The Legacy of My Lai

by Alexander Cockburn, March 26, 1988
(Beat The devil)


Selections from
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 unit.

"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 elsewhere.

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