US shame still stings 40 years after My Lai massacre

By Frank Brandmaier, DPA

Washington : The soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 11th US Army Brigade, arrived in the morning. Their mission was clear.

Support TwoCircles

“The orders were to shoot anything that moved,” one US army officer told journalist Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist who broke the story in 1969.

As the brigade pulled out three hours later on that fateful day, March 16, 1968, the village of My Lai in south Vietnam’s highlands was levelled. Not a living thing stirred. Blood-soaked bodies covered the ground – women, children, old men, dogs. Smoke from burning huts could be seen from afar. The bodies of young women bore evidence of sexual violation.

The number of dead ranged from 347 to 504, victims of a Charlie Company gone amok in blood lust. Not one shot had been fired at the infantry.

It would be another year and a half before the American public learned the truth – after a cover-up by the US Army.By that time, in November 1969, resistance and protests against the war were strong. The revelations about My Lai unleashed more outrage across the US and world.

For an entire generation of Americans, Europeans and Asians, My Lai stood for the image of the ugly American.

“That America and the Americans must stand in a larger dock of guilt and conscience for what happened at My Lai seems inescapable,” wrote the news weekly Time as the accounts unfolded.

In autumn 1969, millions demonstrated coast to coast, including 250,000 in Washington DC, in the largest anti-war protest in US history. But it would be another six years, in April 1975, before Americans finally fled Saigon in panic, boarding helicopters landing on rooftops.

The superpower lay in defeat, humiliated, outfought in a guerrilla war on the Cold War front by an enemy who commandeered little technology – with the exception of Soviet fighter jets.

During 10 years of war, the lopsided death toll was 58,000 Americans versus two to four million Vietnamese.

Looking back, one of the chief architects and defenders of the war, Robert McNamara, US defence secretary from 1961 to 1968, expressed sadness but not regret for the war in the 2003 documentary Fog of War.

In an interview with CNN, he called the 20th century the “bloodiest century in all of human history” with 160 million dead in conflicts.

“Is that what we want in the 21st century?” McNamara asked. “If we want to avoid it, we have to learn from our mistakes in this century. Vietnam was one of those.”

The deep psychological wounds of Vietnam are still raw. The war and US failure imprints the collective American psyche. Dozens of films, hundreds of books continue to plough the ground.

Every US military engagement abroad is accompanied by the warning, “No more Vietnam!” Just last year, Senator Edward Kennedy called Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam.”

In the first Gulf War in 1990, it was widely reported that American commanders sent their soldiers into battle with the orders, “No My Lais – you hear?”

But in the second Iraq war, the worst fears have come to pass, with images of humiliation by US soldiers of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the stories of the massacre in Haditha, the allegations of torture of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo.

The rights organisation Human Rights Watch speaks of “My Lai in Iraq”.

“The shame of Haditha” would further erode the image of US military forces, Time magazine warned about the Nov 19, 2005, massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians shot and killed at close range by US marines in retaliation for the death of a marine lance corporal in a roadside bombing.

As Iraq sank further into chaos and the number of US dead from insurgent and terrorist attacks began to climb, the comparisons with Vietnam were unavoidable – even if the war, where nearly 4,000 US soldiers have died in five years, is a different war in many ways from 40 years earlier in South-East Asia.

This time around soldiers are being held accountable for their actions. Only one officer was convicted for the murder of 22 My Lai civilians – Lieutenant William Calley, who served three and a half years in jail.

In the Haditha case, three officers were reprimanded for faulty response while Staff Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich faces charges of unpremeditated murder of 18 civilians.

Last summer, historians were outraged by US President George W. Bush’s comparison of Vietnam to Iraq. Bush likened the dangers of withdrawing from Iraq to the “killing fields” that followed the US withdrawal from Vietnam.

The 2008 release of Pinkville, a new film about My Lai by director Oliver Stone – Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) – will no doubt bring up more comparisons to current US military actions.