My Lai... Haditha... and America's whitewashers

It was thirty-eight years ago that a platoon from Charlie Company (11th Brigade, Americal Division) commanded by a young Army lieutenant murdered hundreds of old men, women, and children in a small Vietnam village, presumably with the tacit approval of military higher-ups. A memorial later erected there by the Vietnamese lists 504 names as victims of the massacre, ranging in ages from 1 to 82.

My Lai had its victims, a gruesome display at par with the worst incidents that have come to light in the last century. It also had its gang of perpetrators; soldiers under the command of Lt. William Calley. And it even had four heroes; three from a helicopter crew (Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta) who saved the lives of a few villagers; and a man in Calley’s platoon whose conscience would not permit him to take part in the massacre (Bernhardt). But beyond heroes and villains, for the next few years My Lai would also have a never-ending series of whitewashers, who in good conscience must also be considered villains… by choice or by default.

The whitewashers came in all ranks of importance, from the anticipated ever-present military brass, that initiated and maintained the cover-up, to a host of politicians and people in leadership, all the way to the Commander-in-Chief, President Nixon in this case. The incredible bottom line to this holocaust was, however, that the only person found guilty for this carnage was Lt. Calley, who ended up serving 3 ½ years of “house arrest” in his quarters at Fort Benning, Georgia. The entire sordid affair became not just a national disgrace for which the country could do penance, but a monumental whitewash that to date Americans prefer not to talk about.

In a way, the enablers to the entire whitewash were the American public. Not only were the villains and whitewashers de facto exonerated, but the four heroes in the plot became traitors… to their military comrades, and also to much of the population.

My Lai, photos and all, was just too big a war crime to allow an effective cover-up, or it might have remained a secret to this date. Accounts provided by soldiers who lived through similar criminal accounts, if in a much smaller scale, were kept hush-hush we are led to believe “not to affect the morale of the troops.” It was all done, as it always seems to be in these cases, for the “greater good.” Yes, the end justifies the means!

Now the hamlets of Pinkville have given way to the streets of Haditha, and the probable murder of two dozen Iraqis, including women and children, by a large, yes large, group of marines. If it turns out to be as horrific as noted in some of the leaked details, and there wasn’t a single marine with enough humanity in the group to put a stop to this, God have pity on us as a nation… and as human beings.

It has been six months since the incident occurred, a period long enough to conduct an adequate investigation had the military chosen to do so. But the delay probably had as much or more to do with the timing in the formation of the Iraqi government than with the preparation of Americans at home for this “new truth.”

Vietnam is far away in time and memory. But now Americans have to cope with new unpleasant realities: a government that lied to them, so as to enlist their support for an illegitimate war; then Abu Ghraib, and the realization that the military is far from squeaky-clean when it comes to torture, human rights and compliance with international law. Now, it is the pride of the military, the marines, who are being put to the test. And this may turn out to be a test like no other in the history of the Corps.

Revenge for the killing of a fellow marine is no reason to kill innocent, defenseless Iraqi women and children; nor is frustration, even when insurgents are at times fed and sheltered by civilians in the area, or when complicity is suspected. Criminal reprisal as an answer to physical and/or mental strain is just unacceptable behavior in human beings, much less in soldiers. When soldiers get to a point where they are apt to crack, they should be kept in their barracks or sent home. Just what role does the military leadership play in all this? Commanders, doctors and chaplains… aren’t they all gravely derelict?

How many more Hadithas are there… will we ever know what happened in Fallujah, and so many other places where the US military has no reason or right to be?

One must wonder. One, two… three decades from now some of these people who are committing crimes in Iraq, or those whitewashing their behavior, are likely to be in positions of political power in these United States. One could even become senator, president, or secretary of state. The whitewash, it appears, never ends.