The Legacy of My Lai
by Alexander Cockburn, March 26, 1988
(Beat The devil)
The Nation magazine
edited by Katerina Vanden Heuvel
Thunder's Mouth Press, 1990, paper
Alexander Cockburn began writing "Beat The Devil,"
his biweekly column on the press and politics, for The Nation
in February 1984.
He Did Not Stand Idly By
The trench filled with 583 bodies-Vietnamese men, women and
children systematically killed by soldiers in Charlie Company
over a number of hours starting at 7:30 A.M., March 16, 1968,
recorded later that day by U.S. Army photographer Ron Haeberle-has
not figured much this year in retrospectives of the 1960s. And,
in fact, set against the backdrop of the maniacal B-52 bombings
in the South and the free-fire clearances conducted by the United
States through 1968 and 1969, My Lai was nothing special in the
way of war crimes. Operation Speedy Express saw at least 5,000
noncombatant Vietnamese killed. (I should also say that all these
numbers are speculative; almost certainly underestimates.) The
United States didn't just threaten to bomb Vietnam back to the
Stone Age; it went right ahead and did so. But My Lai became the
war crime of choice, and its ultimate exposure in the United States
was due entirely to the courage of one man, Ron Ridenhour. Without
Ridenhour there would have been no Army investigation, no Seymour
Hersh breaking the story through a small news service nothing;
except perhaps the memorial in Vietnam listing the 583 victims
by name for the N.L.F. had reported the massacre right away, but
no one in America paid any attention.
' "Did we learn anything?" Ridenhour said the other
day. "A lot of Americans learned, a lot of middle-class people
learned, 'Gosh, these guys will do anything.' I learned that.
The motherfuckers will do anything. There really are no limits."
These days Ridenhour is working in New Orleans for a magazine
called City Business. He just won a George Polk Award for local
reporting, on graft in the city government. Back in March of 1967
he was 20, living in Arizona, and had just been drafted. He was
shipped to Hawaii in September and trained in long-range reconnaissance
with men who ended up being assigned to Charlie Company, under
the command of Lieut. William Calley. Ridenhour was assigned to
helicopter observation in Vietnam and later to a reconnaissance
"Right after My Lai," Ridenhour recalled for me
last week, "a lot of these guys in Charlie Company started
to transfer back into long-range reconnaissance. The first guy
I ran into, I said, 'Hey, what have you guys been doing?' And
they said, 'Oh man, did you hear what we did at Pinkville?'
"I said, 'No, what's Pinkville?' It was a village; that's
what they called My Lai at the time, Pinkville. He tells me this
story about how they went in and massacred all those people. When
I heard that, I was horrified; my response was pretty much instantaneous.
I wanted to get away from it, and I thought the only way I could
do that, get away from it, not be part of it, would be to discover
whether it was true, and if it was true, to denounce it. To act
against it in some way.
"I proceeded to do that. Every time I ran into someone
who had been with that unit, I'd say, 'Hey man, what happened?'
These young men were traumatized and horrified that they had been
involved in this. Now, all the time I was compiling this information
I didn't have anyone I could-it was a very precarious situation,
as you can imagine."
"Did you think someone might just kill you?"
"Well, I didn't know. I mean, these guys had just been
involved in a massacre."
"You were making notes?"
"I was keeping a notebook in my head. I did go down to
Twenty-third Division office and obtain the official account of
that action, which of course was quite different from what actually
occurred. I took some notes on that. Everything else I just kept
in my head. Do you know what a LRRP mission is? Well, they'd bring
you out by helicopter in five- and six-man units, out into the
jungle, way back m the mountains, and you'd watch trails and count
enemy soldiers. It was considered a pretty risky business. Whole
recon teams went into the jungle and were never heard from again.
"For my first five missions four of the people I went
out with were veterans of My Lai. Two were good friends and two
not such good friends, and I didn't know what their reaction would
be if they knew what I was intending to do, so I just didn't tell
anybody. About two weeks before I left, I ran into a friend who
had been in the unit in Charlie Company. I'd heard from other
friends that he had been opposed to what had happened, had seen
what was coming and had not participated. He was in a hospital
with a terrible case of jungle rot, waiting to go home. I went
over to the hospital and we conversed for a while until we sort
of decided we were both coming from the same place. We agreed
that we would try to get an investigation going, that we would
stay in touch, and if they came and asked him questions, that
he would tell the truth.
A few weeks later Ridenhour shipped home. He tried to figure
out what to do and consulted friends. Most of them told him to
forget it, but in the end someone suggested that he write a letter
to his local Congressman. Ridenhour decided to write such a letter,
detailing what he knew, how he came to know it; to demand an investigation;
and to send the letter to a whole lot of people. In December 1968
he had a relapse of malaria. When he got out of the hospital he
began to write. The letter took six weeks to complete. Someone
proofread it; someone else typed it. Ridenhour made 200 copies
and sent out thirty of them on March 29, 1969. One went to his
Congressman, Mo Udall, whose office responded almost immediately.
Udall's administrative assistant asked permission to circulate
the letter to the House Armed Services Committee, of which Udall
was a member. Its chair, Mendel Rivers, was requested to demand
a Pentagon investigation.
By April 30 the Pentagon, which claims it was acting on receipt
of a copy of Ridenhour's letter and not under pressure from Rivers,
had appointed an investigating team, headed by a colonel.
