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My Lai Massacre in Vietnam Happened 40 Years Ago this WeekendTim King Salem-News.com
Did our society learn from this one? In spite of some problems, the number of similar events today is comparatively very low.
(SALEM, Ore.) - As the United States spends each waking day fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we find ourselves facing the 40th anniversary of our military's darkest moment; the massacre at a series of villages in Vietnam, generally remembered as My Lai.
A BBC special radio report that is available to listen to now, features an incredible historic find; excerpts from 48 hours of original recordings from the military investigation of the events at My Lai. They were tracked down through much effort, the Freedom of Information Act, and the relentless pursuit of Celina Dunlop, picture editor of the Economist. She is the first to bring the sound from those Army investigation tapes to the public.
Known as the "Peers Inquiry", the tapes were part of the panel's findings that included other damming evidence of the soldier's crimes.
Peers determined that the killings were part of a well thought out concerted plan, "not a free for all on behalf of the soldiers." Peers accused certain members of the military of an outright cover up. He also suspected the motivations of a certain colonel named Barker. The task force was called "Barker".
Though the findings of the Peers Inquiry appear to have been conclusive, they along with the audio tapes of witnesses, were put in a box and placed on a shelf. They would not see the light of day for decades and had no role in the exposure of the crimes that happened this day.
504 Vietnamese civilians were raped and killed that day, almost all were women and children and old people.
One former soldier interviewed by the BBC talked about a moment that is forever frozen in time; when soldiers attempted to remove the clothing of a teenage girl while her mother tried to protect her.
He said, "They grabbed this girl, behind this woman here. They started stripping her, and her mother was trying to protect her. The G.I.'s were pushing her around, someone kicked her in the ass, and then I heard gunshots ring out."
Needless to say, the woman and the girl and several other villagers standing near them were all killed.
The area was in a "free fire" zone which meant American soldiers could kill anything or anybody that moved. Soldiers in the war called it Pinkville. The area had a reputation for harboring VC and their sympathizers. By this point in the war, much of this part of Vietnam lay in ruin, but these villages were still relatively intact. Villagers who survived that day said the nearby China Sea was calm and shimmering early in the morning, and that they had no idea what was to come.
A woman interviewed on the tapes says the first time the Americans came through they brought candy for their children. The second time they passed through they brought supplies of fresh water. The third time they came to the village they killed everybody.
That day's program to eliminate all of the villagers on March 16th, 1968, began at 7:30 AM. A helicopter pilot interviewed by the BBC said he heard radio traffic after the first aircraft were in the area, "Did you receive fire?" one pilot asked. He recalled another voice that replied, "Negative reported fire from any of the slicks" (non wheeled helicopters). In other words, there was no hostile activity coming from My Lai that morning.
The notion that soldiers would be justified in "taking revenge" by raping and murdering women and children seems preposterous, but most conservative Americans rallied to the aid of Lt. Callie during his trial. Most never allowed themselves to fully comprehend what really happened at My Lai. They wouldn't "believe the worst", and that is exactly what it was.
The BBC program states that most of the soldiers under the command of Lt. William Callie that morning did not even have combat experience. But an American soldier who was there contradicts that in the BBC report, and says many of the soldiers had experienced many battles and hostile exchanges with the enemy, losing friends along the way.
One piece to the puzzle of My Lai is that the U.S. military had began allowing entrance to what are known as "Cat-4's" (short for Category-4 qualifiers on the military ASVAB test administered to all before joining the American military). Earlier in the war only categories 1-3 were allowed. A similar change was initiated for military entrants in the current war in Iraq.
This means that many of the people entering the military at this point in '68 were very low scorers on the basic aptitude test. Some were nearly illiterate, others were inner-urban minority kids who largely failed tests due to lack of participation in school. Many of those allowed in as "cat-4's" regardless of their economic, social or cultural background, had criminal records.
