BOOK REVIEW: Gary Kulik’s “War Stories” & Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves

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Kulik, Gary. War Stories: False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers or What Really Happened in Vietnam. Potomac Books, Inc., 2009.

Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse, 2013

This week’s readings revisit the orthodox and revisionist schools of understanding the Vietnam War. These readings demonstrate the cyclical ways in which the field progresses and regresses, circling back to previously debunked arguments. Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves not only recycles anti-war and moralistic language of the orthodox school, but also regurgitates the exaggerated and politicized tales of American war crimes without critical examination. As Peter Zinoman and Gary Kulik point out in their thorough review, Turse blatantly ignores the existing literature and multifaceted debates on military violence, Vietnam War atrocities, and politicized official and popular accounts of war. Turse’s emphatic argument that the atrocities were “command-driven” or official strategies of war appear empty and weak compared to Gary Kulik’s multidimensional analysis of war crimes as narrative and reality in “War Stories”. Moreover, Turse’s extreme interpretation of American war crimes falls into Kulik’s exact critique of blind belief in what was essentially antiwar propaganda. Rather than repeat the extensive critiques of Turse’s work from Zinoman and Kulik’s review, roundtables, and VSG debates, I question instead the continual unproblematic acceptance of these tropes of American violence in the war.

The publication and popular acclaim of Kill Anything That Moves is a testament to the power of popular imagination and narrative to live on even when academic reason and evidence points elsewhere. Additionally, Turse’s work is attractive to broader audiences in its ability to provide a clear value judgment to the history of a traumatic war. Turse directs all blame of murder to the omnipotent evil state and situates himself as a dutiful advocate of the faceless Vietnamese ‘victims’ of war. Turse’s unproblematic rendition of state manufactured massacre buttresses the critical importance of Gary Kulik’s work that draws attention to the narrativity of war and war crimes.

In contrast to Turse’s superficial treatment of the politicized discourse around war crimes, Gary Kulik closely examines the ways in which American veterans, politicians, fiction writers, psychiatrists, and journalists contributed to produce the ‘narrative’ of American atrocities. Kulik effectively argues that these “war stories” were projections of the American anti-war psyche—examples of cruel, senseless atrocities reinforced in the public eye an image of a gruesome, evil, and unjustifiable war. For those Americans who vehemently opposed the war, they believed what they wanted to believe. For this reason, stories of war crimes continued to circulate, unverified and unchecked for exaggeration and pure falsification. Kulik demonstrates the recursive writing of “war stories” in literature, news, and war crime tribunal reports (WSI). Kulik closely deconstructs certain thematic and character tropes prevalent in these ‘war stories’: the psychologically crippled veteran, the American female hero and victim, the spit-upon veterans, and the young, drugged out, unrestrained soldier. By recognizing the ways in which American atrocities were invented, exaggerated, and politicized, Kulik begins to expose the realities of war and the agency of American soldiers. Urging those of the far left and orthodox school that it is in fact “time to let it go”, Kulik’s critical unraveling of the discourse of war is an important contribution towards the historiography of war violence (256).

Throughout his work, Kulik often uses the verb, noun, adjectival form of ‘frame’ to emphasize the active reorientation of truth towards a certain political purpose. At one point in his study, the ‘frame’ or war story assumes a life of its own; the ‘war story’ detaches itself from the individuals who produce it and even further from the actors supposedly involved. Kulik could have taken this concept of ‘frame’ much further to exemplify his discursive critique of “war stories.” For example, frames represent a part of a cinematic whole, carefully curated to narrate a story often through what directors and photographers choose to exclude. Actors ‘are framed’ for crimes and denied agency and justice. A physical frame supports a larger structure, but is hidden from view. Picture ‘frames’ function to exhibit, display, and finalize its contents. These metaphoric extensions of the idea of ‘frame’ border upon creative excessiveness, yet demonstrate the potential for Kulik to take his argument deeper into literary analysis and media studies.

3 comments

  1. I am sorry. The link above isn’t the right one and my computer doesn’t want to send the right one. On the prior link click on item for “Nguyen Thi Nam (Ba Cat Hanh Long)” I can find no explanation why she is lost to history. Very, very few people know of her, her tragic story. Why is that?
    Thank you. Apology for wrong link.

  2. Glad to see these reviews by Cindy Nguyen and Vietnam veteran/scholar Bill Laurie’s mentioning of another book that he felt belonged in discussions of the subject of “truths” about Vietnam.

    I was the creator and co-editor of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, Sen. Judiciary Committee’s compendium study “The Human Cost of Communism in Vietnam”, early 1972 (one of three such volumes on that subject, the other two being testimonies of D. Gareth Porter (there were almost no communist atrocities versus Dan Teodoru, a multi-times visitor to SVN and Cambodia and noted scholar, who did a rebuttal to Porter’s so-called scholarship/study). [NB: I was also a short-term MACV-accredited journalist in both So. Vietnam and Cambodia during the war].

    If you want to see the names of many civilian victims of communist atrocities in just S. Vietnam alone, try to find a rare copy of “List of Civil Servants, Cadres and Civilians of the Republic of Vietnam Abducted by the Communists Since 1954”, a three inch thick SVN publication (March 24, 1973) containing the names and other data on 67,000 people whose horrible fates have been deliberately ignored by the “Hanoi Lobby” apologists.

    Re Nick Turse and his book, I met a number of the “Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Vietnam”, some of whom claimed to have committed or seen U.S. atrocities against the So. Vietnamese civiians and VC POWS. Some of them have been proven to be frauds, including one Viet vet who should have been put into a loony bin many decades ago, while others made claims about events that could not have happened.

    As for the Swift Boaters against John Kerry, I was one of the researchers on their book “Unfit for Command”. Without rehashing the whole issue, the least I can say about Kerry’s honesty is that it basically didn’t exist, and this was further exploded in the followup book “To Set The Record Straight” by Scott Swett and Tim Ziegler.

    Kerry is lucky that he wasn’t court-marshalled for killing innocent civilians himself (to which he admitted in some of his writings), and for aiding and abetting the enemy in a time of war (as a Naval Reserve officer with a security clearance) when he met with the VC/PRG and their No. Vietnamese masters in Paris on two admitted occasions, but possibly a third time.

    The Vietnam war (and the communist wars against Cambodia and Laos) was a very complex event that had many players and incidents, like any other major war. However, in interviewing may U.S. combat soldiers over the past 47 years, I have never met one who I knew or could trust who said that we committed atrocities as a policy. If they did happen, they were done by rogue elements and terrible leaders (i.e. Major Calley).

    My interviewees and friends were honorable soldiers, fighting to stop communist aggression and the resultant genocide that they knew would happen if we bugged out. Some of my friends were horribly tortured by the VC and the No. Vietnamese but some of what they went through will never be told (for various reasons).

    People like Turse are journalistic parasites to whom the word “integrity”, “accuracy” and “honesty” mean nothing. I’m glad the Ms. Nguyen (and Kulik) helped to put these issues into their proper context, because without the “proper context”, the truth becomes irrelevant.

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