As a person who grew up in the Vietnam War era, I have been waiting a long time for a book like Nick Turse’s book, “Kill Anything That Moves”. In spite of all the books and articles written about the Vietnam War, I do not think we have seen the war as it actually was, in its fullest dimensions. Turse’s book goes beyond anything written to date to present a more honest picture.
I suppose there is some score settling here. I am part of the 60’s generation that hated the war. I spent much time demonstrating in opposition to the war. I see Turse’s book as an implicit vindication of the anti-war movement because Turse carefully documents how the American war led to widespread civilian deaths and a broad pattern of atrocities.
The book brought back so many memories of the period. For those who lived through that time, practically everyone would remember the My Lai massacre where American troops methodically slaughtered more than 500 unarmed women, children, and old men. Life Magazine ran graphic pictures of the massacre. It shocked the nation yet even My Lai did not lead to a critical reexamination of what we were doing in Vietnam.
Turse shows My Lai was no exception. He shows that American military conduct in Vietnam followed from policies engineered from the top. The policies were criminal. Higher-ups always tried to hide their role or pin atrocities on lower level fall guys. Turse’s book shows how far we are from ever acknowledging the degree of culpability for American criminal conduct.
I suppose for those who dispute Turse’s perspective he could be dismissed as an anti-war partisan. The problem is that Turse relied on records he obtained from a secret Pentagon task force that had been assembled after the My Lai massacre. The army had not wanted to be caught off guard so it had created a War Crimes Working Group that collected hundreds of incident summaries and sworn statements from veterans. Turse discovered the information which had been yellowing in the U.S. National Archives. He also followed up after this discovery, speaking to more than 100 American Vietnam veterans as well as former military war crimes investigators, generals and civilian leaders. Turse writes:
“From them I learned something of what it was like to be twenty years old with few life experiences beyond adolescence in a small town or inner city neighborhood, and to be suddenly thrust into villages of thatch and bamboo homes that seemed ripped straight from the pages of National Geographic, the paddies around them such a vibrant green that they almost burned the eye. Veteran after veteran told me about days of shattering fatigue and the confusion of contradictory orders, about being placed in situations so alien and unnerving that even with their automatic rifles and grenades they felt scared walking through hamlets of unarmed women and children.”
Turse shows that the war was less against the enemy than against the South Vietnamese people. The obsession with body counts, the search and destroy missions, the free fire zones. the B-52 raids, the burning of villages, the use of napalm and white phosphorus, defoliation and Agent Orange, the systematic use of torture, the pacification effort to drive people from their villages – all contributed to turning Vietnam into a depopulated, cratered, and blasted wasteland where millions were traumatized, disabled, and barely surviving.
Turse points to the absolute contempt and racism Americans had for the Vietnamese people. He quotes President Johnson who called Vietnam ” a piddling pissant little country”. Henry Kissinger called North Vietnam ” a little fourth rate power”. Turse shows how a culture of violence and remorseless killing was legitimated by explicit racism. He quoted army veteran Wayne Smith:
“The drill instructors never ever called the Vietnamese, ‘Vietnamese’. They called them dinks, gooks, slopes, slants, rice-eaters, everything that would take away humanity…That they were less than human was clearly the message.”
Turse cites the MGR – ‘the mere gook rule” which held all Vietnamese were little more than animals who could be killed or abused at will. The MGR excused all manner of wanton killing and atrocity. Revenge killings were hardly unusual. Embittered troops would lash out at any Vietnamese to get payback. The dehumanization and mass killing of civilians were a common occurrence. Turse goes into many many detailed examples.
It has been much remarked upon by many Vietnam war commentators that it was almost impossible to identify and separate out the enemy from the civilian population. That no doubt contributed to the difficulty in outlining rules of engagement. Turse describes very unpredictable conduct by American troops. One day they could be handing out candy to the people. The next day they could be burning the same villages.
Turse also persuasively shows how war crimes were covered up by top Washington officials. Their strategy was to drag out investigations for as long as possible, intimidate witnesses, hide evidence, and ultimately bury cases. The media was hardly bathed in glory. With the notable exception of Seymour Hersh’s My Lai expose, not much broke through. Turse outlines how war crimes were largely whitewashed. He does note the Winter Soldier Investigation organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in 1971 where Vietnam veterans heroically and courageously spoke about their Vietnam war experience.
I remember the Russell Tribunal organized in 1966 by Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre. Those proceedings were not mentioned by Turse in his book but they deserve recognition as part of the bearing witness.
Even as a grizzled. somewhat cynical, 60’s survivor I found Turse’s book profoundly disturbing. I am reminded of the famous Kafka quote about how what we must have are books which come upon us like ill-fortune and distress us deeply. Reading this book, it is hard to think we are even willing to look honestly at our own past. Turse’s book is an important contribution to the battle against forgetting and against the politics of impunity.
