Yesterday, March 19, 2008 saw the fifth anniversary of the tragic invasion of Iraq by the US, a deliberate act of aggression against a country that had posed no threat whatsoever to it, an action that is going to have serious negative consequences for US power an influence in the world, both militarily and economically. Historians looking back might see that as a watershed event, a peak in the power hubris of a country. Apart from the appalling death and destruction that has been wreaked on the people of Iraq, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and injured and vast numbers of internal and external refugees, the invasion of Iraq has also brought to the surface the decline of US economic power.
But three days earlier saw the 40th anniversary of another military action, the massacre that took place on March 16, 1968 in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. I have described before the details of this awful event when the soldiers of Charlie Company led by Lt. William Calley went into that doomed village, rounded up over three hundred and fifty civilians, old men and women and children, herded them into ditches and sprayed them with machine gun fire. There were no Vietnamese men of fighting age present and no reports of the US troops being fired upon before they unleashed their barrage.
A US helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson came across the scene while the massacre was in its final stages and at great risk to himself and his two man crew put down his helicopter between the soldiers and the victims and said that he would shoot the US troops if they killed any more civilians. He then rescued the few remaining survivors of the carnage and flew them away. Although he reported the incident to his superiors, no action was taken. An ambitious young army officer named Colin Powell was one of those who persuaded his superiors that nothing had happened that was worth investigating.
Some time later, another military veteran Ron Ridenour heard about the event from a soldier in Charlie Company and was horrified by the story. He started telling the Congress, the White House and the Pentagon, anyone who would listen, urging that action be taken. Finally, in September 1989, William Calley was charged with the crime, but there was no publicity at all.
The My Lai massacre exploded into public consciousness in November of that year when a young investigative reporter named Seymour Hersh heard of this story, dug around until he got the facts, and broke the story. In this fascinating interview on the radio program On the Media Hersh describes how he tracked Calley down.
(You can hear a longer unedited interview and read the transcript here.)
Calley was convicted of the murder of 22 civilians but President Nixon ordered that he be released pending his appeal, and eventually commuted his sentence to time already served. So in the end, Calley served just three and a half years of house arrest for this appalling crime. This is of course consistent with the general policy that ‘our’ people are deserving of every excuse for committing any atrocity while the life of the ‘enemy’ is worth next to nothing. As General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam said “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” So what if some Vietnamese here or there are murdered?
We see that same disregard for Iraqi lives now that we saw then for Vietnamese lives. The US military refuses to count the number of Iraqis killed by them, let alone the number that have died from all the other acts of violence since the war began. This has been left to independent investigators who put the number of Iraqi dead at around one million.
Calley’s defense was that he was just following orders and there is some evidence that there had been a deliberate policy by the US military to indiscriminately kill everyone who lived in areas that were supposedly controlled by the enemy. In a recent article Gareth Porter looks at an internal report done by General William Peers in late 1969 as a result of the My Lai outcry. The report found that “the troops who entered My Lai and three other hamlets of the village of Son My had been led to believe that everyone in the village should be killed. Testimony before the Peers inquiry also showed that the platoon leaders involved in the operation had been given that same message by two company commanders.”
But no one high up in the chain of command was ever prosecuted for those murders. In fact, the events at My Lai were far from unique. The infamous Tiger Force squads had orders to kill every one they found in certain areas, regardless of whether they were civilians or not.
As recounted by members of the Tiger Force who were present, and reported by Pulitzer Prize-winning Toledo Blade journalists Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss, Westmoreland told them, “[I]f there are people who are out there – and not in the camps – they’re pink as far as we’re concerned. They’re Communist sympathizers. They were not supposed to be there.”
That message gave the Tiger Force officers the idea that they were authorized to kill anyone who chose to remain in Viet Cong base areas. Sallah and Weiss found that Tiger Force had carried out no fewer than 19 killing sprees against civilians in “specified strike zones.” The unit commanders justified the wanton murder of civilians to Army investigators by explaining that the creation of a free fire zone gave U.S. troops the right to “kill anything that moved.”
Another article goes into more detail:
From February to September 1967, the US Army’s “Tiger Force” commando unit murdered hundreds of civilians, mainly in Quang Ngai province, according to research compiled by Army investigators in the 1970s, and verified by reporters Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss in 2003.
No memorial commemorates the victims of Tiger Force, and the massacres the unit committed do not figure in Vietnamese history texts.
In 2006, Nicholas Turse, then a graduate student at Columbia University, found that declassified documents showed US military investigators had verified 320 reports of atrocities committed by US troops in Vietnam, not including the massacres at My Lai. Investigators had failed to corroborate some 500 other reports.
The reports which turned out to be true included massacres of dozens of civilians in Quang Nam province in late 1967 by B Company of the Army’s 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division.
Some soldiers returning from Vietnam were so traumatized by what they had done and seen done that in 1971 that they organized the Winter Soldiers hearings, where they gave their personal testimonies. It is now available as a documentary with that same name. I have seen it and the stories they tell are sad and horrifying.
The soldiers recounted story after story of the appalling things that were committed routinely by the soldiers on the Vietnamese. And the brutality was indiscriminate, against old and young and infants, men and women, combatants and civilians. People were pushed out of helicopters, they were raped, they were tortured and killed in cold blood, in ways that sicken you. Entire villages were routinely and systematically destroyed. One person testified that while their truck passed a group of five little children, one child gave made a rude gesture at them. The truck slowed and the soldiers killed all the children in a volley of fire.
The soldiers spoke of a brutal culture that pervaded the entire military. Their superior officers deliberately kept vague as to what the soldiers could and could not do but did not reprimand anyone for anything, even if they witnessed these atrocities. As a result, each soldier soon developed the attitude that all Vietnamese were fair game, that anything could be done to them and there would not be any consequences. And they knew that their superiors knew and approved and even carried out these acts.
The events at My Lai, far from being an aberration by “a few bad apples” (the standard reaction by the Pentagon and official Washington to such revelations) were, in the words of the soldiers, SOP (standard operating procedure).
The media in 1971 pretty much ignored the explosive revelations at the Winter Soldier hearings, deciding that the people did not need to hear about the awful things done in their name by their own soldiers in a war prosecuted by their own government. And history is repeating itself. Right now there is another set of hearings going on, again under name of Winter Soldiers, with soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan recounting the awful things that they did. And once again, the major media is ignoring them. But you can find it on alternative news sites like Democracy Now and The Real News Network.
This is what war does. Even perfectly ordinary young people, given a lethal weapon and thrust into the middle of a hostile population whom they do not know and whose language they do not speak, frightened that any person they meet might want to kill them, can easily end up becoming either killers or the abettors of killers. And those who like Calley had psychopathic tendencies to begin with can become monsters.
Seymour Hersh describes what the mother of one of the soldiers who took part in the My Lai massacre told him when he went to interview her son.
“I gave them a good boy and they sent me back a murderer.”
This is what war does to people.
POST SCRIPT: Iraq retrospective