There was an interview on Fresh Air yesterday with a guy who’s written a book about civilian massacres and other atrocities in the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Apparently the received wisdom is that My Lai was an aberration. I actually didn’t know that – I thought My Lai was just the one that got a lot of publicity but that there were plenty of others. It’s the nature of that kind of war, and of that particular war. I even thought I remembered reporting on it from the time (yes I’m that ancient!), but the author, Nick Turse, says there wasn’t much in the US. (But there was in the foreign press, he says. Hmm. In that case surely at least lefty outlets picked up on it, in which case I probably would have seen some of it, in which case maybe I am remembering correctly. Ramparts, In These Times, Mother Jones – I remember them as paying attention.)
There was a huge archive, and Turse grabbed it, just in time.
When I first found these records I was a graduate student. I was working on another dissertation at the time, and I was about 200 pages in, so I contacted a couple Vietnam War historians that I knew and tried to get them to work on it. … And one of them told me that he thought I should do this, that he was burnt out on the war. He had moved on to another project. … But this was something that I should do … that I should get down there right away.
So I went to my dissertation adviser and I said, ‘Do you think that I can write a book and my dissertation at the same time?’ And he told me that he thought I was crazy, but he said, ‘You know, if it’s that important, then you should shift to this topic.’ And I said to him, ‘OK, but I’ll have to put together a grant proposal.’ … I was a grad student at the time; I didn’t have the funds for this project. He wrote me out a check on the spot and said to get down there right away before these records disappear.
So within 24 hours I was in my car, and I drove down to the National Archives. And I put every cent that he gave me into copying, and I would copy from the moment the Archives opened in the morning until they kicked me out at night. And because I put all the money into copying, I went and slept in my car in the Archives parking lot.
And I did this for a couple of nights, and by the end of it, I had the whole collection. And I thought my adviser was being a little paranoid, but it turned out to be excellent advice, because sometime after I published my first article on this, the records were pulled from the Archives’ shelves. And they haven’t been on the public shelves since.
Well done, good and faithful graduate student.
That’s on the must-read list.