IT’S one of those photographs that indelibly sear themselves on to the memory. Every now and then, they pop up unbeckoned from the subconscious. I was about 10 when I first saw it, in a November 1969 issue of Life magazine. The expression of sheer anguish and despair on the face of the middle-aged woman at the forefront is unforgettable. The photographer heard gunfire soon after he began walking away from the scene.
Ron Haeberle had captured the final moments of a small bunch of civilians who were among the estimated 504 massacred 50 years ago this week when Charlie Company was deployed, on March 16, 1968, in a South Vietnamese hamlet designated My Lai 4. They found no combatants, but nonetheless decided their orders obliged them to kill everyone they found — from infants and toddlers to women of all ages and a few old men — and then to burn down their huts.
The photograph shows someone trying to gently restrain the woman with hands around her waist. To her left there is a much younger woman, holding a small child wearing a look of bewilderment and fear, who can be seen buttoning up her blouse. There is another petrified child in the background, clinging on to someone we cannot clearly see. The caption makes it clear this was the last time they were seen alive. It does not explain that the older woman was being held back because she had been kicking and scratching the soldiers who were bent upon sexually violating the younger woman, possibly her daughter.
Once some of the truth about what happened in My Lai emerged about a year and a half later, the extent of the indiscriminate killings inevitably overshadowed the preceding sexual assaults. They were both par for the course, but unprovoked murder figured higher on the scale of atrocities than the degradation that preceded it.
An estimated 504 people were killed 50 years ago this week.
Another of the photographs that Life published showed a large number of bodies — of all sizes, some of them very small — lying slaughtered between two verdant fields. The toll could have been worse, though, had not the US helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson inserted his flying machine between his compatriots and fleeing civilians, and ordered his two subordinates to shoot at any fellow Americans trying to kill the Vietnamese.
Thompson’s alerts to the regional US military headquarters initially went unheeded, but eventually prompted a command to cease and desist. Thompson deserves credit for saving some lives. His testimony was a key factor in the prosecution of a few culprits. Charlie Company’s Capt Ernest Medina was exonerated; Lt William Calley, the only officer to be convicted of 20 or so murders, was freed from house arrest after three and a half years.
During his trial and incarceration, almost nine out of every 10 missives directed to the White House were pleas for clemency. If that comes as a shock, let us not forget that opinion polls after four young anti-war protesters were gunned down at Kent State University showed a majority of Americans welcomed their demise. The nation that picked Donald Trump as president in 2016 hasn’t changed all that much.
When George H.W. Bush, before attacking Iraq in 1991, declared his nation had overcome the ‘Vietnam syndrome’, he wasn’t referring to the war crimes, which only ever bothered a relatively small proportion of Americans. What he meant was that America’s defeat in Vietnam, despite its overwhelming firepower and monopoly of the skies, no longer seemed a barrier to choosing other killing fields. He foresaw a relatively brief war. Nearly three decades on, the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have extended well beyond the long period of aggression and defeat in Vietnam.
The continuity is illustrated also by the fact that Seymour Hersh, the first reporter bold enough to publicise the massacre at My Lai (as well as the coordinated cover-up that followed) almost four decades later broke the story of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, a reminder, that dehumanising the enemy remains a crucial component of the American arsenal. Of course, other military forces are perfectly capable of comparable atrocities. Not long after Life published photographic evidence of the war crime at My Lai, there were similarly appalling images to contend with from the Pakistani military operations to thwart the birth of Bangladesh.
The year 1968 stands out in modern American history for a multiplicity of domestic reasons, from riots to assassinations. But My Lai and its aftermath arguably trump much else as an illustration of what the US was all about at that juncture. The massacre wasn’t so much an aberration as part of a pattern, much of which remains unrecorded. But also, in some ways, unbroken — at home in America, but mainly abroad, where there will always be scope for mass murder.
Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2018