“He fired at it with a .45. He missed. We all laughed. He got up three or four feet closer and missed again. We laughed. Then he got up right on top and plugged him.”
– My Lai soldier who described using a baby for target practice during the massacre. From the Peers Inquiry released March 17, 1970 two years after villagers were massacred. (named after Lt. Gen. William R. Peers who led the investigation of My Lai for the US Army.)
Thirty nine years ago today, March 16, 1968 the My Lai massacre occurred in Central Viet Nam’s Quang Ngai Province. Hundreds of villagers, women, children and old people were killed. Two months earlier the National Liberation Front carried out extensive attacks in the province during the Tet offensive. My Lai and surrounding areas were thought to be harboring suspected elements of these NLF Tet attackers and US Forces led by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division was tasked to eliminate the suspects at My Lai.
When I visited Iraq in 2003 and 2004 to spend time with the Christian Peacemaker Teams I had hoped to find a new US military force that had instituted a system of discipline and intelligence that would never again permit the kind of ravages I had seen in the 1960s in Viet Nam. In 1963 fresh from seminary study I had chosen to be placed in Viet Nam as a education and development worker. During that same time US Forces grew from 25,000 in 1963 to more than 500,000 in 1967. My heart was stretched in those years as Vietnamese colleagues told me of the increasing destruction from foreign forces. When I left in September 1967 after resigning my civilian post I did so in order to speak out more crisply about the effects of the war on Vietnamese, on American soldiers, and on me.
I was on a North American speaking tour in late 1968 describing the victimization of Vietnamese civilians by combat troops when I heard about the My Lai massacre from colleages in Washington. At that point I did not expect public reporting of the My Lai massacre to become a pivotal event in the war because I knew events like this happened regularly without disciplined military review. My co-workers and I had listened to stories with some of the same wrenching death scenarios like My Lai but we had little success in getting those stories into the media or investigated and justice done.
On the eve of the My Lai attack the U.S. military command advised Charlie Company that any genuine civilians at My Lai would have left their homes to go to market by 7 a.m. the following day. They failed to explain why a whole village would go to the market, an unheard of occurrence, one of several failures in the day’s intelligence preparation. According to the record Charlie Company was ordered to destroy the village and they were told to assume that all who remained behind were either Viet Cong or active enemy sympathizers.
The soldiers found no insurgents in the villages. Nevertheless, a platoon led by Lt. William Calley killed civilians including dozens who were herded into a ditch and executed. A Vietnamese memorial at the village today lists 504 victims with ages ranging from one to eighty-two years.
Two weeks after the My Lai attack, the army investigated and concluded that 22 civilians were killed, but described the encounter as a military victory where 128 insurgents were eliminated. Six months later, a 21 year old soldier named Tom Glen wrote a letter accusing the entire Americal Division of brutality against Vietnamese civilians. The letter detailed horrible killings at My Lai, and its allegations were reenforced by complaints received from other soldiers.
A young Army Major, Colin Powell who had joined the unit after the My Lai massacre was charged with the responsibility of investigating the My Lai incident and providing a response to the Tom Glen letter. Powell wrote, “In direct refutation of this portrayal (of the horrible killings ed.) is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” Later the army reports were termed “white washing” the incident. On May 4 2004, thirty-six years later Powell, by then United States Secretary of State, said to Larry King, “I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”
News of the massacre slept for 20 months covered up in military process, until November 12, 1969 when the story broke in the Detroit Free Press and the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Within a week it had become front page around the world and led to public outrage and eventually to formal court martial processes. Two weeks after the story came out the Peers Inquiry was commissioned by the US Army. In 1971, three years after the massacre, Lt. William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder. President Nixon ordered Calley released from prison pending his appeal. Charges directed at all other soldiers were dropped.
The My Lai Massacre activated a pivotal shift in attitude towards the war in the general public as other horrific stories from the front filtered back into communities and families often from soldiers who felt newly empowered to tell the truth of their experiences. Concurrent with this was the gathering strength of the peace movement among civilians and within the military.
The hard experiential lessons in Viet Nam slowly shifted my perspective and gave me confidence to see through social blinders and government press releases. For example, from the international media I learned of Viet Cong terrorism often disproportionally inflated from my own on the ground experience. It did not occur to me then to call the massacres or the civilian deaths due to American bombing raids, terrorism.
When I learned of these events either by entering villages after the fact or by reports from Vietnamese colleagues, I doubted my own ears and eyes because the culture I came from did not have words or emotional depth to contain this horror. At first I tried to assess the facts and pass them along to military commanders or US Civilian authorities hoping they would investigate. My colleagues and I, civilian teachers, refugee workers and agriculturists were sometimes encouraged to mind our own business.
Over time I learned to tantalize sympathetic reporters with these stories. By 1967 some of my coworkers had begun work with media offices in Saigon and made use of their knowledge of the country and the language to deepen the quality of the reporting. As they worked on the stories like My Lai they learned that even good reliable facts on tragic events would be ignored unless there was overwhelming public pressure as finally occurred in the My Lai incident.
At first it was discouraging. Exposing the massacre at My Lai had been worked on for months with nothing to show for it. Finally an independent reporter, Seymour Hersh wrote the story. But it would have languished in the scrap heap of file folders without creative marketing first to regional papers and then to the world wide press. The hard lesson that we had to learn was that we could trust our eyes and ears and we should persist in careful truthful documentation unencumbered by fits of exaggeration and rumor so rife in the culture of war and antiwar of the time. To be “deplored” as Colin Powell calls it now, the simple truthful story itself was more powerful than all the superlatives that were available.
It is also important to remember that the story of My Lai is the story of soldiers who were as outraged as peace people were with what they had seen or heard. But they had less of a support structure for speaking the truth. During the My Lai attack, the massacre was halted when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., a 24-year-old helicopter pilot, landed his aircraft and confronted officers about attacks on wounded Vietnamese civilians while the massacre was unfolding. He threatened to have his two door gunners open fire on American servicemen with his ship’s machine guns if the attacks continued. He also provided helicopters to evacuate twelve wounded Vietnamese civilians. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson seized an immediate opportunity to act on his outrage. Most military people in Viet Nam and now in Iraq will carry the wounds of unresolved moral contradiction in secret. Those secrets are part of a permanent massacre.
Remembering My Lai helps us to flash forward to Iraq where the mechanism of control of the press, Iraqi eyes and ears, and international listeners is far more confined than was the case in Viet Nam, by policies of embedding, and the voluntary and involuntary exodus of human rights workers, and NGOs. However the eyes and ears of Iraqis and foreign or local soldiers remain. It was soldier’s video that exposed the Abu Ghraib torture. However what also remains is the time tested instincts of armies and governments to hide or “white wash” massacres.
Right now Iraq is entering a particularly delicate and dangerous period. The White House has determined to push on, despite lagging support. Though they are supposed to be professional watchers, the press remain largely confined in the walled off Green Zone or embedded with the military (read “in bed with”). The combination of spotty intelligence and urgency arising from declining political support gives large discretionary space to commanders, enough room to invite the ghosts of My Lai and Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld to cohabit in the battlefield. These are moments of urgency for the rest of us as well, to find ways to break through the Green Wall of silence in the desert where “deplorable” stories are waiting to be heard.
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