On March 16, 1968, approximately 100 American troops marched on the southern Vietnamese hamlets of My Lai and My Khe, believed by the American military to be strongholds of the Viet Cong insurgency, and killed 500 civilians. The incident was made public 20 months later, sparking outrage in the global community.
On Nov. 4, author and researcher Nick Turse told a Franklin & Marshall College audience that the 1968 attack -- at the time believed to be an isolated incident -- was one of hundreds of such assaults on the Vietnamese by American soldiers, resulting in the murder of thousands of civilians.
"Basically, all we know about today is My Lai, and only because it was in print, and only a year after it happened," said Turse, the latest speaker in this fall's public lecture series, "Irregular War: Guerrillas, Partisans, Bandits, and Mujahedeen."
The series is part of the seminar-style course for F&M students that Professor of History Van Gosse created to examine the history, theory, and practice of guerilla warfare and counter-insurgency throughout the modern era.
Turse, managing editor of independent news site TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the nonprofit media center Nation Institute, is an award-winning journalist who in January published "Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam," a New York Times bestseller that he spent 12 years researching and writing.
The title of Turse's lecture, the third in the Irregular War series, was "Where Have All the War Crimes Gone? Vietnam War Atrocities and Their Cover-ups," which addressed the subject of his book.
Turse was researching a book on post-traumatic stress disorder when an archivist at the National Archives directed him to a "treasure trove" of undisclosed United States military documents of official U.S. Army investigations that established hundreds of atrocities in Vietnam, he said.
Gosse said Turse's book fills a wide gap in America's history of the U.S. military's involvement in a war that included indiscriminate air strikes, artillery shelling, and helicopter gunship attacks.
"I didn't really grasp the systematic way the war in Vietnam targeted civilians," Gosse said. "I thought I knew this history pretty well."
Turse recounted the story of former army medic Jamie Henry, who had only been in Vietnam a short time when he began witnessing "a litany" of atrocities. Turse said Henry wanted to report them, but his friends warned him against doing so.
But after an order given over the radio to kill 19 women and children, Henry was determined to report that atrocity to authorities.
"The order that came down that morning was 'Kill anything that moves,'" Turse said. "Jaime told me 30 seconds after that massacre, he vowed to make it public."
Army authorities rebuffed Henry, Turse said. Henry's story went untold, but the Pentagon organized a secret investigative committee to look into Henry's allegations and validated his report. That report and hundreds of others were not revealed to the public until Turse published his book.
F&M sophomore Xintong Liu, a history major, said she was moved by the lecture. "It’s really eye-opening," Liu said. "I didn’t expect something like that to have happened in Vietnam."
Liu said she is from the city of Nanjing in China, which is formerly known as Nanking, where the Japanese killed more than 250,000 civilians in 1937.
"My grandparents survived the massacre," she said.
After researching the documents, interviewing veterans and eyewitnesses to some of the events in Vietnam, and examining news media reports that touched on some of the atrocities, Turse said he came away with another picture of what the Vietnamese call "The American War."
"I was able to fully grasp the realities of the Vietnam War," he said.
The final event in the "Irregular Wars" lecture series is 7:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 11, at Stahr Auditorium in Stager Hall. The speaker, Col. Gian Gentile of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, will discuss counterinsurgencies, which are military tactics used against guerilla warfare.