The Purposeful Killing of Civilians in War: Voices From Vietnam 

Montagnard Village, An Khe, Vietnam 1970. Photo: Photo by Mike Hastie.

I just got through reading Nick Turse’s article in “The Intercept” for September 28, 2017. His article is titled: “The Ken Burns Vietnam War Documentary Glosses Over Devastating Civilian Toll.” Here is one of Nick’s quotes from early in the article: ” War is not combat, though combat is a part of war. Combatants are not the main participants in modern war. Modern war affects civilians far more and far longer than combatants.” Turse goes on to say:

Like Burns and Novick, I also spent a decade working on a Vietnam War epic, though carried out on a far more modest budget, a book titled ” Kill Anything That Moves.” Like Burns and Novick, I spoke with military men and women, Americans and Vietnamese. Like Burns and Novick, I thought I could learn “what happened” from them. It took me years to realize that I was dead wrong. That might be why I find “The Vietnam War” and its seemingly endless parade of soldier and guerrilla talking heads so painful to watch.

I have a book that I often turn to when I want to hear Vietnamese civilians talk about what they saw and experienced when American soldiers came into their villages. The title of the book is: “Then The Americans Came.” It is written by Martha Hess, and was published by Rutgers University Press in 1993. In 1990 and 1991, Martha Hess, accompanied by an interpreter, traveled above and below the 17th parallel, interviewing over one hundred people about their wartime experiences. Instead of paraphrasing what she heard, I am going to let you hear what these Vietnamese people have to say when they were confronted by American troops.

You may speak now, as there is an audience who wants to hear your truth:

Toxic chemicals and defoliants were dropped, and a lot of napalm. Many people today still have scars from napalm bombs. There were different kinds of fragmentation bombs, some the size of a fist. Even now people get killed from small, unexploded bombs. Wounded people were looked after by their families, or by the community if they had no children or relatives. The dead were buried everywhere, without coffins. Three people died in my family. The American cannot repay this debt, because it’s too big.

Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thiet

In the first war, mostly they bombed bridges, ferries, roads, military bases. But in the second war the Americans bombed civilians.

Mrs. Hoang Thi Al

I joined the army in 1969. After six months I went to Cambodia and fought the Americans there. I remember when Americans brought troops and first bombed Cambodia. Many people were killed. They bombed civilians, just like in Vietnam. Wherever they saw people, they bombed. I stayed there until 1975. I lost a lot of friends from bombings and contamination by toxic chemicals, and was myself injured and exposed. But I always believed that we would win.

Mr. Pham Dinh Bang

The Americans came to Vietnam to conduct a war, and kill Vietnamese people. That means they were the aggressors. The puppet soldiers were also Vietnamese but they were Americanized, meaning they listened to the Americans and took up arms against their own people. For those soldiers we have more sympathy than hatred. To this day we think of the Americans as the enemy. Our children have no fathers. The Americans killed a generation. They owe us, for the next generation.

Mr. Dich

That evening buildings were destroyed, everything. Many people were injured and entire families were wiped out–from the youngest to the oldest. In one family, five generations were killed together, the baby inside its pregnant mother, the son, the mother, the grandmother and the great grandmother. In one family there were nine children, and their parents died. We spent that week digging out the shelters, looking for missing people. The smell of the dead was terrible. We collected the bodies in one place, and the wounded were taken to the hospital. To be fair, the Vietnamese didn’t send troops to invade America. Never, never forget. We remember the war. We remember our losses. All the little children–nine years old, thirteen, they had committed no war crimes for the Americans to come and kill them. When they died in the bombings, their eyes popped out from the compression. Their bodies were mangled. Small children and old people. They lived here, and worked their whole lives here. They never sent troops to America. They never took one plant, one leaf from America. Why did the Americans come to destroy everything, to kill the people, to kill small children, to kill even pregnant women–why? Don’t the American people even know why?

Mrs. Phung Thi Tiem

It was really two wars, the French and the American, and they cannot be separated. The Americans were already involved during the French War. Even the bombs were already being supplied by the United States. Secretary of State Dulles wanted to use the hydrogen bomb on Dien Bien Phu in 1954, but the British didn’t agree with it. We didn’t start the war. Secretary of State Dulles and the U.S. government knew what the Geneva Agreements were, but they kept on bringing war materiel into Vietnam. They set up the puppet government of Ngo Dinh Diem, and trained the soldiers of South Vietnam. Then they sent in their own troops. We had war for three generations.

Mr. Phu Bang

The war ended fifteen years ago in victory for our people, but the country remains devastated. We say that victory cannot match our suffering. After all, the United States sent their troops over here with the intent to destroy all, burn all, and kill all. They destroyed the land. In the South, the Americans burned villages and herded the women and children into camps surrounded by barbed wire. South Vietnam became an enormous prison. Many children couldn’t go to school, people weren’t free to work their land. They killed brutally, indiscriminately. You remember the massacre at My Lai, in Quang Ngai Province. There were many other villages where the people were massacred. My Lai was only the worst.

