Who is Nick Turse?
Author of L.A. Times Vietnam Atrocity Story Is Dedicated Leftist
"(T)he DoA (Doctrine of Atrocity) did not originate during the Vietnam War, but instead was part of a long legacy of the U.S. military's conduct during wars against racial Others over the prior 100 years."
--Nick Turse, Columbia University PhD dissertation: "Kill Anything That Moves: U.S. War Crimes and Atrocities in Vietnam, 1965-1973" (Photo from Mother Jones)
By David Paulin
The Los Angeles Times made quite a splash with its lengthy article detailing how American troops allegedly committed atrocities during the Vietnam War 40 years ago. Left-wing bloggers have been swooning over the Sunday showcase piece, "Vietnam: The War Crimes Files." And no wonder. The whopping 4,400-word article, describing alleged atrocities as if they happened only yesterday, was not really about Vietnam: It was about Iraq.
Only the most obtuse reader could miss that. The authors slipped "Iraq" into the narrative after 400 words, with mentions of alleged atrocities and prisoner abuse there.
To date, conservative bloggers and readers have paid little attention to “The War Crimes Files.” Presumably, they glanced at it and quickly dismissed it as more agenda-driven reporting aimed at stopping “Bush’s War.”
In their cursory look, however, those readers missed an intriguing element in the story – and perhaps its most important element. The lead author, Nick Turse, is not a staff writer like co-author Deborah Nelson. He is “a freelance journalist living in New Jersey” who, as an editor’s note mentioned, had uncovered archival material on Vietnam War atrocities “while researching his doctoral dissertation.”
What the editor's note omitted is that Turse also has a long history of supporting radical leftist causes and writing for radical websites and lefty publications such as Mother Jones and The Village Voice. So extreme is Turse's anti-Americanism that he even praised the Columbine shooters. To him, they were idealistic anti-establishment figures; kids who challenged the "educational system" in the spirit of the 1960s' radicals. Hiring him to research and write a piece on Vietnam War atrocities was comparable to hiring a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan to pen a major news article on affirmative action and race relations.
Indeed, for a major newspaper to hire a freelancer to research and write a controversial showcase story is highly unusual if not unprecedented. One wonders how Turse pulled it off: whether he made a good impression on some like-minded Times editors, or whether he parlayed his supposed expertise on Vietnam War atrocities into a prestigious freelance gig. Perhaps it was a little of both.
Turse found the old atrocity stories among files in a “once-secret archive,” while researching his doctoral dissertation at the National Archives in College Park, Md., “The War Crimes Files” related. Collected by a Pentagon task force in the early 1970s, the materials “confirmed atrocities by U.S. forces in Vietnam were more extensive than was previously known,” said the story. Atrocities were not limited to “rogue units” but “were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam.”
Given the U.S. military’s situation in Iraq, these allegations are obviously troubling and politically sensitive. This raises the question of why the Times trusted a freelancer like Turse to take the lead in writing and researching such an important story. He apparently had never written any major news article for the Times or other large mainstream newspapers, according to a Factiva news search.
Who Is Nick Turse?
Lots of newspapers use freelancers, to be sure. But untested freelancers seldom if ever play prominent roles on major stories, with the notable exception of foreign freelancers and stringers – especially all those “local hires” in Iraq who are dying in large numbers.
In light of the disturbing allegations in “The War Crimes Files,” an important question arises: Who is Nick Turse?
It takes only a little Internet sleuthing and Googling to learn of his ties to radical leftist causes and publications, ties that Times editors surely knew about. Knowing about this background explains much about Turse's apparent obsession with atrocity stories – just so long, to be sure, as it's U.S. troops committing atrocities and not North Vietnamese troops and the Viet Cong. Their terror tactics were widespread, part of official strategy and policy. It's almost certain they killed far more civilians than U.S. forces. The Democracy Project website pointed this out by citing detailed statistics, and it raised questions of its own about Turse and the Times' tendency to focus mainly on U.S. misdeeds.
