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.