Two of the leading figures nominated to head President Obama’s second-term foreign policy establishment have their political roots in the Vietnam War. If confirmed, Chuck Hagel will become the first Vietnam War veteran to head the Pentagon, while John Kerry will helm the State Department after becoming one of the most prominent veterans to oppose the Vietnam War upon his return from duty. Although Vietnam is far behind them, Kerry and Hagel will now have to contend with the longest-running war in U.S. history: Afghanistan. We’re joined by Nick Turse, managing editor of TomDispatch.com and author of the new book, “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” The title is taken from an order given to the U.S. forces who slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese civilians in the notorious My Lai massacre of 1968. Drawing on interviews in Vietnam and a trove of previously unknown U.S. government documents — including internal military investigations of alleged war crimes in Vietnam — Turse argues that U.S. atrocities in Vietnam were not just isolated incidents, but “the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.” [includes rush transcript]
AARON MATÉ: We are less than a week from President
Obama’s second-term inauguration. Two of the leading figures nominated to head the foreign policy establishment have their political roots in the Vietnam War. Chuck Hagel, tapped by President Obama to be secretary of defense, is a former Army sergeant and, if confirmed, will become the first Vietnam War veteran to head the Pentagon.
Obama’s nominee for secretary of state, John Kerry, became one of the most prominent veterans to oppose the Vietnam War after his return. Testifying before the Senate in 1971. Kerry discussed the atrocities unearthed in the Winter Soldier investigation, where over 150 veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia.
JOHN KERRY: They told the stories of times that they had personally raped, cut off the ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.
AARON MATÉ: That’s John Kerry testifying in 1971 after he returned from Vietnam. Although the Vietnam War is far behind them, Kerry and Hagel will now have to contend with the longest-running war in U.S. history, Afghanistan. President Obama has announced plans to speed up the transfer of formal military control to Afghan forces, but it’s unclear how the new timetable will change operations on the ground as tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan until the withdrawal deadline of late 2014 and possibly even beyond.
Speaking on Monday after meetings with President Obama, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Afghanistan would be better off without foreign troops.
PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: [translated] The main question is that whether by the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan will the situation become insecure. No, by no means. It’s the other way around. Afghanistan will be a secure and better place. We should remove this idea from our mind that if there are no foreign troops in our country, we will not be able to protect the country. That is wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by author and journalist Nick Turse, managing editor of TomDispatch.com. His most recent book is _Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” The title is taken from an order given to the U.S. forces who slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese civilians in the notorious My Lai massacre of 1968. But drawing on interviews in Vietnam and a trove of previously unknown U.S. government documents, including internal military investigations of alleged war crimes in Vietnam, Turse argues that U.S. atrocities in Vietnam were not just isolated incidents but “the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.” Nick Turse’s other books include The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan and The Complex.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
NICK TURSE: Thanks for having me on.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the foreign policy establishment, if confirmed—Chuck Hagel and John Kerry—both fought in Vietnam. When John Kerry came home, he famously talked about the atrocities that were going on in Vietnam. So, it’s decades later, Nick. There have been tens of thousands of books written about Vietnam. Why did you choose to go there, as well, and write Kill Anything That Moves?
NICK TURSE: Well, you know, as you said, there have been 30,000 books or so written on the war, but none that I found that truly addressed what I believe is the signature aspect of the war, which was Vietnamese civilian suffering. This isn’t just atrocities, the types of things that we heard John Kerry just talking about, but also the systematic use of heavy firepower in the countryside, unrestrained bombing, the use of helicopter gunships, artillery fire—they called it “harassment and interdiction fire,” which was basically just blanketing the countryside with heavy artillery. This was where people lived and people worked, and tremendous numbers of Vietnamese dies as a result.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to My Lai for a minute, the My Lai massacre that took place on March 16th, 1968. But wasn’t until November 12th, 1969, that the world found out about it, when investigative journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story about the massacre and its cover-up. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the exposé. Democracy Now! spoke to Sy Hersh on the 40th anniversary of the My Lai massacre about what happened.
SEYMOUR HERSH: The analogy with Iraq is pretty acute. Basically, it’s a group of soldiers that landed. They were mostly uneducated high school graduates and dropouts who were told they were fighting communism, going to save America. They got to Vietnam. They spent 10, 11 weeks in the—you know, humping it in the boonies and in the villages and paddies of South Vietnam and never saw the enemy. Maybe they lost 15 or 20 percent of their company through snipers, land mines, etc., but they never engaged. And over the period of 10, 11, 12 weeks, between the period they landed around New Year’s Day of '68 until March 16th, they became increasingly brutal, so randomly going through a village and whacking people, sometimes an old man they saw. One soldier would just hit him with a rifle butt, and nobody said anything, because what happens inevitably is when you don't see an organized enemy and you lose people, you lose your buddies and your mates, and you’re angry, you take it out on the villagers, you take it out on the civilian population.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Sy Hersh speaking about the My Lai massacre. And, Nick Turse, in your book, you talk about the testimony of soldiers who actually spoke of a My Lai each month for a year and actually saying that these types of atrocities were carried out by every single unit that was deployed in Vietnam. Can you talk about what you found in the U.S. government archives that speak to this level of killings that you discuss in your book?
