Do we need another book about Vietnam? We already have some 30,000 non-fiction books about America’s most horrific foreign misadventure, along with countless novels, histories, biographies, memoirs and movies. So the question must be asked: Do we really need more?
The short answer is: Yes, we will always need to know more about the Vietnam War and other defining moments in our national narrative. It’s an open-ended story that began with the arrival of the first Europeans and their brutal subjugation of the native populace, then continued on through the founding of the Republic, slavery, westward expansion, industrialization, wars (both foreign and domestic, victorious and not), the rise to the pinnacle of world power and, now, the inexorable decline of the American empire. We will always need fresh voices giving us fresh takes on this spectacular, ugly, rich, and ever-evolving story.
So we should welcome Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, a new work of history that argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration – not a one-off atrocity called My Lai – but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. These are devastating charges, and they demand answers because Turse has framed his case with deeply researched, relentless authority.
This book’s birth was an accident. Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, was researching post-traumatic stress disorder in 2001 when he made a serendipitous discovery. One day at the National Archives, a friendly staffer posed a question: Could witnessing war crimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder? Turse had never considered the possibility, but the archivist led him to the yellowing records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret task force that had been formed after the widely reported massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968.
The Working Group’s forgotten records were a gold mine, and Turse dug right in. The first thing he learned as he pored through the files was that the task force was not put together to prevent future war crimes; its mission was to make sure that the military was never again caught off-guard by a war crimes scandal. The distinction is important for what it says about the Machiavellian workings of the American war machine. Given those workings, it’s no surprise that hundreds of court-martial records were destroyed or went missing. Turse also learned that the military had succeeded in selling the lie that My Lai was an exception. As his research revealed, My Lai was “an operation, not an aberration,” part of a pattern that contributed to a shocking statistic. During the years of America’s involvement in Vietnam, by the most conservative estimates, more than 3 million people died violent deaths; 2 million of them were Vietnamese civilians.
As Turse writes, “The War Crimes Working Group files alone demonstrated that atrocities were committed by members of every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed without the rest of its division – that is, every major army unit in Vietnam.”
Once he got through the Working Group files, Turse didn’t stop. He scoured other files about war crimes investigations in the National Archives, he interviewed generals and top civilian officials, former war crimes investigators, veterans who had witnessed or committed atrocities. He read widely and deeply. He made several trips to Vietnam to interview survivors of the war.
Like all good histories, the resulting book reads like a detective story, especially if you follow the dense endnotes as you move through the text. The evidence leads Turse to this damning but inescapable conclusion:
The hundreds of reports that I gathered and the hundreds of witnesses that I interviewed in the United States and Southeast Asia made it clear that killings of civilians – whether cold-blooded slaughter like the massacre at My Lai or the routinely indifferent, wanton bloodshed like the lime gatherers’ ambush at Binh Long – were widespread, routine, and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.
Yet only a handful of men were brought to trial or punished for a staggering number of pointless civilian deaths.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I was eager to read Turse’s book because I share his fascination with the Vietnam War, and with the almost unfathomable missteps that turned it into the horror it became. My second novel, All Souls’ Day, is built around the C.I.A.-backed coup that led to the assassination of South Vietnam’s President, Ngo Dinh Diem, on Nov. 2, 1963, a day known to Diem and his fellow Catholics as All Souls’ Day, or the Day of the Dead. My reading of history told me that this was a pivotal moment, a chance for America to cut its losses and extricate itself from a deepening quagmire. Three weeks after Diem’s assassination, though, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas and hawkish Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President. Soon the serious killing would begin. The opportunity for withdrawal was lost.
Thirty-three years later, shortly after I’d sold the manuscript and almost a year before All Souls’ Day was published, my fictional enterprise received validation from a most unlikely source. Robert S. McNamara, defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and a prime architect of our Vietnam fiasco, published his long-awaited memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. One sentence in McNamara’s book jumped out at me. It was not his maddeningly tepid apology – “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” It was this: “I believe we could and should have withdrawn from South Vietnam either in late 1963 amid the turmoil following Diem’s assassination or in late 1964 or early 1965 in the face of increasing political and military weakness.”
That single sentence gave me the gratifying feeling that my novel had hit on an important but little-noted truth. It was the sort of validation all novelists dream of, but few get to taste. Robert S. McNamara, of all people, had made me proud.
