Saturday, April 20, 2013

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse

I have recently finished reading a  book by Nick Turse, entitled Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. For some very good reasons, this has made me want to recall thoughts of how that war determined many things in my life. I grew up in a working-class family that had achieved middle-class economic security in the 1950s and I came of age in the 1960s. My family lived in northern New Jersey and we had access to New York City, to Broadway, the great museums and universities. My family emphasized education as the way to achieve a better life, and I understood that this was probably true and pursued that path. I had a number of deviations, but none that crippled my ability to achieve a better outcome for myself and my family, and even that which my undeniably successful father and mother had achieved for themselves and their family. One thing was a constant during my childhood and transition into adulthood, and that was the background of war.

Many school children who could do so in the 1950s were encouraged to pursue a life of science. We were encouraged to view our own careers as an opportunity for contribution. Money was secondary, which is understandable since there was great prosperity in the land, or at least the part of the land from which I came. I saw my own future as involved with science from very early age. Science was in the air, the Russian satellite Sputnik was there too. I was enraptured by the part of the very small that I could see through my own laboratory grade microscope, and of the universe that I could see through my 6 inch equatorial mount reflecting telescope at night. I read science fiction, attended science-fiction meetings, got autographs from accomplished scientists who wrote science fiction, and I attended meetings of the Bergen County Astronomical Society Some of the speakers we heard included former Nazi rocket scientists who now worked for the United States government, and were also part of the national message to young students that science was the way to hasten the future. I still have some of those books and autographs.

In the background at all times, however, was the idea of the possibility or the presence of war. Our father's, and the many of the fathers who lived next door, were veterans of World War II or Korea. They had been able to buy houses and start businesses because of the G.I. Bill. They were proud of their service, although we heard very little detail about the war in which they had been involved. Korea was something bad that had happened more recently, the children my age in the early 1950s had very little awareness of it. I knew the American people had elected a great war leader, Gen. Eisenhower, to be president, and that he wanted me and my classmates to study science and make achievements as startling and is important as the satellite that circled above the earth but that had been put there by Russians. Finally, of course, we were afraid of the Soviet communists who wanted to conquer the world by blasting the great city that stood only 8 miles as the crow flies from the hill on which my home was built. Every so often, at my grade school, all of us hid under our desks and contemplated the Sirens that would sound the warning of attack by thermonuclear tipped bombs and missiles. I imagined my silhouette imprinted upon what remained of the wall after the bombs fell and my body had been vaporized sometimes when I looked out the window of my fourth grade classroom.

Having looked through optical instruments to see what was hidden normally to the human eye, I had an intuitive understanding of an empirical approach to finding answers. Mathematics, as manipulation of numbers held no interest to me. I suppose my visual motor skills were somewhat relatively deficient. I read voraciously, both fiction in huge quantities and nonfiction. I read philosophy as a 13-year-old and enjoyed talking about superstition and false belief with other cognitively advanced and economically comfortable children with whom I came in contact because of my specialized interests. Most enjoyed science, science fiction, and did well in school. But when it came time to go to college, there was also the realization that by going to college we would be exempted from the military draft and, temporarily at least, from the raging war in southeast Asia.

My brother had voluntarily joined the United States Air Force in the early 1960s, answering the call of John F. Kennedy to serve his country, and also to resolve some questions he had about his chosen career at the threshold of his last year of conservatory education in music at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. He'd been a successful nightclub bass player, a violist, a member of the musicians Union, and frequently worked at some of the most famous dinner and jazz clubs in New York City, all as a teenager. I will never fully understand why he joined the Air Force, but as his much younger brother I was proud of him.

Naturally the Air Force took his musical talent and made him a photographer and film processor, mainly because this had been his (and my) hobby and part-time moneymaking activity in high school. I can still remember the confusion I felt as I ran up to the backdoor stairs to enter my home after school in junior high as my brother stood in the door to go down those stairs with his pressed uniform clothing him and his huge green duffel bag over his shoulder. He had been on leave. He had been expected to stay a week or more, but here he was leaving early and everyone else had a very grim, tense, look about them. There was no attempt to explain things to me, but later I found out he had been ordered to make haste to Florida where there was top secret work for him. He had received a top-secret security clearance. Later I discovered his job in Florida was developing U-2 photographs of the deployment of Russian missiles in Cuba as well as other air reconnaissance connected with the Cuban missile crisis. We watched the Cuban missile crisis on TV and it wasn't hidden from me that my brother was down there at what we thought of as Ground Zero.