Ultimately, however, messy details about the enemy's terror tactics are unlikely to trouble Turse, a dedicated leftist in the spirit of the 1960’s radicals he admires. Like so many in today’s left, Turse’s blame-America-first philosophy undoubtedly leaves him unable to put historical events into the proper focus as he portrays American troops as savages. In another era, most newspaper editors would have looked at Turse as problematic, but not today. His seamless move to the Times from radical web sites and lefty magazines says much about mainstream journalism today – and about newspaper editors who, having come of age in the 1960s, now control the levers of power.
"Kill Anything That Moves"
Like many people with such political views, Turse, ironically, appears to live a comfortable and privileged life. As a PhD student at Columbia University’s Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health, the title of Turse’s dissertation in 2005 was appropriate: "Kill Anything That Moves: U.S. War Crimes and Atrocities in Vietnam, 1965-1973."
Interestingly, the Times' biography of Turse mentioned only that he uncovered details of Vietnam atrocities “while researching his doctoral dissertation." No mention was made of his dissertation’s title, which presumably defined his focus: atrocities committed only by American troops.
Nor did the editor’s note mention two intriguing aspects of Turse's dissertation. One is its obviously false claim that U.S. troops committed atrocities during the entire war as a matter of military “doctrine” – what Turse called a “Doctrine of Atrocity.” Moreover, Turse claimed this atrocity-producing doctrine "was part of a long legacy of the U.S. military's conduct during wars against racial Others over the prior 100 years."
Ultimately, the abstract for “Kill Anything That Moves” reads like it was lifted from any of the angry books and articles of the Vietnam War years, notwithstanding, of course, its obligatory reference to Columbia's late Edward Said and his controversial book “Orientialism,” (1978).
No matter how bad Vietnam was, Iraq is not Vietnam in spite of how much Turse, his fellow travelers, and Times editors want it to be. The pathologies that existed in that war, during some time periods and in some places, are in fact not evident in Iraq among professional and well-trained military forces.
A list of Turse’s academic interests and accomplishments may be seen here. However, he appears to lack credentials in Vietnam studies, observed Democracy Project. The same may be said of his dissertation advisor, Amy L. Fairchild.
When Turse was not immersed in archives derived from investigations undertaken by the military and nation he despises, he spent some of his time at anti-war demonstrations. At New York’s 2004 Republican National Convention, he writes of being “illegally arrested” and hauled to a detention center dubbed “Guantanamo on the Hudson.”
However, Turse appears to have spent most of his time outside of academia working as a freelance journalist, a trade he continues to practice. Don't look for any of his work in mainstream publications, however. His only mainstream news piece, according to a Factiva search, was his recent atrocity story in the Times. On the other hand, Turse’s byline regularly pops up on various leftist and antiwar websites and publications. On some of them, his biography describes his journalistic expertise as the “military-corporate complex, the homeland security state, and various other topics.”
Praised Columbine Shooters
And what might be those “various other topics”? In a truly bizarre article about the massacre at Columbine High School, Turse idealized troubled teenage shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, portraying them as modern-day radicals. No matter that seven years ago, they murdered 12 fellow students, a teacher, and wounded 24 others – before committing suicide.
Americans were horrified, but not Turse. He argued that the teenagers had “good reason” for “fighting the American educational system and, by extension, the so-called American way of life.” His article, "New Morning, Changing Weather: Radical Youth of the Millennial Age,” was published in the winter 2000 issue of the online academic journal 49th Parallel.
“Approve or disapprove of their methods, vilify them as miscreants, but don’t dare disregard these modern radicals as anything less than the latest incarnation of disaffected insurgents waging the ongoing American Revolution.”
“I propose that kids killing kids may be the radical protest of our age, and that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold may be the Mark Rudd and Abbie Hoffman figures of today.”
Turse concluded that “the struggle in which these boys are engaged may be as fundamentally important as ending the war in Vietnam (or imperialism, or racism, etc.) was to the hippies, Yippies, Diggers, and Panthers of the bygone era.”
Given the foregoing, it’s easy to see why Turse is so intent on rehashing every brutish incident that occurred in the Vietnam War and digging up and publicizing new ones – an endeavor, to be sure, that he’s been able to undertake thanks to the U.S. military’s own investigations. It’s the same military, ironically, that Turse despises.
