Image courtesy of Rick Warren

By the mid-1960s, the American military had turned war making into a thoroughly corporatized, quantitatively oriented system that the sociologist James William Gibson astutely calls “technowar.” The philosophy behind it was simple: by combining American technological and economic prowess with sophisticated managerial capacities, the Pentagon meant to guarantee ultimate success on the battlefield. The country’s unmatched military capability would allow it to impose its will anywhere in the world, with the war machine functioning as smoothly and predictably as an assembly line.

This mindset was embodied most fully in the person of Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968. As a Harvard Business School professor, McNamara had designed statistical methods of analysis for the War Department during World War II, most famously systematizing the flight patterns and improving the efficiency of the bombers that decimated German and Japanese cities. Before answering President John Kennedy’s call to return to government service, he had spent the previous decade as a top executive of the Ford Motor Company. He brought to the Pentagon a corps of “whiz kids” and “computer jockeys” whose job was to transform the military establishment into a corporatized system that could, as the political commentator Tom Engelhardt put it, “be managed in the same ‘scientific’ and ‘efficient’ manner as a business.” McNamara seemed almost to mimic the computers that he and his staff so fervently believed in. He relied on numbers to convey reality and, like a machine, processed whatever information he was given with exceptional speed, making instant choices and not worrying that such rapid-fire decision making might lead to grave mistakes. There was to be no “fog of war” for his Pentagon. McNamara and his national security technocrats were sure that, given enough data, warfare could be made completely rational, comprehensible, and controllable. And they never looked back.

In Vietnam, the statistically minded war managers focused, above all, on the notion of achieving a “crossover point”: the moment when American soldiers would be killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace. After that, the Pentagon expected, the communist-led forces would naturally give up the fight—that would be the only rational thing to do. What McNamara and the Pentagon brass failed to grasp was that Vietnamese nationalists, who had long battled foreign invaders in pursuit of independence, might not view warfare as a straightforward exercise in benefit maximization to be pursued in a “rational” manner and abandoned when the ledger sheet showed more debits than credits.

The crossover point, however, proved elusive; as years went by, the conflict only escalated. But though the Pentagon’s expectations were not borne out on the battlefield, it failed to question the basic assumptions behind them. Instead, American officials launched study after study to further develop the principles of technowar. Statistical analyses of enemy attacks, measurements of the security status of each and every South Vietnamese community, tabulations of enemy activity rates, and reams of other numbers poured out of the U.S. military in the field to be processed by the Pentagon. At the most basic level, though, everything came down to the “body count”—the preeminent statistic that served in those years as both the military’s scorecard and its raison d’etre. How else could you tell if the crossover point was within reach unless you tallied the enemy dead?

The war managers, of course, gave little thought to what this strategy—basing the entire American military effort on such an indicator as Vietnamese corpses—might mean for Vietnamese civilians.

General William Westmoreland, who in 1964 took command of the U.S. military effort in the country (formally known as Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MACV), eventually attempted to distance himself and the army from the term “body count.” In his postwar memoir, he claimed that in the early 1960s—before he arrived in Vietnam—the United States had been forced to add the phrase to its lexicon to appease the press’s desire for accurate casualty statistics, but that he personally “abhorred” it. In reality, though, the body count concept had been employed as early as 1951 in the Korean War.

There, too, KIAs—enemies killed in action—became the primary indicator of success. And as McNamara and other war managers demanded a statistic that would definitively demonstrate progress in the expanding war, body count would become, in the words of Assistant Secretary of Defense Alain Enthoven, “the measure of success.” The pressure to produce high body counts flowed from the Pentagon to Westmoreland’s Saigon villa, down through the chain of command, and out to the American patrols in the Vietnamese countryside. As Gibson notes:

Producing a high body count was crucial for promotion in the officer corps. Many high-level officers established “production quotas” for their units, and systems of “debit” and “credit” to calculate exactly how efficiently subordinate units and middle-management personnel performed. Different formulas were used, but the commitment to war as a rational production process was common to all.

As a result, low-level officers, who generally had six months in the field to prove themselves and earn a promotion, and the young combat troops they led were under constant pressure to produce enemy “kills.”

The emphasis on body counts was everywhere: from the early 1960s through the early 1970s, Mekong Delta in the south to the DMZ in the far north, soldiers and marines experienced the same sort of pressures. “The term ‘body count’ kept popping up whenever officers talked to each other,” Robert Peterson of the 25th Infantry Division remembered. “It seemed that securing or pacifying an area was secondary to ‘getting some kills.’” As Captain William Baker of the 4th Infantry Division recalled it, “Your success was measured by your body count. It came down through the channels.” According to Rion Causey, of the 101st Airborne Division, “It was all about body count. Our commanders just wanted body count.” Gary Nordstrom, a combat medic with the 9th Infantry Division, remembered it as a constant drumbeat:

“Get the body count. Get the body count. Get the body count. It was prevalent everywhere. I think it was the mind-set of the officer corps from the top down.”

Whether you achieved or exceeded what were essentially killing quotas had a significant impact on what your tour of duty in Vietnam would be like. Insufficient body counts translated into fewer comforts.

They also meant less support in the form of airlifts—resulting in long, hot, dangerous hikes through treacherous terrain instead of helicopter rides to or from the base. Under pressure from commanders, low-level officers who hadn’t met body-count expectations would keep their troops in the field longer, courting exhaustion and shattered unit morale while exposing themselves and their men to a greater chance of death or injury. “I knew,” said an officer from the 9th Infantry Division, “if I went in without a body count or at least a prisoner I’d be on the shitlist, so I kept the patrol out.”

