JPRI Critique Volume 24 Number 3 (September 2018)
Honor Requires Vigilance: Commemorating My Lai
Patrick Lloyd Hatcher
In so many ways Max Hastings writes the best reviews and books about things military. While British born his outlook is global. He scored again earlier this year in an London Review of Books essay (January 25, 2018) the editors call “A Massacre like Any Other” and Hastings titled “Wrath of the Centurions.” What wrathful massacre this time? My Lai. Whose centurions? America’s of course.
Yet the author has not written an anti-U.S. diatribe like so many brickbats America receives. Hastings starts by listing many of the massacres of civilians in mid-20th century starting with Hitler’s German henchmen who slaughtered over 32 million Soviet citizens in what Russians call their Great Patriotic War, followed by Russia’s Red Army offensive in 1944-45 where it raped its way into the Reich on its dash to Berlin. Words fail him when it comes to the industrial factories-of-death in Auschwitz, Poland. POWs? In 1944 Canadian forces killed their German POWs in Normandy. Democracies fare no better: British, French, and Dutch postwar bloodbaths mounted as their colonial subjects struggled for freedom. He does not even mention the Indian subcontinent in 1947 where Hindus massacred Muslims and Muslims massacred Hindus. Nor the 1937 Japanese rape of Nanking and other continental cities, nor Korean civil war massacres on both sides in the 1950s, Nogun-ri for the Americans on July 26, 1950. Not a word about Burmese Buddhists burning Muslim migrants, a pattern set decades earlier when Buddhists in Sri Lanka terrorized Tamils. And Cambodia’s killing fields or Vietcong mass murders of Vietnamese at Hue during the 1968 Tet offensive? Or Vietnam’s fleeing boat people; when Joan Didion saw them in Hong Kong she called it “a liquid Auschwitz” and Andrew Pham gave the gruesome details in his 1999 Kiriyama Prize book, Catfish and Mandala. Hastings skips the morass of the Middle East and Africa; no mention of the 91 killed in the 1948 terror bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem or South Africa’s apartheid agony best represented by the notorious Robbin Island prison. Lost on this list: ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia as well as the disappeared in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil under military juntas. When he arrives to American patriotic centurions in Asia, the United States scores neither higher nor lower than others. Human inhumanity to humanity.
With some of these comparative catastrophes in his preface, Hastings reviewed My Lai: Vietnam, 1968 and the Descent into Darkness by Howard Jones (Oxford University Press, 2017). As expected, when one arms mainly drafted teenagers with a rifle along with a twelve-week-trained new Officer-Candidate-School lieutenant to push them, fear and loathing of enemy and leader leads to death and destruction. The villain? Lieutenant William Calley. The hero? Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. How many dead civilians? 504 peasants of all ages and sexes. How many enemy killed? Zero. How many weapons captured? Again zero. What unit did the killing? C Company, 1/20th Infantry, 23rd American Division . When and where? March 16,
1968, at a hamlet properly called Tu Cung but designated by the U.S. Army as My Lai 4, a few miles from the ocean in Quang Ngai province.
Did a cover-up follow? Indeed, from Nixon’s White House to Major Colin Powell (staff officer Americal Division, later Secretary of State for George Bush) who wrote an uncompromising bombshell denial memo. This whitewash lasted a year; then the Associated Press blew the cover off the cover-up. Calley’s court-marshal followed; “I was following orders” claimed Calley. On March 29, 1971, the court gave its verdict. Guilty. His apologists claimed the top brass scapegoated him. In September 1974 the Secretary of the Army paroled Calley.
The symbolic stain of the My Lai scandal continues to stain. Proof? On March 4, 2018, on the campus of the University of California Berkeley, the Kronos Quartet premiered an oratorio, “My Lai,” in Zellerbach Hall. Composed by Jonathan Berger of Stanford University, it had a libretto from novelist Harriet Chessman and starred Rinde Eckert as chopper pilot Hugh Thompson along with a Vietnamese instrumentalist Van-Anh Vo. Due to the fact that Stanford published my Berkeley dissertation, “The Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists in Vietnam” (1990), Laura Abrams of Cal Performances invited me to participate and interact with the military veterans whom she also invited. An honor indeed for me who had served in Nam in 1968 with the 1st Infantry Division at Lai Khe.
At last truth won. Lieutenant William Peers validated the charge of massacre at My Lai. In a belated but full investigation in November 1969, he accused 28 officers, including two generals and three full colonels, of 224 serious military offenses, ranging from false testimony and failure to report war crimes to conspiring to suppress information, participating in or failure to prevent war crimes. Events expanded to include both other Army and Marine Corps units. In 1965 Philip Caputo landed at Da Nang with the 9th Expeditionary Brigade USMC. In his 1977 memoir, “A Rumor of War”, this marine enumerated the atrocities against “gooks,” i.e. the pejorative for Vietcong. Caputo’s sergeant suggested “that one of the most brutal things in the world is your average 19-year-old American boy.” Another marine commander, Captain Walt Boomer, decided to tame those brutal boys. In 1966 he heard that his marines collected ears of dead Vietcong. Souvenirs no less. He sat them down and shamed them. Collecting ceased. Boomer rose in rank, retiring as a four-star general, commandant of the Marine Corps. It took a Major Thompson, a General Peers, and a Captain Boomer to put the honor back in Duty, Honor, Country!
Honor requires vigilance less you end with a demoralized force like our military in Vietnam, darkly described in Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977). Perhaps an academic book best sets standards for wartime justice. First published in 1977, Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations argues that a nation must have a just cause to go to war and must fight that war with just means. Standards high? Indeed. Since My Lai and Vietnam, has the United States fought by a high standard? Not when Abu Ghraib enters the picture in the ill-advised, deceitful war against Iraq. In April 2004 CBS News broke the story of torture, rape, sodomy at this Bagdad “detention camp.” Heads began to fall, but not the higher heads at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department, and the White House. Critics called Abu Ghraib “state sanctioned crime”. What state? Guess. What higher heads? Try Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney cheered on by Secretary of State Condi Rice and President George Bush. That’s the high level the International Criminal Court at the Hague would demand.
Inasmuch to escape the spotlight, the Pentagon brass ordered a report on Abu Ghraib, appointing what they thought was a good-old-general with Asian roots, General Antonio Toguba, a Filipino American. To their utter surprise they had unearthed another Thompson-Peers-Boomer. He went, saw, and reported the truth. After that Rumsfeld shunned him, seeing to it that he was retired. Soon thereafter I had the honor of conducting a public interview of General Toguba at Dr. Barbara Bundy’s Center for the Pacific Rim in San Francisco. Candid, cautious, careful? Affirmative. Toguba told truth to power.
My Lai and Abu Ghraib saw honor dishonored. Philosophers ponder the maxim that the spoils of war go to the winners. Perhaps, but not clemency. That comes when justified force meets unjustified force in a just way. Max Hastings understood that. So did the quartet of Thompson-Peers-Boomer-Toguba. Now what? With the current cast of characters from the dark side of Washington politics, darkness at noon awaits. Cry my beloved country.
Dr. Patrick Lloyd Hatcher earned his Ph.D. in American History at the University of California Berkeley where he also served as an associate professor of military science educating Army cadets. He retired on that California campus as a lieutenant colonel having served in South
Korea, West Germany, and South Vietnam. He then went on to teach in both the Berkeley history and political science departments as well as the University of California Davis and Saint Mary’s College.