the 9th Infantry Division in February 1968, the body count culture – de facto or otherwise – already had deep roots in the ‘search and destroy’ operations that long dominated American combat tactics.  Whether a given GI sometimes handed out candy to small children, or, in another mood – covered in the blood and flesh of a buddy blown sky high by a booby trap within sight of a “friendly” village – torched a hooch or abused a cringing papasan or worse, every grunt understood the meaning of the ‘dead gook’ rule.  Any Vietnamese killed in an operation – and statistically that was almost always an unarmed civilian who may or may not have been a non-combatant – was declared to be one less Viet Cong and added to a unit’s roster of enemy kills in a shower of praise from the ‘old man.’   The practice of awarding three day in-country R&R getaways to Nha Trang and other exotic beaches on the South China Sea to GIs who had increased their units’ body count was by then well established

Keep in mind that the My Lai massacre occurred in March of 1968, many months before General Ewell and his 9th Infantry launched the infamous Speedy Express operation Schell refers to that produced such an enormous body count and so few captured weapons, at which point Ewell becomes Schell’s avatar who shifts accountability for the slaughter of civilians from the troops in the field to the policy makers in Washington and the high command of the Pentagon.  The fact was, if you do the math based on two million dead Vietnamese, it’s clear that Speedy Express was itself, not the exception, but the norm.

Bogged down in the untenable thesis that field policy “was left to the soldiers to decide,” Schell can only move on by acknowledging that, after all, but “for the blind and misguided policies…   of the war’s architects… these infernal situations never would have arisen.”  The war was always intrinsically an “atrocity producing situation,” Schell now realizes, citing the well-known formula coined by psychiatrist, Robert J. Lifton, an early pioneer in recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam war veterans.  This insight of Lifton’s on how atrocities became the “norm” in Vietnam is one, it now appears, that can be generalized by Schell to embrace the entire war.

Everything that Schell attributes to Truse’s book in his review – which is clearly only one enthusiastic critics’ précis of the work – was well known – if not during the earliest days, certainly by the late stages of the organized opposition to Vietnam.  Getting out that message was precisely what scores of returning war veterans like myself were attempting, most intensely between the public revelation of My Lai in late 1969 and the by now obscure and forgotten congressional hearings on war crimes in Vietnam chaired by Congressman Ron Dellums at the end of April 1971.  Schell suggests that the evidence of wide scale atrocities then in circulation was anecdotal when, in fact, Vietnam veterans in waves, representing virtually every phase of the war and every sector of the fighting, appeared in public over a period covering almost two years giving eye witness testimony of atrocities they had committed or participated in.  Moreover these atrocities were consciously framed by the antiwar activists who organized these veterans as standard operation procedure and de facto policies designed by the architects and managers of the war.

Even in advance of seeing it I anticipate that, as a comprehensive study, Nick Turse’s new book is an extraordinary contribution to the efforts of those of us who for decades have been fighting the battle over how our history will portray the Vietnam War.  The campaign to challenge the forces aimed at re-writing or sanitizing the history of the Vietnam War has recently been injected with new urgency in the wake of President Obama’s launching last Memorial Day of the Pentagon’s Vietnam War Commemoration Project, which seeks to honor Vietnam veteran “warriors” in national and community-based ceremonies from now until 2025 while stripping away the “atrocity producing” context in which the war was executed.

Among the 30,000 titles on the Vietnam War Jonathan Schell refers to in his review, his Village of Ben Suc and The Military Half are in the cream that floats on the top of that list.  But still, I believe that Schell has oversold the ground breaking significance of Nick Turse’s
book by overlooking the historical platform on which it has been constructed.  And I hope to demonstrate below with some few strands of evidence at hand why that is the case.

First, let me be clear on several points.  Nothing can justify the atrocities inflicted upon the Vietnamese people by American soldiers during the course of the Vietnam War.  Probably the majority of American soldiers never committed atrocities, although I would argue that a majority witnessed them at one time or another during their in-country tours.  Nor are those who did commit atrocities absolved of personal responsibility for their actions.  The questions here are where the greater responsibility falls, and whether or not “soldiers in the field” ever formulated policy, even in a de facto sense, and whether or not the commission of these atrocities was known to be the “norm” – even if this assertion was not generally accepted by the government, the media, the public or Jonathan Schell – long before the publication of Kill Anything That Moves.

