Monday, May 27, 2013

Salt, Sugar, Fat

I am grateful I grew up when I did, just prior to WWII, with an Italian immigrant for a father. He simply refused to allow most “American” foods to cross our threshold. We never had ready-to-eat cereals like Wheaties or Corn Flakes (both the epitome of health by today’s standards), nor sliced white bread, nor any processed foods, or even those that came in cans (with the possible exception of canned peas, used for a low-cost and not very enticing dish called ‘peas and pasta’.) We ate pasta a lot—we called it spaghetti or macaroni in those days—with various kinds of sauces. We ate meat sparingly, and usually cuts that today are found only in specialty shops: kidneys, liver, tripe. We ate chicken bought fresh from a chicken shop that had them live in wooden cages, and stew meats in nutritious stews my mother made from fresh ingredients. And we regularly ate fish, including calamari, smelt, shiners (now known as ‘white bait’ and used mainly by fishermen to catch larger varieties) and various kinds of shellfish. My father called fish “brain food,” and he was right. We also ate real (i.e. aged) cheeses, the most memorable being a type of provolone that had actual milk worms oozing from its flesh, and which my father attributed to its being “real” and alive—which was accurate, though it was banned by a squeamish FDA long ago. With five children there was never quite enough food, so we grew up hungry but healthy. And we always ate together as a family.
            Not so today’s kids, especially those who live in urban “food deserts” which, abandoned by supermarkets, survive on “convenience stores” purveying mostly snack foods and sodas and junk like Hot Pockets and Lunchables loaded with the Salt, Sugar and Fat that gives Michael Moss’s book its name. I mourn for these kids, whose parents have to thread their way through the American food minefield in hopes of finding real, nutritious foods. Mostly, though, they are barraged with TV ads touting the latest chemical concoction that food companies have spawned to make more profits, and to habituate their future customers, the children, to addictive substances like salt (leading to high blood pressure and strokes), sugar (leading to obesity and diabetes and swollen hospital rolls) and fat (leading to clogged arteries and heart attacks). Mostly, they are fed on “convenience” foods that can be popped into the microwave and eaten on the run. Mostly, they are left to their own devices when it comes to foods, and that means, as I noticed recently when I was getting gas at a Chevron station with a “Food Mart,” Hispanic high-schoolers lined up several deep, their hands bursting not with books but with huge sodas to wash down plastic packs of potato or corn chips or ready-to-eat junk like Hot Pockets. These “snacks” (called “crack snacks” in a Philadelphia neighborhood that has been trying to boycott the ubiquitous convenience stores strategically located near schools) are time bombs, condemning several generations to the misery of hospital care before their time. And the food industry knows it, the USDA and the FDA and the FTC know it, the Congress knows it, and yet it goes on, greased by the money that these huge food corporations like General Foods and Nestlè and Cargill donate to the “people’s” representatives who are supposed to be giving voice to the voiceless.
            Moss’s book tells this whole story by dividing it into three sections: one for sugar, one for fat, and one for salt. It’s enough to make you sick. Though it’s far too detailed to do justice to, a few segments will give you the flavor. Consider, first, a core idea: that these “foods” (in quotes because many people have observed that they are not “real” foods, having been processed to the extent that they resemble, and taste like—without their sugar, fat, and salt disguises—cardboard or plastic) are addictive in the same way that drugs or alcohol are. Take sugar. Kids naturally prefer sugar and reject bitter more than adults; but they are also being taught—by what they eat and what they see on TV—that all food is supposed to be sweet. What’s worse, testing at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has shown that sugar is an analgesic like aspirin that will “reduce crying in a newborn baby.” So children not only prefer sweet, many of them are medicating themselves with sugar, which food companies know and therefore add to everything. Karen Teff, a food scientist who has found that sweet liquids (the kind in most processed foods) can circumvent the body’s natural controls, sums it up this way:

            “I’m still shocked at what goes on in this country. Where every single food has some sweetened component that wasn’t normally supposed to be sweetened. Honey wheat bread, honey mustard. Foods that were associated with non-sweet or that had slightly bitter components have now been made sweeter. There is absolutely no tolerance now for foods that are not sweet” (Moss, p. 21)

