45 years ago, people learned what had happened in My Lai

mylainewsweekAnd all  earlier drafts of my book included a sort of big-picture retelling of those events, focusing on signature dissenters like Hugh Thompson and Ron Ridenhour. Now that I’ll be referring to those events ONLY in a leaner, character-based narrative, I wanted this blog to have this version, of which I am pretty proud.

I do wonder now who’s followed up with the quieter dissenters – the guys who said no. Any miilitary reporters want to tell me?

But these are human beings, unarmed civilians, sir”

At the end of 1969, reports flooded the U.S. newspapers about an incident not dissimilar to what had apparently happened at Liberty Bridge, bearing color photos by Army photographer Robert Haeberle, taken on March 16, 1968 in the hamlet of My Lai.

Nowadays, the name “My Lai” evokes Auschwitz, calling to mind images with which the mind has trouble coping, and Nurnberg, the small city where Nazi war ctiminals were put on trial. But the story of My Lai is often also a story of a string of dissenters.

Warrant officer Hugh Thompson didn’t plan to be one, flying over the province in support of Task Force Barker, 1st Infantry of the Americal Division. Formed in 1942 to defend the South Pacific island New Caledonia, Americal was remembered at Guadalcanal, Papua New Guinea and Quang-Tri.

The week of March 15, Task Force Barker’s mission was relatively straightforward: to wipe out the Vietcong 48th Infantry. “The operation was to commence at 0725 hours on 16 March 1968 with a short artillery preparation, following which C/1-20 Inf was to combat assault into an LZ immediately west of My Lai (4) and then sweep east through the subhamlet.”i

Despite the copies of the Geneva Conventions soldiers were instructed to carry, the Division was also operating under orders that which exempted “hot spots” like My Lai from the Conventions’ protection. Directive 525-3 from the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), “Combat Operations: Minimising Noncombatant Battle Casualties,” carefully noted that “Specified strike zones should be configured to exclude populated areas, except those in accepted VC bases.ii

As he flew over the area, Thompson knew that Charlie Company had just lost 34 men in a single grenade attack. He also knew that orders since Tet named women and children as possible Vietcong. But Thompson and his crew were still astonished at what they saw from their helicopter on the 16th: “Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever.”iii As one platoon turned their guns full force on a farmer, U.S. Army photographer Haeberle was horrified: “”They just kept shooting at her. You could see the bones flying in the air chip by chip.” Haeberle carefully photographed those corpse-filled huts in full color, even before Thompson arrived.

Thompson also left the task of investigating what had happened to his superiors: the command, he reasoned, “didn’t need me there to court-martial these renegades.”iv One of Calley’s sergeants, Michael Bernhardt, said that they were expecting an investigation, but “Some colonel came down to the firebase where we were stationed and asked about it, but we heard no further.” v The action’s official post-operation Army communique made no mention of civilian casualties, numbering the Viet Cong body count at 128 and noting that Charlie Company had recovered two M-I rifles, a carbine, a short-wave radio and enemy documents. vi

As for Charlie Company, “[Capt. Ernest ]Medina …called me over to the command post and asked me not to write my Congressman,” said Bernhardt,vii said one of a handful of Charlie Company soldiers who had not taken part in the massacre. The “lawful disobedience” practiced by this group was as varied as the war itself.

Sgt. Bunning told his squad leader that “I wasn’t going to shoot any of these women and kids.” Stephen Carter refused to shoot a woman holding a baby coming out of her hut. Paul Meadlo, who did participate when pressured by Calley, was described as “sobbing and shouting and saying he wanted nothing to do with this.” viii A year later, Meadlo told reporters who asked how: “From the first day we go in the service, the very first day, we all learned to take orders and not to refuse any kind of order from a noncommissioned officer.” Their roles that day appears to have been influenced by multiple factors including their age, whether their MOS had them were carrying light, trigger-easy M16s, their proximity to the actual giving of the illegal orders, and their personal perspective on the issue of war crimes.ix

But even the refusers never told the outside world to what had happened. It took a year before that year-long embargo was broken.

