Myth: American Vietnam Veterans were bloodthirsty war criminals.

Vietnam War Myths Presents

A Review of Nick Turse‘s book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnama

An opinion piece by
Rick Simonson, M.Ed, MA

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Turse Part I

I want to preface this article by acknowledging there were atrocities committed against civilians and military personnel alike by both South Vietnamese and American troops and their allies during the Vietnam War.

Let us remember however that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong committed atrocities against civilians, as well, particularly against pro-government individuals and groups and that the extent of those atrocities were probably more widespread and of deeper consequence because these atrocities were sanctioned by communist government leadership, and passed down as orders.

While most of the cases mentioned in Turse’s book come from information on official record and represent investigations and prosecutions, no one has ever been prosecuted for the murders and atrocities committed by the North Vietnamese and Vietcong against civilians.
(At least not since the Fall of Saigon.)

For instance, the biggest and most famous atrocity committed by US forces was the over publicized My Lai massacre. Because the trial of Lt. William Calley stretched on for so long it remained a constant media item of conversation for a year or two. Even today the term "Vietnam War atrocity" automatically brings the My Lai massacre to mind for most people.

Depending on whose account one listens to, civilian casualties during that event range from 200 to 500 dead. While it is still debated whether or not justice was served, the fact remains that an investigation occurred and a trial along with a conviction resulted.

However, the Hue massacre occurred during the 1968 Tet Offensive while the North Vietnamese and Vietcong held the City of Hue. After the North Vietnamese Army captured Hue, virtually unopposed, the Viet Cong dragged thousands of citizens, whose names were on a communist "black list", from their homes and murdered at least 2910 of them (bodies actually found).

In the style of those who attempt to discredit the Holocaust, there was a group who, in 1976, falsely claimed the Hue massacre did not occur either. Their claim was proved wrong with the discovery of the 2910 bodies identified as those taken from their homes by the Vietcong during the Tet Offensive.

An additional 1900 civilians were wounded and 1946 of the persons who were rounded up are still unaccounted for.

The US media glossed over the event with a picture article in Look magazine and a few by lines in various newspapers.

No trial occurred because these murders were conducted under orders from communist leadership and sanctioned by the North Vietnamese government.

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Mr. Nick Turse, why do you show no concern whatsoever for the more numerous and far worse atrocities committed by the communists against their own people during the Vietnam War?

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Mr. Nick Turse I ask you why you write an entire book falsely condemning all Vietnam Veterans for the sordid acts of a small minority?

Your book disrespects millions of Vietnam Veterans, living and dead, who don't deserve the label you've falsely attached to them.

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Nick Turse, in his book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, collected data from several documented cases of atrocities committed by American and allied troops against South Vietnamese citizens whom he claims were civilians.

Additionally, he interviewed subjectively selected witnesses and former members of the Vietcong, combining that data with the official records to form the core of his book.

Two such witnesses include, "Tran Ba, an intense seventy-six-year-old who served as a local guerrilla ... [and] Tran Thi Nhut, who had worked as a liaison for the NLF during the war" (p. 122).

Turse takes the word of these communist witnesses he interviewed 30 or 40 years after the event, along with information from an obviously prejudiced group called The Committee to Denounce the War Crimes by the US Imperialists, at face value.

Quality journalism would dictate that he review the information he collected, questioning or at least acknowledging, the distinct possibility ... no probability ... for these sources to produce highly biased information and subsequently he should state that any conclusion drawn would be based on biased interpretations of inadequate and/or one-sided information.

This unethical research practice is highly discouraged by normal academic standards and ethics. Additionally, this unsound practice is condemned by several points of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics.

1st, under Seek Truth and Report it he fails to properly "test the accuracy and information from all sources".

Not adequately discussed are allowance for faded and time-distorted memories, omitted information, biased information, or even outright lies.

JFk stated "What does truth require? It requires us to face the facts as they are, to refuse to think merely in slogans".1

Reagan commented in his March 8, 1981 diary entry, "the Soviet Consul proved I was right when I said Communists reserved the right to lie".2.

Yet in incidents such as this, Turse accepts the unsubstantiated word of communist sources.

But instead of pointing out the various aspects where his sources might be suspect, as is demanded in quality unbiased reporting and in academic research, he takes a swing in the other direction.

Even if Turse would have left it at that ... well he is reporting on a tragedy, and it's a rotten shame that it happened.

But Nooooooo...

Turse extrapolates that unreliable data, creating a false basis to form outrageous accusations against Vietnam Veterans in general.

He then applies twisted logic in a misguided attempt to demonstrate the validity his highly biased claims. Even when the facts he provides, clearly contraindicate his accusation, he makes the accusation anyway.

For instance, he cites an incident when South Vietnamese Skyraiders attacked a village. Turse accusingly stated that, the village of Hoa Thuan was bombed because "they dared to fly the NLF flag" (p. 111).

Excuse me? Say what? Turse cannot be so ignorant of the rules of war that he does not know that flying a flag during war indicates that the territory belongs to the group the flag represents? Of course the village was bombed, it openly declared itself to be VC territory.

Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, that is how you declare your territory and your allegiance is by hoisting the flag. Flags are a major way that aircraft determined their bombing and/or strafing targets for the last hundred years.

Then in an unsupported attempt to shift the alleged culpability to the Americans he quips, "by South Vietnamese Skyraiders likely piloted by American pilots" (p. 111, italics added).

First of all, the South Vietnamese flew their own aircraft. Second, what self respecting US pilot would fly in the rickety WWII leftovers we gave the AFRVN. The use of the term "Likely piloted" is a good example of Turse’s unethical tactic of inserting a personal unsubstantiated claim in between facts to give his claims a false sense of credibility. This method attempts to inherit the credibility of the sandwiching truisms.

In both cases, the facts clearly contraindicate the claims he made.

Mr. Turse, you have singled out a class of people/citizens within our society and written material against that class of people that is tantamount to hate mongering.

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Sort of sounds like the writings of the Klan if you transpose your various hated groups. What do we have here people? The liberal version of a klansman? A Liberal Klansman?

Hmm. The Liberal Klansmen = liberals who use oppressive techniques to make their point or advance their agenda. Hmmm, back to Turse:

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Distorting reality further, Turse claims that atrocities committed by Americans were under reported in the US media. Speaking of one reported incident he wrote, "A detailed magazine write-ups of an atrocity case of this kind was unusual during the war". He then pushes his "they’re all guilty" agenda by adding, "but the suffering chronicled was all too typical" (p. 129).

For a more detailed discussion on the use of this and similar types of unethical journalism see Smokescreens, Lies and Deceptions: The Media and the Vietnam War.

Throughout his book, Turse ignores the fact that in VC villages, entire families were NLF members or VC combatants operating as farmers in the day and combatants at night. Many of these people were incorrectly categorized as civilians since their combat operations were covert & usually they did not wear the VC uniform.

Mini Myth Buster: The so-called "black pajamas" were not VC uniforms, they were normal civilian wear. Almost all Vietnamese in the northern III corps area wore "black pajamas" because they were loose fitting & comfortable in that hot humid weather. They helped to stave off the heat. You saw them in towns, you saw them in the countryside. Tons of people wore them and it had nothing to do with being VC or not.

The VC did have formal uniforms as shown in the Getty image below.

Since the Geneva Convention classifies persons who take off their uniforms when fighting or conducting operations as "spies" and allows for the summary execution of "spies" their classification as civilians is grossly improper and is, in fact, a key component in the Dich Van program.

Turse also ignores the Geneva Convention 1949 protocol where it states, "any member of the armed forces of a Party to a conflict is a combatant" [III, 4; P. I, 43, 44]. This necessarily includes members of civilian defense forces. It also includes transporters of supplies and munitions, persons who set booby traps and IEDs, and those who voluntary set themselves up as human shields.

Many human shields were voluntary, many were not. Some were voluntary but the volunteer probably did not fully understand or in some cases even have the capacity to understand the ramifications of the assignment they volunteered for.

Let me give you an example of an inexcusable communist use of pseudo-voluntaryb human shields:

Our six M-113 A-1: Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs or tracks) in 38 section of the scout platoon (HHC 2/2 mech.) set up a late morning defensive position at a suspected convoy ambush site along a well-traveled dirt road in Tay Ninh province.

Several Lambrettas arrived and a couple dozen momma-sans set up a makeshift market along the side of the road to sell their wares while we waited for the convoy to pass by the location.

In a way it was good they were there. Not just cause we were thirsty, but because some of them were bound to be VC, or VC family members. They have inside knowledge and quietly scurry away at the last minute, before the pooh hits the fan. Just keep track & when you see a few of them slip away, you know you have about a minute to get back to your APC & lock & load. Or at least that’s the theory.

As usual, when the APCs were set in place, I got stuck with first guard while the others on my track went over to the market. First man back relieved me from guard duty & I wandered over to the market to buy a soda. As I stood in the short line digging around in my pockets for some money, I scanned the area around me for any signs of trouble.

Across the road and down a ways, I noticed a Lambretta parked with several children playing around it. My gaze lingered on the scene as I enjoyed watching the children play.

Their laughter took my mind back to a simpler day, a quieter time, an innocence long lost. It seems like so, so long ago. I listened. Birds chirped & I knew that trouble hadn’t arrived ... yet.

Well, yeah ... then I spotted an old man partially hidden by the Lambretta. He was leaning over what appeared to be a hole in the road. Instantly I chambered a round into my M-16.

Pealing away from the line I cautiously walked across the road, trying to remain out of the old man’s line of sight. As I got closer I thought I had him.

Perhaps my steps were too noisy. Or maybe one of the kids saw me and signaled him. Either way he glanced around, spotting me.

The old man instantly whistled and all six of the children, ages from about 4 to 10 dashed to him and formed a circle around the hole. All stood at rigid attention and all were close enough to the mine to touch it, if they stretched a foot out to it.

The old man was partially hidden by a young girl about six and a boy about eight. They were holding hands. Looking between them I spotted the old man pulling the safety pin from a large Chicom anti-tank mine sitting in the bottom of the hole.