But what food companies have been doing for years is investing millions in research to find what is called the “bliss point” for their products—the optimum point at which the brain’s pleasure centers are rewarded. Nor is this simply research into appetite or taste buds; it also investigates the emotional component in responses to food. One of the primary food researchers and consultants, Howard Moskowitz, for example, did research on craving. He found that hunger is a poor driver of cravings, and that we are driven to eat by other forces like emotional needs, and then taste, aroma, appearance and texture; and that one ingredient, sugar, can satisfy them all. Food companies have known this for a long time, and as early as 1949 came out with Sugar Frosted Flakes—a sugar coated “cereal” that was so successful that the Post company followed with Sugar Krisps, Krinkles, Corn-fetti and a host of others that kids went nuts over. Other food companies followed suit so that today, the cereal aisle in supermarkets has more varieties (over 200) than any other. More alarming, when sugar added to dog chow was found to prevent bacteria from forming, sugar became a major way to preserve processed foods (and Gaines Burgers for dogs, also afflicted with obesity), allowing them to sit on the shelf almost indefinitely.
            None of this sugar mania went without criticism. In 1969, Dr. Jean Mayer of Harvard and an advisor to President Nixon, organized a White House Conference of Food Nutrition and Health. His pioneering research on obesity, which he called a “disease of civilization,” led to the discovery of how the desire to eat is controlled by the amount of glucose in the blood and brain, greatly influenced by sugar in food. Mayer contended that “cereals containing over 50% sugar should be labeled imitation cereal or cereal confections” and should be sold in the candy section. This scared the food industry to death, but as usual, the changes it made were mostly cosmetic. Kellogg’s said it could live with the designation “breakfast foods” instead of cereal, while Post changed the name of its iconic Sugar Frosted Flakes to “Frosted Flakes.” But more alarming news was to come with President Carter’s appointee to head the FTC, Michael Pertschuk. Pertschuk recommended a ban on all advertising to children. But with $600 million in annual revenues at stake for media companies (food manufacturers were spending twice as much advertising their cereals as on the ingredients that went into them!), the lobbyists struck back. They got the Washington Post in an editorial to ridicule Pertschuk as “the national Nanny,” and blamed the FTC for trying to “protect children from the weakness of their parents” (this is hauntingly like a current TV message, which insists that government has no business advising kids what to eat, which is the job of parents; it’s also reminiscent of the furor that broke over New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg trying to limit the size of sugared drinks.) The lobbying worked: Pertschuk was ousted as FTC chairman, and the new head said “we’re not going to engage in social engineering.” As if protecting the health of children were some kind of Commie plot. As if 20,000 commercials a year watched by children between the ages of two and eleven, more than half of them pitching sweetened cereals, candies, snacks, and soft drinks four times every half hour, were some kind of sacred corporate right to be protected. As if these devils—in 2008, the cereal industry began touting sugar as a kind of brain food that increased attentiveness: “a clinical study showed kids who had a filling breakfast of Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal improved their attentiveness by nearly 20 percent”—deserved to be protected in order to hook children on what has become a drug (Coke executives spoke, around 1995, of their “heavy users,” meaning those who drank two or more cans a day; even average Americans were drinking 40 gallons of sugared soda, on average, each year, for 60,000 calories and 3,700 teaspoons of sugar each). As if the food execs weren’t still scheming night and day and funding scientific studies to tell them how to get even more soda and sweet drinks like Kool Aid—with no nutritional value at all—into its already addicted consumers!
            I tell you, this stuff gets me so enraged I can hardly write about it.
            So perhaps I should just end with Lunchables—trayed bologna and cheese and crackers put together on an assembly line for a kid’s instant lunch; ramped up a year later to become the Fun Pack that added a Snickers bar, and a sugary drink. Or Hot Pockets (see below). Or Oreos—now being marketed in India to teach millions of Indian kids the “Twist, Lick and Dunk” ritual; just imagine a billion Indians hooked on Oreos! Or pink slime. Yes. pink slime has been in the news fairly recently, and Michael Moss was the journalist who broke the story, so it’s appropriate. The stuff was invented, ironically, because of the public demand for leaner cuts of beef to reduce those dangerous saturated fats. The problem is that leaner cuts are tough without the fat, so the industry sought technological solutions as usual: tenderize these course cuts either by piercing the meat with steel needles; or by taking beef scraps that used to be used for pet food and putting them through a high-speed centrifuge to spin off all but 10 percent of the fat. This latter process leaves a mush that is then formed into 30-pound blocks, frozen, and shipped to meat plants where it’s combined with other beef trimmings to make hamburger. Great. It’s cheap after all; cheaper than lean meat from South America; so cheap that even the USDA used it for school lunch programs for poor kids. 
            Enter Beef Products, Inc. of South Dakota. Given that the “defatted” material in the meat blocks derived from parts of the cow carcass most exposed to feces (you can imagine where those parts are)—which harbor the bacteria E. Coli that can cause stomach poisoning—Beef Products figured something had to be done to kill those feces pathogens that sometimes got smeared (ugh!) on the meat. So they fumigated the meat with ammonia, whose smell sometimes lingered on the “hamburger” sold to places like McDonald’s. Not good. Besides the smell, though, there arose the question of whether this “meat” should even be called “meat;” as USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein noted: “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling” (228). Zirnstein gave it the name “pink slime,” and Michael Moss published his story on pink slime in 2009. The response, of course, was rapid: McDonald’s, sensing a public relations disaster, discontinued using it. Yet even with all the bad publicity, the USDA and Barack Obama’s Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, were undaunted. In March 2012 Vilsack continued to promote the low-fat benefits of pink slime:
            “That’s one of the reasons we have made it a staple of the school lunch program. We are concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat” (229).