Spc. Thomas Glen, from the 11th Light Infantry, had tried in late 1968, writing the staff of Gen. Creighton Abrams that such behavior “cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of Military Assistance Command Vietnam and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated.”x Abrams never responded, but his assistant Major Colin Powell reprimanded Glen for speaking so vaguely, and added that “There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs, [but] this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division.” Just as Powell was writing, Corporal Ron Ridenhour was preparing to prove him wrong.

Ridenhour had learned the news from an old friend who had joined Charlie Company a few months earlier: “ Hey man did you hear what we did at Pinkville?…. Men, women and kids, everybody, we killed them all….We didn’t leave anybody alive, at least we didn’t intend to.” xi

Seized by “an instantaneous recognition and collateral determination that this was something too horrible, almost, to comprehend and that I wasn’t gonna be a part of it,” Ridenhour tracked down members of Charlie Company one by one. “They couldn’t stop talking,” Ridenhour said later. “They were horrified that it had occurred, that they had been there, and in the instances of all of these men, that they had participated in some way.”

In March 1969, Ridenhour wrote a letter as specific as Glen’s was vague, naming every soldier he’d interviewed and detailed their accounts, including that Capt. Medina had warned soldiers never to speak about My Lai. “I remain irrevocably persuaded,” he told the Joint Chiefs, the President and every TV network, ‘that … we must press forward a widespread and public investigation of this matter. “xii

At the closed set of hearings that resulted, Hugh Thompson and others identified the man directing the massacre as Calley. Calley insisted that he was implementing the mission set forth by his commander Captain Medina, but he was still the only one indicted for the murder of “one hundred and nine Oriental human beings.”

A freelance Pentagon reporter named Seymour Hersh soon saw the indictment. “My first thought was not wow this will end the war, but What a story!” When he went to Fort Benning to find Calley, Ron Ridenhour “gave me a company roster, and I began to find the kids.”

The resulting interviews and photos ran nationwide — the week of the moon landing in July 1969. So it took some time for all of us to get this glimpse of what we know now was standard operating procedure during that war.

It certainly didn’t get mentioned during all the laudatory moon-shot retrospectives. But attention still, I think, must be paid.

(Photo: Stephen Carter and My Lai, Newsweek)

is

ii Via Gareth Porter, “ My Lai Probe Hid Policy that Led to Massacre.” Interpress Service, March 15, 2008.

iii From remarks at “My Lai 25 Years After: Facing the Darkness, Healing the Wounds,” Tulane University, 1994. Accessed via University of Missouri (Kansas City) digital resource, “Famous American Trials: The My Lai Courts-Martial,1970.” http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/mylai.htm, December 2008.

iv Fall 2003 Lecture, Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis MD.

v Seymour Hersh, Hamlet Attack Called “Point-Blank Murder”. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 20. 1969.

vi Seymour Hersh, “Lieutenant Accused of Murdering 109 Civilians.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 1969, p. A1.

vii Hersh, November 20. op. cit.

viii Peers final report….

ix Rives Duncan, “What Went Right at My Lai: An Analysis of Habitus and Character in Lawful Disobedience.” Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1992. I owe Major Duncan full credit for use of the term “lawful disobedience,” here and elsewhere.

x Via Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, “Colin Powell and My Lai.”Consortium News, October 1996.

xi “My Lai 25 Years After,” op.cit.

xii Ibid.

. Saluting 4,000 vets on the White House lawn

No, not in 2003. Not in 1971. In  1932.

The data caught up on me Friday, but May 29, 1932 was when the Bonus March arrived in Washington, D.C. — and laid the groundwork for how the U.S. currently pays veterans for their service in war.

These were veterans of the ‘Great War’,World War I: from our first really national army, two million strong. Many of these would push for justice, a stumbling, angry presence across class and race lines, even as the twenties were “roaring” around them.

And among them was Walter Waters, who would become the ‘commander’ of the BEF after losing his cannery job in 1929.By March 1932, he wrote years later, “we were not only penniless but had nothing left except a very scanty wardrobe.There were many days that winter when we experienced actual hunger.”