It’s hard to know what to make of Turse, a young man with some odd contradictions. He’s upset at 40-year-old reports of atrocities allegedly committed by U.S. troops, yet he seems positively gleeful over the Columbine massacre.
Gaining a better understanding of the Vietnam War is clearly important. However, it seems unlikely Turse has the intellectual flexibility and openness to balance the war’s moral complexities and put the role of the U.S. military in an appropriate context. He sees what he wants to see. One wonders how he interpreted archival materials on alleged U.S. atrocities; perhaps co-author Nelson provided some balance.
L.A. Times: Help Wanted
All of which leads to another question: How did Turse convince editors at the Times to hire him as a freelancer? Did he find a kindred spirit in the newsroom, a true believer who shared his political views? Or perhaps he was hired based on the strength of his writing portfolio?
To land a freelance gig or staff position at a newspaper – any newspaper – applicants normally must impress an editor that they can write well, accurately, and in a balanced and intellectually honest fashion. (Well, OK, maybe the last two criteria no longer apply as much, but let’s say they still do for the sake of argument.)
Which one of Turse’s articles might have impressed the Times' editors?Perhaps it was one he wrote for the website “Unknown News”: "Marine Atrocities in Iraq War Provide Link to Brutal Past.”
Wrote Turse: “Atrocities are...a long-held Marine Corps tradition, as evidenced by the commission of atrocities by U.S. Marines during the Philippines Insurrection, the “Banana War” interventions in Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in the Pacific theater during World War II and in later conflicts.”
Or maybe Times editors liked an article he co-authored at TomDispatch.com that compared war-ravaged Iraq to Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, claiming that both are “morphing into a single entity.” They will be “devoured by the same limited set of corporations, let loose and overseen by the same small set of Bush administration officials” asserted the article: "Corporations of the Whirlwind; The Reconstruction of New Oraq.”
“In George Bush's new world of globalization, first comes the destruction and only then does one sit down at the planetary table to sup.”
In another article Turse accused the U.S. military of brainwashing children by carrying out a “a full-scale occupation of the entertainment industry.”
“Through toys, especially videogames, the military and its partners in academia and the entertainment industry have not only blurred the line between entertainment and war, but created a media culture thoroughly capable of preparing America's children for armed conflict,” Turse wrote in "Bringing the War Home: “The New Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex at War and Play,” published by TomDispatch.com in October, 2003.
Perhaps Turse had some sort of inside track to a Times editor, a possibility given some of the folks who invariably are found at the Times and other major news outlets. One example is Mary Beth Sheridan, a former Times reporter who now writes for The Washington Post.
Last year, Sheridan told a “first-amendment breakfast” at Columbia University that, as a result of being an imbedded reporter in Iraq, she realized U.S. troops were in fact “not blood-thirsty maniacs.” They were “really decent people” and even “sweet,” she said. On the other hand, a senior reporter at the Times, who also has visited Iraq, told me in a private conversation that U.S. soldiers were essentially jocks and "killers."
Perhaps Times editors were impressed that Turse was quoted as an expert on Vietnam War-era atrocities in a New York Times article in December, 2003. "Report on Brutal Vietnam Campaign Stirs Memories.” The article dealt with an investigative series by The Toledo Blade on alleged Vietnam War atrocities. Written in the run-up to the war in Iraq, it provided no new and significant insights about the Vietnam War, yet it won a Pulitzer Prize.
Perhaps one of Turse's writing awards impressed Times editors. In February, 2004, he won the "Stakhanovite of the Month" prize from "The Voice of the Turtle,” an online journal of leftist politics and culture.
“Comrade Turse,” as the journal called him, was cited for his poetry and other writings.
Having published his Times story on Vietnam War atrocities, Turse has joined the ranks of big-time mainstream journalism. He’ll undoubtedly get another “Stakhanovite” award. His editors at the Times deserve one too. Turse couldn’t have done it without them.
Author's note: “Who is Nick Turse?” was originally published at ModernConservative. This post has a few additional paragraphs dealing with Turse’s PhD dissertation. The Free Republic website provides a rough-and-tumble discussion of the ModCon article. Also, for additional analysis of "The War Crimes Files" see Wintersoldier.com. For incisive media criticism of this and other issues, visit Antimedia.