Mrs. Truong My Hoa

In 1968 I went south with the Liberation Forces, to fight in the mountains. Nobody had enough rice. I had malaria, the kind you get in the mountains, and nearly died from it. The Americans parachuted soldiers in for mopping-up operations, and when we would pass through villages where they had been, we would find only bodies–in the trees, on the ground, and women with cloth stuffed in their mouths. The people were gone, only wounded and the dead. You see, when the Americans came through they killed everyone, even children, because they thought they were Viet Cong.

Mrs. Huynh Phuong Anh

We saw many, many helicopters coming toward us and around the village. You could see helicopters in all four directions. We were calm, I don’t know why. Then the Americans started shelling from the helicopters, and then the soldiers ran out onto the fields. They came from all directions, and we didn’t know where to run. The first group of Americans came in and shot the people, and they killed the buffaloes and cows. They shot everyone they saw, even pregnant women and old people. They shot everyone. The second group came and burned the houses, cut the trees, all the fruit trees. There was an old man, about seventy or eighty years old. The soldiers cut off his hand and threw it to the ground, and then they threw him into the well and shot him. After that, most of the people were rounded up and brought to the ditch here. The Americans pushed them into the ditch and then they shot them. They didn’t care who–old people, children, pregnant women too. They killed them all. I myself saw this massacre. I was very lucky to survive. When I fell into the ditch I landed close to the edge. I saw people being killed, and I took a cloth from somewhere and covered my head, and pretended to die. My whole family was killed. When it seemed as if they had stopped shooting, my child got up and called out to me. He looked around the ditch. An American shot him through the heart.

Mr. Pham Dong

The Americans wore big jackets, flak jackets, and they looked very, very big. They raped many young girls. We all have family that were killed by the Americans.

Mrs. Dang Thi Sinh

They put everyone in a camp. If we tried to stay in our village they burned the houses. If we still stayed, they shelled the villages and destroyed them. The camp was terrible–very bad conditions. It was not just the lack of things, but the lack of freedom. You see, there were not only American and South Vietnamese soldiers but also South Korean, and they were barbarous. They raped the women. They had a list of people suspected of belonging to the V.C. and I was on it. For a few months I was put in prison. They thought that maybe I helped the V.C. and they arrested me. They beat me. I had nothing to eat, no water. There was nothing. I had two sons that were killed in battle, and my husband was killed too. It was a very bad life.

Mrs. Luu Thi Nao

The South Koreans were especially brutal. They raped the women and girls in our village. In 1965, my aunt was raped. They cut off her hands and legs, and threw her in the river. We were rounded up into areas controlled by American and South Vietnamese soldiers. The old ones didn’t want to go, and so the soldiers would tie ropes around their necks and drag them. My uncle was killed like that, being dragged by the neck. They burned all the houses. We were given very little food. There was no school. We were kept in the camps for ten years, until 1975.

Mrs. Nguyen Thi Duc

In 1965 I was arrested by the Americans and brought to Hoi An. They put electricity in my vagina, on my nipples, in my ears, in my nose, on my fingers. Blood came out of my vagina. At night they put electricity inside my body and they beat me. They jumped on me with their shoes. Now when I breathe my whole chest hurts, and when I lie on the bed my body aches. They kept me for eighteen months. In 1965 I was a beautiful woman, not like now. I am forty-five and I live alone, no parents, no brothers, sisters, no husband. How can someone marry me? My father was killed by the Americans. My mother was killed by American bullets. My younger brother was killed. The boys had been playing on the road when the Americans came through, and shot them.

Mrs. Le Thi Dieu

I was caught twice, in 1969 and 1972, for helping the revolutionary forces. I was beaten and tortured with electricity. They killed my husband, and all five of our children were killed in the war. I have no husband and no children.

Mrs. Kieu Thi Xan

In 1965, I was a small child. The Americans were bombing, and many children were wounded and killed. When I was injured by a fragmentation bomb, an American helicopter took me to the hospital in Da Nang where they operated on my eye. The Americans shot the children. The children would be playing here on this side of the river, and American soldiers from over on the other side would shoot them. The Americans would cut off the hair of the older people. They shot people and then threw them in the river. This lady here, they pushed her to the ground and cut off her hair. Sometimes they shot people in the eyes. And they would laugh.

Mr. Vo Van Vuong

The Americans came in trucks. We were brought out in the sun, pushed to our knees and made to draw up our arms, as they cut off our hair. With older people, they pulled out their beards. They were laughing as they did this. We don’t understand English, so we could only see what they did. At night, the Americans would come in a helicopter and shine a light on the shelters, and shoot. They dropped napalm and burned and killed many people. Women were raped. In Bin Duong village across the river, twenty-one women were raped in an afternoon by Americans, not just once but one after the other. Some died on the spot, and others died later.