            This gets to what is the heart of the matter for me. The food that increasing numbers of Americans rely on (Frito Lay early on saw baby boomers as a growth industry because of their lifestyle habits: having “abandoned the traditional concept of breakfast, lunch and dinner…they replaced them with convenient snacks—pulled from cupboards, convenience stores, or the office vending machine”) is less and less derived from the farm, and more and more from the factory. It is “processed food,” and it is invented in huge laboratories (Nestle, the world’s largest food company, has a research center employing 700, including 350 “scientists”) that all large food companies now use to invent new ways to deliver machine-created food necessarily drowning in sugar, fat and salt to disguise the horrid taste it would otherwise have (one of these bad tastes is WOF, “warmed-over flavor,” the wet-dog-hair taste of meat that has to be heated again, after first being cooked). And to make it last virtually forever. Machines were first used to make comparatively benign cereals like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Today, they are used to make Doritos 3D, a puffy spherical version of the flat potato chip that increases the ‘surprise factor,’ which is said to be “good for consumption.” Or to fabricate Cheetos, an almost perfect food (for profit) that gives no signal to the brain about its high calories or fat, and so induces unlimited craving. Or to create Hot Pockets, whose 8-ounce Pepperoni and 3-Cheese Calzone (Americans now get most of their saturated fat from “cheese”, which is of course not real cheese with beneficial bacteria in it, but “imitation cheddar” and “imitation mozzarella” made with machine-fractured “milk protein concentrate”) delivers 10 grams of saturated fat and 1,500 milligrams of sodium, both close to the recommended daily limits. In addition, this Hot Pocket delivers 6 teaspoons of sugar (nearly as much as a can of Coke!) and enough chemical preservatives among its more than 100 ingredients to keep it on the shelf for 420 days, at least.
            Does such “food” have anything to do with real food? Even Nestlè knows what a disaster it is. Because although it claims that Hot Pockets “meet the needs of millenials,” Nestlè has also bought Novartis, a company that specializes in gastric surgery. You know what this is: gastric bypass surgery literally closes off a portion of the stomach for those who can’t seem to lose the weight they know is killing them. The trouble with gastric surgery, though, is that it doesn’t always work, and never works to reduce the craving for food. Indeed, some people keep eating to the degree that they burst the surgical bands the surgery has implanted, and require care in emergency rooms. Regrettable. But Nestlè, like a good profit-craving corporation, has found opportunity in this as well. It has begun to market yet another line of foods, liquid foods like Peptamen, or Optifat, that are ingested through a tube, so gastric surgery patients can cope more easily with their smaller stomachs.
            As Moss comments: this leads us to the image of “teenagers gorging on Hot Pockets, only to end up drinking Peptamen through a tube for the rest of their lives” (337). But Nestlè? Not to worry; it’s covered no matter what.
            There’s much more to this rich, disturbing book, and I would urge anyone with an interest in food, or children, or the perils of corporate capitalism to read it. It will disturb you, enrage you (not least because of the collusion Moss documents between the U.S. Government and Big Food that has allowed the corporate criminality involved in processed food to continue and expand for a half-century and more), and enlighten you. My hope is that it will also ignite a fire that will force the government, finally, to regulate American food production and stop the perversion of America’s eating habits that are now threatening to engulf the entire planet.          
Before that happens though, the American people have to wake up to what everyone is born knowing: real food is a gift of the earth. It does not come out of a tube, or a soda can, or a plastic container, or a machine.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, May 20, 2013