Schell maintains that “the everyday reality” of the war was “never assembled” before Turse’s book.  What follows here is a selection of accounts of atrocities committed by American soldiers that appeared in major American newspapers (not even taking into account wide exposure in the electronic media which I can not reproduce here) between November 1969 and August 1971:

*”Peace Group to Set Up Panels on Atrocity Charges,” New York Times, November 30, 1969.  The article reports “the formation of citizen’s commissions…where former soldiers would provide first-hand evidence of war crimes… including electric torture and killing of prisoners [as] part of an American policy in South Vietnam… carried out on orders from those higher up.”

*”War crimes unit stages Vietnam horror showing,” by Don Frese.  Evening Capital[Annapolis, MD], March 12, 1970.  “Photographs, motion pictures and slides of dead and maimed children were used to convey the horror of the Vietnamese War… The inquiry… is intended to show how war crimes fit into our overall war policy.”  And in one paragraph, the reporter writes that an “ex-soldier told of his involvement in widespread bombing of villages and defoliation of the land.  ‘We were told to kill everything that moved.’”

*”War Crimes in Vietnam,” a flyer announcing a Teach-in at New York University, March 17, 1970.  The meeting, featuring the Citizens Commission of Inquiry, “will document the truth about genocidal massacre of the civilian population of South Vietnam.”

*”U.S. Army Veteran Alleges Vietnamese Civilians Slain,” The Springfield Union[Springfield, MA], April 7, 1970.  West Point graduate and former Infantry Captain, Robert Bowie Johnson, quoted in the article, said, “‘irrational acts’ of servicemen in Vietnam are traceable to the ‘irrational policy of the United States in Vietnam.’”

*”3 Viet Vets Charge ‘Routine’ Use of Torture by U.S. Troops,” by Timothy Ferris. New York Post, April 13, 1970.  This is precisely what Jonathan Schell says he learned from Nick Turse’s book in 2013, that “The U.S. military machine was [a]… system in which torture was standard procedure and extrajudicial executions common.”

*”They’d Probe Pentagon on ‘Atrocities,” New York Daily News, April 14, 1970.  At this press conference, where I gave an account of torture I had witnessed personally, CCI called for an “investigation of the Pentagon by some independent agency.  It’s absurd for the Pentagon to investigate itself for war crimes.”

*”Two ex-GIs say troops torture prisoners in Vietnam,” by Douglas Crocket.  The Boston Globe, May 8, 1970.”  We were joined in this press conference by Noam Chomsky, who referred to an “American government… made up of desperados and lawbreakers,” and said that “American atrocities in Vietnam were a violation of the Geneva accords.”

*“Ex-GIs Tell of Torturing Prisoners,” by William Greider. The Washington Post, July 19, 1970.  The big news for me in this article was that Bill Greider was able to corroborate my allegations of torture through an interview with the Interrogation Officer in my 11th Infantry unit.

*There is an article in the Swedish newspaper, Afton Bladet, October 25, 1970, reporting on the testimony I had given before a meeting of the International Enquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam.

*”War Atrocities Termed Commonplace,” by James Long.  Oregon Journal, October 28, 1970.  A CCI coordinator is quoted saying, “The My Lai massacre is a logical outgrowth of policies set at the highest level – individual soldiers do not account for genocide.”

*”Jane Fonda’s newest cause: probing US ‘war crimes,’ by Evelyn Keene.  Boston Sunday Globe, November 1, 1970.  There was definitely a put-down tone in this article toward Jane, but it announced our plans for the Winter Soldier Investigation.

*”War Foes Blame U.S. Commanders for Viet Atrocities,” by Richard Maynard.  The Washington Post, November 24, 1970.  This announced CCI’s National Veterans Inquiry, to begin in Washington the following week.

*”Nuremberg III,” by Nat Hentoff.  The Village Voice, November 26, 1970.  Hentoff here essentially challenges the rest of the media to pay attention to CCI’s upcoming National Veterans Inquiry.

*”Vietnam atrocities told: ‘Military intelligence involves systematic use of electric tortur and beatings,’” by Jerry Oppenheimer. The Washington Daily News, December 2, 1970.  Day two of the National Veterans Inquiry.

*”War Veterans at Inquiry Feel ‘Atrocities’ Are Result of Policy,” The New York Times, December 4, 1970.  The Times wrap-up on the three-day Inquiry.

