This post is quite obviously NOT about education or US-Vietnam educational exchange. It’s about history, its impact on the present, and the United States’ (in)ability to overcome its past. The German word that describes this process, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, implies dealing with, learning from, but also overcoming the past.
It’s about a horrible truth that Nick Turse tells his fellow citizens and the world about the murder of civilians as official policy during the American War, as it’s known in Vietnam, in Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (KATM). KATM, which will be released tomorrow, is unlike any book that’s ever been written about the war. It brings to light what survivors, perpetrators and eyewitnesses know but rarely, if ever, talk about. Below is a related excerpt from an article by Mr. Turse entitled A My Lai a Month that appeared in the 1 December 2008 issue of The Nation (the bold is mine):
In late 1969 Seymour Hersh broke the story of the 1968 My Lai massacre, during which US troops slaughtered more than 500 civilians in Quang Ngai Province, far north of the Delta. Some months later, in May 1970, a self-described “grunt” who participated in Speedy Express wrote a confidential letter to William Westmoreland, then Army chief of staff, saying that the Ninth Division’s atrocities amounted to “a My Lay each month for over a year.” In his 1976 memoir A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland insisted, “The Army investigated every case [of possible war crimes], no matter who made the allegation,” and claimed that “none of the crimes even remotely approached the magnitude and horror of My Lai.” Yet he personally took action to quash an investigation into the large-scale atrocities described in the soldier’s letter.
I uncovered that letter and two others, each unsigned or signed only “Concerned Sergeant,” in the National Archives in 2002, in a collection of files about the sergeant’s case that had been declassified but forgotten, launching what became a years-long investigation. Records show that his allegations–of helicopter gunships mowing down noncombatants, of airstrikes on villages, of farmers gunned down in their fields while commanders pressed relentlessly for high body counts–were a source of high-level concern. A review of the letter by a Pentagon expert found his claims to be extremely plausible, and military officials tentatively identified the letter writer as George Lewis, a Purple Heart recipient who served with the Ninth Division in the Delta from June 1968 through May 1969. Yet there is no record that investigators ever contacted him. Now, through my own investigation–using material from four major collections of archival and personal papers, including confidential letters, accounts of secret Pentagon briefings, unpublished interviews with Vietnamese survivors and military officials conducted in the 1970s by Newsweek reporters, as well as fresh interviews with Ninth Division officers and enlisted personnel–I have been able to corroborate the sergeant’s horrific claims. The investigation paints a disturbing picture of civilian slaughter on a scale that indeed dwarfs My Lai, and of a cover-up at the Army’s highest levels. The killings were no accident or aberration. They were instead the result of command policies that turned wide swaths of the Mekong Delta into “free-fire zones” in a relentless effort to achieve a high body count. While the carnage in the Delta did not begin or end with Speedy Express, the operation provides a harsh new snapshot of the abject slaughter that typified US actions during the Vietnam War.
The substantiated assertion in bold forms the basis of KATM, which consists of archival research and interviews with survivors of US attacks in Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as interviews with US veterans. Efforts to “achieve a high body count” are summed up in this slogan on the walls of the U.S. Army’s Ninth Division helicopter headquarters during Operation Speedy Express (December 1968-May 1969): Death is our business and business is good.
The Truth Shall Set You Free?
If the truth can sometimes hurt, the truth revealed in KATM is excruciatingly painful and traumatic. It is one of the reasons why PTSD afflicts so many US veterans who fought in Vietnam. One clinical psychologist found that one in three soldiers reported killing the enemy (my italics), others found that one in five acknowledged killing a civilian; two in three handled or uncovered dead bodies, and the same number saw wounded and sick women and children they were unable to help. (This applies to Vietnam and Iraq.)
Most US Americans don’t have a clue as to the scale of killing carried out in their name in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and many don’t want to know the truth because it doesn’t mesh with the image they have of their country and its place in the world. They obsess over the 58,000 US Americans who lost their lives and are shocked to hear about the estimated 3 million (as in 3,000,000) Vietnamese who were murdered. (That’s the modern-day equivalent of about 22 million US Americans, in case you’re counting.)
I often ask those who have been to the “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” in Washington, D.C. to close their eyes and imagine, just for a moment, The Wall X 50 with the inscription of 3 million Vietnamese names on it: mothers & fathers, sons & daughters, brothers & sisters, aunts & uncles, grandmothers & grandfathers, lost generations who died at the hands of the US military and its client state, South Vietnam, which together turned large swathes of Vietnam into a charnel house.
“…If They Learn About the Wartime Suffering of People in Vietnam, Do You Think They Will Sympathize?”
Here’s a quote from one of the many interviews that Nick Turse conducted with Vietnamese survivors of US military attacks. It was excerpted from a 8 January 2013 article entitled “‘So Many People Died’ – The American System of Suffering, 1965-2014.”
As I was wrapping up my interview, Pham Thang asked me about the purpose of the last hour and a half of questions I’d asked him. Through my interpreter, I explained that most Americans knew next to nothing about Vietnamese suffering during the war and that most books written in my country on the war years ignored it. I wanted, I told him, to offer Americans the chance to hear about the experiences of ordinary Vietnamese for the first time.
“If the American people know about these incidents, if they learn about the wartime suffering of people in Vietnam, do you think they will sympathize?” he asked me.
Soon enough, I should finally know the answer to his question.
He is, of course, referring to the reaction to KATM. What do you think the answer(s) to Mr. Thang’s question will be, dear reader?
Thanks to Nick Turse for telling the stories of those who perished and those who survived, and to Henry Holt (under its Metropolitan Books imprint) for publishing KATM. While I would very much like to see this book translated into Vietnamese, I won’t hold my breath given the political sensitivities involved and less than favorable “market conditions.”
P.S.: Be sure to read the letters in response to The Nation article, including these two:
To the veterans who are offended by this article, look harder. We need more scrutiny into how we were used as a military force. Most of my fellow C7 cargo pilots would be offended, no doubt, by my assertion that we laid waste to terrain and populace. The urge to conformity and mainstream honor is the greatest barrier to the truth about the Vietnam War. The abuses of military power we brought down on many innocents, who were no threat to America or the world.
This is more detail than I have ever seen before about Operation Speedy Express, but the basic outlines of this story have appeared in various books, all citing Kevin Buckley’s story. (I’m thinking of The First Casualty, Fire in the Lake and various books by Noam Chomsky.) But it goes completely unmentioned in many books on the Vietnam War. It’s amazing that people think we live in a self-critical society, when an atrocity like this can remain unknown to the vast majority of Americans for forty years, even though the basic facts are available if you happen to stumble across them.