While officers sought to please superiors and chased promotions, the “grunts” in the field also had a plethora of incentives to produce dead bodies. These ranged from “R&R” (rest and recreation) passes, which might allow a soldier several days of fun in the sun at a beach resort, to medals, badges, extra food, extra beer, permission to wear non-regulation gear, and light duty at base camp. According to Wayne Smith, a medic with the 9th Infantry Division, the body count system led to “a real incentivizing of death and it just fucked with our value system. In our unit, guys who got confirmed kills would get a three-day in-country R and R. Those guys got sent to the beach at Vung Tau.” Alongside body count incentives came body count manipulation:

On September 1, 1969, members of the 196th Infantry Brigade in Quang Tin Province spotted a group of Vietnamese. Officers and sergeants, peering through binoculars, conferred about the situation. After about ten minutes of observation the senior officer, Captain David Janca, ordered his machine gunners to open fire and called in an artillery fire mission. A small patrol was then dispatched to the kill zone. “Upon arrival,” assistant machine gunner Robert Gray said later, “we found dead and wounded Vietnamese children.” Patrol member Welkie Louie described the scene: “I observed about four to six Vietnamese children lying in one pile, dead. About five meters from this position were two or three wounded Vietnamese children huddled together.” Afterward, artillery forward observer Robert Wolz told army investigators that he saw an official document in which “the dead were listed as VC.” Another report even referred to them as “NVA”—that is, North Vietnamese army troops. In death, this small group of children had morphed into guerrillas and then into uniformed enemy soldiers as the body count wound its way through the military’s statistics generation machine.

Sometimes, when units were short of “kills,” prisoners or detainees were simply murdered. On September 22, 1968, for example, members of the 82nd Airborne Division captured a wounded Vietnamese in Thua Thien Province. “I got on the radio and told the CO [commanding officer] that the man was wounded, unarmed and had surrendered,” said Lieutenant Ralph Loomis. According to Loomis’s testimony to an army criminal investigator, his superior officer, Captain John Kapranopoulous, replied, “Dammit, I don’t care about prisoners, I want a body count.” Although Loomis ordered his men not to execute the prisoner, his radioman, Specialist Joseph Mattaliano, “opened up with a burst of automatic fire from his M-16 killing the Vietnamese instantly.” The practice of counting all dead Vietnamese as enemy kills became so pervasive that one of the most common phrases of the war was: “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.”

In 1970, a candid internal report commissioned by the army’s acting general counsel addressed the question of whether the pressure for kills encouraged troops “to inflate the count by violating established rules of engagement.” The findings were damning. The report concluded that there was “a certain inescapable logic” to claims that emphasizing the body count led to violations of the laws of war.

It is common knowledge that an officer’s career can be made or destroyed in Vietnam. A command tour there is much sought after and generally comes only once to an individual, who may have anywhere from six months to a year to prove himself in the “crucible of combat.” The pressure to excel is inevitably tremendous… A primary indication of such excellence has in the past been the unit’s enemy body count. One reason for this has probably been the difficulty of developing other concrete indices. Under such circumstances—and especially if such incentives as stand-downs, R&R allocations, and decorations are tied to body count figures—the pressure to kill indiscriminately, or at least report every Vietnamese casualty as an enemy casualty, would seem to be practically irresistible.

Sometimes there were even too many civilian corpses, leading to a different sort of statistical manipulation: body-count deflation. After the My Lai massacre, the Americal Division claimed only 128 enemy dead, when in actuality more than five hundred civilians had been slaughtered. At nearby My Khe, American troops massacred from sixty to 155 civilians, according to U.S. sources, but a body count of only 38 was reported to headquarters. Similarly, at the village of Truong Khanh, where sixty-three civilians were massacred, only thirteen of those bodies were counted as enemy KIAs due to combat action by ground troops, with another eighteen reported as having been killed by subsequent air strikes. And when marines massacred sixteen unarmed women and children at Son Thang, they were reported as a body count of six enemy kills.

The dark humor in the opening stanzas of a song composed by soldiers from 1st Cavalry Division caught the anything-goes attitude perfectly.

We shoot the sick, the young, the lame,
We do our best to kill and maim,
Because the kills count all the same,
Napalm sticks to kids.
Ox cart rolling down the road,
Peasants with a heavy load,
They’re all VC when the bombs explode,
Napalm sticks to kids.

The piling up of Vietnamese bodies to be counted—and in a sense discounted—was facilitated by the contempt that Americans generally had for the country and its people. To President Johnson, Vietnam was “a piddling piss-ant little country.” To McNamara, a “backward nation.” President Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger called North Vietnam a “little fourth-rate power,” later downgrading it to “fifth-rate” status. Such feelings permeated the chain of command, and they found even more colorful voice among those in the field, who regarded Vietnam as “the out house of Asia,” “the garbage dump of civilization,” “the asshole of the world.”

In a conflict where American soldiers found it almost impossible to tell the enemy from the general population, the constant emphasis on body counts made civilian deaths almost inevitable. Specific command policies instituted in Vietnam, meanwhile, further ensured widespread slaughter. Chief among these were search-and-destroy tactics, loophole-laced rules of engagement, and “free-fire” zones.

Search and Destroy

The primary mission of U.S. troops sent out into the jungles, rice paddies, valleys, and villages of South Vietnam was to search out and destroy the revolutionaries. This was how Westmoreland saw the war, and at his behest members of his staff gave the “search-and-destroy” mission its name. These operations consisted of near-ceaseless patrols by small units meant to “find, fix, and finish” enemy troops. In other words, their role was to draw or flush an enemy unit out of hiding in the countryside and hold it in place while more U.S. forces were called in, generating the sort of big battles in which airpower and heavy artillery would make all the difference. By June 1967 U.S. battalions were spending 86 percent of their time on such operations.

Search and destroy was “more a gestalt than a tactic, brought up alive and steaming from the Command psyche,” wrote the combat correspondent Michael Herr in his fever-dream war memoir, Dispatches. “In action it should have been named the other way around, pick through the pieces and see if you could work together a [body] count.” There was something absurd about the entire enterprise. Day after day, patrol after patrol, U.S. troops wandered around the countryside spoiling for a fight—trying to goad a lightly armed enemy to abandon all sense and stand toe-to-toe in open battle with the best-armed military in the world.

U.S. troops were to be used as the “principal combat reconnaissance force,” and “supporting fires as the principal destructive force,” wrote Colonel Sidney Berry in a widely disseminated 1967 essay on the tactic. That is, the American boys on patrol were just a lure—“dangling the bait,” as the veteran and future senator James Webb put it in his Vietnam War novel Fields of Fire. When attacked, they were supposed to back away and call in heavy firepower to destroy their Vietnamese foes.

