Does anyone remember My Lai?
Forty-five years ago Ron Ridenhour, an American GI serving in Vietnam, learned about the atrocities perpetrated in ‘Pinkville’ (My Lai) by Lieutenant William Calley’s 'Charlie' Company. On March 16, 1968, as many as 500 men, women, children and babies were massacred by the US military in an operation that was initially presented as a fierce fire fight that ended up victoriously with the deaths of '128 Communists.'
This was not what Ridenhour was hearing from fellow soldiers. In April 1968 he decided to embark on his own investigation which he described here. The following year, when he got out of the Army, he detailed what he had uncovered in a letter he sent to President Nixon, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Members of Congress.
Eventually an Army investigation got underway – in secret. But Ridenhour wanted the public to know about My Lai in a war where Vietnamese were routinely dehumanized as 'gooks' and barbarity commonplace. He shared information with the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who had received his own tip about the massacre.
Lieutenant Calley had been formally charged (in secret) two months previously. As Hersh wrote:
’Pinkville has been a word among GIs for a year,’ one official said. ‘I’ll never cease to be amazed that it hasn’t been written about before.’ A high-ranking officer commented that he first heard talk of the Pinkville incident soon after it happened; the officer was on duty in Saigon at the time.
Why did the Army choose to prosecute this case? On what is it basing the charge that Calley acted with premeditation before killing? The court-martial should supply the answers to these questions, but some of the men already have their opinions.
'The Army knew it was going to get clobbered on this at some point,' one military source commented. 'If they don’t prosecute somebody, if this stuff comes out without the Army taking some action, it could be even worse.'
Lieutenant Calley’s court martial for premeditated murder began in November 1970. He was given a life sentence, but after President Nixon’s intervention, he ended up being imprisoned for only four months.
Such a presidential intervention is not on the cards for Private First Class Bradley Manning, who has already served more than three years in prison – much of it under cruel and inhumane conditions in Quantico denounced by the ACLU, Human Rights groups and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.
Or, to be more accurate, President Obama has already intervened in the Manning case: Obama declared "he broke the law" long before the court hearings had even begun. So much for the presumption of innocence.
Pfc. Manning, an intelligence analyst, has recently taken full responsibility for breaking Army regulations and federal law. At a pre-trial hearing on February 28, he pleaded guilty to ten of the 22 charges leveled against him and agreed to a 20-year prison sentence for illegally acquiring, storing and transferring sensitive material, much of it highly classified, that was eventually published by WikiLeaks after, he said, The Washington Post, New York Times, and Politico showed no interest.
He spelled out his motivation in an extraordinary statement he read to the military court. He said he thought the material “should become public” to spur public debate and let people know "the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare" where "we became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists."
He described becoming increasingly disturbed by what he originally saw as just another “war porn video” showing an Apache helicopter attack on July 12, 2007 that killed 11 people, including two Reuters’ employees. The "aerial weapons team" had "mistakenly identified Reuters employees as a potential threat" and afterwards mowed down "good Samaritans" in a van who "were merely attempting to assist the wounded." They showed "no remorse" on learning that there were injured children in the van.
"The most alarming aspect of the video to me," Manning stated, "was the seemingly delightful bloodlust they appeared to have. They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as quote ‘dead bastards’ unquote and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers….Later, in a particularly disturbing manner, the aerial weapons team verbalizes enjoyment at the sight of one of the ground vehicles driving over a body – or one of the bodies."
He goes on to describe his disgust at how the incident was portrayed in a book written by the Washington Post’sDavid Finkel in his book Good Soldiers, which, Manning said, describes the incident as "somehow justified as ‘payback’ for an earlier attack that lead to the death of a soldier." He was further distressed when he learned that a FOIA request by Reuters for a copy of the video in order "to improve their safety practices in combat zones" was turned down by the Army which said "that the video might no longer exist."
When Pfc. Manning finally turned over the trove of material to WikiLeaks, "I felt this sense of relief by them having it. I felt I had accomplished something that allowed me to have a clear conscience."
One can imagine Ron Ridenhour thinking the same thing as he mailed his letters to the President and Congress.
But by that time, Ridenhour was out of the Army, and soldiers like Pfc. Manning are not permitted the luxury of a "clear conscience" – especially when they are revealing secrets. A sentence of twenty years is not severe enough for military prosecutors, who intend to try Manning on the remaining counts, including one of "aiding and abetting the enemy," which could consign him to spending the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Pfc. Manning will almost certainly spend far more time in prison than Army staff sergeant Calvin Gibbs, who led the 'kill team' that murdered and mutilated three Afghan civilians on the grounds that they were "all dirty savages." In November 2011 Gibbs was given a life sentence with parole eligibility in ten years.
It’s not hard to see why the US military and Obama Administration might consider a "clear conscience" more dangerous than the occasional racist rampage. Just think of how difficult it would be to maintain their style of fighting secret "asymmetric warfare" if drone operators unburdened their consciences publicly when they deliberately vaporized civilians trying to rescue victims of a previous strike or those present at funerals.
Ron Ridenhour died in 1998. If he were still alive, he would surely be lining up with Daniel Ellseberg, Glenn Greenwald, Chris Hedges and the many others who view Pfc. Manning as (in Greenwald’s words) "a consummate hero."
And he would surely see much that is familiar in today’s Forever War.
Let Ridenhour have the last word, with this extract from his 1994 piece, "Jesus was a Gook:"
The theaters have changed now, of course. We no longer call it Vietnam–because it is not. It is a new, much grander era. It might be called the era of perpetual internal warfare: the Perpetual War. America's military and foreign policy apparatus is its hub–the driving, organizing, controlling center of an international security state. The Vietnam war never really went away: the tiger simply rearranged its stripes, changed its name–and grew. Its mechanisms of political control were also extended home, but that is a story for another time….
In every case, amazingly enough, the enemy happen to be citizens, usually large numbers of them, who oppose the government we support. Gooks, I guess you'd say.
“n each of those countries the tools, the tactics and the techniques of the Vietnam war are at work. The Pentagon calls it Low Intensity Conflict: Pentagon packaging of the same old thing. Richard Wright, the Assistant Commander of the School of the Americas (the U.S. Army training school for Latin American military leaders) said in an interview that LIC is nothing more than a sanitized version of counterinsurgency.
Because few allegations of direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam war-style atrocities surface in the pages of America's newspapers, however, there is not much press or public interest in the perpetual war. The U.S. is nevertheless still orchestrating the slaughter of gooks throughout the world. Massacres, assassinations, disappeared ones, forced relocation of the rural poor, government ‘secure’ zones, death squads, the torture of prisoners, the labeling of any and all opposition as ‘terrorists’ –all have a familiar ring.