While job-hunting, Walters discovered many men like him – another ‘lost generation,’ rootless since the Armistice. “I found that a large percentage of these men in Portland were, like myself, ex-service men…Among these men there was profound discontent with conditions. There was a ravaging desire to change them but a complete and leaden ignorance of the way to do it….These men did think and talk a great deal about the so-called Bonus.”

Thus did Waters enter into another ongoing national debate: whether former soldiers deserved a permanent pension or a lump sum, known as “adjusted compensation” (usually expressed in its shorthand, “the bonus”). Veterans groups had long been split on the issue – the labor-oriented World War Veterans favored the bonus, while the anti-labor American Legion backed a proposal to pay it all out in government bonds. When the stock market crashed in 1929 the promise of those bonds seemed to evaporate, and with it the hopes of veterans who’d not been able to find their way.

Little of this veterans’ discontent traced back into opposition to war itself, especially as Adolf Hitler’s rise in Europe began to be notice. The Red Scare had dampened much of the progressive energy that had fueled much prewar resistance. But Waters was among those who didn’t let this one go, pulling together what became called the “Bonus Expeditionary Force.”

When thousands of veterans began to converge on Washington, D.C. in 1932, for a “bonus march,” their chant was more satiric than political, and set to the tune of the last decades’ greatest hit:

Over there, over there

Tell the world to beware

Cause the Yanks are starving, the Yanks are starving….

They marched in rleans, Poughkeepsie. Black and white veterans sometimes marched together. It wgroups of ten, of thirty, of several hundred; they marched from San Francisco, New Oas a march against invisibility, and an ever-escalating demand for recognition, as much as for a permanent pension. By the eve of a May 29 vote on a comprehensive package of veterans assistance, there were 4,000 veterans out in front of the White House, with an additional 3,000 on the way.

Calling their fort “Camp Marks,” the group published several issues of the newspaper BEF News.The national organizing committee included the Workers Ex-Servicemen’s League, a Communist front group that carried on the tradition started at Fort Leavenworth nearly 20 years earlier.

After six months, the growing and ever-more-militant protest moved Hoover to order colonel Douglas MacArthur to move against the encampments in 1933, claiming that the encampments endangered public safety. MacArthur went further than his orders, chasing down veterans all over the capital and leaving scores injured, actions that may have helped doom the Hoover administration in the 1933 elections.

When the next wave of bonus marchers got to Washington the following year, the Roosevelt administration was working to implement its New Deal and reserving spots in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) for “Great War” veterans – thus treating them, as has been true ever since, like just another special-interest group. In turn, the veterans’ demands fueled the drive in Congress to provide some level of social insurance, to prevent war veterans from becoming a privileged class unto themselves.

Some of you may recognize the voice in the video, saluting the ragged vet troops: Maj. Gen, Smedley Butler, who went on to write War is a Racket. I’d originally conceived of this piece as drawing more explicit connnections to contemporary vets’ issues, from the VA to “pension reform.” But for now, I’ll take my cue from Butler and just call this a salute: To those sweaty, determined men whose struggle changed our world forever, even if the most fundamental of their demands remains unmet.

a bridge for Memorial Day

(The guy who sang the song above didn’t serve, but his dad Ernest sure did, spending the rest of his life in nightmares.)

The piece behind yesterday’s photos went up today at the Inquirer, with a small amount of reader mail. Ak of the latter (so far) was respectful, and some of it was of the sort that reminds one why this profession is worth something.  More than one was from people who were themselves soldier-dissenters —  some others local Quaker types, one of whom writes:

I really like your commentary.  It makes me feel better, more patriotic about Memorial Day.  It’s the sort of thing that’s needed annually to bridge us to those of us who oppose wars of choice and support defense with those who feel all wars we fight ought to be supported.

I guess that’s the point: you can say “Happy Memorial Day” if you note the huge losses the day was meant to honor.

Have a great weekend.

On Memorial Day, remember these priests, poets, politicos and pranksters!

