The literature of the Vietnam War does not feature much hagiography, just stories of inner torment, senseless deaths and shattered ideologies. What’s tragic—and overlooked—is that the soldiers were not the only ones who endured an unimaginable hell. In the sobering Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse provides an exhaustive account of how thousands upon thousands of innocent, unarmed South Vietnamese civilians were senselessly killed by a military that equated corpses with results.

Turse’s book, a graphic collection of rapes, shootings and wanton disregard for human life, is a difficult, frequently depressing affair. By the end, it reads as a parody of machismo taken to fatal, troubling extremes. But this actually happened. Who’s to say it won’t happen again?

Relying on interviews, government documents and other research, Turse breaks down how these atrocities came to pass. Recruits in basic training became killing machines; indeed, they were rewarded for a high number of kills. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s game plan for the war boiled down to “killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace.” The U.S. military did little to protect Vietnamese civilians, essentially shooting anyone running away or wearing black. A bit of clerical fudging turned farmers, children and the elderly into kill-crazy Vietcong.

It went on like this for years, with the infamous massacre at My Lai serving as just the most publicized example. The incidents become a blur of awfulness, a rush of power run amok. Kill Anything That Moves is a staggering reminder that war has its gruesome subplots hidden underneath the headlines—but they’re even sadder when our heroes create them.

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