It sounded easy enough and looked good on paper, but in the field search and destroy proved to be a wholly defective tactic. Vietnamese forces refused to do battle as Americans wished them to, declining to take the lure and fight at the time and place of the U.S. military’s choosing. Tipped off by preparatory artillery, roaring helicopters, and repetitively predictable patrolling patterns, the revolutionary forces generally refrained from large, set-piece combat engagements where the odds would be greatly against them.

Indeed, search and destroy gave Vietnamese revolutionary forces an overwhelming tactical advantage. They could take the “bait” whenever and wherever it suited them, which meant that, no matter how aggressive the patrols were, the Americans almost invariably found themselves on the defensive. According to the Pentagon Papers, the Viet Cong surprised U.S. forces—dictating the time, the place, and often the duration of combat engagements—more than 78 percent of the time. Another report showed that the revolutionary forces began 73 percent of all firefights. Unable to effectively engage the enemy, U.S. soldiers sometimes took to attacking what ever they could, which often meant that civilians ended up paying the heaviest price.

Looking back, Westmoreland later claimed that “many Americans apparently failed to comprehend ‘search and destroy.’” It was, he insisted, anything but a “brutal” policy of “aimless searches in the jungle” and the “random destroying of villages.” His troops, however, provided a far more accurate description of the tactic than their base-bound commander. To infantrymen and field marines, the phrase “search and destroy” was shorthand for systematic destruction of hamlets and sometimes of everyone in them. “It was a search-and-destroy mission,” one officer with the 4th Infantry Division recalled, “which meant we searched all the hootches we found and then burned them down. Whether a single farmer’s hootch or a whole village—all were burnt.”

A rifleman questioned about a massacre by his unit explained how the term was generally understood by troops in the field.

Q: What about this operation… Were you told anything—were you given any special instructions?
A: Destroy everything.
Q: Destroy it all: village, livestock, and food stocks?
A: (Witness nods in the affirmative.) That’s what a search and
destroy is, isn’t it?

The true purpose of the various directives, regulations, and pocket-sized codes of conduct handed out to troops was not to implement genuine safeguards for noncombatants, but to give the military a paper trail of plausible deniability.

That soldier testified that his commander didn’t explicitly order his troops to “kill all the people” in the village. But when the men were ordered to carry out a search-and-destroy operation, the implication was that “anything there was VC and to do away with it.”

Westmoreland’s idealized vision of search-and-destroy operations was typical of the way that policies on paper diverged radically from the reality of the war. For instance, the U.S. command usually issued specific rules of engagement (ROE) that detailed when, where, and under what circumstances personnel could bomb, shell, or use helicopters or ground forces to attack. Ostensibly, the ROE protected noncombatants by providing clear guidance on who could be killed and why. Telford Taylor, chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, found these rules, on their face, “virtually impeccable.”

In practice, though, the ROE constantly put Vietnamese civilians in impossible predicaments. Rules on which villages could be attacked and when, for example, were predicated on a fantasy belief that civilians had the ability to evict armed guerrillas. Sometimes attacks were justified by months-old announcements stating that locals had to either force out guerrillas or abandon their land. If villagers failed to heed such warnings, it was their fault in the eyes of the Americans. They had made themselves legitimate targets. Instead of providing genuine protection, the ROE often served as an exculpatory device. For example, when it came to a “target [that] involves non-combatants, such as in a hamlet or village,” a South Vietnamese observer—often termed a “backseat”—had to give approval for an air strike “whenever possible.” The idea, as the reporter Jonathan Schell explained, was that “the province chief, or district chief … as a Vietnamese, is presumed to be more familiar with the surroundings than the Americans and able to restrain them from destroying populated areas.” After seeing the process in action, though, Schell noted that “in the case of Binh Duong Province in January 1967 the province chief … was from outside the province, had taken his post only three months before and had never controlled most of the areas being bombed, so he knew less about the area than most of the Americans.”

Behind the scenes, commanders recognized that wanton attacks prohibited under an honest interpretation of the ROE were a regular occurrence. In a confidential 1967 message to his top Marine Corps generals, Lieutenant General Robert Cushman wrote: “To answer sniper fire from a hamlet or village with mortars, artillery or 90 mm gun fire will kill or injure more noncombatants than it will snipers. The rules of engagement are clear, but they are not always followed.”

After the war, in a survey of generals who commanded troops in Vietnam, only 19 percent said that the rules of engagement were “carefully adhered to throughout the chain of command” before the My Lai massacre became public knowledge, while 15 percent admitted that that ROE weren’t even “particularly considered in the day to day conduct of the war.” The true purpose of the various directives, regulations, and pocket-sized codes of conduct handed out to troops was not to implement genuine safeguards for noncombatants, but to give the military a paper trail of plausible deniability.

At every turn, the onus was put on Vietnamese civilians to actively demonstrate that they were indeed noncombatants—by carrying identification cards certifying their loyalty to the Saigon government; by staying out of off-limits areas (the borders of which they might not know); by adhering to dusk-to-dawn curfews; by using no lights at night (which might signal guerrillas), or sometimes by displaying lights at night (to demonstrate that they were not hiding); by not running or not walking in a certain way, or not standing still and thus looking unnatural; by somehow forcing armed guerrillas from their villages but also not carrying weapons, which would automatically brand a Vietnamese as VC. If villagers did not know about any one of these or many other regulations, if an ID card was lost when a house went up in flames, if they had to leave before dawn to get to a far-off market or to make it to a rice field, if they were forced by hunger to forage in an off-limits area, it was their fault.

“The claim that civilians broke the rules,” the historian Christian Appy notes, “gave the American military a legal-sounding justification for both accidental and intentional slaughter.” Over and over again, the killings of civilians were excused by citing such capricious, even contradictory rules. In March 1969, for example, helicopters from the 1st Cavalry Division spotted a group of nine woodcutters and their truck in a forest in Binh Long Province and hovered above them for ten minutes as the Americans grew increasingly agitated that the Vietnamese would not look up or acknowledge them. There was ample reason for such behavior, as Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert would recall in his memoir. Vietnamese going about their daily work, he pointed out, “knew not to look up. By then it had become almost instinct. Each had probably known someone who had looked up who was now dead. I had actually read it in one of our so-called manuals: ‘When they look up, they’re VC.’ Stupid, but typical.”

