It turns out that we only thought we understood the Vietnam War, said Jonathan Schell in The Nation. More than four decades after the story of the My Lai massacre alerted Americans to atrocities being committed by U.S. soldiers, author Nick Turse has put together a comprehensive portrait of the war effort that reveals “an almost unspeakable truth”: The killing of roughly 500 civilians at My Lai wasn’t an aberration; “episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture were in fact the norm,” all part of a larger campaign against the Vietnamese that resulted in as many as 2 million civilian deaths. By meticulously piecing together witness interviews and newly declassified documents, Turse has “once and for all” disproved the popular idea that U.S. war crimes were the work of “a few bad apples.” The barrel itself was “rotten through and through.”
Turse, a senior fellow at the Nation Institute, even finds an atrocity that should overshadow My Lai in memory, said Jeff Stein in Bookforum. In 1968, an infantry division under the command of Gen. Julian Ewell undertook “a six-month spree of mass murder, rape, and pillaging” in the Mekong Delta that pushed the unit’s “body count” to nightmarish heights. One sergeant estimated at the time that Operation Speedy Express was killing more than 1,200 people a month, most of them civilians. This was “industrial killing on a mass scale,” and Turse’s “grim but astounding” book details how it grew out of senior officers’ illogical focus on using the body count as a measure of success. And Turse doesn’t stop there. He shows how the military worked after My Lai to keep similar stories from emerging, dropping investigations and telling witnesses to stay quiet.
We shouldn’t have needed a 2013 book to tell this story, said Michael Uhl in InTheMindField.com, a veterans site. Vietnam has used the 2 million figure for years, and enough has been written about pockets of the war that many readers long ago extrapolated what Turse is telling us. Yet even this account could fall on deaf ears, said John Tirman in The Washington Post. “There’s little evidence that the public wants to know more about atrocities”—particularly old ones. Reading Turse, “I couldn’t help wondering if, 30 years from now, we will see a similarly revealing book about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” But I was thankful that he had made war secrets a little harder to keep.