WHY, IN THE MIDST of an horrific war between Russia and Ukraine, did we let the anniversary pass? With talk of atrocities and war crimes filling the airwaves, how could we have overlooked the events of 16 March 1968?
That was the day two companies of United States infantry descended on what the Americans called “Pinkville” and began killing civilians. The Vietnamese inhabitants of the village, between 300 and 500 of whom would be dead by nightfall, called it My Lai.
The My Lai Massacre, as the wanton butchery and rape of unarmed men, women and children came to be known, was notable for two extraordinary interventions.
The first occurred on the day of the killings, when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson and his helicopter crew, witnessing the mass murder taking place just a few hundred feet below them, landed their aircraft close to a group of My Lai villagers cowering in a bunker and organised their safe evacuation, making it clear to the American soldiers menacing them, that he and his men were prepared to use their aircraft’s heavy machine gun to keep the villagers safe.
Returning to base, Thompson told his commanding officer: “It’s mass murder out there. They’re rounding them up and herding them in ditches and then just shooting them.”
The other extraordinary intervention came two years later when the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, intervened to have the only individual convicted for his role in the My Lai Massacre, Lieutenant William Calley Jnr, released from the military jail where he was being held pending his appeal and placed under house arrest. Sentenced to life imprisonment on 22 counts of murder, Calley ended up spending only three-and-a-half years in custody.
In 1971, patriotic Americans could sing along to Terry Nelson’s “Battle Hymn of Lt Calley” – a tribute to the man considered a hero by many of his countrymen. By contrast, Warrant Officer Thompson and his crew were denounced by the then Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mendel Rivers, as “traitors”.
In war, frightened and disillusioned young men are capable of the most atrocious behaviour, especially if encouraged to do so by those placed in command over them. At the outbreak of World War I, for example, German conscripts were ordered to engage in acts of Schrecklichkeit – frightfulness – as a means of deterring civilians from attempting to resist their advance. Thousands of men, women and children died.
In the final days of the First World War, when it was clear that all was lost, and with the Allies advancing rapidly towards the German frontier, there were instances of the retreating German soldiers murdering as many of the inhabitants of the villages and towns they were abandoning as they could find - seemingly out of a combination of petulance and spite. Schrecklichkeit indeed!
The images we have all had to confront this week from the Ukrainian town of Bucha are reminiscent of the scenes that confronted Australian and New Zealand troops in Flanders at the end of 1918.
Our Prime Minister quite rightly described the killing of unarmed Ukrainian civilians by Russian conscripts as “beyond reprehensible”. United States President, Joe Biden, went further, calling the man responsible, President Vladimir Putin, a “war criminal”. National’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, has called for the expulsion of the Russian ambassador.
This latter demand would be easier to endorse if Mr Brownlee had made a similar call when the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia unleashed their “shock and awe” attacks on Iraq in March 2003. Then, too, there were confronting images of a capital city lit up by the explosions of cruise missiles; heart-wrenching scenes of civilians killed as they cowered in bunkers.
That was also an illegal war, launched without UN sanction, against a nation that had not attacked its invaders. The siege, bombardment (with phosphorous shells) and eventual occupation of the Iraqi city of Fallujah certainly bears comparison with the Russian armed forces’ siege and bombardment of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
Why then did Mr Brownlee fail to call for the expulsion of the American ambassador, President Bush’s mouthpiece in Wellington?
No part of humanity, no nation on Earth, carries a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that the Devil will honour.
Every date on the calendar commemorates a crime against humanity.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 April 2022.
"This latter demand would be easier to endorse if Mr Brownlee had made a similar call when the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia unleashed their “shock and awe” attacks on Iraq in March 2003. Then, too, there were confronting images of a capital city lit up by the explosions of cruise missiles; heart-wrenching scenes of civilians killed as they cowered in bunkers."
Not particularly comparable cases - Iraq 2003.
Unlawful war - check.
Missiles - check.
"heart-wrenching scenes of civilians killed as they cowered in bunkers" - I believe you are referring to 1991 not 2003. see this.
Missiles and artillery deliberately aimed at civilians like the front line cities - nope - perhaps you would provide substantiating links for Iraq in 2003.
Killing civilians in an occupation and leaving their bodies strewn along the streets of town in clear acts of intimidation - nope - perhaps you would provide substantiating links for Iraq in 2003.
The contrast between the implementation of the 2003 invasion, unlawful and stupid fuckup as it was, and the Russian fuckup in 2022 just makes the Russians look even more like the useless barbarian incompetents intent on cementing their military reputation of deliberately terrorising civilians and not too good at dealing with military objectives and targets.
Brownlee could rightfully be criticised for not raising his voice against the US going into the war in 2003. But not for not criticising the US forces deliberately targeting civilian population. It is hard to criticise someone for not objecting to something that didn't happen during the months of that invasion.
Basically I think that you should read up on actual military strategy, tactics and history and less on bullshit mythology and rhetoric suitable only for targeting simpletons.
Thank you for remembering this horror, and the bravery of the men who stepped in and tried to bring justice. Their actions keep my faith in humanity alive.
I remember the My Lai massacre in Vietnam being publicised around 1970. Apparently no media outlet wanted to print it till about a year passed and it didn't go away. I seem to remember that a newspaper in Australia changed hands, I think in the Fairfax Group, and they carried the My Lai story as a notable scoop to begin. Unfortunately though it was very newsworthy, few people wanted to face it for weekend reading I think) and I understand many copies were dumped. The truth - we can't handle the truth!
Then also I remember Dr David Kelly RIP 2003 advisor on Iraq and its weaponry which Blair decided to ignore, as he apparently assured his mate the President of USA that he was with him and war was entered into 2003-2011. Facts didn't matter, only revenge and showing dominance did. The Marsh Arabs have been decimated. https://www.usip.org/press/2002/11/marsh-arabs-iraq-husseins-lesser-known-victims
Earlier, the inquiry heard Dr Kelly was "shocked" to be named as the source of BBC claims that Number 10 "sexed up" intelligence on Iraq.
The scientist told a trusted contact he was assured "it would all be confidential" after admitting meeting BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan.
I find it hard to understand that you are reducing this little war - could grow - to a simple argument of which was the biggest, worst etc. Trying to understand what is behind it, why it has taken the line and methods it has and whether we are hearing and seeing the truth is important. What might be the reasons, what background fear and alarm is driving it. Has Putin lost his sang froid after uncountable provocations from the west, particularly USAand UK which has been happy to receive much Russian investment. Is he thinking damned Brits trying to have too big a slice of the cake and eat it too, I'll stuff it down their throats so they have a gobful, sort of thing? And as two-faced as the USA, they're well-matched.
What has come out of other conflicts is the knowledge that facts can be distorted, that the moving plates of human desires and faults have conspired to produce an outcome to make anybody quake. It does you Unknown as you don't even care or dare enough to pick a word as a code for your identity, a freedom which you have but choose not to avail yourself.
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