By Dave Stancliff
Forty-four years ago today, marks the mass murder of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians (no one knows for sure what the exact count was) in Mỹ Lai, Vietnam, by soldiers from "Charlie" Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division.
Second Lieutenant William Calley, a platoon leader in Charlie Company was convicted of killing 22 of the villagers in the course of the massacre. While 26 US soldiers were initially charged with criminal offenses for their actions at Mỹ Lai, Calley was singled out as the poster boy for his part in the senseless slaughter.
Most of the victims were women, children (including babies), and elderly people. Some of the bodies were later found to be mutilated. A year later, in May 1969, the story of the mass murders hit the national and international press, stunning the world.
I was in the Army at the time of the announcement, and remember having confused feelings when I heard he was up for the death penalty. His sentence was later reduced to three and a half years under house arrest.
I couldn’t understand why just one person had been selected to answer for the atrocities when a whole company was involved? In retrospect, I can see the military needed someone to blame, but didn’t want to go after the entire unit.
The massacre increased domestic opposition to our involvement in the Vietnam War. You might call it a turning point. The three US servicemen who had tried to halt the massacre and protect the wounded were later denounced by several US Congressmen. They received hate mail and death threats and found mutilated animals on their doorsteps.
Hugh Clowers Thompson, Jr., and his crew, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, were recognized and decorated 30 years later for their heroism at My Lai. Andreotta had died in combat three weeks after the massacre, and so was honored posthumously.
The fact that the massacre was successfully covered up for 18 months was seen as a prime example of the Pentagon's "Culture of Concealment.” Hiding war atrocities is impossible nowadays thanks to worldwide instant communications and the internet.
The most recent example is the American soldier who is accused of massacring 16 villagers (mostly women and children) near Kandahar, Afghanistan. I read where he’s up for the death penalty. I also read where U.S. officials said that only one soldier, from the Stryker brigade, is being tried for leaving his base in southern Afghanistan and opening fire on the sleeping families.
I bet that he had help. There were reports of a group of Americans in the village and elders the next day testified to multiple attacks. But only one soldier has been charged. With U.S.-Afghanistan relations in crisis, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Friday openly doubted the American account of the March 12 massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, allegedly by one U.S. soldier. And Karzai told President Barack Obama by telephone that it was time to pull NATO forces from Afghan villages, the Associated Press reported.
The shooter has been identified as a staff sergeant on his fourth combat tour. He faces an Article 32 investigation which will be conducted before any court-martial proceedings. If there is a conviction at court-martial with the death penalty imposed and all appeals exhausted, the president of the United States himself would have to sign the death warrant for the soldier's execution.
John Bennett was the last U.S. soldier to be executed by the military. He was hanged in 1961 after being convicted of the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl.
I’m just guessing, but if I were to bet, this staff sergeant won’t be executed. If convicted, he’ll be pardoned. It is an election year. The conditions in the military haven’t changed that much since Vietnam. It looks like his lawyer will be using a PTSD defence, according to NBC News.
It’s a legitimate defense (anyone with four combat tours has to have PTSD). The real issue here is the culture of war demands that warriors go unpunished for atrocities committed in combat zones. The pack mentality demands closing ranks whenever possible. I doubt if any civilian could even begin to understand this mentality. It’s not about right or wrong.
As It Stands, the one thing a combat veteran knows is he’s supposed to kill the enemy whenever possible. That mentality warps into a twisted reality sometimes and civilians look like the enemy, becoming acceptable collateral damage.