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August 15, 2013 8:41 AM Vietnam and Historical Forgetting

By Henry Farrell

Tyler Cowen blogs about Nick Turse’s recent book on the US-Vietnam war, Kill Anything That Moves. I’ve been reading it too over the last couple of weeks during infrequent breaks, and have found it extraordinary and horrifying. Turse managed to get access to internal files generated by investigations into possible crimes committed by US troops in Vietnam, and combines this with interviews both with US army veterans and Vietnamese people. The record is partial (it’s clear from Turse’s account that the US archives have been weeded for embarrassing material and that he’s lucky to have found what he did) but damning. My Lai was closer to being the rule than the exception. Casual murder by US troops of women, children and old people as well as young men, torture, rape and collective reprisals were endemic, even before one gets into the more impersonal forms of slaughter.

Turse links this both to the systematic dehumanization of Vietnamese people by US troops (beginning in training) and, more importantly, to the fetishizing of kill counts. Soldiers’ leave and privileges and officers’ promotion chances depended on how many enemy troops were killed. The combination of depicting Vietnamese people as subhuman, ambiguous rules of engagement and organizational incentives to kill as many ‘enemies’ as possible often led soldiers to goose the numbers by killing defenseless civilians or prisoners (for example, one incident after Four Tet in which a US officer ordered prisoners shot in cold blood to improve the kill count). It also led a more general criminal indifference to the consequences of US action at the micro level (e.g. tossing grenades into crude home made bunkers crammed with civilians, on the off chance that there was someone dangerous in there) and the macro (devastating saturation bombing and shelling).

What’s remarkable is how little discussion there is of this. Turse has uncovered emphatic and undeniable evidence, much of it from the US military’s own archives, that US war crimes in the Vietnam war were not only endemic but systematic. If you were unfamiliar with US politics, you’d expect this to cause a major public scandal, soul searching and all of that. Similar crimes have certainly caused a scandal in the UK, which has its own vicious history of colonialism, and is now starting to confront the crimes committed by UK troops during their suppression of the Kenyan revolt (mind you that UK officers’ self-glorifying accounts of this conflict were a direct inspiration for the counter-insurgency tactics of Petraeus and others in Iraq). As far as I can see Turse’s book has inspired very little public debate. In general, the right seems committed to some mixture of denying the atrocities in Vietnam, claiming that everyone did it or the misdeeds were somehow justified by what the North Vietnamese did, and blaming the hippies. Latterday liberals acknowledge that bad things happened, but mostly don’t want to open up the can of worms, for fear that they’d be accused of being unpatriotic and hating the troops or something. The result is a strange form of historical forgetting, where there’s a general sense that bad things happened, but no understanding of how general these bad things were, nor desire to hold people accountable for them.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
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