“If we ran across unarmed people that appeared to be civilians, I was to fire as near to them as possible. If they ran I had permission to kill them.”

Eventually, one of the helicopter pilots ordered his door gunner to drop canisters of tear gas, one of which soon started a fire near the woodcutters’s truck. With tear gas in the air and a fire raging, some of the woodcutters began to run, while one jumped into the truck and tried to drive it into a nearby clearing. In response, an order was issued in a chopper above: “They’re bad guys… roll in and get them.” Rockets streamed down, blasting the truck, while machine gun fire ripped through the area. Only one of the woodcutters survived the attack. An investigation of the incident revealed that all the dead were civilians. Three bodies were eventually identified as those of a middle-aged man, a woman, and a young boy. The others were too badly disfigured for identification. In interviews with army agents, the helicopter crew members readily admitted that they had not received gunfire from the woodcutters and that the Vietnamese had exhibited no hostile behavior. Furthermore, investigators found no enemy shell casings or weapons at the site. Yet none of the troops were punished. According to the official inquiry, they had “fired in good faith convinced that they were engaging a hostile force”—which, under the ROE, automatically made their action legal.

A lack of effective rules of engagement plus command-level failure to take action against obvious breaches meant that when hard decisions had to be made in the field, troops often chose their own safety over that of the civilians they had supposedly been sent to protect. Commanders regularly seemed disconnected and indifferent. It was easy enough for them to order a patrol out on a search-and-destroy mission; it was a lot harder for those on patrol to trudge mile after mile across sweltering jungles and rice paddies, through thorny hedgerows or razor-sharp elephant grass standing six feet high, up and down highland hills and valleys, all simply to serve as bait for enemy guerrillas. Generals and colonels weren’t out in the field—dirty, hungry, and dehydrated—slogging through mud, muck, and water, each step an ordeal, day after day, sometimes for weeks on end, until their feet swelled and the skin painfully sloughed off in silver-dollar-sized chunks. The commanders didn’t come down with constant bacterial infections, suffer oozing sores, “crotch rot,” and other fungal infections; they didn’t have to burn off leeches and face heat exhaustion while being bitten by fire ants and eaten alive by mosquitoes. They sat back at the base or soared high above it all in helicopters, micromanaging from the sky. Who were they to prescribe rules about firing on villages? Who were they to demand additional risks from troops who had it tough enough as it was? After all, a young lieutenant or captain had to ask himself, didn’t artillery fire already blanket the countryside? When choppering out to a landing zone to begin a patrol, he couldn’t fail to notice field after field of craters and the endless burned-out villages. The artillerymen and the jet pilots—who never had to worry about tripping a booby trap or walking into a hostile village—seemingly had carte blanche to shell and bomb with impunity and were never investigated for violating the ROE. Given all this, was a young officer prepared to have his point man get hit and listen to him scream for help while enemy fire pinned the patrol in place and the medic tried to crawl out to save him? Or was he going to call in a fire mission on the village, no questions asked? Even if some REMF (rear-echelon motherfucker) at base did bring up the rules of engagement and note that the grid square to be targeted came up as a populated area on the map, all that the officer needed to do was declare “contact”—that is, enemy fire—to override it. So what if the guerrillas’s attack had stopped? So what if they might have long since escaped? Was it worth the lives of his men to take the risk for rules that were written up in some air-conditioned office in Saigon or Washington?

In addition, the amorphousness of the ROE allowed troops to invent almost any rationale to justify killing, from a “bouncy gait” (“those shuffling farmers don’t have a gait like that,” said one pilot) to killing people for the “sin of running,” as the historian David Hunt termed it. One adviser in the Mekong Delta surveyed forward air control pilots and helicopter crews about such acts. “Their standard reply is this—if you take evasive action you are guilty,” he wrote in an official report. “It takes extrem[e] courage to stand in the middle of a rice paddy when a Cobra [helicopter gunship] buzzes you. If you live in an area that is frequented by these operations, your first instinctive reaction is to clear out and get into the nearest bunker.”

You could not be held responsible for firing on innocent civilians since by definition there were none there.

In many instances, as in the case of the woodcutters in Binh Long, troops took measures that frightened Vietnamese into running, and then treated them as legitimate targets. William Patterson, who had served as a helicopter door gunner in the region outside of Saigon, told army criminal investigators how he’d been instructed: “If we ran across unarmed people that appeared to be civilians, I was to fire as near to them as possible. If they ran I had permission to kill them.”

Nguyen Thi Lam, a villager from the Mekong Delta, described to me the effect of these policies as seen from the other end of the machine gun. On the morning of May 20, 1968, she was out working in the rice paddies near her home when she and her fellow farmers heard the roar of approaching helicopters. Fearing for their lives, they ran for cover. One of the choppers then opened fire, pouring bullets down at them; a round tore through her sister-in-law’s throat, killing her on the spot. As Lam dove to the ground, another bullet ripped through her left leg and she blacked out. When she came to, an American was standing over her. He took her to a U.S. hospital for medical treatment, but she lost the leg.

Perhaps the purest expression of the effect of the rules of engagement I ever found was on the death certificate of Nguyen Mai, an unarmed Vietnamese man who died from a “penetrating wound” to the face. The official military paperwork in the U.S. National Archives was written up by an American medical officer. Sparse in its details—Nguyen’s date of birth, marital status, religion, and next of kin are all missing—the certificate does, however, list the official “external caus[e]” of death: “Running from U.S. forces.”

Free-Fire Zones

As ill-defined and porous as the rules of engagement were, they still at least nominally required troops to distinguish civilians from combatants. Another command concept, though, did away with that distinction altogether in much of the country: the notion of the “free-fire” or “free-strike” zone, a label given to areas where everyone was assumed to be the enemy. (Later, the name would be changed for public-relations reasons to “specified strike zone,” but the meaning remained the same.) In free-fire zones, an infantryman later recalled, “everyone, men, women, children, could be considered [a fair target]; you could not be held responsible for firing on innocent civilians since by definition there were none there.”