One System Under God

Reading two important books lately has reinforced in me the realization that our troubles in these times do not stem from isolated problems like Republican obstructionism or the Tea Party or a few Wall Street banksters or who happens to occupy the White House, but from the integration of an entire system, an entire culture based in insatiable greed, amorality (often immorality) and a military-style, hyper-competitive notion of what life is about. Hence, in the United States, what we find in this late stage of capitalism is the most inequitable society ever built, where the top .01% controls all the wealth, and through that wealth, all the politicians and the public policy that results. These porcine deities also control the health of the planet and the health of billions of people around the world through their determination of where the U.S. goes to war, where wealth is allocated to produce whatever needs producing (with often-disastrous conseqences for the ecosystem), and thereby who succeeds in living and dying. The only time that concern for the well-being of ordinary individuals is allowed to intrude is in slick commercials and public relations campaigns designed to reassure the masses and pacify them with fake lullabies of freedom. Underneath, of course, run the real attitudes: ruthlessness in controlling the hordes who might prove dangerous, and massive contempt for their gullibility.
            I was reminded of this, as I said, by reading two unrelated books that turn out to be related: Kill Anything that Moves, by Nick Turse, and Salt, Sugar, Fat, by Michael Moss. What struck me was how the underlying ideology that animated the Pentagon during the Vietnam War closely resembled the ideology motivating the major food companies that have changed not only the way Americans eat, but their very ideas of what food should taste like. A little thought makes clear that the same ideology and attitudes also pervade the way corporations deliver health care, the way political parties and politicians operate, the way sports teams compete, in short, the way the whole mainstream culture behaves and through that behavior reveals its beliefs. Whether using sports metaphors or war metaphors, the basic idea is the same: in order to beat the hell out of your opponent, anything goes (poor Cole Porter had a song and musical with this title, but what he referred to was child’s play compared to what animates the culture today).
            Begin with Turse, because what he reports is less surprising—since he’s reporting about war—though no less disgusting. Using a term coined by sociologist James Gibson, Turse attributes much of the slaughter of millions of innocent civilians in Vietnam to “technowar”—a philosophy “combining American technical and economic prowess with sophisticated managerial capacities to create a war machine functioning as smoothly and predictably as an assembly line.” This embodied a “rational” approach to war, an approach which identified the problem in Vietnam as guerilla fighters who could strike quickly and then vanish back into the jungle villages where they lived. This made it very difficult for even high-tech troops to distinguish them from ordinary villagers who typically wore the same ‘black pajama’ uniforms. So what the American military concluded was twofold: first, that the villagers would have to be separated from the guerilla enemy; and second, that a “crossover point” had to be reached when American soldiers would be killing more enemy soldiers than the Vietnamese could replace.  Rational. Statistical. Just kill so many VC that the enemy would run out of replacements. And just destroy so many villages and so much of the jungle cover and so much of the food resources that the people left after the destruction would have to re-assemble in controllable refugee camps. For the one, it was “kill anything that moves,” which could be gauged by the “body count” (this, in turn, meant that commanders would have the incentive to count every dead body—VC or civilian, all were the same—as a dead enemy). For another, it meant that the entire countryside could be ‘carpet bombed’ by B-52s, by napalm-spewing aircraft, by artillery, by helicopters, all doing their best to kill anything that moved, or didn’t move. Oh, and for good measure, by destroying the guerillas’ cover by spraying vast areas of jungle with the pesticide known as Agent Orange to create a nice, foliage-free desert.
            As to the morality of all this, that could be taken care of by propaganda (the ‘domino theory’ which held that if one East Asian country like Vietnam were to ‘fall’ to the evil communists, then all others would) and by perversions of logic such as: “we had to destroy the village to save it,” and, more generally, “we had to save the country by destroying it.”
            The odd thing, the revealing thing, is how the metaphors applied to war (the war machine, technowar, assembly line efficiency) came from business in the same way that war metaphors showed up to animate corporate strategies. The most striking example of this appears in Michael Moss’s book, Salt, Sugar, Fat. In an interview with reformed Coca Cola executive Jeffrey Dunn, Moss let Dunn describe his early years overseeing 800 Coke salesmen, and how his aggressive attitude earned him a nickname:
            “Sales people, by definition, like to keep score. You generally don’t make it in sales unless you are good with people and you like to keep score. It’s just the nature of the beast…So I gave this speech about winning and I said, ‘It’s like we’re at war. And the way you keep score is how many body bags get carried off the field. The key is to have more of their body bags carried off the field than our body bags. I want you all to go out and ramp up our scorecard. I want to see a lot of body bags.”
Then Dunn explained how he got his nickname: “The body bags were the Pepsi sales people who were going to get fired as a result of not getting our accounts. So my nickname for the next ten years was Body Bag.” (Moss, 103)