Mrs. Huynh Thi Pham

Around September 1969, when we fought the battle at Vinh Dien, after we withdrew the Americans came and rounded up the people, and they tortured them and beat them. They tied the hands and feet of the young people and set them in front of a ditch, and then shot them and kicked them into the ditch, and covered them over. About two hundred people were killed there. I tell you about this place that I know. These were Americans from the Fifth Regiment of the Marine Forces.

Mr. Luong Quy

During the twelve days of bombing over Hanoi at Christmastime 1972,  2,027 people were killed, 263 missing, 1,355 wounded. Of the 102 villages in the suburbs of Hanoi, all were bombed. One hundred and sixteen schools and thirty kindergartens and nursery schools were bombed. One hundred and fifteen pagodas, churches and temples were bombed. Fifty-three hospitals and clinics were bombed. The dikes were bombed in seventy-one places–they were very important for flood control. Bach Mai Hospital was built by the French. After 1954, it was restored and became the biggest hospital in North Vietnam. It was bombed four times. Five hundred and fifty thousand people out of a population of seven hundred thousand were evacuated from Hanoi.

Mr. Nguyen Duc Hanh
Heads the War Crimes Investigation
Commission of Hanoi

You do not bring the enemy to the peace table by just killing military combatants. You ultimately bring the enemy to the peace table by killing innocent civilians. They are military targets. The primary goal of the aggressor nation is to break the will of the people and their ability to defend their homeland. This strategy is as old as warfare itself. This is the great truth that has great silence.

If you want to know about the barbarity of war, ask civilians, because they are the primary targets in war. There is no such thing as Collateral Damage. It is a total myth. The U.S. military in Vietnam used this as a ruse to make American citizens think their military was following Geneva Convention Rules. This was a total Lie. This was probably the number one Lie of the Vietnam War, other than the manufactured “Domino Theory” Lie that got us into Vietnam in the first place.

The entire war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos was one of the greatest Lies in American history. The United States had no more right to bomb those three countries than they had the right to bomb Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. And yet, there are millions and millions of Americans who believe the Vietnam War was a noble cause. So, let’s go back to the beginning of this article and refresh ourselves with what Nick Turse said. Here are his words once again:

Like Burns and Novick, I spoke with military men and women, Americans and Vietnamese. Like Burns and Novick, I thought I could learn “what happened” from them. It took me years to realize that I was dead wrong. That might be why I find “The Vietnam War” and its seemingly endless parade of soldier and guerrilla talking heads so painful to watch. War is not combat, though combat is part of war. Combatants are not the main participants in modern war. Modern war affects civilians far more and far longer than combatants.

The average American soldier spent 12 months in Vietnam. The average Vietnamese civilian might experience ten tours of American soldiers in their country. The same Vietnamese village might be bombed year after year after year. The U.S. Bomb Bay Doors never closed, as the U.S. Government dropped My Lais from the skies. Every bomb was multiple caskets, for the living and the unborn. The U.S. bombing in Cambodia resulted in 600,000 deaths. The Cambodian peasants were so enraged they joined the Khmer Rouge, who eventually was responsible for a reign of terror that killed over a million people.

From 1964 to 1973, as part of the Secret War in Laos, the U.S. dropped 260 million cluster bombs and 2.5 million tons of munitions over the course of 580,000 bombing missions. By the end of the Vietnam War, the United States dropped 7,600,000 tons of bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This is nearly three times as many bombs that were dropped in all of World War II.

It was important for me to quote from the book written by Martha Hess. It is a powerful document to begin to understand the atrocities that the United States Government committed everyday during the Vietnam War. The individual stories of these Vietnamese survivors is essential if Americans truly want to grasp the real truth of the Vietnam War. In order to have great empathy, one has to experience the eye-witness testimony of those who suffered the most. These stories are soul searching and heart wrenching. One has to stay in the room, and hear every detail, even if your core belief system is mauled. Civilians lost everything, far more than the average combatant.

This is something American soldiers will never understand, I don’t care how much combat they saw. I have never met an American soldier who served in Vietnam who saw his entire family killed. He never had to walk around and collect body parts from his loved ones. This truth is beyond the comprehension of Americans who served in Vietnam, yet it was a very common experience for millions of Vietnamese civilians.

As one of the stories mentioned, a U.S. bomb exploded on a Vietnamese structure and killed five generations in one family. These stories by innocent civilians are so goddam powerful. These civilians experienced irreversible suffering that is light years beyond the American people. The truth is always behind the curtain, that is where the monster is, and why there is so much fear and  terror in exposing that monstrous truth. Shame always keep us from looking at the unthinkable.

The legacy of the American War in Vietnam has only one truth, not many as Burns and Novick try to convince us of. The truth, IS the Lie, a Lie that was so immoral, that it resembled the final solution in Nazi Germany. If one does not believe this, just ask millions of civilians in Vietnam. Leave your own reality behind, and stay in the room and listen to human suffering that nearly wiped out three generations.

Mike Hastie served as an Army Medic in Vietnam.