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How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam?

There's still a lot Americans don't know about the Vietnam war.

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 6:19 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

For half a century we have been arguing about "the Vietnam War." Is it possible that we didn't know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible, but such, it turns out, has literally been the case.

Now, in Kill Anything that Moves,Nick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth.  Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.

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It has been Turse's great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality—an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground—had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers—for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.

Yet it would not have been enough to simply accumulate anecdotal evidence of abuses. Therefore, while providing an abundance of firsthand accounts, he has supplemented this approach. Like a fabric, a social reality—a town, a university, a revolution, a war—has a pattern and a texture.No fact is an island. Each one is rich in implications, which, so to speak, reach out toward the wider area of the surrounding facts. When some of these other facts are confirmed, they begin to reveal the pattern and texture in question.

Turse repeatedly invites us to ask what sort of larger picture each story implies. For example, he writes:

"If one man and his tiny team could claim more KIAs [killed in action] than an entire battalion without raising red flags among superiors; if a brigade commander could up the body count by picking off civilians from his helicopter with impunity; if a top general could institutionalize atrocities through the profligate use of heavy firepower in areas packed with civilians—then what could be expected down the line, especially among heavily armed young infantrymen operating in the field for weeks, angry, tired, and scared, often unable to locate the enemy and yet relentlessly pressed for kills?"

Like a tightening net, the web of stories and reports drawn from myriad sources coalesces into a convincing, inescapable portrait of this war—a portrait that, as an American, you do not wish to see; that, having seen, you wish you could forget, but that you should not forget; and that the facts force you to see and remember and take into account when you ask yourself what the United States has done and been in the last half century, and what it still is doing and still is.

Scorched Earth in I Corps

My angle of vision on these matters is a highly particular one. In early August 1967, I arrived in I Corps, the northernmost district of American military operations in what was then South Vietnam.  I was there to report for the New Yorker on the "air war." The phrase was a misnomer.  The Vietnamese foe, of course, had no assets in the air in the South, and so there was no "war" of that description.

There was only the unilateral bombardment of the land and people by the fantastic array of aircraft assembled by the United States in Vietnam.  These ranged from the B-52, which laid down a pattern of destruction a mile long and several football fields wide; to fighter bombers capable of dropping, along with much else, 500-pound bombs and canisters of napalm; to the reconfigured DC-3 equipped with a cannon capable of firing 100 rounds per second; to the ubiquitous fleets of helicopters, large and small, that crowded the skies. All this was abetted by continuous artillery fire into "free-fire" zones and naval bombardment from ships just off the coast.

By the time I arrived, the destruction of the villages in the region and the removal of their people to squalid refugee camps was approaching completion. (However, they often returned to their blasted villages, now subject to indiscriminate artillery fire.) Only a few pockets of villages survived. I witnessed the destruction of many of these in Quang Ngai and Quang Tinh provinces from the back seat of small Cessnas called Forward Air Control planes.

As we floated overhead day after day, I would watch long lines of houses burst into flames one after another as troops moved through the area of operation.  In the meantime, the Forward Air Controllers were calling in air strikes as requested by radio from troops on the ground. In past operations, the villagers had been herded out of the area into the camps.  But this time, no evacuation had been ordered, and the population was being subjected to the full fury of a ground and air assault. A rural society was being torn to pieces before my eyes.

The broad results of American actions in I Corps were thus visible and measurable from the air. No scorched earth policy had been announced but scorched earth had been the result.  Still, a huge piece was missing from the puzzle.  I was not able to witness most of the significant operations on the ground firsthand. I sought to interview some soldiers but they would not talk, though one did hint at dark deeds. "You wouldn't believe it so I'm not going to tell you," he said to me. "No one's ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over, and we've all gone home, no one is ever going to know."

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