Nick Turse: Kill anything that moves (2013, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co.) 3 stars

Review of 'Kill anything that moves' on 'Goodreads'

2 stars

Nick Turse has written a polemical work on the Vietnam War that basically offers nothing new or revolutionary about our understanding of the conflict. Anytime an author suggests that what they are writing is "new" or "revolutionary" or "eye-opening" or a "secret history," I immediately become suspicious. Sometimes that suspicion is unfounded. But, in this case, Turse fits the bill as someone packaging old wine in a new bottle.

His central claim is that "Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process—such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam" (6). He echoes Ron Ridenhouer's feeling that the My Lai massacre was not an aberration but an operation.

Many Goodreads reviewers are praising this book effusively for its eye-opening accounts of the "Real American War" and the litany of atrocities allegedly perpetrated by American G.I.s. If they found this book truly mind-blowing then it was probably because they have read nothing about the war or have lived under a rock for the past fifty years. Seriously. The idea that Americans committed wide scale war crimes during the war has been prevalent in the literature and news media since the Winter Soldier Trials in the 1970s. Granted, various Republican and Democratic presidents, conservative pundits, and military innovators have been very effective in their efforts to rebrand the Vietnam War as an inherently noble cause, or alternatively (and much more palatable for the American public) an opportunity to thank the troops for their service. Regardless, Turse has just re-packaged fifty years of speculation and documented evidence about war crimes into a popular history that has Barnes & Noble appeal for readers interested in wanton violence, rape, torture, and sadistic behavior.

If I were to compare the narrative flow of this book to a movie, I would say that it is very similar to the horror series Saw. That is, there is very little explanation of why any of what you are reading/watching really matters other than it is disgusting and horrible. Turse meticulously details rapes, murders, executions, forced evacuations, systemic bombing of villages, massacres, and the effects of napalm on human bodies on page after page. What he doesn't do is situate any of these isolated events into a coherent understanding of the Vietnam War. Well, to be fair, Turse does say all of these isolated events represented the "American way of war": the American military (at all levels of command) intentionally prosecuted a war that "killed anything that moved" to forcibly instill fear in the South Vietnamese people so that they would relocate to refugee camps and, in turn, American soldiers could more easily root out the Vietcong. Turse commits the logical fallacy of reductio ad absurdum by taking much more sophisticated and nuanced arguments about the creation of American strategy and tactics (esp. "Search and Destroy) during this period and pushing them to the extreme of "nearly all military commanders and soldiers were probably murderers or complicit in atrocious violence." Those on the far Left and those who participated in radical segments of the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s will probably find this argument comforting because it confirms what they already believed about the war and American imperialism. However, it doesn't resonate well with more responsible scholarship.

Turse's argument becomes more problematic when one begins looking at his source base. He mined the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group files in the National Archives which incompletely catalogued a number of atrocities and war crimes that were unevenly prosecuted in the post-war years. Mostly, interviewers solicited information from potential witnesses and documented alleged atrocities that occurred throughout the war, ranging from the murder of one prisoner to the slaughter of an entire village. Turse then did his own field work by trying to seek out those who contributed to the VWCWG and solicit interviews. He relies on roughly 300-400 interviews conducted with veterans who self-identified as witnesses to war crimes. Thus, his sample isn't representative of anything other than a small minority of individuals who self-reported war crimes and then consented to be interviewed by the author. It also appears that he used a convenience sampling method, or a snowball method, to compile his interviews by asking interviewees about friends who might also know something about an alleged crime. There's nothing inherently wrong about using a convenience sample when you are producing work that argues for the uniqueness of your source base. It doesn't quite fit with a universalizing argument.

Turse also never offers a firm definition of atrocity. Instead, the term is thrown around throughout the book as a catch-all that becomes so broad that it is essentially meaningless. He groups strategic bombing, the bulldozing of hamlets, forced evacuations, shootings, sexual assaults, and massacres on the scale of My Lai under the same term.

And that leads me to my final critique. Turse peppers the book with testimony from his small sampling of veterans and the VWCWG and then fills in the rest with long, eloquent diatribes against strategic bombing, refugee policies, the strategic hamlet program, and the use of defoliants. By the way, none of this material is new. There are literally hundreds of books that document and castigate American policies on all these fronts.

Turse makes no claims for the historiographical significance or historical significance of his work other than it exposes a "secret war." Well . . . War is hell, and some alleged atrocities definitely occurred (My Lai being one example), but the Vietnam War was also much more than body parts, guts, gore, and violent sexual assaults. Turse has chosen this as his lens for understanding the entire war effort and has convinced some that his interpretation WAS the Vietnam War and that we've all been essentially misled.

I do give Turse credit for trying to push the pendulum on American thinking about the Vietnam War. Was this war truly noble? Heroic? Necessary? Benign? In that effort, Turse largely succeeds during a time when commemorations of the war's approaching fiftieth anniversary were constructing a narrative that completely elided Vietnamese suffering. Then again, there are far many other works that more rightly deserve such commendation.