Did U. S. Forces commit war crimes in Vietnam? And 50 years later, does it matter? In his relentless new book, Kill Anything that Moves, Nick Turse argues that the infamous slaughter of 500 unarmed women, children and the elderly at My Lai in March 1968 was not a rogue action that went out of control, but the inevitable result of a policy that came from the top and was intended to “produce a veritable system of suffering.” Turse methodically traces that suffering, and its cover-up, in long-secret files that document atrocities committed in pursuit of the “body count,” a policy that equated military progress with dead bodies. The grossly misleading numbers, which appeared nightly on American television screens in the 1960s, were themselves a result of the “mere gook rule” or MGR, which encouraged killing Vietnamese people with impunity.
What’s missing in Turse’s chilling history is the context in which U.S. troops lived and fought in a landscape filled with constant misery and omnipresent danger against a hardened and largely invisible enemy who didn’t play by the rules of Nuremburg either – a war brought searingly to life by Philip Caputo in A Rumor of War and Michael Herr in Dispatches.
War crimes were committed in Vietnam, as they are in all wars, by people who were trained to dehumanize others and in the process became dehumanized themselves. We cannot justify those crimes; but we must ask why we believe that something as horrific as war can be played by a set of civilized rules.