I was in Arizona, waiting to go to school and working in a
popsicle factory," Ridenhour said. "They came and interviewed
me, and then some of the people I mentioned in the letter-maybe
five other soldiers-gave them more names. It sort of bumped and
grinded along from late April to September, when they charged
Calley. I was convinced there was a cover-up going on, that these
guys were not sincere in pursuing the business. They stopped accepting
my calls. Then they called me and said they had arrested Calley.
I waited to see what would happen, and then, when no one else
was arrested, I knew what they were going to do. They were going
to flush Calley, claim that this was the act of a wild man and
then let it go. That's when I started trying to get in touch with
the press." He talked to a man from The Arizona Republic.
Nothing got published. The
Army had put out a brief statement-two paragraphs long-saying
that it had charged a lieutenant, Calley, with the murder of an
unknown number of civilians.
The Associated Press carried the story, but no one picked
it up. As Ridenhour tells it, a general who had worked on the
Calley investigation became indiscreet at a cocktail party in
Washington, let drop details of My Lai and the Calley arrest a
relative of Seymour Hersh, who duly passed on the news. Hersh
found the brief item mentioning Calley's arrest and interviewed
Calley, who was being held at Fort Benning, Georgia. (Hersh says
he had already been working on the story after a tip-off from
a public service lawyer.)
Hersh's first story prompted The Arizona Republic to print
its article, which Hersh, in turn, saw. He flew out to talk to
Ridenhour, who gave him the names and addresses of the people
who had been at My Lai. Hersh asked Ridenhour to hold the story
from anyone else for three days and went about his business. "I
was glad to give him the three days," Ridenhour said. "He
was the first person to respond. He went off and started finding
those other kids, and they told him those horrible stories."
Almost as soon as we started talking Ridenhour wanted to make
a point. "The important thing is, this was an act of policy,
not an individual aberration. My Lai didn't happen because Lieutenant
Calley went berserk. There were similar acts of policy all over
the country. I mean, every once in a while they decided they would
make an example. If you read about the cover-up, you'll see that
above My Lai were helicopters filled with the entire command staff
of the brigade, division and task force. All three tiers in the
chain of command were literally flying overhead all morning, while
it was going on. It takes a long time to kill almost 600 people.
It's a dirty job, you might say. These guys were flying overhead
from 7:30 in the morning, when the unit first landed and began
to move into those hamlets. I think the command units didn't get
there till 9 A.M. They were there at least two hours, at 500 feet,
1,000 feet and 1,500 feet.
"So did we learn anything? Yes, we learned to have brown
boys pull the trigger instead of good American boys. The policy
continues. We continue to make war on civilians across the world.
We've got black boys killing black people in Africa. It's our
money that's paying for it. That's the lesson the Pentagon, the
policymakers learned. Like I say, a lot of Americans learned,
the motherfuckers will do anything."
'If I Had a Rocket Launcher ...'
After Ridenhour finished, I talked to Kevin Buckley, a correspondent
for Newsweek in Saigon at the time. Buckley had done a thorough
investigation of Speedy Express, finally published in part in
Newsweek in 1972. "My Lai," Buckley remembered, "was
in the spirit of post-Tet. The saying was that the whole country
had become a free-fire zone. The soldiers would say that either
with relief or disgust, depending on which way their immortal
souls were headed."
There was heavy fighting during June and July, when the Democratic
convention was going on in Chicago. Candidates were taking out
positions on a windup of the war. A peace negotiation in Paris
was being envisaged. "Against the possibility of a cease-fire
in place," Buckley said, "the pacification program became
the Accelerated Pacification Program. They went at it with B-52s,
everything. The idea was to create as many 'pro-government' places
as possible." In Operation Bold Mariner there was saturation
bombing of the Quang Ngai Province, where the survivors of My
Lai had been relocated. By the end of 1968 the Ninth Division
went into the delta and Speedy Express began.
"At that time the U.S. was stronger than it had ever
been. The other side was on the ropes militarily. Tet had cost
the N.L.F. its leading cadre. But U.S. policy equated peace with
defeat. The idea was to destroy South Vietnam [and North Vietnam
up to the 20th parallell. The bombing ravaged so many things,
like farming, timber, rubber, the natural commerce of the place.
They attacked the coconut trees. 'The trees are our enemy,'"
said one American commander at the time.
"Nixon and Kissinger decided to plunge on and 'win' the
war. The result of this bloody folly was ignominy, uncounted Cambodians,
Indochinese, dead and wounded. In certain areas, Vietnamese who
were whole, who had all their limbs, looked strange. Such was
the 'application' of U.S. firepower. The war could have ended
in 1968 [actually, 1963 if it hadn't been for the United States].
So far as the U.S. was concerned the Vietnam Memorial would have
been half as long."
This is the same Kissinger who recently said the uprising
in the West Bank and Gaza should be put down, in the words of
the memorandum recording his off-the-record session with American
Jewish leaders, "brutally and rapidly." This is the
same Nixon calling, in the March 13 New York Times Magazine, for
"resolve" in dealing with Gorbachev. Such was their
moral monstrosity, 1969-1974.
Sometimes people ask in a puzzled sort of way why bits of
the antiwar movement freaked out in the late 1960s and demonstrated
what one could call certain pathological symptoms. I remember
reading about accelerated pacification, saturation bombing, strafing,
slaughter, day after day after day. It was hard not to freak out.
As the man sings, If I had a rocket launcher, I'd make somebody
pay." My Lai remains a symbol, just an intimation of what
happened in that destroyed land where they made a desert and had
the effrontery to call it defeat, thus requiring that "honor"
be retrieved and "resolve" be demonstrated on battlefields
from The Nation magazine,1865-1990