On the morning of May 16, 1968, a group of soldiers from Charlie Company, a unit of the 11th Infantry Brigade, entered the Vietnamese village of My Lai. They were conducting a “search and destroy” mission, intended to root out the Viet Cong and any enemy sympathizers. The My Lai massacre was a wake up call to average Americans about the savagery that was being carried out in their names, during the Vietnam War. Up to that point, despite the widespread protests, mainly carried out on college campuses, most Americans were immune to the nightly body counts displayed on their black and white television screens.
With My Lai, Americans got to see what war does to young men, when they are ripped from their civilian lives of friends, family and work, and are thrust into the killing zone. In the course of about three hours, over 500 innocent civilians, many who had bowed to the soldiers as they entered the village, were murdered in cold blood, killed by American soldiers sent to destroy the Communist threat. During those three hours of carnage, women were gang raped, babies were murdered by soldiers crushing their skulls with rifle butts, and victims were mutilated by having a “C” (for Charlie Company) carved into their chests with bayonet points.
War is hell, or so it is said. Part of its hellishness is the way it takes ordinary people and turns them into animals—basic killing machines—existing simply to kill, or be killed. War, in order for it to be waged properly, requires a psychological metamorphosis. Ordinary mechanisms which prevent sadistic acts, such as torture, must be overridden. One of the ways that this is done is during the basic training of our troops, they are psychologically manipulated, in order to make them “lean, mean, killing machines.” And then we shake our heads when incidents like this occur.
The atrocities of My Lai were covered up for almost a year, before news began leaking out about what had occurred. A combination of loose talk and one conscientious GI, named Ron Ridenhour, who had ambitions of becoming a journalist, provided a conduit for the allegations to eventually reach the corridors of power, in Washington. Ridenhour was having a beer with fellow soldiers, when a member of Charlie Company began boasting about his exploits in My Lai. Ridenhour, horrified that something like this could have been carried out by fellow soldiers, set the information down and sought to substantiate the stories that he heard in the bar. Once back in the states, he sent his story to the top 30 names in charge of the military, where they eventually reached General William Westmoreland, who oversaw the overall operation in Vietnam. Consequently, an investigation into the charges was launched.
Finally, in late 1969, over a year after My Lai occurred, investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, revealed the grisly details to the American public. Hersh’s story indicated a coordinated cover up was conducted by those in charge in Vietnam. While there was enough evidence to convict 30 soldiers for their roles in the atrocities committed in the name of freedom and liberty, only one soldier was convicted—Lt. William Calley—the commanding officer in the operation.
Calley, originally sentenced to life in prison, with hard labor, found himself released after three days, pending instructions of President Richard Nixon. Calley was held under house arrest, at Fort Benning, Georgia. He later was freed on bail, and in 1974, had his sentence reduced to ten years and was later paroled, after serving but one third of the reduction. Meanwhile, the lives of the villagers had been shattered, never to return to the normalcy that they had known before the Americans had invaded their rural community and simple way of life.
In many ways, the revelations that accompanied My Lai were a catalyst in changing America's view of Vietnam and became a tipping point in the loss of support for the war. After this, popular support for the anti-war movement eventually led to Nixon ordering troop reductions and an eventual withdrawal of all American troops from the killing zones.
Despite Nazi-like atrocities conducted by American soldiers, wrapped in the red, white, and blue of American patriotism, we continue to support the masters of war. Allowing ourselves to be duped again, to fight against a menace that few can articulately define, the war on terror, much like the war against Communism, continues to reveal the depths that we’ll allow our young men to be taken to. Manipulated, psychologically scarred and often, permanently damaged by acts of cruelty that many of us will never know the full details of. First we hear news reports about torture by U.S. troops, of Iraqi prisoners. Then, we have the killing of Iraqi civilians in Haditha, these reports are but the tip of an ugly iceberg. The incident in Haditha indicates there may have been a My Lai-style cover-up. Initial reports of the deaths were given as caused by bombings, but death certificates show that the victims died from gunshot wounds to the head.
Apparently, U.S. Marines (our elite killers), shot and killed two dozen Iraqis, including children, and a man in a wheelchair, last November. Only now are we hearing reports about it. President Bush was quoted as saying, “I am troubled by the initial news stories. I am mindful that there is a thorough investigation going on. If, in fact, the… you know, the laws were broken there'll be punishment.” We’ll have to wait and see just how thorough the investigation of this is and just what the president ultimately does about the killing of innocents, in the name of freedom.
I think Dylan had it right back in 1963, when he penned his classic, “Masters of War”, as nothing good has ever come from war, yet we insist on sending our young men (and now, our young women) off to be permanently ruined for the greed and glory of old men, too old, or too cowardly, to do the dirty work themselves.