That’s how I’ve tended to characterize the huge, diverse and boisterous movement working to stop the U.S, war against Vietnam, 1963-1975. I should have written an essay here about them last month, for the anniversary of the 1975 evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, but I could barely fit them in a chapter for the book.

A surprising number of the above, though, were recent veterans of World War II, who then popped into mind during the anniversary of V-E Day; so I wrote something that will run tomorrow in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Given space constraints, I’m informed there won’t be a photo: so here’s a photo preview of those included in the piece, which wasn’t even all of those in the movement. An honor roll of some for whom Memorial Day was an open wound, in their hearts every day:

 

 

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

 

  • Former Army intelligence officer William Sloane Coffin, founder of the hugely influential Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV).

 

 

 

 

  • howardHoward Zinn, whose long career as an historian, organizer and inspiration to us all was preceded by the young (already anti-fascist) bombardier seen at right.

 

  • Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Philip Berrigan, survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, shown here in prhaps the moment symbolizing his work during Vietnam — one of the first stops in a lifetime of anti-militarist  civil disobedience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • William_Kunstler_Former Army cryptographer William Kunstler, who followed his Pacific service by co-founding the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented war resisters from Berrigan, above, through the years to Gulf War objector Colleen Gallagher in 1991. In  1968, his face and voice became inescapable during the trial of the Chicago Seven, as at right.

 

 

 

 

  • Kurt-Vonnegut-US-Army-portrait (2)And this skinny little private was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, captured in the Battle of the Bulge, he became a prisoner of war — and turned that exoeriene into one of the strongest anti-war novels ever written.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll post the link tomorrow, which includes more on all of these. There are so many more who I couldn’t squeeze l into 750 words: not Lew Ayres and the other World War II COs, not Rev. Paul Moore, who found his pacifism after the abbatoir of Guadalcanal. But I still think this is a fine Memorial Day tribute to those lost in all our wars.

#Bergdahl = Rashomon

It’s now more than two weelsm since the Army brought charges against Robert D. Bowdrie Bergdahl, known to most of us as Bowe.. In that time, journalists and commentators have rushed to characterize a young man most of us knew only from last years’ headlines, and photos of a skinny Army private in Arab robes squinting at the sun.

The charges against Bergdahl, who was released in June 2014 after 5 years as a Taliban prisoner, are stark: desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy” for leaving his Afghan post. But the charge sheet differs substantially from Bergdahl’s own account of what happened that week, which was released by his defense attorney Louis Fidell (co-founder of the National Institute of Military Justice).

 The media blitz has come before the upcoming Article 32 hearing, the military version of a grand-jury process, at which a wide range of evidence can be presented by either side for consideration. While most major outlets try to present a balanced picture, others have rushed to judgment, convicting or acquitting before all the facts are known. The truth likely has elements of each:

  1. Bergdahl’s a traitor (e.g. Fox News, National Journal.) Between his hippie dad (who spoke Arabic in the Rose Garden when Bergdahl was released) and Bergdahl’s own e-mails to that same dad (published by Rolling Stone in 2012) that said he was “ashamed to be an American,” conservative outlets from Fox News to National Journal have long been calling for the harshest punishment possible. This week they zeroed in on photos of Bergdahl seemingly joking with his captors, and interviewed members of Bergdahl’s unit who challenged his account of the week he was captured. Many quote those platoon-mates and others as substantiating the root of one of the “misbehavior” charges:, that lives were lost as his peers were ordered on search missions to find him.

  2. He’s a conscientious objector (e.g. The Nation, Democracy Now). The assertion may A make the most sense to veterans who actually achieved a discharge as objectors – something that happens only after a long process in which a soldier persuades his command that s/he’ sincere, not disturbed, and has gone through a “crystallization” in which military service became incompatible with his/her belief system. As a staffer in the 90’s with the Committee for Conscentious Objectors, I had the honor of helping a handful of such soldiers through that process; I’ve since met others, from more recent wars, who were quoted this week in articles positing that Bergdahl was a true dissenter from the war in Afghanistan. They cite Bergdahl’s statement that he was just trying to report some command misconduct and tag him a whistleblower; Veterans For Peace, some of whom are CO’s, issued a statement calling for “An End to the Persecution of Sgt. Bergdahl.”