The effects were ruinous for the Vietnamese. On April 15, 1970, for instance, members of Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, asked their company commander whether there were “any friendlies” in the hamlet of Le Bac. As Sergeant Paul Cox recalled, the commander replied: “No, this is a free fire zone.” Immediately, there was shooting. “The first hut I got to, there was an old mama-san lying in the middle of the floor gut-shot, she was dying,” Cox told me years later. At the next hut, a small group of elderly villagers and mothers with children had been gunned down. Nearby, he saw yet another similar scene.

Inside the hamlet, a young girl named Ho Thi A watched in terror as the carnage unfolded. “There were three of us standing at the entrance to the bunker, me and two old women—my neighbor and my grandmother,” she told me. The three had just scrambled out of their earthen bomb shelter when an American took aim and shot the two elderly women, one after the other. Ho Thi A wheeled around and clambered back into the bunker, cowering there as the Americans tossed in grenades after her. She later emerged to find that a total of fifteen villagers had been killed in Le Bac that day. All of the victims, she and other survivors from the hamlet told me, were civilians.

The “free-fire” label was not quite an unlimited license to kill, since the laws of war still applied to these areas. As the military legal expert and former marine prosecutor Gary Solis noted, a “free-fire zone doesn’t mean a free-crime zone… Just because it’s a free-fire zone, doesn’t mean you can go in and shoot whoever you run into.” But many American soldiers did not make that subtle distinction. Even a U.S. Senate study acknowledged that by 1968 an estimated 300,000 civilians had been killed or wounded in free-fire zones.

The horrific toll was not unforeseen. In 1962, before most Americans even knew that their nation was at war in Southeast Asia, Brigadier General H. K. Eggleston was already sounding the alarm about the military’s propensity for unleashing firepower on heavily populated areas. In a “Lessons Learned” memorandum, an internal report presenting knowledge gleaned in the field, he emphatically decreed: “all forms of firepower, from the carbine to the 500 pound bomb, must have positively identified VC targets.” Eggleston noted that “since the VC have no ‘rear areas,’ no logistic bases and no staging or cantonment areas in the generally accepted conventional sense, the application of firepower on a ‘suspected VC area’ to destroy VC combat potential is of little value.” Ultimately, he said, “unless targets are positively identified as enemy … casualties among the people, rather than the VC, will result.”

But the warning fell on deaf ears. A year after Eggleston issued his memorandum, Westmoreland received his orders for Vietnam. Before heading to Saigon, he met to discuss the new assignment with retired General Douglas MacArthur, who had served as a top commander in the Pacific during World War II, functionally ruled occupied Japan after its surrender, and commanded U.S. and allied forces in Korea. According to Westmoreland’s memoir, MacArthur “urged me to make sure I always had plenty of artillery, for the Oriental, he said, ‘greatly fears artillery,’” and suggested that Westmoreland might have to employ a “scorched earth policy” in Vietnam.

As U.S. troops began to flood into the country in the mid-1960s, Eggleston’s guidance quickly gave way to policies that hewed to MacArthur’s advice. In September 1965, Westmoreland issued MACV Directive Number 525-3. Ostensibly concerned with “minimizing non-combatant battle casualties,” it actually turned vast swaths of the South Vietnamese countryside into areas where anyone and anything was fair game for U.S. firepower. “Free strike zones should be configured to eliminate populated areas except those in accepted VC bases,” the directive decreed—thus declaring open season on millions of Vietnamese. According to McNamara’s 1964 figures, 40 percent of the South Vietnamese countryside was considered to be “under Viet Cong control or predominant influence.” Westmoreland’s policy made that entire territory theoretically open to unrestrained attack. Warnings of impending strikes were supposed to be issued “whenever possible.” But sometimes such announcements, broadcast from loudspeakers on aircraft, could not be heard or understood. Other times, confusing leaflets would rain down on illiterate villagers. Even when warned, villagers frequently had nowhere else to go or little time to do so. Often enough, no warning came at all; planes would simply flash across the skies, dropping high-explosive bombs or napalm canisters that tumbled end over end and bloomed into enormous fiery bursts. Of course, even if ample warnings were issued, firing on villages was still a violation of the laws of war, which prohibit direct attacks on civilians.

Indiscriminate as bombing and artillery fire often were in Vietnam, free-fire zones took away, by definition, any need for discrimination. While serving as an assistant to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Richard Holbrooke complained to both the ambassador and Westmoreland that free-fire zones were a real danger to the war effort. “There are people living down there,” he complained once as the three flew over a free-fire zone, only to be told, “Well, they’re Communist-controlled areas.” Any villages declared hostile by South Vietnamese province chiefs were regarded as VC base camps, and the U.S. military officially considered every man, woman, and child in them Viet Cong supporters if not outright Viet Cong—and thus reasonable targets. According to Pentagon figures, in January 1969 alone, air strikes were carried out on or near hamlets where 3.3 million Vietnamese lived.

In 1964, an American officer remarked, “We must terrorize the villagers even more, so they see that their real self-interest lies with us.”

Draining the Sea

Of course, peasants lived in “VC base” areas because their families had been there for generations. That’s where their rice fields were, and their ancestors’ graves. Many felt so deeply rooted in the land that they couldn’t imagine leaving, even when bombs and shells began to fall. And many of those who contemplated moving simply couldn’t afford to leave. When one peasant who did “rally” to the Saigon government—moving away from a hamlet that had been almost totally destroyed by bombing and shelling—was asked why more than one hundred of his fellow villagers still remained there, he explained: “Most of them are poor farmers. A few of them had left the village for [Saigon]-controlled areas but they had to come back since they were not able to make a living over there. Those who stayed… didn’t have a choice.”

It was this kind of poverty that made Le Thi Van’s family remain in their hamlet of Nhi Binh in the Mekong Delta, even though the area was hit by mortar and artillery rounds several times a day and bombed once or twice a month. They paid a terrible price. On February 10, 1968, while Van was visiting relatives in another village, an artillery shell scored a direct hit on her family’s bomb shelter. Seven of her relatives, including her pregnant sister-in-law, were instantly killed. Their corpses were so badly mutilated that when Van returned to Nhi Binh, she could identify them only by their legs.

