‘What makes the green grass grow?’

[T]he stunning scale of civilian suffering in Vietnam is far beyond anything that can be explained as merely the work of some ‘bad apples’, however numerous. Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process – such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam. [T]hey were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.

Over the last few decades, the rightward shift in the political culture has facilitated a rehabilitation of the Vietnam War, a process that, in Australia, has accompanied and built upon the re-fashioning of Anzac Day, as the extrication of the Great War from any historical context whatsoever paves the way for a similar un-remembering of Vietnam so that most newspaper accounts now present the later conflict almost exclusively as an ordeal experienced by young Westerners with no mention of the people in whose country the violence took place.

Kill Anything That Moves offers a very different narrative.

Originally researching post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans, author Nick Turse stumbled upon the records of a secret Pentagon task force investigating war crimes, a group put together not so much to stamp out atrocities but to ensure the army would not be again caught unawares by a PR disaster of the scale of the My Lai massacre. The horrors documented in those files spurred Turse into his own investigation. You might call the book that resulted a secret history of the Vietnam War – except that little Turse reveals was ever really secret.

Take, for instance, a letter written in 1970 by the soldier Richard Brummett, addressed to the US secretary of defense:

[My unit] did perform on a regular basis, random murder, rape and pillage upon the Vietnamese civilians in Quang Tin Province … with the full knowledge, consent and participation of our Troop Commander, a Captain David Roessler … These incidents included random shelling of villages with 90 mm white phosphorus rounds, machine gunning of civilians who had the misfortune to be near when we hit a mine, torture of prisoners, destroying of food and livestock of the villagers if we deemed they had an excess, and numerous burnings of villages for no apparent reason.

It’s documents of this kind that make the book so shocking, for they are records of a criminality always hidden in plain sight.

‘Until the My Lai revelations became front-page news,’ Turse says, ‘atrocity stories were routinely disregarded by American journalists or excised by stateside editors […] And then, in a stunning reversal, almost immediately after the exposure of the My Lai massacre, war crime allegations became old hat – so commonplace as to be barely worth mentioning or looking into.’

Turse suggests the war killed as many as 3.8 million Vietnamese, with civilian deaths running as high as two million. The real figures, he says, will probably never be known because ‘while the US military attempted to quantify almost every aspect of the conflict – from the number of helicopter sorties flown to the number of propaganda leaflets dispersed – it quite deliberately never conducted a comprehensive study of Vietnamese noncombatant casualties.’

Does that sound at all familiar? You’ll remember that in Iraq, too, the US not only failed to quantify civilian deaths but also aggressively attacked those who did, as in the vicious propaganda campaign to discredit the casualty surveys published in the Lancet in 2004 and 2006.

While Kill Anything that Moves chronicles yesterday’s war, it is haunted by ghosts from more recent conflicts. Throughout the book, we encounter names better known from Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus Turse discusses the routine torture conducted by the US and its allies at South Vietnam’s Con Son Prison, where detainees were kept in tiny ‘tiger cages’, in what an American congressman called ‘the most shocking treatment of human beings I have ever seen’. Under public pressure, the US navy funded a rebuilding of the prison – and, shockingly, the cells that resulted were actually two square feet smaller than those they replaced.

Among the contractors responsible was the forerunner of Halliburton – yes, the same company that Dick Cheney and his cronies used to enrich themselves from the despoliation of Iraq.

Likewise, in his discussion of the casual murder of ordinary Vietnamese, Turse writes of a certain Colonel John Donaldson, a man who distinguished himself by deliberately killing civilians.

‘The way I heard it,’ says one officer, ‘[Donaldson and his associate] flew around in the colonel’s chopper with a crate of grenades, “frags” they were called, and popped them in the rice fields over the “dinks” who would attempt to run for cover when the chopper swooped down to chase them.’

In the wake of My Lai, Donaldson faced charges of murdering six civilians and assaulting two others. Among those who testified in his defence was a young Colin Powell.

