More than any other American conflict, the Vietnam War for years has been used as a cautionary tale of imperial overreach and excessive ideological zeal, though many details of the war are fading. So it’s bracing that journalist Nick Turse provides a sharply focused account of possible war crimes in that misbegotten venture.

As his title suggests, Turse is plunging into dark waters of the American way of war. It was a bloody affair, and estimates of Vietnamese deaths vary widely, but they were probably in excess of 2 million — a large number, he notes, for a country of just 19 million at the time. A policy of village destruction, heavy bombardment, free-fire zones, “relocation” of peasants and other indignities created millions of displaced people and millions of wounded. This useless bloodbath is a resilient, if vaguely understood, lesson of Vietnam.

With his urgent but highly readable style, Turse takes us through this landscape of failed policies, government mendacity and Vietnamese anguish, a familiar topography for those steeped in the many histories — the best ones by journalists — of this 1964-75 debacle. But Turse is up to something different and even more provocative: He delves into the secret history of U.S.-led atrocities. He has brought to his book an impressive trove of new research — archives explored and eyewitnesses interviewed in the United States and Vietnam. With superb narrative skill, he spotlights a troubling question: Why, with all the evidence collected by the military at the time of the war, were atrocities not prosecuted?

For the atrocities — many murders of civilians in South Vietnam — were known to the Pentagon brass and the likes of Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Army Secretary Stanley Resor. Letters were written by soldiers and Marines, investigations were conducted and reports filed. Almost all were suppressed, hidden from public view. My Lai was atypical in scale (400 killed) but not in kind, and the military knew it. Turse takes us through many of these atrocities, large and small, to document the malignancy growing inside the U.S. armed forces.

’Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam’ by Nick Turse (Metropolitan)

Particularly striking is Operation Speedy Express, conducted in the Mekong Delta by the 9th Infantry Division under the command of Maj. Gen. Julian Ewell. Turse documents the savagery of Speedy Express, the gratuitous execution of thousands of civilians in pursuit of high body counts and career advancement. Thousands of dead Vietnamese, claimed by Ewell and his cohort to be Viet Cong guerrillas, were found with very few weapons. The Army was fully aware of what Ewell was doing, and rewarded him with a third star and a prestigious place at the Paris peace negotiations.

Turse poignantly asks, “Where have all the war crimes gone?” But his answers are not commensurate with his research. He spends several pages on the case of Newsweek correspondents Kevin Buckley and Alexander Shimkin and the evisceration of their long expose of Ewell by feckless editors in New York. “Had Buckley and Shimskin’s investigation been published in full form in January or February 1972,” he writes, “it might have proven to be the crest of the wave of interest in war crimes allegations, resulting in irresistible public pressure for high-level inquires.” But the My Lai massacre had already been aired and had stirred only a very brief public outrage before subsiding into indifference or, indeed, a defense of Lt. William Calley. The Winter Soldier hearings, in which Vietnam veterans told their stories of grisly atrocities in a public forum, were covered by only one major newspaper, in nearby Detroit.

Turse has the journalist’s faith that exposure will result in justice, but in the case of war, there’s little evidence that the public wants to know more about atrocities, much less act upon them. British scholar Kendrick Oliver made this argument brilliantly in his book on My Lai, showing how reactions to revealed atrocities follow a pattern that ultimately leads to a rally-round-the-troops phenomenon. One could contend that war, by its very nature — and not just in Vietnam and Cambodia, but in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan — similarly leads to indifference to civilian suffering or even to blaming the victims.

Turse forcefully argues the narrower question of how the government failed to prosecute crimes committed in Vietnam or Cambodia (apart from Calley, who got 31 / 2 years of house arrest for hundreds of murders). He provides revealing details about the years-long Pentagon coverup, such as Laird’s taking tighter control of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, “which allowed key Defense Department officials to take an even more active role in suppressing war crimes cases. Investigations could now be quashed at the highest levels — and evidence suggests that, indeed, they were.”

While reading Turse’s powerful case, I couldn’t help wondering if, 30 years from now, we will see another, similarly revealing book about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2005 massacre at Haditha, Iraq, in which 24 unarmed civilians were killed by U.S. Marines, bears many resemblances to what Turse writes about Vietnam — a military coverup until an enterprising reporter got the facts, with no Marines paying a price for the slaughter. Is this the real code of military justice?

“As I came to see,” Turse writes, “the indiscriminate killing of South Vietnamese noncombatants — the endless slaughter that wiped out civilians day after day, month after month, year after year throughout the Vietnam War — was neither accidental nor unforeseeable.”

Will we ever come to terms with this shameful aspect of war? Turse has given us, at least, one step forward.

John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies and the author of “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars.”


The Real American War in Vietnam

By Nick Turse

Metropolitan. 370 pp. $30