While it has been 53 years since the infamous massacre at Mỹ Lai, the manner that it was accepted by the public should be remembered today.
Throughout history, each unpopular war has elevated one awful moment – one brutal act; a hideous bayonet to the collective gut. The Syrian War had Bana’s live-tweeting of Aleppo as it was bombed into dust. The Iraq War presented us with the dehumanising acts of the jailers of Abu Ghraib prison, as well as the 2007 gunship strike which killed two Reuters journalists and badly wounded two children – their deaths punctuated by the mirthful, cold-blooded commentary of those responsible. The Vietnam War introduced us to the now-famous “Napalm Girl” image, and there was the self-immolation protest of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. This week, we’re discussing the alleged war crimes of our most decorated soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith. Yet, some of the populace have supported what he purportedly did in our name, not least Mark Latham, who took the extraordinary step of claiming that crimes committed in wartime are legal.
“I spent my life fighting for my country and I did everything I could to ensure I did it with honour,” Mr Roberts-Smith told the Federal Court in Sydney this week.
“I listened to that and I really cannot comprehend that people, on the basis of rumour and innuendo, can maintain that in a public forum. It breaks my heart.”
All of this brings me back to Vietnam, and the bloodiest – yet ironically, the one the American public tolerated the most – wanton killing of unarmed civilians in the village of Sơn Mỹ, known widely as the Mỹ Lai Massacre. The story, broken by Seymour Hersh in 1969, told of the US military arm claiming the lives of an estimated 500 civilians before a subsequent coverup. The village, now famous, was nicknamed “Pinkville” by those who set boots on the dusty path toward their target, and immortality, that morning in 1968.
Charlie Company, led by William L Calley Jr, was tasked to the village to enact a “Search and Destroy” on what the brass believed was a stronghold of the Viet Cong. They were told that any persons within Sơn Mỹ, erroneously monikered as Mỹ Lai by US forces, could reliably be considered VC; or at the very least, VC sympathisers.
Captain Medina of Charlie Company radioed HQ with the figure of 123 VC killed. The citizens of Mỹ Lai were VC, and they were armed. Medina told his men not to discuss anything to anyone about Mỹ Lai. Officially, there was no Mỹ Lai.
The frame of mind of these soldiers, although clearly not excusing their actions, is worth note. The year was 1968, and these men spoke with the syllables of the bottom of barrel being scraped: the fierce, endless bloodletting of the war; the endless pursuit of an enemy not seen; the dwindling of their own psyche as their sacrifices were met by a chorus of complaint whenever they turned their thoughts toward home. Morale was at the point of collapse, all it would take was one twitch of an index finger for the earth to be split in twain, and the coursing, volcanic horror man is capable of would again walk the earth.
What transpired was naked, unchecked, primordial brutality, as control of the situation was voided in favour of mechanised Darwinism. Charlie Company’s targets were the elderly, the maternal and the next generation. No weapons were found by the US, nor was one shot fired at them. The acts were pale, and of such brutality that it is hard for everyday minds to assemble it. The mutilation, torture and rape of your fellow species is beyond ugliness, and indeed beyond definition. Unfortunately, so it went, as the paths that rung the hamlet were lined with those who had populated it, with Calley and his men dragging dozens of villagers into ditches and emptying their magazines into the terrified, huddled masses.
The prologue, the attack and indeed the post-script was charted in the excellent PBS documentary American Experience: Mỹ Lai Massacre. Absolutely worth a watch. Their words of regret, doubt and perceived duty reach places my prosaic language cannot.
The situation was eventually halted by recon helicopter pilot and future witness for the prosecution, Hugh C Thompson, who literally placed his craft between the villagers and the transgressors, threatening to turn his guns on his own if they continued to brutalise the Vietnamese.
A herculean airlift followed, a ceasefire was called, and the reality dawned. And the coverup began in earnest. As one survivor put it, the Americans left the village with blood and fire. The stains and scorch-marks were both cleansed with official lies, and the truth was meshed into what the orders claimed it to be. Captain Medina of Charlie Company radioed HQ with the figure of 123 VC killed. The citizens of Mỹ Lai were VC, and they were armed. Medina told his men not to discuss anything to anyone about Mỹ Lai. Officially, there was no Mỹ Lai.
Flash forward to the ensuing court-martial, and the only man sentenced was William Calley – found guilty in March 1971 of the premeditated murder of 109 people. Except he was soon sprung by President Nixon, who offered him a “partial” pardon. But here’s the kicker: according to a study at the time, the public consensus was with Nixon. In fact, his hand was forced by the tide of criticism sent his way about the mistreatment of Calley. The following figures are extracted from a personal survey of 1,600 Americans by Louis Harris & Associates in April of 1971.
The soldiers at Mỹ Lai were only following orders from their higher ups.
Not sure 14%
Lt Calley has been singled out unfairly as a scapegoat.
Not sure 8%
Do you tend to agree or disagree with the Army Court-martial Board that found Lt William Calley guilty (in the Mỹ Lai incident)?
Not sure 11%
How would you rate President Nixon on the way he reacted to the court-martial of Lt Calley (in the Mỹ Lai incident)?
Pretty good 31%
Only fair 17%
Not sure 7%
Depending on your idea of justice, and indeed duty, it may or may not have been doled out in 1971. However, the victims, now silent, speak volumes. Mỹ Lai should not be forgotten, not just because of the actions of a few, but because of the reactions of the many – those at home who couldn’t see past the perceived wrongdoings committed against one of their own, refusing to gaze at the bloodied edges of the larger picture.
Now, 53 years later, the past echoes the future. In a landscape dotted by the skyscrapers of alternative fact, and indeed, fake news, it behoves one, in the face of such undefinable horror, to look deeper into its eyes, and acknowledge our own reflection.