‘The general technique used was to locate military-age males … from the air … ’ Powell explained. ‘If the individual attempted to evade [the helicopter] without firing, it was up to the judgement of the senior occupant of the aircraft [whether to kill him].’

In Vietnam, Powell worked closely for eight months with the war criminal Donaldson, before eventually becoming the ‘good soldier’ in the Bush gang and using his prestige to sell the WMD malarkey to the United Nations.

Naturally, such specific resonances matter less than the general parallels between the brutality of Vietnam and what we know about more recent wars.

Take, for instance, institutionalised racism. Turse explains that

the notion that Vietnam’s inhabitants were something less than human was often spoken of as the “mere-gook rule,” or, in the acronym mad military, the MGR. This held that all Vietnamese – northern and southern, adults and children, armed enemy and innocent civilians – were little more than animals, who could be killed or abused at will.

As another veteran told him: ‘The colonels called them gooks, the captain called them gooks, the staff all called them gooks. They were dinks, you know, subhuman.’

When I was researching my book Killing: Misadventures in Violence, I spoke to Camilo Mejia, a US veteran from Iraq. When I asked Mejia about racism in Iraq, he said:

The moment we got there, we realised that they were calling them “hajis”. [T]hey used it to dehumanize everything. Haji applied to everything, not just the people. It was haji food, haji women, haji kids, haji music – everything was haji, worthless.

In Vietnam, the soldiers internalised a sense of all locals as the enemy. Soldiers from the First Cavalry Division composed a song:

We shoot the sick, the young, the lame,
We do our best to kill and maim,
Because the kills count all the same
Napalm sticks to kids.

For Killing, I interviewed an Iraqi veteran named Ronn Cantu. He recited a similar cadence, taught to him as a new recruit.

What makes the green grass grow?
Blood! Blood makes the green grass grow
What is the spirit of the bayonet?
To kill! To kill with cold blue steel.

Turse discusses how the indifference to Vietnamese life led to incredibly flexible rules of engagement, so much so that US soldiers responded to any threat – or, indeed, any anticipation of a threat – with overwhelming firepower, with predictable consequences for nearby civilians. Some places were simply declared ‘free fire’ zones, meaning that anyone within them became a legitimate target.

There might not have been explicit ‘free fire’ zones in Iraq but a similarly indifferent deployment of force, even in built-up areas, was all too common. When we spoke, Mejia described typical engagements as a matter of soldiers on a Humvee firing at muzzle flashes until their ammunition ran out.

‘Most of the firefights,’ another soldier told me, ‘involved crew-served weapons, 50 calibre machine guns, Mark-19 fully automatic grenade-launchers and 240 Bravo rapid-fire machine guns all aiming at an area – just lighting it up. The commander says, cease fire, cease fire, but you don’t hear anyone above all the noise and the shit that’s going on, and so all you notice is when somebody stops firing and then everyone else stops firing.’

One can imagine what that entailed for nearby civilians.

Turse touches briefly upon the Phoenix Program, the CIA torture and assassination operation officially responsible for 20 000 deaths. On the process by which Pheonix has, um, risen from the ashes, it’s probably sufficient to quote at length something from New Matilda:

Last week, the Australian reported the involvement of Australian soldiers in what it called “a targeted assassination“.

The journalist Mark Dodd detailed how Australian forces had killed Mullah Noorullah — described as a “senior Taliban leader” — in the Deh Rafshan district in Southern Oruzgan, where the Australian Special Operations Task Group is based. Dodd added: “The SOTG tag is commonly used by defence as a synonym to describe elite [Australian] Special Air Service operatives authorised to hunt and kill Taliban leaders in an Afghan variation on the Vietnam-era Phoenix Program.” […]

In an article on the program for the military journal Joint Force Quarterly, Mark Moyar of the US Marine Corps University explained: “In the mid-1990s, the Phoenix program was considered an artifact of historical interest but with little relevance to the contemporary world. […] A decade later, Iraq and Afghanistan have brought the study of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism back into fashion.”

