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.