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Confessions of a War Criminal
By R. G. Cantalupo
There is a girl. Running. Toward you. Her clothes burned off, her flesh on fire with the sweet, licorice-smelling gasoline, her tears dry smears of char. "Nong qua. Nong qua!" she screams. "Too hot!" Around her are four other children, also running from the napalm flames, also screaming, also on fire.
This image, from probably the most famous photograph of the Vietnam War, Nick Ut's Pulitzer prize winning photo of Kim Phuc, running naked from the village of Trang Bang, napalm burning her skin, highlights the problem with Nick Turse's expose of war crimes in the Vietnam war, "Kill Anything That Moves."
If you could understand the Vietnam War by reading and sifting through boxes and boxes of reports and investigations on war crimes, then Turse's expose, might be a cogent and illuminating vision of the war we all knew too well.
Unfortunately, nothing about war, particularly the Vietnam War, can be experienced on paper. Neither the terror of battle, nor the endless suffering of both the combatants and non-combatants.
For the planes that dropped the napalm on Kim Phuc were not American as I had long thought, but South Vietnamese. And the children running, were "assumed to be" North Vietnamese soldiers since Trang Bang was now controlled by North Vietnamese troops.
Yet napalm, like white phosphorous grenades, mortars, artillery rounds, etc., is considered a criminal weapon when used upon either combatants or non-combatants.
And here is the problem with Nick Turse's book, both in concept and in premise. It doesn't expose anything we didn't already know from the Winter Soldier investigations of 1971, unless you want to believe that most American soldiers committed atrocities and massacres most of the time on their tours, and that most operated and conducted themselves like out-of-control gangs and sadistic killers.
Let us return to Trang Bang for a moment, for Trang Bang happened to be the village where my battalion, 2nd of the 12th of the 25th Infantry Division, operated back in 1968-69, three years before Ut's photo. Trang Bang was where I saw my first casualty, our point man blinded by a booby trap set off by a nine year old boy on my first day in the bush. We daily confronted sniper fire, mortars, ambushes, and booby traps.
I was an RTO, a radio operator for the weapons platoon of Bravo Company, and over the next six months I was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with a Combat V for courage under fire. Trang Bang was where the mortar was fired which wounded me the third and last time. Trang Bang was the place where "an enemy" put me so close to death it took almost ten months and four hospitals before I could be discharged as a disabled veteran.
And yet, not unlike the South Vietnamese pilots, as an RTO, I called in napalm strikes on civilians, and, as a member of a four man mortar crew, I plotted and fired "willie peter" mortar rounds on civilian populations in villes, and sometimes saw the results of my war crimes, women, children, and old papa and mama sans horrifically burned by white phosphorous.
According to Nick Turse's premise, I would be considered a war criminal for having done so, along with the hundreds of thousands of other combat veterans whose rules of engagement and even the weapons they used were against the principals of the Geneva Convention and International Law.
However, war crimes in Vietnam, was not a simple black and white issue, no more than war crimes in Iraq or Afghanistan. There are no rules in the Geneva Convention that applies to a nine year boy as an enemy combatant, and there were no rules of engagement given by officers that the white phosphorous rounds and the napalm I called in, or the claymore mines I exploded on shadows in free fire zones, could be considered war crimes.
I didn't witness anyone cutting off ears, though I saw some crazy short-timers wearing a few. I didn't witness any massacres. I didn't see any soldiers indiscriminately shoot water buffalo, pigs, chickens, or "kill anything that moved." But I was ordered to call in napalm air strikes on civilian villages; I did light up my Zippo on thatched roofs like the rest of my platoon, and I did suffer from night terrors and PTSD for the horrific actions I witnessed, participated in, and knew were inhumane.
Am I a war criminal? Probably? But under Turse's definition and premise, we probably all are—from the President of the United States on down.