Call me human. It turns out that I’m no better at predicting the future than the rest of humanity. If as a species we were any good at it, right now I would undoubtedly be zipping through the gloriously spired skies over my hometown, New York City, my jet pack strapped to my back, just as I was promised by those imagining the future in my youth. I’ve been an editor in the book business for almost four decades and I still wouldn’t put a buck at decent odds on my predictions about which books will make it. When it came to Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, whose focus is American war crimes in Vietnam, I spent years assuring its author, Nick Turse, that in the America we both knew, the odds were it would promptly fall into the abyss where unnoticed books go to die. Mind you, I never had a second’s doubt that it would be a great book — but a great, ignored book was my best guess. Of course, as most readers of TomDispatch know, it hit the New York Times bestseller list.
It was published in January 2013 and it’s fair to say that my predictive inadequacies have been brought home to me in the most literal way every single day since. I’ve never had an experience like it. Because Nick is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and, as today, often publishes his work at this site, it’s natural that people would often write him about his book care of TomDispatch. Nonetheless, in the last year plus I doubt a single day has passed without at least one such email, and often a slew of them, arriving at the site. Thirteen months and still going.
Sometimes book editors work their whole lives on manuscripts they think the universe needs to read and never quite see how the books they’ve shepherded into existence settle into our world, how reading them touches, affects, changes lives. It’s been a rare honor to be a sideline witness to exactly that through those emails. My role since publication has fallen somewhere between messenger boy and peeping Tom. I always at least glance at them, since from the subject lines it’s seldom initially clear what they are, and I have to say that they have been eye-opening. Many come from Vietnam vets, who want to thank Nick for documenting their war, for confirming their own experiences or those of their buddies. Some want to tell him stories — horrors, really — they witnessed, experienced, or committed more than 40 years ago as exceedingly young men in “Nam” and have been living with ever since. Often, by their own accounts, until writing Nick they have been incapable of confiding in a soul, including their own wives and children. There were also letters from those children, letting Nick know that, thanks to his book, they finally understood what their silent, unnerved, disturbed dads had gone through in lives shadowed by, or even cut short by, the pain of memories that remained unbearable and acts, witnessed or committed, that were worse.
If I didn’t admit that these have been moving private accounts to read, I’d be a liar. I’ve never quite seen anything like them, nor while working on the book did it ever cross my mind that such a thing might happen. The new afterword to the just published paperback of Kill Anything That Moves focuses on the emails, letters, and encounters that followed publication of the hardcover. Nick writes: “I had spent years painstakingly tracking down witnesses, victims, and perpetrators. Now, people with stories to tell were finding me.”
In his book, Nick has created a one-man Grand Guignol of the real American war in Vietnam. Admittedly, it’s not the sort of thing that countries like to commemorate when they hand out medals, pump up their populaces, or “remember” their wars. A series of visits Nick paid to a website billed by the Pentagon as a 50th anniversary commemoration of Vietnam makes the point well. (And by the way, 1962, the year chosen for the beginning of that commemoration, ludicrously enough, was the anniversary of nothing, neither of the end of the war and a staggering defeat nor of its beginning and the sad path ahead.)