Aside from augmenting the body-count statistics, free-fire zones were also integral to another policy objective: driving villagers out of territory controlled by the NLF and into areas controlled by the Saigon government. These efforts were commonly known as “pacification,” but their true aim was to depopulate the contested countryside. “The people are like water and the army is like fish,” Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist revolution, had famously written. American planners grasped his dictum, and also studied the “kill-all, burn-all, loot-all” scorched-earth campaigns that the Japanese army launched in rural China during the 1930s and early 1940s, for lessons on how to drain the “sea.” Not surprisingly, the idea of forcing peasants out of their villages was embraced by civilian pacification officials and military officers alike.

In 1964, an American officer remarked, “We must terrorize the villagers even more, so they see that their real self-interest lies with us. We’ve got to start bombing and strafing the villages that aren’t friendly to the Government.” One reporter recalled an army captain in a heavily populated Mekong Delta province sweeping his hand across a couple dozen hamlets on a map and remarking that refugees were streaming out of the area. The reporter asked why. “Because it’s not healthy out there,” the captain replied. “We’re shelling the hell out of them.”

U.S. commanders repeatedly denied that there was any formal policy of “generating refugees,” but one U.S. official admitted in 1967 that “policy or not, they’re sure doing it.” General William Westmoreland did, in fact, plainly state the military’s thinking in a 1965 speech.

Until now the war has been characterized by a substantial majority of the population remaining neutral. In the past year we have seen an escalation to a higher intensity in the war. This will bring about a moment of decision for the peasant farmer. He will have to choose if he stays alive.
Until now the peasant farmer has had three alternatives. He could stay put and follow his natural instinct to stay close to the land, living beside the grave of his ancestors. He could move into an area under government control, or he could join the VC. Now if he stays put there are additional dangers… Our operations have been designed to make the first choice impossible.

Similarly, Robert Komer, President Lyndon Johnson’s special assistant for pacification, sent a cable to Deputy Ambassador William Porter in 1966 regarding “military operations specifically designed to generate refugees.” The next year, after being appointed as Westmoreland’s deputy and the U.S. pacification chief, Komer suggested implementing a policy of stepping up “refugee programs deliberately aimed at depriving the VC of a recruiting base.” “In order to thwart the communist’s [sic] designs,” wrote Westmoreland a year later, one had to either eliminate the “fish”—which was, he noted, difficult and time-consuming—or “dry up the ‘water’ so that the ‘fish’ cannot survive.” Another general was even more explicit, telling the reporter R. W. Apple: “You’ve got to dry up the sea the guerrillas swim in—that’s the peasants—and the best way to do that is to blast the hell out of their villages so they’ll come into our refugee camps.”

When Vietnamese abandoned their villages, they were often simply shuttled into overwhelmed, underfunded, understaffed, underprovisioned, and underequipped “concentration zones”—either refugee camps or artificial villages that the refugees were sometimes forced to build themselves. These settlements, which went by many different names over the years, often made farming impossible. “I had two hectares of rice in the old village,” one elderly man complained. “Now it is ripe and the grain falls into the paddy mud. I cannot harvest it. There are men here with guns who tell me that we must dig a ditch… In the bottom of that ditch we must put sharpened bamboo stakes and on each side of the ditch there must be a fence of barbed wire. When it is finished, I can return to harvest my rice. But my rice will be gone then. Who will feed my family?”

In 1962, the New York Times described a scene in which U.S. advisers and allied Vietnamese troops relocated hundreds of villagers as part of Operation Sunrise. The operation’s cheerful title belied the fact that it involved burning the food, homes, and in some cases all the possessions of the villagers before sending them to inhospitable barracks that even the lead U.S. adviser conceded were “no happy hollow.” In 1969, an article in the Times would describe another village-clearing operation, this time with U.S. troops in the lead. The commanders had changed and the firepower had increased, but the procedures were much the same.

Twenty-four hours before the villages are razed, the inhabitants are warned by leaflets and loudspeaker broadcasts … to leave their homes. The inhabitants are then placed in newly constructed “resettlement villages” which are often enclosed by barbed wire… First the Zippo squads set fire to the thatched dwellings with their lighters… If the town is in a free-fire zone … and if the village has already been burned once before “the people who go out know that they will be dead,” [Sergeant Steve Kohrt] declared. “If it’s all a free-fire zone, you can sit on the hills and see the dinks running around, so they call in big air strikes,” he said. Lieutenant [Norman] Cuttrell added: “What we try to do is to get all of the people out of the ville before we start burning… of course they don’t want to go—that’s their home and everything.”

Those particular troops destroyed more than a dozen villages in just one week. A few years later, an American aid worker described the Saigon-run refugee camps in the area as being “more like concentration camps than the attractive-sounding ‘return to village’ programs, as they are called by the Government. Conditions in these camps are appalling.”

“They pointed to the road and said we must all leave,” Tam recalled. “My mother cried. They took matches and burned our house. Then they shot our buffaloes.”

For those thrust into camp life, the experience was jarring. One reporter described how what had been a thriving, well-populated farming area in Quang Tri Province was transformed into a landscape of “burned-out houses and bomb and artillery craters” after the marines arrived, with the surviving civilian population “evacuated to a resettlement area near Cam Lo.” An American survey of the Cam Lo refugees showed that 54 percent of them had received no advance warning of their move at all, and that of those who did get warned in advance more than half were given less than a day’s notice.

Nearly a quarter of the refugees lost everything they owned in the evacuation. Even after propaganda sessions with a South Vietnamese psychological warfare platoon, the villagers did not hide their displeasure from interviewers. Ninety-seven percent of them said their employment situation was worse than before; 95 percent described their resettlement house as less comfortable than their former home; and 87 percent said that their “life situation” was now worse than it had been in the war zone—where bombing, artillery strikes, and U.S. military operations were a constant threat, and where conscription and taxation by revolutionary forces were routine. Within months, thousands in the camp were facing starvation. Their situation was not unusual.