NICK TURSE: Sure. This was—when I was a graduate student, I found these records. They had been sitting on the—in the National Archives for years, but no one had worked with them. And it was a secret Pentagon task force called the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. It was set up in the wake of the My Lai massacre to make sure that the Army was never caught flatfooted again by an atrocity scandal. This was run out of the office of William Westmoreland in the Pentagon, who at the time was the chief of staff. He had previously been the supreme U.S. commander in Vietnam. So he a real stake in finding out what atrocity allegations might bubble up and then tamping down whenever possible.
And this working group put together records of hundreds and hundreds of horrific atrocities. We’re talking about massacres, murder, assault, rape, torture. It was really just—to call it a treasure trove of records is the wrong phrase. It was a horror trove. And when I looked at this, I realized that these records weren’t in the literature anywhere, and I saw that it showed a systematic use of atrocity throughout the countryside. These were atrocities committed by every U.S.—major U.S. Army unit that was involved in the conflict.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Westmoreland now. Let’s turn to a 1974 American documentary film about the Vietnam War called Hearts and Minds, that was directed by Peter Davis, very well-known film. In this clip, General William Westmoreland, the former commander of the American military operations in the Vietnam War, reveals his views about the Vietnamese people.
GEN. WILLIAM WESTMORELAND: Well, the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is—is not important.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s General William Westmoreland. Nick Turse?
NICK TURSE: Yes, you know, and the filmmaker, Peter Davis, I actually asked him that question a number of times, to make sure that Westmoreland was—was expressing his views. And this is exactly what he meant to say. And this was—this was the type of mindset that suffused the U.S. military at the time. There was an acronym used, MGR; it was—stood for the “mere gook rule.” This was what the U.S. military was steeped in at the time, a type of racism and dehumanization of the Vietnamese, that they weren’t real people, that they were subhuman, mere gooks who could be abused or killed at will.
AARON MATÉ: Now, meanwhile, Nick Turse, there were soldiers at the time, not just John Kerry, who were trying to publicly reveal the atrocities that were taking place. And you mentioned this Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, and in your book you actually talk about taking these secret documents that hadn’t been released before, taking them to the veterans that had tried to speak out way back then. And one of them is Jamie Henry. I’m wondering if you can talk about him.
NICK TURSE: Sure. The records that I found on Jamie Henry’s case really—they stuck with me, and I knew I had to find—find this man. They were several phone-book-sized files. A major investigation was done.
And, you know, Jamie was a reluctant draftee, but he went to Vietnam. He was a medic. He saved a lot of American lives. And—but once he got over there, he saw things that really disturbed him. On his first day in the field, he watched as the point man, the lead man of his patrol, stopped a young girl on a trail and molested her. And Jamie said to myself, “My god, what’s going on here?” And day after day, he saw things that really disturbed him—a young boy who was captured and beaten up and then executed, an old woman who was shot down, a man who was used for target practice, a prisoner who was beaten and thrown off a cliff. On and on he saw these things.
And it culminated one day on February 8th, 1968—that’s about a month before the My Lai massacre. His officer, while they were in a village, gave an order to kill anything that moves. And Jamie heard this over the radio, and he set out to go to the scene to try and stop it. Well, there were 20 women and children who were rounded up, and by the time Jamie got there, the men opened up on them, on—an automatic, with their M-16 automatic rifles, and killed them all. And Jamie watched this happen, and he told me that 30 seconds later he vowed that he would make sure that this story got out, no matter what it took. So, Jamie’s life had been threatened in Vietnam, so he kept his mouth shut ’til he got back home, stateside. But he immediately went—
AMY GOODMAN: Told that he would have a bullet in his back, if—
NICK TURSE: Yes, you know, his—he was warned when he—the first time he spoke up about brutality, that he’d better watch himself. And his friends came up to him after and said, “It’s so easy to be killed in a firefight, you know, look like you were killed by the enemy. You’d better shut up.” So, you know, Jamie did, but once he got back, he went and met with a Army lawyer. And this guy told him, “Look, there’s a million ways that the Army can make you disappear. So you better keep your mouth shut.” He went and spoke to an army criminal investigator, and this man threatened him. He went to a private attorney and asked for advice, and this guy said, “You should get some political backing.” He wrote to some congressmen, but no one wrote him back.
