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Issue #1725      April 6, 2016

Culture & Life

Never forget My Lai

Capitalism is synonymous with wars of aggression. To covet control over other people’s territory and resources is fundamental to it. To secure that control – or to eliminate competition – it initiates wars of conquest or simply of destruction. And to ensure that the young men it sends to carry out those wars do so with the right degree of savagery capitalism inculcates in them not just a carefully nurtured hatred for “the enemy”, but also a contempt, a belief that the enemy is less than human, inherently inferior and undeserving of any humanitarian concerns.

One of the memorial sculptures at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo: Nissa Rhee)

The Nazis’ outrages on the Russian front exemplified this in WW2, but a few years later US troops engaged in similar atrocities against the “gooks” in the Korean War. Then came the Vietnam War and American soldiers were once again taught to view Vietnamese as less than human, expendable, no more than “collateral damage”.

March was the anniversary of the My Lai massacre, one of the most horrific incidents of the Vietnam War, a war that was marked by a plethora of horrific incidents. A company of American soldiers brutally killed the majority of the population of the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai in March 1968. Though exact numbers remain unconfirmed, it is believed that as many as 500 people including women, children and the elderly were killed.

The My Lai hamlet, part of the village of Son My, was located in Quang Ngai province, which was believed to be a stronghold of the National Liberation Front (NLF) which the Yanks referred to as “the Viet Cong (VC)”. Told that “VC guerrillas had taken control of Son My”, Charlie Company of the 11th Infantry Brigade Led by Lieutenant William Calley, was sent to the village on a search-and-destroy mission.

Army commanders advised the soldiers of Charlie Company that all who were found in Son My could be considered VC or active VC sympathisers, and ordered them to destroy the village. When they arrived, the soldiers found no Viet Cong, but rounded up and murdered hundreds of civilians – mostly women, children and old men – in an extremely brutal fashion, including rape and torture. Not a single shot was fired against the men of Charlie Company at My Lai. The villagers, who were getting ready for a market day, at first did not panic or run away, and they were herded into the hamlet’s commons.

Harry Stanley, a machine gunner from the Charlie Company, said during the US Army Criminal Investigation Division’s inquiry that he observed a member of the 1st Platoon push a villager into a well and throw a grenade into the well. Further, he saw 15 or 20 people, mainly women and children, kneeling around a temple with burning incense. They were praying and crying. They were all killed by shots in the head. A large group of approximately 70–80 villagers was rounded up by the 1st Platoon, and then led to an irrigation ditch to the east of the settlement. All detainees were pushed into the ditch and then killed.

The mentality of the US soldiers is typified by Paul Meadlo, a Private First Class who machine-gunned women and children. He testified that women were trying to shield their children. He remembered that he was shooting into women with babies in their hands since he “was convinced at that time that they were all booby-trapped with grenades and were poised to attack”.

The My Lai massacre was so horrendous that other US troops were outraged by it. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot on a reconnaissance mission, landed his aircraft between the soldiers and the retreating villagers and threatened to open fire if they continued their attacks. Ron Ridenhour, a soldier in the 11th Brigade who had heard reports of the massacre but had not participated, began a campaign to bring the events to light, but faced a cover-up on the part of the US Army. After writing letters to President Richard Nixon, the Pentagon, State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff and several congressmen, with no response, Ridenhour finally gave an interview to the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who broke the story in November 1969.

In frantic damage control, the US Army ordered a special investigation into the My Lai massacre. The inquiry, headed by Lieutenant General William Peers, released its report in March 1970 and recommended that no fewer than 28 officers be charged for their involvement in the massacre or the cover-up. Only half that number were actually charged and all were acquitted except for Calley, who was given a life sentence for his role in directing the killings. His sentence was reduced upon appeal to 20 years and later to 10; by 1974, he was paroled.

By the early 1970s, morale among US troops in Vietnam was low, and anger and frustration were high. Drug use among soldiers was rampant (an official report in 1971 estimated that one-third or more of US troops were addicted). The revelations of the My Lai massacre caused morale to plummet even further, as GIs wondered what other atrocities their superiors were concealing. On the home front in the United States, the brutality of the My Lai massacre and the efforts made by higher-ranking officers to conceal it fuelled anti-war sentiment.

William Thomas Allison, a professor of Military History at Georgia Southern University, wrote, “By midmorning, members of Charlie Company had killed hundreds of civilians and raped or assaulted countless women and young girls. They encountered no enemy fire and found no weapons in My Lai itself”.

As far as I could tell, the anniversary of the My Lai massacre passed without comment or notice in the capitalist mass media, pushed under the carpet where the Pentagon wanted it in the first place. Massacres and other atrocities have become commonplace, it’s true, but to wilfully forget or ignore them is to become complicit in them.

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