There is no doubt in my mind that Kill Anything That Moves belongs on the very highest shelf of books on the Vietnam War – up there with the non-fiction of Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Jonathan Schell, and Frances FitzGerald, the memoirs of Michael Herr and Philip Caputo, the fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason, Robert Stone, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tim O’Brien, Ward Just, and, of course, Graham Greene.
It’s worth noting that in her magisterial history, Fire In the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, FitzGerald made only passing mention of war crimes. “The (Johnson) administration, if it were to pursue its objectives, had very little choice but the strategy of attrition,” she wrote. “And because of the very nature of the war, that strategy meant the attrition not only of enemy troops and military supplies but all Vietnamese. No one in the American government planned a policy of genocide. The American military commanders would have been shocked or angered by such a charge, but in fact their policy had no other military logic, and their course of action was indistinguishable from it.”
(Alas, FitzGerald’s book did not appear until 1972, too late for its contextual lessons to be of any use to Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Robert S. McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, Gen. William Westmoreland, Richard Nixon or any of the hundreds of others who shaped America’s war policy from inside a bubble of nearly immaculate ignorance about the Vietnamese people and their history. FitzGerald has high praise for Turse’s book, calling it “an important piece of history.” So does Seymour Hersh, who calls it a “painful and important book.”)
Philip Caputo was with the first marines to land in Vietnam in 1965, and a decade later, as a war correspondent, he was among the last people evacuated from Saigon as the victorious communists closed in on the panicked city. Caputo wound up facing a court-martial when marines under his command miscarried orders and deliberately shot two suspects. Caputo was acquitted and eventually received an honorable discharge. In his memoir, A Rumor of War, here’s how he described America’s military strategy:
General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition also had an important effect on our behavior. Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill communists and as many of them as possible. Stack ’em like cordwood. Victory was a high body-count, defeat a low kill-ratio, war a matter of arithmetic. The pressure on unit commanders to produce enemy corpses was intense, and they in turn communicated it to their troops. This led to such practices as counting civilians as Viet Cong. ‘If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC,’ was our rule of thumb in the bush. It is not surprising, therefore, that some men acquired a contempt for human life and predilection for taking it.
This contempt for the lives of the Vietnamese, as Turse points out, led American soldiers to abide by what was widely known as the Mere-Gook Rule, or MGR. “This,” Turse writes, “held that all Vietnamese – northern and southern, adults and children, armed enemy and innocent civilian – were little more than animals, who could be killed or abused at will.”
Before reading this book, I had believed that the racial epithet “gook” was coined by American soldiers in Vietnam. Turse, in one of many deft touches, cured me of this illusion. He writes that the word originated during the campaign in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, when American soldiers disparaged the natives as “goo-goos” and proceeded to slaughter 600 unarmed Moros. Mark Twain called those soldiers “our uniformed assassins,” and he dubbed their proto-My Lai “a long and happy picnic.” In time “goo-goo” morphed to “gook,” and the results became far more deadly.
In the title essay of his collection called The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders dissected America’s tendency to rush into wars in places it knows little about. He was talking about our current, never-ending war in Iraq, but his words are almost eerily applicable to Vietnam:
A culture capable of imagining complexity is a humble culture. It acts, when it has to act, as late in the game as possible, and as cautiously, because it knows its own girth and the tight confines of the china shop it’s blundering into. And it knows that no matter how well-prepared it is – no matter how ruthlessly it has held its projections up to intelligent scrutiny – the place it is headed for is going to be very different from the place it imagined. The shortfall between the imagined and the real, multiplied by the violence of one’s intent, equals the evil one will do.
Paul Fussell put it more succinctly: “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.”
As Turse has made clear, the Vietnam War was much worse than expected – partly because of the astonishing resolve of America’s enemies, but mainly because of the ignorance and the brute ruthlessness that beat in the heart of America’s war machine. Kill Anything That Moves should be required reading in every school, military academy and governmental office in the land. Not that it will stop us from blundering into the next war. Again, George Saunders summed it up, in an essay called “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra.” He was writing about Slaughterhouse Five, but he could have been writing about Kill Anything That Moves:
No, war will not be stopped. But it is a comfort, in the midst of a war, to read an antiwar book this good, and be reminded that just because something keeps happening, doesn’t mean we get to stop regretting it. Massacres are bad, the death of innocents is bad, hate is bad, and there’s something cleansing about hearing it said so purely.