Take, for instance, the experience of Quang Nam resident Nguyen Van Tam. First, aircraft dropped leaflets declaring his hamlet a free-fire zone, giving the inhabitants twenty-four hours to evacuate. The bombing that followed forced his family into an underground existence, and one bomb killed his father as he worked in a rice paddy. A few days later, U.S. troops entered his village. “They pointed to the road and said we must all leave,” Tam recalled. “My mother cried. They took matches and burned our house. Then they shot our buffaloes. Then we began to walk to the refugee camp outside Da Nang to find shelter and food.” Both would prove in short supply. Asked about “special problems” in refugee camps, one district chief from Quang Nam Province provided a succinct list.

1. Not enough water
2. Not enough food
3. Not enough first aid station [attendants] and medical personnel
4. No arable lands, no jobs
5. Not enough schools.

At the Hung-Quang Evacuee Regroupment site in the same province, 95 percent of refugees said they were worse off in terms of employment than before their resettlement. Not far away, at the Ngoc Thanh Camp on the outskirts of Hoi An, 92 percent of residents complained that their current home was less comfortable than the one they’d had in their village. It’s not hard to imagine why. A marine described one of the province’s camps as “several hundred one-room tin shacks with no doors, and rags over the windows for curtains, all jammed in one next to the other in tight rows on bare hardpacked earth and surrounded by barbed wire and chainlink fencing. It reeked of squalor.” Similarly, a survey team from the U.S. General Accounting Office wrote of a Quang Nam camp:

During our inspection, we observed there were no latrines, no usable wells, no classrooms, and no medical facilities. The shelters were crudely constructed from a variety of waste material, such as empty ammunition boxes and cardboard. We observed that the number of shelters would not adequately house these people… The [American] refugee advisor stated that there were no plans to improve the living conditions at this site.

As the war dragged on, ever less money would be devoted to refugee aid and public health programs. In 1967, the support that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) gave to South Vietnam’s Ministry of Health topped out at $5.9 million. The agency’s total medical bud get in Vietnam for the year added up to one quarter of one percent of U.S. expenditures in the country. In effect, said one analyst, an entire year’s allocation equaled what was spent in less than a day on the war effort. Two years later, USAID support for the ministry had dropped to less than $1 million.

U.S. and South Vietnamese officials repeatedly explained the exodus of peasants by claiming that the people were voting with their feet, fleeing VC terror, taxation, and conscription. However, both the head of the U.S. refugee division and South Vietnam’s refugee commissioner admitted that most of those who fled their hamlets did so to escape bombardment and battle. A 1967 U.S. study in Kien Giang Province found that nearly two-thirds of refugees cited shelling and bombing—in most cases from the United States and its allies—as their reason for fleeing. In nearby Dinh Tuong Province, more than 60 percent of the Vietnamese surveyed blamed South Vietnamese and U.S. forces for making them leave their hamlets, while only 22 percent blamed the Viet Cong. Similarly, a 1970 study of refugees in Quang Nam Province found that 80 percent of refugees whose villages had been destroyed blamed U.S. and allied forces, 18 percent said that the damage had happened in firefights between the two sides, and just 2 percent blamed the revolutionary forces alone.

Squad leader Charles Downing remembered some of them gunning down women and young children. Michael Garcia recalled the men firing on a woman holding a baby, and then turning on the infant. “They just shot the baby all up,” he told army investigators.

Just how disproportionately civilians could suffer during battles, and why so many were forced to flee their homes, can be seen from the events on Ky Hoa Island, off the coast of Quang Tin Province. On July 9, 1965, when U.S. Marines fought a pitched battle against the revolutionary forces on the island, the Americans lost three men in the fighting, the guerrillas six. Among the civilian population of Ky Hoa, however, one hundred people were reportedly killed. According to their official command diary, the marines also allegedly burned 185 homes and beat up many civilians, including “a middle aged Vietnamese woman and her seven month old daughter.” Civilians who attempted to thwart the refugee generation system by staying in their villages often paid the price.

Larry Farmer, who served with Company E of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry, testified about one such group of resisters in late September 1969 in the Quang Tin/Quang Nam border region.

Our squad was running the Vietnamese women and children from the area … and we were burning their huts as we went to insure they wouldn’t return after we left… That day we had burned one hut in a clearing where there were three huts and about fifteen women and children living. As we were burning the hut I told all of the people to leave the area and go to the refugee camp… The next day my squad returned to that same area, when we approached the clearing where we had burned the hut we found the same women and children, however, they had all moved into the two remaining huts.

Finding that their orders had been disobeyed, the Americans began by shooting up a pen full of pigs. Then, according to testimony by fellow unit members, Farmer, infantryman Alter Floyd, and several others fired on the group of women and children. “I think Floyd shot one and tore his leg off—it was just hanging there by the meat,” unit member Davey Hoag said in a sworn statement. Squad leader Charles Downing remembered some of them gunning down women and young children. Michael Garcia recalled the men firing on a woman holding a baby, and then turning on the infant. “They just shot the baby all up,” he told army investigators. Altogether, nine or ten women and children were murdered and called in as “confirmed VC kills.”

The I Corps provinces of Quang Tin, Quang Ngai, Quang Nam, and Quang Tri in the north were not the only areas where U.S. forces deliberately attacked villages in order to force their residents into refugee camps. Such assaults happened throughout the country. In 1966, for instance, when U.S. and South Vietnamese troops first arrived in Thanh Son hamlet, a farming enclave in Binh Dinh Province in II Corps, many of the hamlet’s young men fled. The soldiers then herded together some of the remaining villagers, beat them, and shocked them with electric cattle prods to force them to leave for a refugee center. Many other residents were brutalized or shot. Over the following years, American and South Vietnamese troops would return to Thanh Son again and again, destroying rice crops and abusing, arresting, and sometimes killing residents. Pham Thi Hien told me that her home was destroyed at least five times during the war—a common story for villagers in free-fire zones. The Americans detained villagers and burned their homes because they wanted people to move to the “concentration area,” Hien explained to me years afterward. “The leaf house burned down, the soil house emerged” became a hamlet axiom during the days of these frequent home burnings, as people were reduced to living in A-framed earthen bunkers.