At the end of four years of service my brother was suffering from some mental illness that everyone attributed to his experience in the Air Force. He had subsequently served in Guam and South Vietnam. He had been stationed at a small NSA base a few miles outside Siagon, and had processed air reconnaissance data, while spending his free time at bars playing the piano and courting one of the bar girls. He took snapshots of Buddhist Monks self-immolating in protest of the growing American presence and the American support for the corrupt Diem regime that held the government in the South. During his last year, stationed at an Air Force Base in New Jersey, he began to take long weekends, that stretched into days that he was required to be at work. He talked of suicide, even with me, when he was home. He never told me why. Ultimately the local representatives of the Air Force, with help from people who had known my brother during his formative years made the decision to give him a medical discharge as opposed to court-martial him for taking long weekends. He was very confused. Later he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was treated, as most such patients were in those days, with psychotropic drugs that eventually resulted in tardive dyskinesia and that made playing any sort of musical instrument basically out of the question for someone with high-level skills. He was disfigured by tremors and tongue rolling and always looked dull and almost menacing from the medication. Despite occasional periods of florid symptom expression, in subsequent years he managed to complete a bachelor's degree in history, became fluent in French, and settled down to a very sad existence with his family in northern New Jersey. He was treated at a VA, was involuntarily hospitalized a few times, and dissipated himself and my remaining family. He ruined my mother and her sister financially, and racked up more than a hundred thousand in credit card debt n travel, cloths, and prostitutes before he died. He died young shortly after our mother died, and from what I would characterize as the effects of his psychosis in that he was not taking his medication, although the immediate cause was congestive heart failure that was untreated because he did not seek medical care. He is buried in a Veteran's Cemetery in Monmouth, NJ. But I digress....

Meanwhile I was in college beginning in 1966 and became convinced that the only science in which I could actually contemplate success was a behavioral science, and I was in luck because I got opportunities to work in laboratories as an undergraduate that few others even knew might be available. My faculty mentor at Rutgers was kind and forgiving of my many indiscretions as an undergraduate, and as a WW II bomber pilot veteran, he probably wanted to help me work out my problems by making it possible for me to get a scientific education. As I often say, I went into psychology because it was interesting, I loved experimental science, and it seemed to me that I could get answers for the question that most troubled the background of my thoughts as I grew to manhood, that of 'why war?' I had no desire to work with people, just interacting with my brother gave me a sense of hopelessness and butterflies in my stomach. I rarely went home when I was an undergraduate, taking summer courses every year and going directly to Vermont to graduate school immediately after finishing my bachelor's degree. In Vermont I studied experimental psychology and ended up specializing in what we came to call "learning and behavioral development." I was so lucky in my choice of universities, advisors, and the opportunities I had. I graduated with 10 scientific publications and numerous conference presentations on my CV. I was able to move into an apprenticeship called a postdoctoral Fellowship and then on to full-time jobs the gave my career a very secure trajectory. I always had the good fortune to find mentors and sponsors who were tolerant and superb scientists and humanitarians.

While I was able to study aggression throughout my schooling and early career, that interest eventually became a sideline. I learned there were differences between immediate causes and ultimate causes. I came to understand the immediate causes of violent behavior very well. The ultimate causes, those related to the entire context of socialization, growth and development, education, and culture remain an area of interest to this day, although I do not now engage in scientific work that often touches on human or animal conflict.

I was not drafted, and I was able to complete graduate school and move into my career without having to spend time in military service. It turned out that some of the opportunities I had during my studies were funded by the Department of Defense. That, however, is a long story and not really relevant here. What is relevant is that Vietnam loomed as the background of my high school experience, my college experience, and my graduate school experience. Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, despite my background, and despite my access to resources, painted a picture for me that went well beyond our worst imaginings about what my age peers and their leaders had perpetrated in Vietnam.
I was actively engaged in the student antiwar movement toward the end of college and during graduate school. I lectured, attended rallies, and became something of a minor student leader during my graduate school years. This is why occasionally when I come across a book that seems to clarify that yawning period of darkness from my youth, I read it. That is why I read the new book by Nick Turse.

This book is not a pleasure to read. It is somewhat repetitious. These do not represent stylistic flaws, but they are fundamentally related to the subject matter. The subject matter is a systematic recounting of atrocity after atrocity, cover up after cover up, crime after crime, by named individuals at all levels of the military and civilian government of the United States during that long period of war. I'm sure it could have been a longer book, but it would have been only that much more unbearable to contemplate for the reader. Like any serious history book, this book consists of slightly over 40% footnotes. It is based on official Pentagon records, newspaper and other journalistic publications, war statistics from the Government of Vietnam and from the government of the United States, interviews, trial transcripts, and war memorials in this country and abroad. The interested reader is obviously invited to see for himself, but I feel no inclination to do so. Frankly, I am glad to have finish the book. I am glad I read the book. I now understand the missing part of the American failure in Vietnam. I understand the darkness that subsequently has overtaken the thinking of my fellow citizens in America, and I see in detail the origins of the actions taken by military and intelligence officials as they committed new (but not dissimilar) war crimes in the Middle East in the past decade. I see also that I was, like everybody else, unaware of the true nature of the war in Vietnam despite despising the effects I saw of the war on television, in my age peers, and in my own family. I think it has become painfully clear that history denied is ignorance enshrined. I think the denial of science, the mindless embrace of myth, the rise of conservative ideology that wants to go back to an imagined world that  knowledgable citizens know never to have existed-- all this can be understood to be a result of the distortion of the history of living memory. This kind of Orwellian manipulation is demonstrably harmful to rational decision making. We have come to believe falsehood, and this makes us vulnerable to newer lies.
We are like people awakening from a nightmare and then trying, and then succeeding in forgetting all of it. I don't want to forget, I want to understand, I want to find ways to avoid repeating mistakes, I want to help others never to have to experience some of the mistakes that now haunt three generations of Americans. I am happy to read and to understand improved reflections of the truth, despite the sadness, wherever they can be found. I highly recommend the book.

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