Michael Wong’s Gethsemane

Just a scrap, as I relentlessly pare at this book for the New Press. Above, you see the relentless Jeff Paterson, founder of Courage to Resist, being interviewed alongside my predecessor at CCCO — Mike Wong, who interrupted his otherwise-successful career as a social worker to help fight the poverty draft.

Below, my version of the moment Michael Wong began to realize he was a conscientious objector — just as millions of others were learning some very bad news. The name “Haeberle” below in the name of that of the photographer who turned Seymour Hersh’s story into an internationally known expose. Mike’s story has already been included in far-better books than mine, including one edited by Maxine Hong Kingston.  Still, it’s dramatic enough that it might make for a movie scene:

 

At Fort Sam, where the Army had trained medic corpsmen since World War II, a young trainee named Michael Wong was stunned on the chow line when he noticed “a small commotion.” In front of Wong, the medic-trainees all were clustered around the newspaper rack, and commenced whispering about what they saw: Haeberle’s full-color photographs, reprinted in Pacific Stars and Stripes.
I was stunned, confused. “Who’s killing women and children? The Viet Cong?”
“No, we are.” When we got to the front we saw this newspaper rack with pictures of My Lai on the front pages. I can’t describe what that did to us.

I’m being encouraged to share these parings here (and not just at Facebook), so stay tuned for more; but I wanted to give due here to one of those who turned that moment into a movement.

48 years ago today, a match was struck that helped burn down the Vietnam War.

At least one can make that argument: certainly the war crimes of March 16, 1968 in the village of Son My/My Lai spurred more investigation and controversy than the almost-daily similar incidents more recently covered by Nick Turse in his magisterial Kill Anything That Moves It certainly shook the world of the ‘family’ of vets included in my Vietnam chapter.Their voices, as with the massacre’s impact on our culture,  so strong that my editor just asked me: “Is My Lai the fulcrum of that chapter?”

book-pinkvilleBut for today’s anniversary I wanted to call attention to a different book: The Witness from Pinkville, published today – written by someone who was only 11 when his family was  slaughtered. There are only 1,000 copies of the book in English, and only available at the memorial site established for the events; the author, Pham Thi Cong, is head of the Son My  vestige site. (Image above is from VietnamNet, which bills itself as the first English-language online newspaper in Vietnam.)

Time to contact my VVAW friends, and/or see if there’s any other way to get the book. The fact that he’s only 5 years older than me is heartbreaking.

Cong said the 248-page book recalled the events in the village (now in Tinh Khe Commune) nearly half a century ago….[He] said the massacre was the worst tragedy that he witnessed at the age of 11, when his mother and six brothers were killed by American soldiers in their house. He was seriously injured but was eventually saved by his father.

American soldiers killed 504 unarmed civilians in the massacre.

“I lost my father in 1970 and became homeless and an orphan,” Cong said.

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.