So this is why we’re still reading about Vietnam: because the truth, purely told by writers as gifted as Nick Turse, is the only thing that has the power to cleanse us.
There are few iron facts in the crapshoot of the literary life, but here’s one: In book publishing — no less than in music, war, and sex — timing is everything. I have found five books that illustrate different facets of this fact. In the first, what initially appeared to be bad timing proved to be the opposite. In the second, the timing of publication was simply horrible. And the three others were graced with something no amount of publicity or hype can buy: great dumb luck.
Joe Posnanski, a decorated sportswriter, snagged a $750,000 advance in March of last year to write a biography of a living American sports legend with a reputation so flawless and immense that the man had already been cast as a seven-foot-tall, 900-pound bronze figure with his right index finger pointing toward heaven. A first printing of 75,000 copies of the biography was scheduled. Publication was set for Father’s Day, 2013. As Posnanski got busy, success — in the form of a monster bestseller — seemed assured.
His working title, suitably breathless for a subject already immortalized in bronze, was The Grand Experiment: The Life and Meaning of Joe Paterno.
But Posnanski’s dream began to unravel almost immediately. The same month he signed his contract, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported that a grand jury had been hearing testimony about allegations, originally made in 2009, that Jerry Sandusky had molested a teenage boy while working as an assistant football coach for Paterno at Penn State University. Eight months later, Sandusky was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15-year period.
Then it came out that a graduate assistant had told Paterno, way back in 2001, that he had witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State locker room — and Paterno had notified the university athletic director but not the police or any child protective agency. The university’s board of trustees promptly fired Paterno, who had been football coach for 45 years, winning a record 409 games.
Two months later Paterno died of lung cancer at the age of 85. At this delicate moment, already swamped by bad news, Posnanski probably did himself no favors by writing a column in Sports Illustrated that called for a balancing of his subject’s “full life” against “a single, hazy event involving an alleged child molester.”
On June 22, a jury convicted Sandusky of 45 counts of sexually abusing young boys. In a blistering report issued a month later, former-F.B.I. director Louis J. Freeh stated that Paterno not only failed to report the sex-abuse allegations to police, but that he and other university officials concealed Sandusky’s activities for more than a decade. Also, it was revealed that in 2011 Paterno had renegotiated his own contract, winning more money and perks — even as the scandal was becoming front-page news. Ten days later after the Freeh report was issued, in a Sadam Hussein moment, that 900-pound statue of Paterno was removed from its pedestal in front of Beaver Stadium.
This wasn’t a perfect storm of bad timing; it was a typhoon, a tsunami. Posnanski’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, reacted accordingly, pushing the publication date up to this summer, limiting author interviews, and scaling back the book tour.
Reading the book is an unsettling experience. Posnanski is a solid reporter and a nimble if not elegant writer. He enjoyed complete access to Paterno, his family, university staff and many others, and he paints a largely sympathetic portrait of a man who touched thousands of young lives in positive ways, but then drifted out of touch and over-stayed his welcome. Posnanski points out that Paterno was never fond of Sandusky, who retired in 1999 after it became clear he was not going to succeed Paterno as head coach. Sandusky, a teetotaling Christian, then devoted his time and energy to his Second Mile charity for young people, while enjoying the run of the Penn State football facilities. It was a dream setup for a pedophile.
In this 402-page book, the chapter entitled “Sandusky” runs just 14 pages, which opens Posnanski to at least the appearance that he’s soft-pedaling his story’s dark heart. Near the end of the book, Posnanski reveals an incident designed to portray his subject as almost touchingly out of tune with the times. When his family insists that he read the appalling indictment against Sandusky, Paterno reluctantly complies. Halfway through it, he turns to his son Scott and says, “What is sodomy, anyway?” But the episode backfires once you’re aware that Paterno may have been 85 years old at the time and hopelessly out of touch — but he was in touch enough to be aggressively negotiating for more money and perks.