  3. Just a screwed-up guy, who should never have been in the military in the first place (Military Times, countless editorial pages).These writers want neither to valorize Bergdahl nor execute him, arguing that “he’s been punished enough.” The case has been made that Bergdahl should never have been recruited after washing out of the Coast Guard,instead of being welcomed in 2008 by recruiting commands under pressure to fill the needs of a metastasizing war. Berg’s initial desire to serve appears to have been strong. What he was signing up for is less clear, given his original desire to join the French Foreign Legion and his father’s observation that a young Bowe thrived on hero narratives, that the young man is now was “[legendary British soldier/adventurer] Bear Grylls in his own mind.” There’s also been a pretty strong case made for dysfunction within Bergdahl’s unit, given the loose, unstable chaos seen in a BBC documentary filmed before his capture. Some writers point out his homeschooling and the poor grammar of his written statements, and speculate about whether he was prepared at all.

  4. Besides, what about… Last but not least are those who are less interested in Bergdahl himself than in using him to make a larger political argument, about the 2009 prisoner swap, what President Obama should or shouldn’t have done – or, like Jesse Ventura, to wonder aloud why Bergdahl is being charged long before military personnel who approved torture at secret prisons overseas.

This is all before anyone has seen the evidence headed for that courtroom. Most military journalists I know have urged me, and by extension all of us, to wait at least until the Article 32 hearings are over before coming to any conclusions. But the truth may be hard to come by, since some relevant evidence — intelligence findings about Bergdahl’s captivity – may be declared “classified” and thus closed to the press.

Nonetheless, I hope that as the case proceeds, a sharper picture of the young man in question will emerge, and that we can all shake off our preconceptions enough to see him.–

Bergdahl court-martial: Did he aim to misbehave?

I swore I wouldn’t write anymore about Bergdahl until I’d talked to his attorney. That may change soon. But for now, I can amplify that attorney’s voice:

That PBS NewsHour was one of the more useful of the reports I saw about Bergdahl being charged with desertion.  Some of others that are helping me think clearly as I consider actually writing about it for real:

IB Times on the basics: What does it mean and how serious is the charge? In the piece, they found numerous others who also walked off post, one of them a Marine aghast at the treatment of detainees.

AJC.com more usefully explains: What does a “misbehavior” charge really mean? (Apologies for the blog title. but the first thing the charge put in my head was the voice of Capt. Reynolds saying “I aim to misbehave.”)

saw about Bergdahl being charged with desertion.  Some of others that are helping me think clearly as I consider actually writing about it for real:

IB Times on the basics: What does it mean and how serious is the charge? In the piece, they found numerous others who also walked off post, one of them a Marine aghast at the treatment of detainees.

AJC.com more usefully explains: What does a “misbehavior” charge really mean? (Apologies for the blog title. but the first thing the charge put in my head was the voice of Capt. Reynolds saying “I aim to misbehave.“)

Today’s news is about Bergdahl’s account of his torture by the Taliban, but just as informative are his letters home from prison.

More later, undoubtedly.

Christine Ahn | Korea: Women Walk for Peace across the De-Militarized Zone

chrislombardi:

Including our Col. Ann Wright, and several Nobel laureates….

Originally posted on Rise Up Times:

 …former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said, “In almost any case when there are sanctions against an entire people, the people suffer the most and the leaders suffer least.”

By Christine Ahn  WAMM Newsletter  SPRING I  2015

One year ago, I wrote to the renowned American feminist author Gloria Steinem asking if she would consider walking with other women across the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea to help bring peace to Korea. She promptly replied, “Yes. My high school classmates went to war there.”

On May 24, 2015, 30 international women peacemakers from around the world will walk with Korean women, North and South, to call for an end to the Korean War and for a new beginning for a reunified Korea. Along with Gloria Steinem, our delegation includes Nobel peace laureates Mairead Maguire from Ireland and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia, Patricia Guerrero from Colombia, former…

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