The Secret History of the Vietnam War
If you thought you knew all there was to know about the Vietnam war, you’re wrong. For example: Ever heard of the “mere gook rule,” a code of conduct the U.S. military came up with in order to make it easier for soldiers to murder Vietnamese civilians without feeling too bad about it? (“It’s only a mere gook you’re killing!”)
Well, few people knew about this bit of history either until author Nick Turse discovered it in secret U.S. military archives, which he used as the primary sources for his new(ish) book, Kill Everything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. The book is based on Turse’s discovery of theretofore secret internal military investigations of U.S.-perpetrated atrocities alongside extensive reporting in Vietnam and amongst American veterans and it reminds us that the most significant fact about the Vietnam War is its most overlooked: massive and devastating Vietnamese civilian suffering.
The debate over the U.S. war in Vietnam continues to hang over this country’s most recent and techno-futuristic imperial adventures. Nick’s book makes for timely if extraordinarily painful reading, and I sat down with him recently to talk about the ongoing relevance of Vietnam, massacres, and secretly photocopying whole U.S. government archives.
VICE: Your book documents how the American war in Vietnam was a fight systemically waged against the civilian population. How does this account that you documented differ from the Vietnam war as it’s popularly remembered in the United States today?
Nick Turse: We have 30,000 books in print on the Vietnam War, and most of them deal with the American experience. They focus on American soldiers, on strategy, tactics, generals, or diplomacy out of Washington and the war managers there. But I didn’t see any that really attempted to tell the complete story of what I came to see as the signature aspect of the conflict, which was Vietnamese civilian suffering. Millions of Vietnamese were killed wounded, or made refugees by deliberate U.S. policies, like the almost unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling across wide swaths of the countryside. That is, deliberate policies dictated at the highest levels of the U.S. military. But any discussion of Vietnamese civilian suffering is condensed down to a couple pages or paragraphs on the massacre at My Lai.
This isn’t the book that you initially intended to write. Tell me about the War Crimes Working Group and the documents that you found.
I was working on a project on post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. Vietnam veterans. I would go down to the National Archives and I was trying to find hard data, military documents, to match up to the self-reports that we had from veterans about their experiences during the war. And on one of these trips I hit dead ends at every turn. After two weeks I had nothing to show for my research. I went to an archivist I worked with. I told him I couldn’t go back to my boss empty handed. He thought about it for a second. He asked me, “do you think witnessing war crimes could cause post-traumatic stress?’ I told him, “excellent hypothesis” and asked what he had.
Within an hour I was going through this box, many boxes actually, these reports of massacres, murders, rape, torture, assault, mutilation. Records put together by this Vietnam War Crimes Working Group impaneled in the Army Chief of Staff’s office in the wake of the My Lai massacre, to track any war crimes cases or allegations that bubbled up from the field, to make sure that the Army wasn’t caught flat footed again. And whenever it could it tried to tamp down these allegations.