So, he went public. He spoke out at the Winter Soldier investigation, among other public forums, on the radio. He published an article, had a press conference. But he just couldn’t get any traction. And eventually, you know, years later, he just gave up.
What Jamie didn’t know was that the Army conducted a very thorough investigation, interviewed all the other members of his unit. They corroborated exactly what he said. And they even painted a more chilling picture, because some of them saw things that Jamie hadn’t. And—but Jamie didn’t know, until I called him up and then knocked on his door and brought those investigation files.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did he live?
NICK TURSE: He was in northern California. He was a skyline logger. And, you know, he just never knew that these records existed, that anyone knew that he was actually telling the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: So when you brought him these phone-book-sized investigations into his allegations, what did he do?
NICK TURSE: Well, I mean, he was shocked. He did feel vindicated. There was a little trepidation there, because, you know, it was a lot of years later to dredge all this up, and he was a little scared. But he told me that, you know, if it was right back then, then it was right to expose now. And it wasn’t easy on him. After the first day that I spent talking with him and going through the records, he told me that that night, after I had left, he went and sat in his easy chair, and he shook uncontrollably for an hour. He said, you know, “I had some sort of stress reaction,” he said. But he thought about it. He talked to his wife, and he said that this was—it was important to go on the record again and make sure that the people knew that this is really what happened in Vietnam.
AMY GOODMAN: And you wonder where so many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder come from, that everything you learn is wrong in this country when you’re growing up, you then either commit, see others commit, are forced to cover up or choose not to cover up. Now, today in our headlines, we just read, this year, the worst year for suicides, almost one a day, and that’s just active-duty soldiers right now in the wars now. That doesn’t even include the record number of veterans who kill themselves.
NICK TURSE: That’s right. And, you know, one thing also to keep in mind about Vietnam-era veterans like Jamie, I mean, this was a largely draftee army, and these were—I mean, these were mostly teenage boys, 18, 19, 20 years old. Today, some of the troops are a little older. At that time, these men were even less psychologically able to deal with the types of things that they were seeing and called upon to do.
AARON MATÉ: Now, Nick Turse, you’ve also written a book called The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan. What is that case? And can you talk about the significance of having now Kerry and Hagel, Vietnam veterans, now heading U.S. foreign policy, which is of course overseeing the longest war in U.S. history, in Afghanistan?
AMY GOODMAN: If confirmed.
AARON MATÉ: If confirmed, of course, yeah.
NICK TURSE: Right. Well, you know, I guess there are reasons to be hopeful. I mean, these men have actually seen combat. You know, John Kerry did speak out at one time. It seemed like he began backing away from that almost immediately, and by the time, you know, he made his presidential run in 2004, he—you know, he really wouldn’t address the topic in any serious way. But, you know, I think they at least do bring a realization of what war is about. You know, Chuck Hagel, he saw—he’s never—I don’t know that he’s ever been completely honest about what he’s seen. If you read the accounts of his brother, who served in the same unit as him during the war—
AMY GOODMAN: Which is very unusual.
NICK TURSE: Very unusual, maybe the only time in Vietnam. But his brother paints a very brutal picture of the war, very similar to the one that I talk about in Kill Anything That Moves. And they served under one of the most notorious commanders in Vietnam, a general named Julian Ewell, who was—became known within the military, and also outside of it, as the “Butcher of the Mekong Delta.” And Ewell was a—what they called a body count fanatic. And he demanded Vietnamese bodies, and he wasn’t very discerning about who they belonged to. So, just about any Vietnamese who was called in as a enemy casualty was counted up as “enemy dead.”
But, you know, just as the Hagel brothers were leaving Vietnam, Ewell kicked off an operation called Speedy Express, which I talk about in the book, which led to 11,000 Vietnamese casualties, but only resulted in around 750 weapons being recovered. Some Newsweek reporters looked into this a couple years after Speedy Express ended and came up with an estimate of 5,000 civilians killed during that operation. And when I went into the archives, I found the military’s own secret reports that the Newsweek reporters didn’t know about, and the estimates were—they show that the Newsweek estimates were low. The military estimated about 7,000 civilian casualties. So, I mean, this is the type of war that Chuck Hagel saw down there, and John Kerry operated in roughly the same area down in the Delta, so they do know something about the brutality of war.
AMY GOODMAN: Nick Turse. His book is Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I want to let people know of two upcoming Democracy Now! specials. On Monday, we’ll be covering the inauguration from 8:00 Eastern time in the morning to 1:00 in the afternoon. We’ll be in Washington, D.C. And from Tuesday to Friday, we’ll be at the Sundance Film Festival—it’s the 10th anniversary of the documentary track of that festival—speaking with documentary filmmakers, covering issues, domestic and abroad.