Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves, now in its sixth printing, is an eye-opening look at the U.S.'s “search-and-destroy” tactic employed in Vietnam, but it began 12 years ago with Turse, a PhD student, toiling away in the National Archives. It was there that he found documents (which have since been pulled from the public shelves) that became the inspiration for his book.
As the beam of light passed over my body, I strained to slow my breathing and remain as still as possible. Through barely open eyes, I could briefly see the man’s silhouette and his flashlight. My heart pounded. My mind raced. What was my cover story again? Was there any chance that he’d buy it? Was this a federal crime? And why did I have to pull this at a facility with armed guards?
It seemed like an eternity, but it must have only been a few seconds as he circled my car, looking in the windows. And then it was over. I had made it.
For that moment, at least.
It was the early 2000s and I was lying in the back of an old Ford Explorer hiding from a security guard at a federal facility in suburban Maryland. How it all came to pass is also how I came to know the real story of the Vietnam War: a long, intense journey that would eventually take me from my junk-strewn SUV to the doorsteps of alleged war criminals in America’s suburbs and the homes of massacre survivors in rural Southeast Asian hamlets of dirt floors and thatch roofs. That night, though, I was hoping against hope that I wouldn’t end up in jail or an impound lot.
Back then, I was a grad student studying the history of public health and working on an epidemiological study of post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. Vietnam veterans. In June 2001, I was concluding a fruitless research trip at the National Archives and was facing the prospect of returning to New York empty-handed. Every avenue I’d pursued in a quest for useful data for my job had failed. Exasperated, I approached an archivist I often worked with and pleaded with him. “I can’t go back to my boss empty-handed,” I said. “I have to at least bring back a lead.” He asked if witnessing war crimes might cause post-traumatic stress and I told him that it was an excellent hypothesis.
“What do you have on war crimes?” I asked.
Within an hour, I was opening up half-cubic-foot archival boxes with wide eyes. Before me lay the files of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret Pentagon task force set up in the wake of the My Lai massacre to make certain that the Army was never again caught flat-footed by an atrocity scandal. The records documented the same types of crimes that had been committed at My Lai—murder, assault, rape, mutilation—but most of them weren’t in the historical literature. These were atrocity allegations that had been ignored, stifled, buried, covered-up and forgotten. It was an encyclopedia of horrors, from torture to massacres: hundreds of incidents which had been investigated and substantiated by Army investigators but which almost no one knew about.
The documents ultimately proved insufficiently systematic for my boss’s epidemiological study, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. Because I was already busy writing a totally unrelated dissertation about a nineteenth-century public health hazard, I tried to interest a seasoned Vietnam War historian in working with the files. He suggested instead that I take on the project myself, and that I do it fast. I hemmed and hawed and went to my mentor at Columbia University. I told him what that historian had suggested, and asked if he thought I could write my dissertation and a book on U.S. war crimes in Vietnam at the same time. He said I was nuts. If the War Crimes Working Group documents were that important, then I should scrap the 200 pages I had already written and start on a new project. He also said I should get down to the archives immediately to make copies of the documents, lest they disappear.
I decided to follow his advice, but a new problem presented itself. I didn’t have a budget for travel and copying thousands of pages of documents. I would need to identify possible funding sources and submit grant proposals. It was going to be a long, involved process. My advisor was having none of it. He pulled out his checkbook and wrote out a check to me on the spot. Within 24 hours, I was down in Maryland. I put every cent he gave me into copying, which is how I came to be sleeping in the back of my hand-me-down SUV in the archives parking deck.
It was my good fortune that I kept my car looking like a pig sty—filled with old newspapers, water bottles, nutrition bar wrappers, crumpled photocopied articles from history and medical journals, and other common detritus associated with a commuting graduate student. I would enter the archives as it opened in the morning, copy until they threw me out at night, retire to my car, sleep beneath a blanket under the trash, and start again the next day, having “showered” in the bathroom sink on the basement level of the archives. Each night, I would place a sign inside the windshield of my SUV: “Car Broke Down. Tow Truck Coming Tomorrow.” In the morning, I’d remove the sign, move the car to a new spot on a different floor, and hope the guards wouldn’t catch on. They didn’t. Or if they did, they took pity. It didn’t take long for me to copy the whole collection, and soon I was driving north with thousands of pages of documents that the Pentagon brass had kept secret for years.
I have to admit that I thought my very generous advisor was a bit paranoid in suggesting that I rush down to the archives to copy the collection. But I’m sure glad he was, because after I published my first article on the records, in 2003, the government pulled these documents from the public shelves. An archivist told me that the records were temporarily removed due to Privacy Act concerns. This is not an implausible explanation: the files did contain some personal information, like Social Security numbers, that needed to be blacked out. But it is remarkable how slow that process has been. Today—almost a decade since the records were removed from the public shelves to be redacted—nearly two-thirds of folders in the collection, 238 of them, still remain totally “unprocessed,” while 90 have been “sanitized” and just 39 are currently “open in full,” according to the data provided by the National Archives. It’s hard not to wonder why such an important collection of files, which indicates just how pervasive American war crimes really were during the Vietnam War, remains largely off-limits to the public.