April 23, 2013
Your book describes, I think you call it, “suffering on an almost unimaginable scale.” Artillery shelling, bombing, the destruction of villages by infantry, revenge missions, massacres, incredibly sadistic rapes, the gunning down of Vietnamese farmers and fisherman from helicopter gunships, free fire zones. You cite an estimate of 3.8 million war deaths, the majority Vietnamese civilians. What turned so many young American men into such monsters?
Nick Turse: It’s a difficult question to answer. I went out and interviewed well over 100 American veterans for this book, and read sworn testimonies of many more. I don’t know that I have a satisfactory answer. I talked to one veteran, he talked to me about the war. We were on the phone for several hours. He was very jovial. He had a really infectious laugh.
But he quieted down and said he wanted to tell me a story about a member of his unit. And he talked about how they were going through a village and burning it down, which was standard operating procedure. And in the midst of this, this woman runs up and grabs this GI by the sleeve, and is tugging at him and yelling at him—obviously because her home is being burned down, all her possessions are going up in flames. And she’s angry, scared, upset. And he said this GI just pushed her off, and then took his rifle and hit her squarely in the nose with the butt. And he said her face just erupted in blood. She was screaming. And the GI just turned around and walked away laughing. And he paused a second and said, “Do you know that GI was me?” He had such a tough time figuring out how he could have done it. All these years later. At the time he didn’t think anything of it, and in the years since, he couldn’t help but think of it on a constant basis. And it really haunted him. And I had the same problem trying to match up the man that I was talking to with his 19-year old self.
He told me about how the training that he went through dehumanized the Vietnamese to the point where they didn’t think of them as human. They thought of them as—they had a whole bunch of slurs that were used: dinks, slopes, slants, gooks. And he talked about how “I didn’t become exactly like a robot but it was like that.” You’re trained to kill, you chant “Kill, kill kill.” It psychologically readies you for this.
The Vietnam War was fought using an attrition strategy. This wasn’t a war like World War I, where you had two armies facing off across a well defined battlefield. It’s a guerrilla struggle, where the Vietnamese revolutionaries are radically outgunned. So they’re not going to stand toe to toe with the Americans. And the Americans aren’t trying to take territory or capture an enemy capital.
They were searching for some metric, some measure to show that they were winning a war. They settled on the attrition strategy which was used during the second half of the Korean War, and the main measure was body count. You would kill your way to victory by piling up Vietnamese bodies, and the Americans were always chasing this crossover point when they would be killing more Vietnamese guerrillas than the enemy could put into the field. And the idea was that at that moment, the enemy would give up the fight.
Because they would view the war as a rational effort the way the Pentagon did: this was a ledger sheet. And once the debits outweighed the credits, then they would end the war. They didn’t think the way the Vietnamese did, that this was a revolutionary struggle. The Vietnamese saw it as a continuation of their anti-colonial fight against the French.
The troops in the field, they were pressed for bodies. Their commanders were leaning on them heavily. You were told to produce Vietnamese bodies, and if you didn’t you were going to stay out in the field longer. They learned pretty quickly that the command wasn’t discerning about what bodies were turned in, that just about any Vietnamese bodies would do. This pushed American troops toward at least calling in all Vietnamese who were filled as enemies, and also to the killing of detainees and prisoners and civilians, and calling them in as enemy dead. More here.