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Déjà Vu All Over Again: Notes on Jonathan Schell’s Review of 'Kill Anything That Moves'

 

Jonathan Schell‘s probing review of Nick Turse’s new book Kill Anything That Moves originated on Tom Dispatch and migrated to Salon, where it appeared under the head “Vietnam was even more horrific than we thought.”

Really? While Jonathan Schell is not responsible for a Salon editor's headline, he nonetheless seems convinced that Nick Turse’s recently published book justifies such hyperbole. Schell, of course, produced some of the finest reporting to come out of the Vietnam War, and one is inclined to take seriously his views on this subject. Yet Schell immediately undermines the authority conferred by his masterly reporting during the war’s earlier stages with the disclaimer that, “like so many reporters in Vietnam, I saw mainly one aspect of one corner of the war… not enough to serve as a basis for generalization about the conduct of the war as a whole.”

This retroactive blind spot on Schell’s part, I’d wager, did not prevent his many readers from doing precisely what he says he shied from, extrapolating from his gripping accounts the strong suspicion that the air war he witnessed so intimately in Quang Ngai Province was a template for the use of American air power and massive bombing throughout South Vietnam. It’s a tangential point, but it does set up the clouded historical perspective Schell applies throughout this review.

 Nick Turse and his Vietnam book Nick Turse and his Vietnam book

I cannot comment here directly on Turse’s book for the simple reason that I won’t see the copy I ordered for another week. But as I sit here midwinter in a small village on the coast of Maine, with only limited reference materials at hand, I must take issue with some of the claims Jonathan Schell makes for this book that are independent of any future evaluations on my part concerning its quality, timeliness, and scholarly contribution.

It seems that only now with the publication of Nick Turse’s book has the narrow window through which Schell says he once observed the war expanded to reveal a source that “has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture…. of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam.” What Schell had “once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm.”

Turse’s achievement, according to Schell, is “an accurate overall picture of what… has never been assembled… for instance, the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed….” This is hardly news when you consider that the Vietnamese themselves have been loudly proclaiming this carnage for decades. Nonetheless Schell goes on to argue, “It has not been until the publication of Turse’s book that the everyday reality of which these atrocities were a part has been brought so fully to light.”

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