*”Taylor Says by Nuremberg Rules Westmoreland May Be Guilty,” by Neil Sheehan. The New York Times, January 9, 1971.  This may have been the CCI’s biggest publicity coup.

*”Five Officers Say They Seek Formal War Crimes Inquiries,” by Neil Sheehan.  The New York Times, January 13, 1971.  This was the second article that week by Neil Sheehan on CCI’s work.  Shortly thereafter, Sheehan broke the Pentagon Papers story in the Times.  He already had them from Ellsberg well before the articleson CCI ran, or so I was told by the late John Simon, former editor of the Times Book Review.

*”For a War Crimes Inquiry,” Editorial.  Newsday [Long Island, and New York City], March 22, 1971.  Newsday, under the helm of Bill Moyers then as Publisher, I believe, may have been the only mainstream newspaper in the country to editorialize on behalf of a war crimes inquiry.

*”Should We Have War Crimes Trials?” by Neil Sheehan.  The New York Times Book Review,” March 28, 1971.  An omnibus review of the contemporary literature on the war crimes issue in which Sheehan comes down hardest on the American air war in Vietnam.

*”House Panel To hear Of Alleged Torture-Murder Policy in Viet,” The Baltimore Sun, April 28, 1971.  This article reports on a session of the Dellums Hearings on US War Crimes, which CCI organized on Capitol Hill in late April 1971.  H.L. Mencken’s old paper; what would he have made of all this?

“Ex-GI Alleges 30 Slayings Near Mylai,” by Richard Halloran.  The New York Times, April 28, 1971.  CCI witness Danny Notley made public the Truong Khanh massacre at the Dellums Hearings.  The massacre was confirmed by an AP correspondent in Vietnam.  “5 S. Viets Back Ex-GI on Atrocity.” The Chicago Tribune, May 8, 1971.

*”Phoenix Program Details ‘Sterile, Depersonalized Murder’ Plan, by Mary McGrory.  The Washington Post, August 3, 1971.  The article reports on the testimony two veteran witnesses, Bart Osborne and I, presented under oath before by House Government Operations Subcommittee, which had taken upon itself an investigation of the U.S.  Phoenix assassination program.  My testimony was analytical and dry; Bart’s was sensational and got all the press.  Both can be seen here:  http://homepage.ntlworld.com/jksonc/docs/phoenix-hcgo-19710802.html

*The bibliography on what the historian and Vietnam War apologist Guenter Lewy called CCI’s and VVAW’s “war crimes industry” is short.  It includes, Standard Operating Procedure, by James Simon Kunen, (Avon1971); The Dellums Committee Hearings on War Crimes in Vietnam, (Vintage 1972), and my own memoir, Vietnam Awakening (McFarland 2007).

Here’s how I described the CCI in Vietnam Awakening:

 The CCI would play a catalytic role in building this unprecedented formation of antiwar veterans by framing an issue around war crimes that the former soldiers could address and legitimize with reference to their own experiences on the battlefield.  And no one knew better from the inside out what was wrong with Vietnam than the troops who fought there.  What made this mobilization of antiwar vets all the more astounding was that the war was still far from over.  Moreover the vets who were eventually filtered – directly or indirectly – through CCI into Vietnam Veterans Against the War, already possessed strong needs to communicate their disillusionment to the Middle American communities from which they sprang: these same folks who President Nixon caricatured as the silent majority, a great blob of drones and tongue tied patriots, among whom, nonetheless, the message and style of the antiwar movement played with such little sympathy.

It was in linking Vietnam veterans to the powerful antiwar forces already in existence by means of a highly publicized campaign to denounce U.S. war crimes throughout Indochina that CCI’s two principal coordinators, Jeremy Rifkin and Tod Ensign, made their considerable contribution – though largely overlooked in accounts of the times – to organized antiwar opposition during its later stages from 1970 through 1971.

What I am presenting here as evidence is, as we used to say about the My Lai massacre, just the tip of the iceberg.   A reader might conclude, however, even based on this limited sampling, that Americans were hearing and reading on a regular basis in the mainstream media, certainly after November 1969, the widely published message from elements of the antiwar movement, and from war veterans themselves, that atrocities in Vietnam were in fact the norm, and the direct outcome of U.S. government policies and “orders from above,” however explicitly or implicitly delivered.   If that message failed to be heard, that’s another thing entirely.

Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening.

This article originally appeared on In the Mindfield.

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Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening

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