During his final conversation with his biographer, the dying, defrocked legend confesses, “I wish I had done more.” As contrition goes, this strikes me as falling far short of Robert S. McNamara’s mea culpa — “We were wrong, terribly wrong” — in his 1995 memoir about his disastrous mishandling of the Vietnam War, In Retrospect. Then again, McNamara sent tens of thousands of young Americans to pointless deaths while Paterno merely looked the other way while an underling ruined the lives of a few dozen boys. Maybe size matters when it comes to assessing monstrous acts.
On the eve of Paterno’s publication, The New York Times reported that the book’s subject had gone, almost overnight, from “revered to radioactive.” But then a funny thing happened. On Sept. 9, shortly after its publication, Paterno debuted on The Times hardcover bestseller list at #1. The next week it slipped to #5. A week later, it was at #12. Not the monster bestseller Posnanski and his publisher had envisioned, perhaps, but far from shabby. It turns out that even the very worst publicity can be good publicity, and there will always be a market for radioactivity. On Oct. 9, Sansdusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years, virtually ensuring that he will die in prison.
And Joe Posnanski has a #1 New York Times bestseller on his resume. All writers should suffer from such terrible timing.
Alex Shakar’s timing, on the other hand, was truly, deeply, immaculately dreadful. In the summer of 2000, when he was 32 years old, Shakar had the surreal experience of watching a small army of publishers trample each other for the privilege of paying him a small fortune for his first novel. The bidding frenzy finally peaked at “about a third of a million bucks,” Shakar reported in a rueful recounting of the episode in The Millions last year.
The following summer, as an elaborate marketing campaign was taking shape, Shakar found himself signing galleys of his forthcoming novel at Book Expo in Chicago, alongside such literary stars as Joyce Carol Oates, Clive Barker, and Ann Patchett. Details magazine did a photo shoot of Shakar tricked out in 1980s clothing. People magazine wanted to do a profile. The early reviews in the trade papers were “glowing.”
Shakar’s novel, called The Savage Girl, deals with the fallout of rampant consumerism, predicting that the current bubble can’t last and an era of “post-irony” is on the way. The protagonist has taken a job with a trend-spotting savant who sees the perfect consumer product: diet water. The story includes a bomb threat by a terrorist, and computer screen savers that show a city being destroyed by a nuclear attack. When the electricity in a high-rise building fails, a character asks, “What is it this time? Terrorists or the usual incompetence?” He then answers his own question: “Can’t rule out Armageddon.”
Late that summer Shakar’s editor, the renowned Robert Jones, lost a long battle with cancer. A memorial service was held on Sept. 10, eight days before the book’s publication. The day after the memorial service, Shakar heard a radio bulletin at his parents’ house in Brooklyn, and he and his father climbed the fire escape to the roof to watch the north tower of the World Trade Center burn. White pages — legal documents — had fluttered all the way across the East River to Brooklyn. Fearing chemical weapons, father and son went downstairs to watch the two towers collapse on television.
“There goes your novel,” Shakar’s father said.
The scheduled book tour went forward, though turnouts were modest or nonexistent. The publisher pulled the planned second round of national advertising. There were no national television appearances. Shakar noted that even the rave reviews read like obituaries. A reviewer for The New York Times called the novel “a sharply observant relic of the recent past.” With pundits everywhere proclaiming “the death of irony,” People magazine decided not to run its profile of Alex Shakar.
Among the authors who wrote enthusiastic blurbs for The Savage Girl was Jonathan Franzen, who had published his novel The Corrections just 17 days earlier, on Sept. 1, 2001. Franzen called Shakar’s book “an exceptionally smart and likable first novel that tries valiantly to ransom Beauty from its commercial captors.”
While Shakar’s misfortune was that events made his novel seem instantaneously dated in many eyes, Franzen’s good luck was that those same events made his novel look prescient to just about everyone. Life is not fair.
The Corrections opens with these lines: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” The novel is marinated in this sense of dread, which was about to become the dominant American mood. And while it makes no mention of bomb threats, terrorists, Armageddon or post-irony, the book traffics in topics that would become part of the national conversation in the coming decade, from global warming to viral marketing, psychopharmaceuticals, even the coming organic and artisanal food movement, with its Brooklyn epicenter.
Irony didn’t die on 9/11, but The Corrections marked a major shift not only for its author but for many writers working in America — a shift away from the irony-laced pyrotechnics of postmodernism, and toward the rich hardware of realism. This was no small thing, it didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t easy to do. As Franzen told BOMB magazine, “Simply to write a book that wasn’t dressed up in a swashbuckling, Pynchon-sized megaplot was enormously difficult.”
