January 16, 2013
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
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.
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.
[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.
We’re joined right now by author and journalist Nick
Turse, managing editor of
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.
Thanks for having me on.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
That’s General William Westmoreland. 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.
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.
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
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—
Told that he would have a bullet in his back, if—
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
Where did he live?
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
So when you brought him these phone-book-sized
investigations into his allegations, what did he do?
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
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.
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.
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?
MATÉ: If confirmed, of
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
Which is very unusual.
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
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.