[Note for TomDispatch Readers: A small reminder — after reading Jonathan Schell on Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam in this “best of” TD post, you can get your own signed, personalized copy of that classic book with a $100 contribution to this site ($125 if you live outside the USA). Check out our donation page for the details. If you’ve already read Turse and you want something riveting about our strange moment (and beyond), then contribute for a signed, personalized copy of Songlands, the final volume of John Feffer’s Splinterlands trilogy of dystopian novels about our embattled planet and the future. It’s just been published by Dispatch Books and is also available on that same donation page. As all of you who read this website know, we really do rely on your contributions to keep us going in this ever-madder world of ours. Tom]
2021 Intro: Once upon a time, earlier in this century when I was still an editor at Metropolitan Books and Nick Turse was working to turn his doctoral dissertation into Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, I assured him more than once, “Nick, I don’t want you to be disappointed, but yours is a book about horrific American war crimes. Don’t expect it to sell many copies here.” I was, I fear, known in publishing for such “wisdom” and so — bingo!— when it came out in 2013, the book promptly made it onto the New York Times bestseller list and began winning awards.
As well it should have! It remains a genuine classic of horror from that nightmare of a lost war, as Jonathan Schell, who covered American crimes in Vietnam for the New Yorker in a memorable fashion, laid out so vividly at TomDispatch in January 2013. Given the grim history of this country’s losing wars of the twenty-first century and my own memories of being in the streets to protest the Vietnam War so many decades ago, I admit to a weakness for his review of the Turse book. So I’m once again reposting it as a “best of TomDispatch.” When you’re done with my 2013 intro and Schell’s remarkable piece, you should get your hands on Kill Anything That Moves. It remains a stunning classic. If only America’s leaders had read it before launching the ill-fated Global War on Terror.
Sadly, I can’t reach for my phone as I once used to do and call Jonathan to discuss our ever more bizarre American world. What indeed would he have made of Donald Trump and the Republicans of this moment? If only I could know, but no such luck. He died in 2014 and I still miss him. Tom
Original Introduction: Forty-six years ago, in January 1966, Jonathan Schell, a 23-year-old not-quite-journalist found himself at the farming village of Ben Suc, 30 miles from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon. It had long been supportive of the Vietcong. Now, in what was dubbed Operation Cedar Falls, the U.S. military (with Schell in tow) launched an operation to solve that problem. The “solution” was typical of how Americans fought the Vietnam War. All the village’s 3,500 inhabitants were to be removed to a squalid refugee camp and Ben Suc itself simply obliterated — every trace of the place for all time. Schell’s remarkable and remarkably blunt observations on this grim operation were, no less remarkably, published in the New Yorker magazine and then as a book, causing a stir in a country where anti-war sentiment was growing fast.
In 1967, Schell returned to Vietnam and spent weeks in the northern part of the country watching from the backseats of tiny U.S. forward air control planes as parts of two provinces were quite literally blown away, house by house, village by village, an experience he recalls in today’s TomDispatch post. From that came another New Yorker piece and then a book, The Military Half, which offered (and still offers) an unmatched journalistic vision of what the Vietnam War looked like. It was a moment well captured in a mocking song one of the American pilots sang for him after an operation in which he had called in bombs on two Vietnamese churches, but somehow missed the white flag flying in front of them. The relevant stanza went:
“Strafe the town and kill the people,
Drop napalm in the square,
Get out early every Sunday
And catch them at their morning prayer.”
If Afghanistan is the war we somehow haven’t managed to notice most of the time, even while it’s going on, Vietnam was the war Americans couldn’t forget and have never been able to kick, possibly because we never managed to come to grips with just what it was and what we did there. Now, so many years later, in a monumental essay appearing in print in the Nation magazine and online here at TomDispatch, Schell returns (via Nick Turse’s new book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam) to the haunted terrain he last visited so many decades ago. All of us, whether we know it or not, still live with the ghosts of that moment. Tom
A New Book Transforms Our Understanding of What the Vietnam War Actually Was
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.