When I lived in Alaska in 2011, I read about the legislative decision to allow guns in the New Hampshire State House. The supporters of that idea described the Legislature as a target-rich environment. They have said disarming legislators turns the Legislature into a kill zone. One former legislator wrote to the Monitor recently that without guns, legislators were sitting ducks.
The fantasy seems to be that someone in the House gallery will open up on the House floor, shooting down and picking off targeted representatives. If legislators were carrying weapons, they would theoretically be able to shoot back and dispatch any attacker. Or maybe the thinking is that just the fact of carrying a weapon would act as a deterrent for any would-be shooter in the gallery.
As someone who worked in and around the Legislature from the late 1990s to 2010, I have to wonder about the paranoia behind such views. I never felt the area around the State House was unsafe or any kind of danger zone. In Concord, we are not talking violent inner city neighborhood or even scary dark alley. Concord is downright safe.
To the best of my knowledge, in the 200-plus years of the New Hampshire Legislature, there has never been a shooting, stabbing or any act of life-threatening violence directed against any legislator in or nearby the State House or the Legislative Office Building. Civility has been the general rule.
So why the fear of being shot while doing the people’s business as a legislator?
I suspect it is at least partly due to events like Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo. Such events shake faith in the normalcy of institutional life. You never know what might happen, even if a legislator has a greater statistical chance of being struck by lightning than being shot on the job. There is always the infinitesimal chance something could happen.The subject of guns provokes so much passion and so many inflammatory reactions that, unfortunately, historical perspective is lost. The history of guns in America is surprising. However one interprets the Second Amendment to the federal Constitution, history shows that regulation of guns has always gone along with gun rights. Guns have been regulated since the start of our country and the founding fathers balanced gun owners’ rights with public safety needs.
In his writings, including his book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms, UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler has stated, “The found
ing fathers instituted gun control laws so intrusive that no self-respecting member of the NRA board of directors would support them.” Winkler showed that laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813; in Indiana in 1820; in Tennessee and Virginia in 1838; in Alabama in 1839 and in Ohio in 1859.
Winkler describes the old Wild West as not so wild when it came to guns. He says that frontier towns usually barred anyone but law enforcement from carrying guns in public. Typically, in frontier towns, gun owners had to check guns at stables on the outskirts of town or drop them off with the sheriff. In exchange, the gun owner received a metal token so they could retrieve their guns when leaving.
It turns out that the famous shoot out at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone Arizona was about gun control. There was an ordinance in Tombstone prohibiting the carrying of deadly weapons. When Wyatt Earp confronted Tom McLaury, it was because McLaury had violated the town’s law about checking his gun. McLaury had failed to leave his gun at the sheriff’s office.
Winkler also shows how the National Rifle Association, up until the 1970s used to be quite a moderate organization. Founded as a hunting and sporting association in 1871, the NRA supported many gun control measures, including the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1968 Gun Control Act. It was not until the 1970s that the NRA ever started advancing the argument that the Second Amendment guaranteed an individual right to carry a gun rather than the people’s right to form armed militias to provide for common defense.
I do think the hysterical overreaction to President Obama’s gun control proposals reflects a lack of historical awareness. Whatever one thinks about his executive actions and his proposed legislation, the response that his proposals are tyrannical or that he is acting like a monarch are pure hyperbole. Obama is clearly within his constitutional authority to issue executive orders. As Winkler notes, presidents dating back to George Washington have issued executive orders. Opposition to mandatory background checks, an assault weapons ban, and a high-capacity magazine ban is political. One can argue about how effective the proposals will be but the proposals are almost certainly constitutional.
No constitutional amendment, including the Second, is beyond regulation. That has been well-established. Consider laws that keep guns away from convicted felons and the mentally ill. Obama’s proposals are no different.
All the talk about tyranny and impeachment is sour grapes from people who were unhappy with election results. There is an irrationality seeing modest gun control proposals as some executive branch power grab.
As for the New Hampshire Legislature, guns have no place in the State House, any more than they do in a courtroom. Would anybody seriously think about arming litigants engaged in a courtroom battle? Why is the Legislature any different? People with passionately held views debate and argue. Adding guns to a potentially volatile mix hardly seems wise. Guns add an element of intimidation and bullying.
As a judge, I am thankful for metal detectors and security guards. The New Hampshire Legislature has no metal detector screening, although most state capitols do. Maybe that is something to consider in New Hampshire, although it is a departure. It could help address the apparent insecurity some legislators feel.
I have a hard time with legislators who make a big deal out of possessing guns in the State House, like that is some accomplishment. That is more like grandstanding and macho posturing. It is not doing something for constituents. Legislators should focus on the needs of the people – not guns on their person.
(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is a federal administrative law judge. This column reflects only his views, not those of his employer, the Social Security Administration.)