With those wars proceeding so badly, any strategies claiming to have “won the battle” against insurgents became suddenly attractive. Another Australian, the soldier and academic Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen, argued in a 2004 paper for the Small Wars Journal that Phoenix had been “unfairly maligned”. It was, he argued, essentially a “civilian aid and development program”, backed by largely successful operations intended to destroy the Vietcong’s infrastructure in rural areas of South Vietnam. Furthermore, he said, the War on Terror required a “global Phoenix Program”.

It was not idle talk. Kilcullen has become theorists in the area, serving as senior adviser on counterinsurgency to General David Petraeus (architect of the Iraq “surge”), a special advisor for counter-insurgency to Condoleezza Rice and chief counterterrorism strategist for the US State Department.

In a 2006 article in Military Review, the military writers Dale Andrade and Lieutenant Colonel James Willbanks spelled out the lessons counterinsurgency specialists are now taking from the Phoenix experience. Like Kilcullen, they insist that the Vietnam program was largely successful. As evidence they draw on the testimony of the Vietcong, quoting, for instance, the former Vietcong Minister of Justice Truong Nhu Tang as saying that “Phoenix was dangerously effective”. Today, they argue, Western forces engaged in counterinsurgency must once again work with locals, Phoenix-style, in a concerted campaign to eliminate the insurgent infrastructure.

That seems to be the modus operandi of the SOTG program. In the wake of the Mullah Noorullah killing, the Defence Department explained that its assassinations were “designed to disrupt” the Taliban, forcing them to divert time to recruiting and training new members. Yet today’s advocates of Phoenix prefer not to discuss the atrocities that enabled its “successes” in Vietnam.

In Kill Anything That Moves, Turse sums up how the program worked in Vietnam:

Phoenix was a corrupt, informant-driven enterprise in which a significant number of non-combatants, some completely innocent, were captured, interrogated or assassinated – that is, kidnapped, tortured, and killed – merely to meet quotas, win bounties or settle grudges. The Distinguished Service Cross recipient Vincent Okamoto, who worked in the Pheonix program, categorised it as ‘uncontrolled violence’ that sometimes degenerated into nothing more than ‘wholesale killing’.

One could continue with these specific parallels but let’s turn instead to the bigger issue lurking behind them all.

Turse describes how Robert McNamara, the man most responsible for waging war on Vietnam, came to the role of secretary of defense after working in the Harvard Business School. He brought with him to the Pentagon ‘a corps of “whiz kids” and “computer jockeys” whose job was to transform the military establishment into a corporatised system’, managed as efficiently as a business.

It’s an eerily similar description to the role played by Donald Rumsfeld and his coterie in Iraq. Rumsfeld, too, saw himself as a reformer, introducing corporate principles to do war differently.

In Vietnam, military corporatisation involved the establishment of KPIs to assess the war’s progress. The most important quota was the body count. Sociologist James William Gibson explained:

Producing a high body count was crucial for promotion in the officer corps. Many high-level officers established ‘production quotas’ for their units, and systems of ‘debit’ and ‘credit’ to calculate exactly how efficiently subordinate units and missile-management personnel performed.

What did that mean in practice?

Gary Norstrom, a combat medic with the 9th Infantry Division, put it like this: ‘Get the body count. Get the body count. Get the body count. It was prevalent everywhere. I think it was the mind-set of the officer corps from the top down.’

Naturally, the preoccupation with counting bodies fostered a ‘kill ‘em all’ mentality: how could it not? Vietnam became such a slaughterhouse because the troops were under constant pressure to produce corpses ­– any corpses. Under the ‘mere geek rule’, one dead Vietnamese looked pretty much the same as any other, and so civilians (whether deliberately murdered or slain by indifference) were routinely passed off as enemy casualties.

