Mỹ Lai and Sy Hersh, a Reappraisal
I made a documentary about the Vietnam War five years ago, Vietnam: American Holocaust. Since I wanted it to be the ultimate Vietnam War documentary, I got the guy who narrated and starred in Apocalypse Now to do the voice-over. I made it because too many educated Americans will tell you 58,000 people died in the Vietnam War, when the real number is closer to three million, give or take 50,000. The tag line I have used to promote the film has been "The Vietnam War was a Mỹ Lai every week." Since most people know about the Mỹ Lai massacre, it is an easy way to say what the film's message is. The month after I released the film, Nick Turse published an article in The Nation titled A Mỹ Lai a Month about Operation Speedy Express, in which 10,889 Vietnamese were killed at the cost of only 267 American lives, which made much the same point.
That point, already known to the Vietnamese, most serious students of the Vietnam War, and certainly most combat vets, is that the only thing really outstanding about the Mỹ Lai massacre is the amount of attention it received.
Consider this relatively unknown massacre related by, Scott Camil, a decorated Vietnam combat Marine who testifies in my film. Why is it any less deserving to be known to the world and remembered throughout history?
In Operation Stone we were sitting up on the rail road trestle with a river on each side. There's another company behind each river. And like the people were running around inside. And we were just shooting them and the newspaper said Operation Stone like World War Two movie. We just sat up there and wiped them out, women, children, everything. Two hundred nine-one of them.Was this not worthy of Pulitzer Prize winning reportage? Certainly Operation Speedy Express was because it clearly wasn't a simple case of a Lieutenant and his company going off the reservation.
I have long been of the opinion that the US imperialists, even in their limited wisdom, understood they could never obliterate the people's memory of the many atrocities of the Vietnam War, so they allowed one to become famous, they allowed one to be publicized and prosecuted, in the hopes that the public memory of the generalized and pervasive massacres that was the Vietnam War, would be resolved down to the memory of this one atrocity, and in this they have been largely successful. I believe this is the proper context to view Seymour Hersh's Pulitzer Prizing winning reporting on the Mỹ Lai Massacre.
When Sy Hersh asked "Why did the Army choose to prosecute this case?" the answer he got from his "military source" was:
"The Army knew it was going to get clobbered on this at some point, If they don’t prosecute somebody, if this stuff comes out without the Army taking some action, it could be even worse."The Mỹ Lai massacre took place on the morning of 16 March 1968 in the Vietnamese village of Son My. In Vietnam, it is properly known as the Son My massacre, but the US army wrongly, had it marked Mỹ Lai on the map, and they don't easily admit mistakes so we call it the Mỹ Lai massacre. According to surviving villagers, the 504 unarmed civilians victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.
The real American heroes at the Mỹ Lai massacre were helicopter pilotWarrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr, and his crew. They were proving close-air support over Son My for the ground troops. When he saw that innocent civilians were being massacred, he became an interventionist. From Wikipedia:
Thompson then saw a group of civilians (again consisting of children, women, and old men) at a bunker being approached by ground personnel. Thompson landed and told his crew that if the soldiers shot at the Vietnamese while he was trying to get them out of the bunker that they were to open fire at these soldiers. Thompson later testified that he spoke with a lieutenant (identified as Stephen Brooks of the 2nd Platoon) and told him there were women and children in the bunker, and asked if the lieutenant would help get them out. According to Thompson, "he [the lieutenant] said the only way to get them out was with a hand grenade". Thompson testified that he then told Brooks to "just hold your men right where they are, and I'll get the kids out". He found 12–16 people in the bunker, coaxed them out and led them to the helicopter, standing with them while they were flown out in two groups.
"If this damn stuff is what's happening here," you can take these wings right now 'cause they're only sewn on with thread."At a time when the official Army line on Mỹ Lai was "U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle.", Thompson stuck to his story and made it official. That meant being interviewed by a full colonel and the beginning of a record that would make this massacre hard to ignore. Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving the child but he refused it because it was accompanied by a fabricated account of how they saved the child from "intense crossfire."
Another hero of Mỹ Lai was a 21-year-old soldier by the name of Tom Glen. Six months after the massacre, he wrote a letter toGeneral Creighton Abrams, who was then commander of all US forces in Vietnam, in which, after describing the brutality he had witnessed, said:
"It would indeed be terrible to find it necessary to believe that an American soldier that harbors such racial intolerance and disregard for justice and human feeling is a prototype of all American national character; yet the frequency of such soldiers lends credulity to such beliefs. ... What has been outlined here I have seen not only in my own unit, but also in others we have worked with, and I fear it is universal. If this is indeed the case, it is a problem which cannot be overlooked,... "Colin Powell, then a young major, was assigned to investigate Glen's complaint and came back with the verdict: "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal Division soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." [the soldiers who committed the Mỹ Lai massacre were from the Americal Division.] Still, the record was building.
I spent the remainder of my time in Vietnam trying to locate people who had been there and of course part of it was easy because I was going straight to the divisional LRRP company. Four or five people who had been my friends in Hawaii and had gone to Charlie company had transferred into the divisional LRRP company within a week or ten days after the massacre. So I was able to go in and talk with them and two of them were very good friends.One of his friends, Michael Terry, was later interviewed and quoted by Sy Hersh. This is how Ridenhour found Sgt. Michael Bernhardt, a witness Sy Hersh would cite 28 times in his first three articles on the massacre:
The one thing I needed that I didn't have was somebody who had been there, who was a witness and who had not participated. I didn't have any reason necessarily to believe my friends wouldn't be honest when they were asked about it. On the other hand, they had participated in this terrible crime and maybe they wouldn't. So I felt I needed somebody that I could count on and I knew of such a man, his name was Michael Bernhardt.Bernhardt wasn't easy to contact because the Army was keeping him on point out in the boonies, trying to get him killed before he could speak out. When he finally got some alone time with Bernhardt, and found that they were of like minds about the massacre, Bernhardt told him his plan was to go around and assassinate the officers involved "one by one", to which Ridenhour responded: "So why don't we try my plan. I'm gonna get an investigation going."