Here was the Vietnam War writ small, though not so small, in the parallel war corporate America sees itself having with competitors (in this case, Coke vs. Pepsi). It couldn’t have been scripted better by Hollywood: business is war, and like the Vietnam War, everything is focused on the kills, the body count, the body bags of the enemy that are produced. If, as many people contend, most American wars are fought on behalf of American business (think only of the wars in Central America fought for United Fruit Co. or the wars in the Middle East fought on behalf of big oil companies), then business is war indeed. And sadly, the war goes on not just between competing corporations killing each other for market share, but between these same corporations and the American public with whom they are engaging in every tactic and subterfuge to disguise the lethal reality of what they are purveying in order to make it seem harmless, benign, or beneficial. That is, the major food corporations (one of the biggest was owned until very recently by Philip Morris, that war-making purveyor of cancer in the form of those ‘manly’ Marlboro cigarettes) do everything they can to induce consumers (especially children) to buy more of the products they lace with sugar, and everything they can to disguise and gloss over the damage that sugar does. They war on children through TV commercials aimed directly at them. They war on children by inducing harried working mothers to buy “Lunchables,”—pre-packaged , fat-and-sugar-loaded lunches that poor moms don’t have to prepare themselves, and that their children find “fun.” And this food war, like the real one, depends on the most ‘advanced’ technologies to ‘engineer’ the taste that their hired guns—chemists and psychologists and brain scientists—have assured them is irresistible to humans, especially those trained from childhood to get maximum pleasure from sugary, salty, fatty foods.
Again, one of the most revealing segments in Moss’s book is an interview with a ‘food engineer’ named Howard Moskowitz, who brags about his ability to precisely engineer foods to reach the “bliss point,” as he did with the flavor for the excruciatingly sweet soda, Dr. Pepper. Here is how Moskowitz put it:

“I mix and match ingredients by this experimental design,” he told me. “The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create, so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.” (Moss, 30)

Of course, Moskowitz knows that the foods he designs and from which he has made a fortune, play a key role in the obesity/diabetes crisis that afflicts the nation and the world. But this seems not to bother him. When asked if he had any qualms about his research targeting the bliss point at which children would crave sugar most, he said flatly:

There is no moral issue for me. I did the best science I could…Would I do it again? Yes, I would do it again. Did I do the right thing? If you were in my position, what would you have done? (Moss, 30)

