On March 16, 1968, U.S. soldiers operating in the Son Tinh district of Quang Nai province in South Vietnam went on a “search and destroy” mission, supposedly for elusive Viet Cong guerrillas who had been killing and maiming them.
They found and killed women, children and old men – up to 500 of them, by some counts.
The slaughter became known as the My Lai massacre.
According to the AP story in the NYT*, a prayer service was held on Saturday:
* Neither the NYT or the Washington Post deigned to have a staff-written story about the anniversary. Weird.
Among those coming to pray was Ha Thi Quy, 83, a My Lai survivor who suffers from anger and depression four decades after the slaughter. Soldiers from the Army’s Charlie Company shot her in the leg and killed her mother, her 16-year-old daughter and her 6-year-old son.
Her husband later died of injuries from the massacre and another son had to have an arm and a leg amputated after suffering gunshot wounds that day.
Quy only survived because she was shielded beneath a pile of dead bodies.
”The American government should stop waging wars like they waged in Vietnam,” Quy said. ”My children were innocent, but those American soldiers killed them.”
Seymour Hersh, the legendary American investigative reporter, broke the story about the massacre. He recalled chasing it down in this March 14 interview with NPR’s On The Media. Here’s more from the AP story:
Seymour Hersh, the journalist who exposed the massacre, said he sees parallels between My Lai and a more recent story that he has he reported on, the 2005 images of torture from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But he says the public furor unleashed by My Lai was far greater.
”It’s stunning how much impact My Lai had and how little impact Abu Ghraib had,” Hersh said by telephone from Washington. ”We’ll have to leave it to historians to figure out why.”
The fall guy for My Lai was Lt. William Calley, but the blame should have probably filtered higher. Here are some excerpts from a BBC story:
Media attention on Lt Calley’s trial was extensive and the glare of publicity so bright it hid the wider, more awful truth.
Before that trial got under way, the United States army had, behind closed doors, completed an investigation of its own into the events at My Lai, and specifically into the possibility that those in authority had deliberately covered up a massacre.
Convened on 1 December 1969 in the basement of the Pentagon, The Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations into The My Lai Incident, known in abbreviated form as The Peers Inquiry, was chaired by Lt Gen William ‘Ray’ Peers.
In just 14 weeks, the Peers Inquiry conducted a comprehensive and wide-ranging investigation into the events of 16 March.
More than 400 witnesses were interviewed, and their testimony was tape-recorded.
When the inquiry concluded on 15 March 1970, those recordings were boxed-up, stored and forgotten. …
Some of the interviewees’ statements reveal the mentality of the soldiers involved in the massacre.
“I would say that most people in our company didn’t consider the Vietnamese human… A guy would just grab one of the girls there and in one or two incidents they shot the girls when they got done,” said Dennis Bunning.
“That day it was just a massacre. Just plain right out, wiping out people,” said Leonard Gonzales.
The wider, more awful truth that Gen Peers uncovered, was that this was an illegal operation, planned and co-ordinated at Task Force level by Lt Col Frank Barker.
It wiped out not one but three villages: My Lai, Binh Tay and My Khe.
And not one, but two companies were involved: Bravo and Charlie.
Both of these companies were given the same briefing by their respective commanding officers, permitting them “to kill everything and anything.”
The army’s own investigation found 30 officers had been negligent. Fourteen were charged, but only Calley was convicted.
Ed Ruggeiro, a military historian and former soldier, wrote the following in a March 14 Los Angeles Times commentary headlined No Simple War:
What are we to make of this dark anniversary?
One often hears the old saw about those who don’t remember history being condemned to relive it. But, collectively at least, we don’t forget history. Instead, we often simplify, turning our most complex problems into a stark choice. Take the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. Although more and more people now see Iraq, at least, as a lost cause of our own making, there are still those who reduce it to only two options: You are either a patriot or a scoundrel, a supporter of the troops or a danger to the republic.
Yet a full accounting of what happened at Pinkville shows there were heroes among the villains. Some GI’s committed murder at My Lai, but others refused to follow what were clearly illegal orders. Hugh Thompson Jr., a Georgia-born helicopter pilot, landed amid the carnage that day and snatched a handful of civilians from certain death. He was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for bravery, but not until 1998; and Pentagon bureaucrats, still afraid of publicity, tried to hand him the medal in a private meeting, with no media present. Thompson, displaying the same moral courage he showed in 1968, demanded a public ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
So if we can find some good even in the worst of war, such as in My Lai, that should put the lie to thinking of war in simplistic, black-and-white terms. This March 16 we should remember that we can still “lose” wars by forgetting that we aren’t always the good guys. We lose them when we can’t muster the courage to confront our own worst selves. We lose them when we stick our veterans into simple categories: well-adjusted or crazy. We lose wars when we sanitize them; when we create myths that lack the obscenity and evil of the real thing.
And when we “lose” a war this way, it makes it easier to start the next one.
Finally, you may wish to glance at this post: The Prozac War in the Korengal Valley. My synopsis:
NYT Magazine contributing writer Elizabeth Rubin spent some time with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in the Korengal Valley, located in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. She found a place where — from my reading – a My Lai-like situation could be just one more ambush away.