Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam Revisited

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

…The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 1967

Enough has been said, here and elsewhere, about the contents of the bestselling book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (KATM) and the meticulous archival and field research on which it is based. It is a brilliant–a word I use sparingly–work about one of the most tragic periods in Vietnamese and US history. On the occasion of the 46th anniversary of the end of the US War in Vietnam, it’s worth revisiting the value of KATM’s singular contribution to the world’s knowledge about what the US did in and to Vietnam and its people.

In his spot-on review, Vietnam: A War on Civilians, Chase Madar sums up the war, as portrayed in KATM, thus: “The relentless violence against civilians was more than the activity of a few sociopaths: it was policy.” The same could be said of over 400 years of US history, both domestically and internationally, from 1607 to the present, especially for non-whites.

KATM, published eight years ago, is without a doubt the most emotionally wrenching book I have ever read. This might also have to do with the fact that the subject matter is intensely personal for me. I still have vivid recollections of many of the scenes author Nick Turse describes in excruciating detail. I am haunted by them.

Having said that, if you haven’t read it yet, run, don’t walk, to the nearest independent bookstore and buy it, or log on to the nearest available computer and order (or download) it. It should be required reading for all high school students in their mandatory US history class.

If KATM were a prescription drug, it would have this warning on its label: Do not read before going to bed, if you’re depressed, or if you’re under the influence of alcohol or any controlled substance. If you suffer from PTSD, be it from war or another traumatic event in your life, read it in measured doses. Yes, really; it’s that graphic and potentially traumatic.

As we commemorate yet another anniversary of the end of the war and the US government continues to do its utmost to rewrite history and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat through The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, KATM is a sledgehammer counterpoint to this disgraceful historical whitewash aka faux commemoration.

Among the over 650 reviews on Amazon.com, which are representative of all I have read to date, many of the comments in the one and two star category are eminently predictable and also reflect the views of some veteran Vietnam observers and scholars who should know better. (For some of us, scholars and laypeople, Vietnam is much more than a “subject of study.” It is a place where we live, work, and nurture relationships.) The 10 categories into which they fall are presented here in alphabetical order.

Atrocities Committed By The “Other Side”

They did it, too! Whenever I hear this sophomoric comment, the first thought that comes to mind is that the US Americans and their allies, including the Australians, South Koreans and others, had no right to be there in the first place. This is not an issue of moral equivalence. The “other side” was fighting against yet another foreign invader and its collaborators in the name of national liberation. It’s that simple.

Fallacy of Generalizing from Personal Experience

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read “I didn’t witness any atrocities during my tour”… So, because you didn’t witness it first-hand means it didn’t happen, right? Turse does not claim that every US combat soldier was a war criminal who was out raping, torturing and killing civilians. I know many veterans who, if they didn’t know before they went, quickly realized after they arrived that the war was a colossal mistake. From that point on their goal was to stay alive and not go home in a body bag. There were many others, however, who were involved in the wholesale abuse and murder of civilians. You know who you are. Some of you are tormented by what you did or did not stop. Others – the minority? – have no conscience. Perhaps justice will be meted out to you in the next life.

KATM/Turse Bashes Veterans!

It’s fairly easy to dispense with this old canard. Since I have many friends and acquaintances, both in Vietnam and the US, who are veterans, I know that many welcomed KATM. While the truth sometimes hurts, it can also be liberating. Those who were there, whether they participated in the acts Turse describes, observed them, or heard stories about them, know the score, as do the survivors. KATM is not an indictment of all veterans who served in Vietnam – either by choice or force – only those who were involved in the abuse, torture and murder of civilians and the “kill anything that moves” policy of the US military, and their superiors who oversaw the implementation of this brutal policy. Why do you think so many veterans are so troubled, dysfunctional and worse? Why is their suicide rate so high? What do you think many of them see and hear at night when the demons come?

Nothing New Here, Folks

According to whom? What Turse tells his fellow US Americans and the rest of the world is breaking news to most of them. Most are not Vietnam scholars who have read hundreds of books and thousands of primary source documents. I am more familiar than most with the information Turse presents yet KATM fills in many gaps and connects a lot of dots that – collectively – form a damning indictment of the US policy du jour.

Shooting from the Hip

I’m not gonna read da book `cause I read da summary and already know what he’s gonna say. He’s un-American, anti-American, and anti-military. (And besides, I’m blinded by the ideology of US nationalism – as distinct from patriotism.) Even tho I didn’t read da book, I’m gonna exercise my freedom of speech and put my two cents on Amazon anyhoo. The lament of the close-minded and the refuge of the intellectually lazy. Next…

Sin of Omission?