How very like the generals in Vietnam. What else could we have done? We applied the best science, the best management techniques, the most advanced weaponry we had to solve the problem. That it killed more than 2 million civilians and destroyed an entire country is simply what happens in the rational enterprise we call war. That the sugar, fat and salt poured into processed foods, that the inducements to drink the valueless insipid liquid called “soda” in staggering amounts, that the training of entire generations of young Americans in (and now East Indians, Mexicans, Chinese and every other emerging market on the planet) what food should taste like, to the point where, according to researcher Karen Teff, “there is absolutely no tolerance now for foods that are not sweet”—this is also justified by having applied the best science available. As to the cost in human lives and suffering, the cost in a planetary crisis in obesity, in dwindling natural resources, in a planet gasping to rid itself of the chemicals and plastics needed to produce and induce such lethal consumption—well, that is simply the price we pay to keep stockholders and Wall Street and the banksters happily rolling in their profits.  
It is, in short, the cost of war. The cost of competition. The cost of being number one. And if it requires the absolute perversion of democracy, of language, of decency, of morality, of humanity itself—which it does—then so be it.
Who, in such a system, could do any different?

Lawrence DiStasi 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Kill Anything That Moves

Like many Americans, my real political education began with my opposition to the Vietnam War in the early 1960s, progressing from readings to joining anti-war groups to public demonstrations, draft board sit-ins and so on. But even all the reading and involvement and civil disobedience did not prepare me for what Nick Turse has discovered and laid out in his new book, Kill Anything That Moves (Holt 2013.) The title phrase comes from actual testimony Turse found, specifically that of medic Jamie Henry, who, referring to a search-and-destroy operation in the Tet counteroffensive, quoted what his company captain, Donald Reh, told Lieutenant Johnny Mack when the latter asked Reh what to do with the 19 civilians his troops had rounded up:

“The Captain asked him if he remembered the Op [operations] Order that had come down from higher that morning which was to kill anything that moves. The Captain repeated the order. He said that higher said to kill anything that moves.”(126)

The order was, of course, followed (about which more later.) This is the pattern that Turse found repeated everywhere in the war. Gooks or slopes or slants (all racist names for Vietnamese) were not people; they were, no matter how they appeared outwardly, all the enemy, all VC or Vietcong. If they remained in a village instead of fleeing to a refugee camp, and especially if they tried to run from soldiers, they were to be killed. Period. The statistics Turse cites at the outset confirm this: the Vietnam government itself estimated 2 million civilians dead. If multiplied by Gunter Loewy’s multiplier of 2.65 wounded for every one killed, that means 5.3 million civilians wounded, for a total of 7.3 million casualties out of a population of 19 million. The United States tried and still tries to call such civilian casualties “collateral damage,” as if they were accidental. Turse disagrees, and writes a massively documented book to prove that it was U.S. policy to kill civilians, and that such intentional killing constituted massive war crimes.
            The main documents Turse uses to make his case came from an accidental find at the National Archives, the files of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group (activists never heard of such a group at the time.) This was a group the Pentagon formed in the aftermath of the inflammatory publicity about the My Lai massacre (500 civilians murdered), hoping to prevent further such incidents, or at least pretend that it was working to prevent them. The files include over 300 allegations of “massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations and other atrocities substantiated by army investigators, including 500 allegations that weren’t proven at the time.” Turse also interviewed numerous whistleblowers, like Jamie Henry, and many Vietnamese victims of atrocities who managed to survive, most of them maimed either physically or spiritually. He ends up with a story of massacre after massacre, with innocent civilians being bombed from high-flying B-52 bombers, or strafed by napalm spewing jets or blasted by helicopters or pounded by huge naval guns firing shells as big as a Volkswagen or simply gunned down by American soldiers following their orders to “kill anything that moves.” And this is the burden of Turse’s book: the massacre of an entire country was not an accident; rather, it was the product of a theory of war that sociologist James William Gibson calls “technowar”—a philosophy best embodied in the person of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Technowar combined “American technological and economic prowess with sophisticated managerial capacities” to produce a war machine “functioning as smoothly and predictably as an assembly line.” One of the products of that ‘assembly line’ approach was to imagine a “crossover point”—the moment when American soldiers would be killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace—an idea that would lead directly to the huge emphasis on “body count,” the number of killed Vietnamese. Also related was the notion that since the United States was fighting a guerilla war against an enemy that could easily melt back into its jungle villages, the solution was to deprive the guerillas of their civilian and jungle cover. How? Simple: either kill or force most villagers to move into refugee camps or cities (Saigon tripled in size during the war), and reduce their tropical homeland to desert by using napalm and white phosphorus and toxic defoliants like Agent Orange that would not only get rid of the jungle cover but also destroy the lush paddy fields of rice that had made Vietnam before the war a net exporter of rice, and soon made it a net importer.
One soldier, Richard Brummett of A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Regimental Cavalry illustrated this philosophy in a letter he sent to then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird:
            [my unit] did perform on a regular basis, random murder, rape and pillage upon the Vietnamese civilians in Quang Tin Province…with the full knowledge, consent and participation of our Troop Commander, a Captain David Roessler…
            These incidents included random shelling of villages with 90mm white phosphorus rounds, machine gunning of civilians who had the misfortune to be near when we hit a mine, torture of prisoners, destroying of food and livestock of villagers if we deemed they had an excess, and numerous burnings of villages for no apparent reason. (97)