Helicopter gunships and artillery also extracted a gruesome toll on Thanh Son residents who stayed in their ancestral hamlet. Luong Thi Oi’s twelve-year-old daughter was literally torn in two by an artillery shell while tending cows; Bui Xich lost two sons when their bunker suffered a direct hit from another artillery shell. Luong Dai’s parents, two older brothers, a younger brother, a niece, and a nephew all died when their bunker collapsed during a U.S. bombardment. When I interviewed several hamlet residents in 2008, they came up with the names of twenty-nine victims but insisted that there had been many more, too many to recall. Sometimes the number of dead had overwhelmed the ability of survivors to bury them, they said, and pigs and ducks started eating the corpses.

Pham Thi Hien, for her part, was captured in Thanh Son during a joint U.S.—South Vietnamese operation in 1967 or 1968. She was beaten, then stretched spread-eagle on the ground. A U.S. soldier interrogated her through an interpreter while water was poured into her nose and mouth, choking her. “Where are your husband and children? What are they doing?” demanded the American, who accused her of living in the hamlet in order to support the guerrillas. After undergoing this water torture, Hien was taken away to a military outpost, where she was put to work filling sandbags. She spent eight months there and then, like so many other Vietnamese, made her way back to her mostly destroyed village to begin her life again.

The assault on Thanh Son hamlet was part of a concerted U.S. effort to pacify Binh Dinh, a region with a long history of fierce resistance to the French occupation. The campaign began with the 1st Cavalry Division’s “Operation Masher,” though its name struck President Johnson as so inflammatory that the softer “White Wing” was soon tacked onto it—as if one somehow canceled out the other. During the six weeks of Masher/White Wing, from late January to early March 1966, the 1st Cavalry Division fired 133,191 artillery rounds into Binh Dinh’s heavily populated An Lao Valley and Bong Son Plain. The Navy added 3,213 rounds from its ships. The Air Force launched 600 tactical air sorties, dropping more than 427 tons of general-purpose bombs, 265 tons of fragmentation ordnance, 165 tons of napalm, and 80 tons of white phosphorus, which damaged or destroyed more than 600 huts and other structures. Of course, troops on the ground also laid waste to many other homes at the same time. One correspondent described the results in a village in An Lao Valley.

More than half the huts were burned down and the rice fields were pock-marked with bomb craters. The villagers assembled as the Americans marched in. They sat silently in front of their ruined huts. Women held crying children in their arms. When a young American tried to comfort a child, it began screaming while the mother stared in terror at the foreign white giant.

Allied efforts yielded an estimated 5,576 enemy casualties, and a suspiciously low 354 personal weapons, even though the Americans took more than 600 prisoners, some presumably armed. “In the process,” noted the reporter and historian Frances FitzGerald, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces “left hundreds of civilians dead and wounded and ‘generated’ so many refugees as almost to depopulate the fertile An Lao valley.”

As operations in Binh Dinh continued, scenes of suffering like those at Thanh Son played out over and over again throughout the province. In early 1966, for instance, Gia Huu and fifteen nearby hamlets were ravaged by artillery fire and air strikes during one three-week span. In just three of those hamlets, approximately one thousand homes were blown apart by bombs and shells or reduced to cinder by napalm, leaving the hamlets, rice paddies, and surrounding hills scorched and pockmarked with craters. Additionally, shelling from U.S. Navy ships destroyed hundreds of coconut trees, the economic lifeblood of the region. The area around Tam Quan, just south of Gia Huu, was also pummeled by the same offensive, with an estimated one hundred civilians killed there and hundreds more injured in just a few weeks. Afterward, survivors were showered with leaflets saying that the Viet Cong were responsible for the destruction, since they had dug trenches and bunkers within the hamlets.

The Americans’ dedication to driving villagers out of their hamlets in Binh Dinh Province was often not accompanied by much concern for what happened to the villagers who were driven out. In March 1967, for instance, members of Company A, 8th Engineer Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division, joined a platoon from the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, on a search-and-destroy mission in the province’s Hoai Nhon District. The engineers blew up the “family-style bomb shelters” that the remaining locals were using for protection, destroying the village in the process. Left homeless and with nowhere to go, twelve civilians from the village—eight women, two teenage girls, and two men over fifty years old—walked along with the patrol back to the American command post but were soon sent away. That same afternoon, an unarmed man and a woman were spotted walking in a nearby rice paddy. From his post, one of the Company A engineers, Private First Class Richard Clark, watched the 8th Cavalry infantrymen unleash a fusillade at them. He saw the two Vietnamese fall to the ground and start crawling away as a platoon of cavalry troops swept toward them; then he heard the firing of rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers. The next day, Clark was part of a patrol that set out in the same direction. “We passed within 50 feet of numerous bodies,” he said. “At least 4 of which I could identify as the people we had taken out of the village the day before.”

Matthew Brennan of the 1st Cavalry recalled how his unit helped transform Binh Dinh from a “paradise” into an artillery-blasted and bomb-cratered wasteland. The soldiers, he wrote, would

search deserted villages, many of which had beige stucco Catholic churches crowned by the one true cross, and burn every standing structure. Huts and haystacks were set aflame; rice caches were soaked with aviation fuel and burned. On some days we would burn so much rice and so many huts that in the evening our day’s route would be marked by dozens of columns of rising white smoke, extending back across some silent valley or another.

By May 1968, official U.S. statistics put the number of refugees in Binh Dinh at over 180,000. Those who warned that this policy was counterproductive were utterly ignored. “It is a mistake,” declared Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Be, who had served as the Republic of Vietnam’s deputy province chief, “to move the people off their hallowed land. This is a political war and it must be fought by trained counterguerrillas and political cadres, not by massive, impersonal free-strike-zone bombings from the air. If we move the people from the land, we will surely lose their support; they will resent us.”

Nguyen Be was right. When a sample of the province’s refugees were surveyed in 1969, a clear majority blamed U.S. and allied forces for destroying their villages and worsening their lives. Years later, the New York Times correspondent Gloria Emerson summed up the results of the American efforts. “Despite the American occupation,” she wrote, “Binh Dinh never became a place they could overwhelm and change to be what they wanted. The number of dead Vietnamese and the refugees grew: Binh Dinh was never pacified.”

Nick Turse, an award-winning journalist and historian, is the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, the managing editor for, and a fellow at the Nation Institute. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Nation, among other publications. Turse’s investigations of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam have gained him a Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He lives near New York City.

Adapted from Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Nick Turse. All rights reserved.

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