One soldier heard talking in 1968 named Bunning, discussed the severity of the sex abuse taking place there. He said his own life was threatened for trying to protect some of the young girls from the soldiers. "And when these guys started raping a girl, I mean one was 15, some were 13, one of them I think was 12."
According to official records, in one village alone, there were 18 confirmed rapes, including gang rapes. One woman among the handful of survivors, talked about her sister's rape which happened in the line of view from the place she was hiding.
"An American was pressing on top of her, she had no clothing on her, I didn't know what it meant at the time; my sister tried to resist, After he was done the American stood up and put his clothes on and he shot her."
Another soldier whose 1968 interview is included in the BBC program, Leonard Gonzales, said "That day was a massacre, just plain old wiping out people."
"We figured that the Viet Cong were there with their supporters. When we were sweeping out the area, we did not find anything but civilian people."
Several soldiers who were interviewed said they were told that anybody would be considered VC or VC sympathizers and it was a search and destroy mission.
The photographer who would bring the story of My Lai to the world, Ron Haberle, is 60 years old today. He said when he first entered My Lai he thought, "Holy smokes, this is a hot zone."
Then he says he realized what was actually going on, "Americans just opened up on these people and indiscriminately fired on them, there were women and children that were shot."
He continued, "When I walked into the village it was just carnage. Hooches were burning, there were dead people laying in them."
He said that one of the strangest things will never be explained, "Soldiers were jumping up and down on the animals, you know, water buffaloes, jumping on them, stabbing them, I didn't understand what was going on."
A soldier who was at My Lai that the BBC interviewed, said he recalled an 8-year old boy who came around the corner, "He had half his arm blown off and it was hanging off, somebody had already got him. I shot and killed him, you could say it was a mercy killing."
Haberle was not just there, he was snapping pictures as it happened, "I watched an American soldier shoot this kid. The kid just flipped up into the air. I asked 'why?' and the soldier just walked away."
One woman survivor of My Lai told the BBC, "I was only alive because corpses were laying all over me."
"Women and girls were gang raped, even livestock was killed."
The My Lai story is ugly and awful and there is no excuse for what happened that day, other than a poorly managed war with a disconnected command believing what it wants to believe, rather than what it honestly should believe.
The Communists our soldiers and Marines and sailors and airmen were fighting were far worse than the Americans in terms of human atrocities on practically any day of the war, but that hardly seems like vindication for young men from the land of apple pie and Chevrolet, just as it fails to balance any acts of barbarism during this current war.
Thank technology, increased interactivity via the Internet, and thank the news media for telling people what is going on in these places, when they do. Without the checks and balances of these items fairly new to our society, the job of keeping up on military wrongdoings would be much more difficult.
The story of My Lai is also one of assessing and laying out blame. 504 people were killed, and only one American officer was brought to trial over it. Most people did and still do believe that Callie's men were operating strictly under orders to kill everyone present at My Lai. It is also fair to assume that they may have expected something entirely different from what they found.
As for their behavior, ask any military officer if rape is allowed under the rules of military conduct, and they will say "of course it isn't" and that is about the end of that story. Have no sympathy for people who brutalize others, it is not something people in the Army are trained or expected to do.
Most Americans who served in Vietnam were people of honor who would never and never did commit such acts. We have to remember that our country's longest war brought many horrors for many people and members of our service were all judged for it, unfairly most of the time.
Still, it makes sense to recognize history for what it is and the ability to remember mistakes is supposed to prevent a person or entity from having to repeat them again. While there have been problems in Iraq, it seems distinctly possible that some lessons from Vietnam have been learned.
To learn more, check out the BBC article and listen to the audio story which includes excerpts from newly unearthed tapes. DISCLAIMER: Graphic descriptions, language. Visit this link: My Lai: Legacy of a massacre
Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor.
Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines. Tim holds numerous awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), the first place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several other awards including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website, affiliated with Google News and several other major search engines and news aggregators.
You can send Tim an email at this address: email@example.com
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