Another more specific account came from the aforementioned medic, Jamie Henry. Henry was a member of Company B in the 35th Infantry engaged in what came to be known as the Tet counteroffensive—wherein the U.S. military vowed to prove that it was unfazed by the Tet offensive that nearly brought the U.S. military to its knees. The savagery unleashed in response destroyed much of the country, including many of the cities like Hue where the Vietnamese guerillas had triumphed. Henry’s unit, working in Quang Nam province in the north, was part of this Tet counteroffensive. Having lost five men earlier, the unit entered a hamlet so small it had no name, seeking revenge. Instead of the enemy, however, they found only a few villagers. Some of the soldiers killed livestock (a common tactic, to deprive villagers of their food, and thus force them to cities or refugee camps), while others dragged a teenaged girl into a hut for the usual gang rape. Others rounded up 19 villagers (by now including the girl who had been raped) and it was then that Henry heard his captain repeating the Op Order mentioned above—to kill anything that moved. As Henry described it, four or five of the soldiers surrounded the terrified squatting villagers, and

“opened fire and shot them. There was a lot of flesh and blood going around because the velocity of an M-16 at that close range does a lot of damage.” (126)

Henry added that this was not an isolated incident; by the end of his tour, he knew of “at least 50 civilians executed by our company and with as little provocation as on [the day of the massacre], not in the heat of battle or from air strikes—deliberate murder.”
            Jamie Henry tried to speak up about what he’d seen, but he was advised that if he did so while still in Vietnam, he’d be likely to get a bullet in his back. So he waited till he got home, went to the Judge Advocate General in Fort Hood, Texas, but was advised, again, to be silent because otherwise he’d be made to be quiet or even disappear. Even the anti-war magazine Ramparts, though it wrote up his story, refrained from publishing it; only Scanlon’s Monthly, in Spring 1970, published it, but it made hardly a ripple. Army investigators did take a 10-page statement from Jamie Henry, but it disappeared like many others. Only the Winter Soldier Investigation of January 1971 finally gave Jamie Henry a forum, and at that event he made clear what Nick Turse asserts again and again: “the executions are the direct result of a policy. It’s the policy that is important” (239). And that policy, as reporter Jonathan Schell noted about Quang Ngai province which he found to be nearly totally destroyed, was summed up simply: the war was a battle against the South Vietnamese people.
            The question we keep wanting to ask is: how could American boys do such things? In answer, Turse cites the training they received, emphasizing the singular purpose of their mission: to kill, kill, kill (I remember the slogan from my basic training: “What’s the motto of the bayonet? Kill, Kill, Kill”). The dehumanization of Vietnamese people cited earlier facilitates this, especially among 19-year-olds. While there were the Jamie Henrys and others who found the killing of innocents repugnant and criminal, there were others who actually found it fun. This is documented by perhaps the most shocking violations Turse found: numerous accounts of American troops actually making a game out of killing. One American medic, seeing two boys dead near a road,

“found out they’d been hit by an American military truck and that there was this kind of game going on in which, supposedly, guys were driving through town gambling over who could hit a kid. They had some disgusting name for it, something like “gook hockey.” I think they were driving deuce-and-a-halfs—big-ass trucks. The NCO who ordered me to clean the bodies could have cared less. (157)