As I drew a bead on him between the children, he leaned over placing his hand less than an inch above the detonator. He whipped his head around looking at me through the children, with a look that asked, "What are you going to do now, GI?"

The boy and girl backed slowly away from my weapon, dropping their hands, but a short clearing of the throat from the papa-san and the two froze.

The papa-san seemed off balance and I knew if I fired, he would fall on the detonator, killing those children.

From my demolitions training as a recon specialist, I figured that I was still far enough away that if I dropped to the ground before firing, I personally would have been safe from the blast ... well probably.

I continued to stare into his eyes. There was a confidence in them. He knew that I couldn’t kill those children. Somehow he knew I couldn’t see their little bodies ripped apart. It didn’t matter that their parents were VC, nor that their grandfather was willing to risk their lives.

I used to think on it really hard. I thought the grandfather was a heartless low life SOB. He was willing to risk the lives of his grandchildren to save his own skin....and he got lucky cause it was me standing there, and not some heartless prick.

But I came to realize that actually it demonstrates that he, with a lifetime of war experience, believed that no American soldier would harm his grandchildren. He believed that we would all let him go.

As a grandpa myself, I considered that if the old grandfather, with 2 or more decades of fighting experience, thought there was a good chance that I would fire, he would have sent his grandchildren running away, not called them to him.

If we Vietnam Veterans were actually the vicious bloodthirsty war criminals that Nick Turse claims that we are, that Grandfather had enough experience to know that.

As a grandpa, I know there is no way he would ever have risked his grandchildren like that against soldiers whom he believed to be bloodthirsty murders.

He risked them because he knew or was reasonably certain, we would not kill the children.

That says a lot about the quality of men we had out there on the front lines. I know the old myth ... there were no front lines ... well, time for another ...

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Mini Myth Buster: The lines may have been rather fluid at times, but they existed. And they pushed farther and farther out, year by year.

What was "Charlie's country" in 1966 was a no fire zone in 1968, and a rear area in 1969. More on this in another posting.

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This use of human shields was a popular tactic among the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army units throughout Vietnam. More often it happened when Vietcong guerrillas would sneak into a village and fire on US or allied troops knowing that US troops couldn’t fire back because they fired from a "no fire zone".

Sometimes the Americans became confused or angry or felt the need to defend themselves or seek revenge and fired back.

Usually when this happened their leadership called a cease-fire immediately, limiting damage to the civilian population. Occasionally the use of human shields led to an atrocity. Almost all instances of atrocities were reported and disciplinary action occurred.

Human shields were effective because most US troops did care enough about the lives of the South Vietnamese, contrary to what Nick Turse would have you believe.

Turse wrote,

"Far removed from the threat of ambushes and booby traps ... US troops inflicted near-constant suffering on large segments of the population. The ‘mere-gook’ mentality meant that throughout South Vietnam, the attitude of American forces was characterized by an utter indifference to Vietnamese lives and quite often, by shocking levels of cruelty" (p. 144 italics added).

The attitude of compassion that I express was far more prevalent among Vietnam Veterans than the libelous accusations perpetrated by Nick Turse and endorsed by various antiwar cronies. If Americans did not care for the lives of South Vietnamese people, then the often used tactics of hiding behind, or shooting out from, a group of civilian human shields would have been rendered ineffective.

Turse also fails to consider that the use of human shields violates the Geneva Convention. "Neither may the presence of civilian persons be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations" [P. I, 51; IV, 28].

Therefore, when civilians are harmed because they were used as voluntary or involuntary human shields, according to international law, the legal responsibility for the deaths or injuries of those civilians falls on the heads of those who used them as shields, not on those who fired upon them.

Where Mr. Turse is your indignation for the communists who deliberately endangered civilian populations for propaganda purposes?

Where is your self-righteous condemnation of the guerrilla leader who sets civilians up to get killed in a crossfire?

Where is your outrage against this guerrilla leader who plans for civilians to get killed in a crossfire so that in the media, Americans will get the blame for the civilian deaths?

With all your education and all your research,

Mr. Turse why did you not call the communists to task for their use of human shields?

Was it because your point loses its edge when it runs into the truth?

PS the background picture, on the left, shows what the North Vietnamese did to the city of An Loc during the 1972 Spring Offensive.

I was stationed near there (Thunder 4) during the first part of my tour. It was a beautiful town full of friendly people and happy children in 1969.

Stay tuned for part 2, This is Just the Beginning.

Footnotes

aTurse Nick, (2013). Kill Anything That Moves: The real American War in Vietnam. New York: Metropolitan Books.

b I say pseudo-voluntary because they acted voluntarily, yet they probably did not fully comprehend the potential consequences of their actions.

1Reagan, Ronald; Brinkley, Douglas, (editor)(2007). The Reagan Dairies. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 7

2Kennedy, J. F., (1967) Lewis, E. & Rhodes, R. (Eds.). John F. Kennedy: Words to remember. USA: Hallmark Cards, Incorporated, p. 50.

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