Now, corporate warfare played out rather differently in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those theatres, the Pentagon used deaths as KPI – but what mattered most was not dead enemies but dead Americans. That is, after Vietnam, the military understood that US casualties played a key role in fostering anti-war sentiment. The privatisation of the military was, in some respects, a response to that awareness, with much of the killing farmed out to subcontractors. In Iraq, for instance, private contractors filled roles that once would have been assigned to soldiers. The use of companies like Blackwater minimised the deaths of Americans (since such firms employed mercenaries from all over the world); they also shielded the US from responsibility for the violence committed by hopped-up cowboys working as contractors.

Even more importantly, subcontracting in Iraq and Afghanistan meant funding various militias, gangs and warlords, building up the armies of private cutthroats now wreaking havoc in both those countries. Again, this minimised US casualties, even as it massively exacerbated the suffering of ordinary people in nations now wracked by warlordism and sectarian violence.

Finally, technology has facilitated a third approach, particularly under Obama, who has embraced drones and similar weapons to conduct operations in which no Americans whatsoever risk their lives, even as the locals are casually incinerated with almost no accountability of any kind.

You can understand the importance of this to the imperial project when reading Turse’s discussion of how the US army in Vietnam gradually fell apart under the strain of the awful ends to which it was put. Here’s a description from the Armed Forces Journal from 1971: ‘By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remained in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near mutinous.’

It’s an aspect of the war almost totally buried in today’s revisionist accounts: the US soldiers returning from Vietnam to become active anti-war campaigners. Turse describes members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War marching into US towns in uniform and handing out a flyer that read in part:

A US infantry company just came through here. If you had been Vietnamese: we might have burned your house
We might have shot your dog
We might have shot you
We might have raped your wife and daughter
We might have turned you over to your government for torture
We might have taken souvenirs from your property
We might have shot things up a bit
We might have done ALL these things to you and your whole TOWN
If it doesn’t bother you that American soldiers do these things every day to the Vietnamese simply because they are ‘gooks’, then picture YOURSELF as one of the silent VICTIMS.

Kill Anything that Moves concludes with a discussion as to how the military and the government avoided any accountability for even the most well-documented Vietnam-era cruelties. We’ve seen a very similar process take place in respect of Iraq and Afghanistan, where nothing has been learned and no-one has been held responsible.

Why does that matter? More than anything, what the book shows is that the past never remains dead. If we do not fight for justice, the horrors we’ve seen in the last decade will return, in the form of even greater atrocities in the wars to come.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Contrarily, what I remember about publication of the Vietnam War in the Australian press and in some television footage between 66-70 or so, was how the Vietcong were depicted as the extremely cruel ones, which was also the line taken in one of the first commercially successful Hollywood Vietnam films, Deerhunter. Propaganda as mask?

  2. These sort of posts whip by when you wish they’d hang around a little longer. Apropos of not too much, T Edwards’ Vietnam War Wordbook of G.I. jargon is always telling:

    BEAUCOUP DINKY DAU: Bastardised Vietnamese meaning ‘You are very crazy’. After some weeks in ‘Nam it was a pretty apt description of most US troops’ mental state.
    As one ex-paratrooper pointed out, ‘Serving in ‘Nam was like being parachuted into an insane asylum. You knew you were okay, but you had to act as crazy as everybody else to keep them from turning on you’. Dinky dau. Right.

  3. If we continue in this way then soon it will be coming to your nearest suburb. There’s no shortage of addiction, madness or cruelty from dawn till dusk. So much for the Lucky Country.

  4. I’m not sure which war, just or unjust, has less perverse cruelty. At the end of the day I am sure if you sought responses from Chechens about the horror visited upon them by Russians, or from Spaniards about Napoleon, or Greeks from Turks etc… they would all be the same. At the end of the day, as Plato said ‘only the dead have seen the end of war’. war is that, just war, no matter.

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