Groundless criticism about what he supposedly left out: It’s about war crimes committed by US soldiers in Vietnam as a frequent occurrence and the policies and conditions that led to those war crimes being committed. Turse proves it using US government documents and stories from US veterans and Vietnamese survivors. It was widespread and officially sanctioned. Therefore, there is really no basis on which to criticize him for not including everything you wanted him to include. If someone were to write a book that included everything Turse left out, it wouldn’t be the first.

The True Place the American War Holds in the Memory of South Vietnamese vs. North Vietnamese? It Ain’t that Simple…

This is a claim that some make. To which South Vietnamese are they referring? The ones who hitched their cart to the American (war) horse? The ones who benefited financially and in other ways from the US occupation and the influx of billions of dollars? The ones who left in the nick of time with the help of their American benefactors? The ones who betrayed the nation of Vietnam? Or the ones Turse writes about – the targets of bombs, bullets, torture, and other forms of abuse, the ghosts, and the survivors

Vietnam would have been unified in a 1956 national election, according to the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, which the US and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) refused to sign, an election in which Ho Chi Minh would have received “possibly 80%” of the vote, according to none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Totally False

Here’s a pithy Amazon review from Billy Boy, who just couldn’t wrap his mind, such as it is, around the book, or didn’t even bother to read it: “I hated it. Totally one-sided view. I would bet that half of it is made up.”

Turse Wasn’t There!

He was born in 1975; what does he know about the war in Vietnam? Most historians weren’t around in the eras that they’ve studied and on which they are experts. Does that make them any less knowledgeable? (That’s a rhetorical question, folks.) Turse’s age is irrelevant. He was able to use US government documents, travel to Vietnam to interview Vietnamese survivors of US military attacks, and interview US veterans. Therefore, even though he never smelled the smoke or heard the screams or artillery fire, he knows more than most people who were there. So much for this lame and illogical critique.

War is Hell

All wars are the same. Civilians suffer, are caught in the cross-fire, become “collateral damage.” As the bumper sticker says, “Shit happens,” right? Read about “kill anything that moves” as a policy that was conceived of and implemented at the highest levels of the US military and political establishment. That, combined with hatred for the Vietnamese and the fear and frustration of not knowing when or where the next attack would occur, the essence of guerrilla warfare, created the conditions for the perfect storm in which millions of civilians suffered grievously. Then there’s the argument that the US Americans had no right to be in Vietnam in the first place, which would have prevented the deaths of 3.8 million Vietnamese, including 2 million civilians, and a long and depressing list of war legacies that are still inflicting harm on innocents in 2021.

Here’s a bonus category that I’ll call Denial. One reviewer asked, “Is this historic material or a script for a horror movie?” The obvious answer is both. The reviewer makes the claim that the “author made up most of this stuff as the writing is repetitive using the same wording, phrases, etc.”

Can America Be America Again? (With A Nod to Langston Hughes)

America, take a close look at yourself in the mirror to see that ugly face staring back at you, eyes filled with self-righteousness, arrogance, anger and hatred, your collective mind polluted with nationalism, racism, and xenophobia, your collective hands dripping with the blood of innocents from many nations, including your own, one long, unbroken line from 1607 to 2021.

Admit that you were wrong, that your actions traumatized, injured, and killed millions of people in Vietnam in particular but also among your own people. Stop evading responsibility, making excuses, and lying about this and other unsavory dimensions of your past.

“Only when Americans openly acknowledge their imperial transgressions will genuine repentance become possible. And only with repentance will avoiding further occasions to sin become a habit. In other words, only when Americans call imperialism by its name will vows of ‘never again’ deserve to be taken seriously,” wrote former insider Andrew J. Bacevich in a recent essay America’s Longest War Winds Down – No Bang, No Whimper, No Victory

For the sake of all that is good and pure, stop commemorating and revising the war in Vietnam. Stop trying to find honor where there is only ignominy. Freedom is not slavery. Ignorance is not strength. 2+2 does not equal 5. A journalist friend who covered the war for five years in the 1960s for major TV networks observed that “it’s a crime (the commemoration) of another sort to reinvent an atrocity and make it heroic. A kind of cultural insanity, it seems to me.”

Or, as retired US Army officer Sanford D. Cook stated in response to my 2014 article Jumping on the Vietnam War Commemoration Bandwagon: The Vain Search for Honor, “We cannot tell the truth to others if we cannot first tell the truth to ourselves. That war was wrong, and celebrating it today is an obscene gesture of national self-justification.”

America, be a force for good not evil, live up to your ideals, turn over a new national leaf, purge yourself of the scourge of nationalism – exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations – recover and rejuvenate your national soul.

Instead of being the world’s greatest threat to peace, why not become the world’s greatest facilitator of peace, a nation to be emulated not feared and hated? Draw inspiration from your veterans, some of whom I count as my friends, who have returned to Vietnam to undo some of the damage you and they did to this country, and to right some of the wrongs of the past because it’s the right thing to do and as an act of penance. It’s the least you can do.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.

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