To help explain such behavior Turse refers to the fancy new military technologies young soldiers are equipped with, encouraging in them the firing of weapons for the “simple thrill of it—what the historian Charles Appy calls the ‘hedonism of destruction.” This starts with the M-16 rifle every soldier carried (and which, not coincidentally, is the model for the Bushmaster Rifle so favored by our local gun aficionados, including Newtown killer Adam Lanza). The M-16 can fire “up to 700 rounds a minute and tear off a limb at a hundred yards.” So light and play-like is the M-16 that it came to be known, among soldiers, as the “Mattel Toy.” Other troop toys included Vietnamese ears strung around soldiers’ necks, and “kill albums”— photo albums kept by troops showing pictures of severed heads, or “lots of heads, arranged in a row, with a burning cigarette in each of the mouths, eyes open”(162).
            Of course, the main point of Turse’s book is that it was not just out-of-control 19-year-olds who bear the burden of guilt. Generals were the ones giving the orders, and when the general was someone like Julian Ewell, who in 1968 was given command of the 9th Infantry Division responsible for “clearing” the Mekong Delta (perhaps the richest agricultural expanse in the world), the murder and mayhem could and did reach epic proportions. Known as the “Butcher of the Delta,” Ewell was obsessed with the infamous “body count.” His chief of Staff, Colonel Ira Hunt, was equally obsessed. Together, they beat and browbeat the commanders under them to fatten the body count by any means necessary. Turse quotes Ewell in one rant to his commanders:

“What the fuck are you people doing down here, sitting on your ass? The rest of the brigades are coming up with a fine body count…If you can’t get out there and beat ‘em out of the bushes, then I’ll relieve you and get somebody down here who will.” (206).

Turse also cites Navy Admiral Robert Salzer’s contention that Ewell was “psychologically unbalanced…you could almost see the saliva dripping out of the corners of his mouth”(207). The insanity showed up in hordes of dead civilians—all, as always and everywhere, counted as enemies, “dead VC.” Before Ewell took over, the 9th Infantry Division had a ratio of about eight VC dead for every American killed in large unit operations, which was slightly higher than average. Then came Speedy Express, Ewell’s name for his operation in the Delta, tragically given an even greater mandate by politics (Pres. Johnson had re-started the Paris peace talks, and the Pentagon wanted to bring the Mekong Delta under Saigon’s control before any peace could break out, and so ordered Ewell and others to pound the Delta even more savagely than before.) With this added sanction from above, the kill ratio for Speedy Express kept leaping to ever more astounding levels, peaking in March of 1969 with a 134 to 1 ratio: that is, 134 “enemy” kills for every American death. Ewell became, of course, the darling of the officer corps, even in spite of the complaints that continued to mount against him. One Concerned Sergeant (later revealed by Turse as George Lewis) wrote a letter to General Westmoreland, the Supreme commander in Vietnam:

            Sir, the 9th Division did nothing to prevent the killing, and by pushing the body [count] so hard, we were “told” to kill many times more Vietnamese than at My Lay [My Lai], and a very few per cents of them did we know were enemy…
            In case you don’t think I mean lots of Vietnamese got killed this way, I can give you some idea how many. A battalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day. With 4 battalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 to 1500 a month, easy. (One battalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!) If I am only 10% right, and believe me its lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay each month for over a year.

Of course his letter was buried, the excuse being that an anonymous letter could be legally discounted. Instead, My Lai was easily turned into a “singular case” of one bad apple in a generally noble barrel, thus obviating any more concern about war crimes. And General Ewell and his chief of staff were commissioned by the Army to write a book about their glorious campaign, for the edification of future military commanders. Called Sharpening the Combat Edge, it completely whitewashed the history of the Mekong Delta massacres, claiming that their mass killing methods had actually “unbrutalized” the war.
            This is the fate of war criminals in the American military. While hard-hitting reports, like that of Kevin Buckley of Newsweek, are truncated and sanitized for public consumption, the books of war criminals and psychopaths are admired as models for the future ‘civilized’ conduct of war. Sadly, Nick Turse’s book has appeared too late to compel war crimes trials—which should have happened years ago when the criminals were still alive. All that we have now is Turse’s chilling documentation indicating, once more, why there are, in fact, millions of people in the world who consider the United States of America a rogue nation, an empire of advanced killing machines manned by smooth-faced killers all too ready and eager to use them. 

Lawrence DiStasi