Jonathan Schell, Seeing the Reality of the Vietnam War, 50 Years Late

7:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Editor's Note: The Firedoglake Book Salon will host Nick Turse for a discussion of Kill Anything That Moves on January 19. -MyFDL Editor]

Kill Anything That Moves cover

Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse, a new look at the cost of Vietnam in civilian lives

Forty-six years ago, in January 1966, Jonathan Schell, a 23-year-old not-quite-journalist found himself at the farming village of Ben Suc, 30 miles from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.  It had long been supportive of the Vietcong.  Now, in what was dubbed Operation Cedar Falls, the U.S. military (with Schell in tow) launched an operation to solve that problem.  The “solution” was typical of how Americans fought the Vietnam War.  All the village’s 3,500 inhabitants were to be removed to a squalid refugee camp and Ben Suc itself simply obliterated — every trace of the place for all time.  Schell’s remarkable and remarkably blunt observations on this grim operation were, no less remarkably, published in the New Yorker magazine and then as a book, causing a stir in a country where anti-war sentiment was growing fast.

In 1967, Schell returned to Vietnam and spent weeks in the northern part of the country watching from the backseats of tiny U.S. forward air control planes as parts of two provinces were quite literally blown away, house by house, village by village, an experience he recalls in today’s TomDispatch post.  From that came another New Yorker piece and then a book, The Military Half, which offered (and still offers) an unmatched journalistic vision of what the Vietnam War looked like.  It was a moment well captured in a mocking song one of the American pilots sang for him after an operation in which he had called in bombs on two Vietnamese churches, but somehow missed the white flag flying in front of them. The relevant stanza went:

Strafe the town and kill the people,
Drop napalm in the square,
Get out early every Sunday
And catch them at their morning prayer.

If Afghanistan is the war we somehow haven’t managed to notice most of the time, even while it’s going on, Vietnam was the war Americans couldn’t forget and have never been able to kick, possibly because we never managed to come to grips with just what it was and what we did there. Now, so many years later, in a monumental essay appearing in print in the Nation magazine and online here at TomDispatch, Schell returns (via Nick Turse’s new book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam) to the haunted terrain he last visited so many decades ago All of us, whether we know it or not, still live with the ghosts of that moment. Tom

How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam? 
A New Book Transforms Our Understanding of What the Vietnam War Actually Was 
By Jonathan Schell

For half a century we have been arguing about “the Vietnam War.” Is it possible that we didn’t know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible, but such, it turns out, has literally been the case.

Now, in Kill Anything that MovesNick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth.  Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.

It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality — an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground — had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers — for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.

Yet it would not have been enough to simply accumulate anecdotal evidence of abuses. Therefore, while providing an abundance of firsthand accounts, he has supplemented this approach. Like a fabric, a social reality — a town, a university, a revolution, a war — has a pattern and a texture.  No fact is an island. Each one is rich in implications, which, so to speak, reach out toward the wider area of the surrounding facts. When some of these other facts are confirmed, they begin to reveal the pattern and texture in question.

Turse repeatedly invites us to ask what sort of larger picture each story implies. For example, he writes:

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