Once Ridenhour had assembled the facts and witnesses, he sent a letter to 30 members of Congress demanding an investigation. All but three of the recipients of Ridenhour's letter put it in the circular file. Those three, to their credit, were Congressman Mo Udall and Senators Barry Goldwater andEdward Brooke. Udall pushed for a House Armed Services Committee investigation.
With pressure growing, the Army knew they needed a "fall guy", and after spending nearly a year investigating what had become known, even whispered in the halls of Congress, as the "Pinkville incident", they charged one man, Lt. William Calley Jr., "with premeditation murder" of 109 "Oriental human beings" on 6 Sept 1969. He would become the only person ever convicted in this massacre. They also issued a short press release which was generally ignored.
It is only now, after the Army had built its case and charged Calley [a more cynical person might say, "After the Army had perfected its cover story."] that Seymour Hersh, the official hero of record in the Mỹ Lai massacre, comes onto the stage. He was alerted to the Calley court marshal by Geoffrey Cowan of The Village Voice. Geoffrey Cowan had earlier been active in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer and had set up the first civil rights newspaper in Mississippi. He became an anti-war lawyer and was working on the anti-war presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy in 1968when Sy Hersh was its press secretary.
After he received Cowan's tip, Hersh called a trusted friend, a former defense official, and asked "What did this guy Calley do?" From the retired US Army colonel he got the story the Army wanted to put out:
"This Calley is just a madman, Sy just a madman! He just went around killing all those people. Little babies!"After receiving a small grant from The Fund for Investigative Journalism, Hersh did extensive interviews with Calley's lawyer and finally Calley himself. Hersh later wrote of the 15 hr. interview in which Hersh plied Calley with booze:
"It was silly of him to speak with me, but he just wanted to talk. He went all night."Calley was a 20-year-old soldier facing capital murder charges talking to an experienced reporter without his lawyer present, but he was by no means innocent, and such tactics certainly could have been justified had Hersh's motive been to end that devastating war, but Sy Hersh admitted 40 years later:
"I’d like to tell you that I thought, oh my God, this is going to kill the war, it’s going to hurt the war effort. But really, fame, fortune and glory raced through my mind. What a story!"Sy Hersh was getting the story that made him and he was exposing an atrocity, but he was also helping the Army build its case against a scape-goat, and helping to shape the memory the military wanted people to have of the war. "Yes, there were a few atrocities, but we took care of that." His stories ran in 33 newspapers. This is how Sy Hersh became the instrument by which the Mỹ Lai massacre became public knowledge in November 1969. He was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize and a job at the New York Times. At the time, Hersh boasted "I'm a fucking celebrity!"
If I am right about the role that the exposure of the Mỹ Lai massacre was intended to play in the media and the American psych, then Sy Hersh was a good choice to get the scoop because unlike David Halberstam, Dan Rather, Peter Arnett, Barbara Gluck, Bob Simons and many other war correspondents, he lacked experience in Vietnam. Sy Hersh covered the story from the point-of-view of the court marshal, and he covered it initially in three stories from three locations, Fort Benning, GA on 13 November 1969, Washington, DC on 20 November 1969, and Terre Haute, IN on 25 November 1969. He reports on it not as an example of the kind of wholesale slaughter that was the Vietnam War, but in isolation from any other massacres.
In his first article about Calley, Hersh quotes another officer defending Calley on the basis that what he did was nothing out of the ordinary:
"There weren’t any friendlies in the village. The orders were to shoot anything that moved." Another officer said "It could happen to any of us. He has killed and has seen a lot of killing. ..Killing becomes nothing in Vietnam."A few paragraph later Hersh writes of Calley:
Friends described Calley as a "gung-ho Army man ... Army all the way." Ironically, even his stanchest supporters admit, his enthusiasm may be somewhat to blame. "Maybe he did take some order to clear out the village a little bit too literally" one friend said "but he’s a fine boy."Sy Hersh should have known that the order "Kill anything that moves" was often given and often taken very literally. Here's another example from my filmas told by Vietnam vet Jamie Henry:
19 women and children were rounded up as Viet Cong Suspects--and the lieutenant that rounded them up called the captain on the radio and he asked what should be done with them.I believe one of the effects of an almost obsessive focus by the media on the single massacre at Mỹ Lai has been to drown out the knowledge of these hundreds of other atrocities, larger and smaller, that gave the war the character of a holocaust in which more than 3 million human beings, "Oriental"or not, were slaughtered by Americans.
The real American heroes of the Son My Massacre are first and foremost the ordinary soldiers who refused such orders and sometimes even offered armed resistance, and then those who refused to let the massacre be covered up. As Hersh reported at the time:
Interviews have brought out the fact that the investigation into the Pinkville affair was initiated six months after the incident, only after some of the men who served under Calley complained.One of those soldiers was Sgt. Michael Bernhardt, who told Sy Hersh:
"The Army ordered me not to talk, but there are some orders that I have to personally decide whether to obey; I have my own conscience to consider."These soldiers didn't receive any prizes or fancy new jobs for their troubles, but they should have.