Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of the US forces in Vietnam, deemed accidental civilian deaths “a great problem” in 1966, but similarly charged that the war was “designed by the insurgents and the aggressors to be fought among the people,” suggesting that the Viet Cong were ultimately responsible for their deaths. Westmoreland had established rules that were supposedly meant to limit civilian casualties: Residents of a village suspected of hiding Viet Cong first had to be warned via leaflet or loudspeaker planes before an air strike was carried out, unless it was under total communist control, in which case it was a “specified strike zone”—later known as a “free-fire zone”—and US forces could bomb whatever they wanted. In one such case, US forces killed 20 civilians and wounded 32.
“Some of this is just human failure, bad judgment,” one high-ranking military figure commented. Much like Israeli leaflets telling Gazans to evacuate today, these warnings were a thin justification for what followed, as when troops spent hours telling civilians via loudspeaker to leave a communist-controlled area in one 1968 assault, but “for some reason they didn’t leave before US forces attacked with napalm,” leaving 17 dead, according to the Associated Press.
Vietnam-era US officials even made use of an allegation that has become ubiquitous in the current war: enemy forces using innocent people as human shields. In one January 1967 incident, South Vietnamese forces shelled a village, killing 10 children and wounding 16, only for a US spokesperson to claim—falsely, it soon turned out—the Viet Cong had “herded” civilians in front of them as they advanced. “These civilian casualties are very regrettable and are directly attributable to the callous use of civilians by the Viet Cong in military operations,” the spokesperson said. Such claims abounded throughout the war.
In reality, as journalist Nick Turse uncovered decades later when he went digging through archives and interviewing ex-GIs, all of these US statements papered over a far more brutal truth: That, far from being accidents or the tragic ugliness of war, the high number of Vietnamese civilian deaths resulted from deliberate policy set at the top and enacted by US troops on the ground, rooted in officials’ emphasis on “body count” and a view of Vietnamese as “animals,” all of whom, even women and children, were potential threats. Even the infamous My Lai massacre was at first publicized by the US government as a grand military triumph over enemy fighters.