Not even war excuses this 'dark and bloody' affair

April 11, 2003

At My Lai, US troops slaughtered 400 Vietnamese civilians. Will American military justice be able to prevent similar events from occurring in Iraq? asks Kendrick Oliver

On the morning of March 16 1968, the men of Charlie Company, 11th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, US Army, entered the village of Son My, on the coast of central Vietnam. The company was led by Captain Ernest Medina. In charge of its 1st Platoon was Lieutenant William Calley. The soldiers encountered no enemy forces, no opposing fire of any kind. Its only casualty in the action was self-inflicted. Nevertheless, by early afternoon, more than 400 villagers lay dead. Those killed were - almost exclusively - women, old men or small children. Many of the women had been raped, others tortured and mutilated, before being killed. Much of the killing had occurred in the collection of hamlets known by the Americans as My Lai 4. Much of the killing had been conducted by 1st Platoon.

At a time of renewed US military intervention overseas, it is instructive to revisit the story of the My Lai massacre. If the US campaign in Iraq is - as both cheerleaders and critics assert - a testing ground for a long-term strategy of confronting and dismantling "rogue states", then a successful outcome will lead to more interventions. In such conflicts, regimes fighting for their survival may have little concern for the formal laws of war. So-called weapons of mass destruction, where they exist, are more likely to be used, and, as in Iraq, there will be attempts to gain a tactical advantage by disguising combatants as civilians or in other ways converting the special legal status of civilians into an instrument of war.

Just as did the "people's war" strategy of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, this will create poignant operational dilemmas for the armed forces of the US and its allies. Where the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is blurred, the latter are more vulnerable to misidentification and mistreatment. Just last week, the threat of suicide attacks from Iraqi soldiers in civilian guise led to the shooting of seven women and children at a US checkpoint. The task of discriminating between the enemy and the innocent entails risk as well as care. Not all service personnel are equally able and willing to bear those burdens. Calley chose not to bother. "They were all the enemy," he said of the inhabitants of My Lai, "they were all to be destroyed."

That wars confront those who fight them with difficult decisions is not, however, a sufficient explanation of atrocity. If it were, all those who fought in Vietnam, and all those who fight now in Iraq, would rank in infamy alongside Calley and his men. They clearly do not. As the novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien commented about My Lai: "What about those of us who went through exactly what Charlie Company went through? I went through exactly what they went through in the same place, and we weren't killing babies." To imply that the deliberate killing of civilians is inevitable in circumstances of conflict may ultimately serve to grant a kind of licence, evacuating the moral responsibility of individual soldiers and officers for their actions. In the event that such crimes do occur, it may also discourage serious legal and historical inquiries into their causes.

The combat conditions that confront US soldiers in Iraq are just those most likely also to acquaint them with the institutions of military justice. The US system of military justice itself will become subject to a number of severe tests - of its readiness to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by US soldiers and to prosecute them forcefully where warranted, and of its capacity to muster the support of the US public for its operations. The Bush administration is resolved not to become a party to the International Criminal Court for fear that US service personnel will be subjected to "politicised prosecutions". It refuses to accept the ICC's claim to jurisdiction in cases where national legal systems prove inadequate guarantors of international law. Given this, US military justice will be another measure of the moral parameters of the "new US imperialism", as they are to be observed by its agents on the ground.

The military justice system's treatment of the massacre at My Lai - one of the most egregious examples of criminal killing in war - does not inspire total confidence. That anybody was tried at all was a consequence not of the vigilance of the army's legal authorities, but of a lone individual's efforts to force the massacre upon their attention.

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, information about what had happened was suppressed by brigade and divisional commanders to prevent external investigation. It was more than a year later, after a former soldier, Ronald Ridenhour, wrote to the president, members of Congress and the Pentagon, that the army's Office of the Inspector General became aware that the actions of Charlie Company in My Lai warranted inquiry. Ridenhour had not been present at the massacre. But his account was compiled from detailed conversations with soldiers who had witnessed and, in some cases, participated in the killings. Ridenhour was convinced, he said, that "something rather dark and bloody" had occurred in the village. After a long investigation, four officers and nine enlisted men were charged with major crimes related to the massacre. Calley was charged with six specifications of murder, including the deliberate shooting of 109 Vietnamese civilians.

The investigation, however, failed to produce convictions commensurate with the scale of the crimes. Calley was found guilty of murdering 22 villagers, but his sentence of life imprisonment with hard labour was swiftly commuted to 20 and then ten years. In November 1974, he became eligible for parole and left military custody. Only a handful of the other cases went to trial.

Of those that did, including that of Captain Medina, all resulted in acquittal.

The response of the US public to the My Lai prosecutions revealed acute unease with the notion that individual soldiers, exposed to the stresses of combat, could be held legally responsible for their actions. A majority of Americans did accept that the killings merited a judicial response. But the perception that blame was being assigned disproportionately to junior officers and ordinary GIs, combined with a certain innocence as to the wantonness of his conduct in the village, appears to have converted Calley into a populist symbol. In the wake of his conviction, the White House received more than 300,000 letters, cards and telegrams concerning the case. Few of them supported the findings of the court. Sensing the public mood, President Richard Nixon decided to release the lieutenant from the prison stockade and confine him instead to his quarters, pending an appeal.

As one commentator put it, Calley's initial punishment for slaughter was to be sent to his room.

It was not, however, an entirely dismal tale. At senior levels in the US military, there was a recognition that only by investigating what had happened and prosecuting those most directly culpable could it be proved to both the public and serving soldiers that the killings in My Lai were in conflict with institutional norms. Although this emphasis on the aberrance of Charlie Company evaded some uncomfortable questions about wider command responsibility for the massacre and the often murky moral status of other aspects of US war-fighting in Vietnam, it was nevertheless an indication that a rough commitment to the operations of military justice still held in the corridors of the Pentagon. The news media, and particularly the printed press, ran largely against the tide of public opinion in pronouncing the verdict against Calley to be just. Acquittal, asserted Life magazine, "would have been a disaster: here was a responsible officer, not even in the position of being fired upon, who callously mowed down women and children".

The US army is different now, comprised not of conscripts but of volunteer professionals, more assiduously instructed in the laws of war than were Vietnam-era GIs. The battlefield is different, too: the advent of round-the-clock news, broadcast by stations with access to both sides of the front, means that a veil may not be so easily drawn over any war crimes that do occur. We should not expect any more My Lais, not least because expectations create a dangerous logic of their own. Yet it is nevertheless likely that the quality of US military justice will be tested in the months and years ahead if the war in Iraq drags on or if the effort is reprised elsewhere. The moral legitimacy of US foreign policy, already much contested, will depend in great measure on the outcome of that test.

Kendrick Oliver is lecturer in later-modern American history at Southampton University.

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