The Corrections ended up becoming a literary sensation, fuelled by a bit of counter-intuitive marketing that cemented Franzen’s status as a canary in America’s cultural coal mine. When Oprah Winfrey invited Franzen to appear on her book club show, he declined, citing her tendency to pick “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” books. People howled that Franzen was the worst thing you can be in America: an elitist. (During his 2008 campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama would feel compelled to reassure voters that he and his wife are not “elitist, pointy-headed intellectual types.”) The marketing director for Franzen’s publisher had the good sense to be delighted by the uproar over his Oprah snub, saying, “This level of news activity works to keep him front and center in bookstores.”
Franzen has followed The Corrections with a book of essays, a memoir, a work of translation, and another big novel, Freedom. He wound up on the cover of Time magazine in 2010. It took Alex Shakar 10 years to produce a second novel.
Perhaps no writer enjoyed better timing than Tom Wolfe with his novel Bonfire of the Vanities. The book, a giddy lampoon of the go-go Reagan years, including preening Wall Street bond salesmen who fancied themselves “Masters of the Universe,” appeared just weeks after the Bloody Monday stock market crash in the fall of 1987. The collapse of global markets and the ensuing recession — the payback for a decade’s worth of hubris and unbridled greed — certified Bonfire as an almost magical bottling of the ’80s zeitgeist. Timing doesn’t get any better than that.
The book became a smash best-seller. It hit such a nerve that Michael Lewis, a former bond salesman, paid it the highest of compliments by noting that one of its central coinages had entered mainstream American lingo. “By the end of the 1980s,” Lewis wrote, “it was not unusual to see a bond salesman celebrate the sale of a block of $100 million mortgage bonds by standing on top of his desk, beating his chest and hollering, ‘I am a Master of the Universe!'”
Come to think of it, there was a book that enjoyed even better timing than Bonfire. It was a sensationally salacious tell-all called Elvis: What Happened?
The book consisted of the tape-recorded words of three of Elvis’s former bodyguards as told to Steve Dunleavy, Rupert Murdoch’s favorite mad-dog tabloid reporter. The three members of the Memphis Mafia, bitter over being fired by Elvis’s father after years of loyal service, started telling their stories to Dunleavy in 1976. And what stories! They talked about a daily diet of uppers and downers that would have taken down a bull elk and eventually turned Elvis into “a walking pharmaceutical shop.” They talked about the King’s one experiment with LSD. They talked about Elvis’s love for guns, which led him to blast a television set when smarmy Robert Goulet’s face swam onto the screen. They talked about Elvis’s fascination with death, which led him to break into a mortuary and give lectures on embalming in the presence of corpses.
The book was published on Aug. 1, 1977. Fifteen days later, Elvis pitched off the toilet in the master bathroom at Graceland, constipated, overweight, drug-addled, and very dead at the age of 42.
Rupert Murdoch had planned to run excerpts of the book in his New York Post tabloid later in the summer. But Murdoch, never a man to pass up a chance to turn a buck, pounced. The Post ran the first excerpt on the day Elvis died, under the headline NEW BOOK TELLS OF HIS DECLINE IN DRUG NIGHTMARE.
Elvis’s drug use became the focus of much of the publicity surrounding the book. Late on the day Elvis died, Dunleavy appeared on an NBC News special anchored by David Brinkley. Sporting a beard and waving a cigar, Dunleavy talked about Elvis’s prodigious drug intake, his seclusion and his weight problem, then added that Elvis was “a poor kid from the South…a bad word, a nasty word, but one that is often used, ‘white trash.'” People were furious, but they kept buying the book. Even after ham-fisted Dunleavy appeared on “Good Morning, America” the next day and got into a pissing match with Geraldo Rivera, Elvis: What Happened? kept flying off the shelves.
But the troika of Memphis Mafioso were chagrined by their book’s “good” timing. They held a press conference expressing their undying love for Elvis, and denying that they were “bloodsuckers” trying to capitalize on his death.
The book sold 5 million copies in the year after Elvis’s death. Which proves, beyond all doubt, that timing is everything.
Image Credit: Pexels/Bob Clark.