March 16, 1968: seventy miles south of Danang, where US forces first landed in 1965 and where with customary serendipity I’ve washed up, a lieutenant in his mid twenties led the First Platoon of Charlie Company into a village a few miles inland from the South China Sea. He was William Calley and most westerners my age will know from that fact alone the name of the village and what happened next.
Charlie Company was charged with flushing out the 48th Unit of the North Vietnam Army, which had taken part in the Tet Offensive* of January. The 48th’s tactics, like those of its Viet Cong allies, relied heavily on surprise attack before melting into a local population supportive of its cause, that support boosted by the cronyism of US backed regimes in Saigon, products of the 1954 Geneva Accord which partitioned the country after the Viet Minh’s routing of French forces at Dien Bien Phu, close to Laos in the remote north-west.**
Though recently arrived in Vietnam, Charlie Company had already been hit hard by the war of asymmetric attrition the NVA was at this stage still committed to, its Viet Minh predecessor having learned at cost the folly of prematurely direct engagement with an enemy (France) vastly better equipped in weaponry and communications. Angered by piecemeal losses to ambush, booby trap and sniper … disoriented by heat, humidity, leeches, mosquitoes and snakes … above all frustrated at a ghostly adversary seldom seen but constantly sensed; the men of First Company were for once in high spirits. That other Charlie was about to get his come-uppance, military intel having it that the 48th was holed up in the Son My area, wherein lay the hamlet of Tu Cong, also and rather better known as My Lai.
At its briefing the night before, First Company had been told that genuine civilians would be at market all morning. Anyone in the village must therefore be either NVA or its southern partner in crime, the Viet Cong. It’s not clear whether the briefing made any qualifying exceptions, or stated an age threshold below which membership of either organisation could be ruled out. The Rough Guide to Vietnam notes that “Some GIs later remembered being told not to kill women and children, but most simply registered that there were to be no prisoners.”
In A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan describes thus the events of March 16, 1968:
The American soldiers and junior officers shot old men, women, boys, girls and babies. One soldier missed a baby lying on the ground twice with a .45 pistol as his comrades laughed at his marksmanship. He stood over the child and fired a third time. The soldiers beat women with rifle butts and raped some and sodomised others before shooting them. They shot the water buffalo, the pigs and the chickens [then] threw the dead animals into the wells to poison the water. They tossed satchel charges into the shelters under the houses. A lot of the inhabitants had fled into the shelters. Those who leaped out to escape were gunned down. All of the houses were put to the torch.
A brief digression: xenophobia has served us well for most of our history and prehistory; not least by protecting us from diseases to which we had little resistance. That does not make its vestigial presence – gleefully seized on by fascists and ultra-nationalists – a Good Thing. It means xenophobia has natural and once useful origins, to be considered in light of the more important fact that our species ascendance owes much to our ability to override through self awareness those natural impulses we no longer need. My point being that the My Lai victims become more psychologically real when we, who’ve known only Cold War-driven peace and prosperity, visit the land where they were cut down by round-eyes drunk on testosterone and the liberation of humanity’s darker instincts. Here their faces are everywhere: the girl who brings your coffee … grizzled oldsters who smoke, play chequers and gossip by the river at sunset … the many who welcome you with unfeigned delight to a country that knows better than most the art of forgiving without forgetting. French or American; it makes no difference. You are welcome, a fact quite separate from that of a People proud and justly so of its refusal to submit to foreign diktat, be it written in Washington or Paris, Geneva or Beijing.
It took eighteen months and one young and very determined political journalist in Washington to break the story. Seymour Hersh, who still writes with intelligence and old fashioned liberal commitment to truth – see this January piece on the demonised Assad, and Obama’s criminal stupidity in Syria – tried to engage mainstream media in what he was uncovering but only when fringe publications ran his copy did the big papers, and Pentagon, act. For the latter, the name of the game was of course damage limitation. Which meant throwing to the wolves the young lieutenant who’d overseen the butchery; leading it by example and by orders screamed at those of his men who’d hung back.
Clearly, Calley was bang to rights. Equally clear is the fact this inexperienced junior officer could not have acted as he did without the blessing of higher ups far from the scene. Also clear is a logic ignored by the many who, while deploring war in general, tend like the good Hilary Benn to believe the guff of their own media and support those particular wars our ruling classes are bent on prosecuting for unfailingly venal reasons. We all condemn William Calley but how many of us can claim experience of anything like the living hell First Platoon, Charlie Company, had been consigned to? For that matter we might all – women not excepted – ask ourselves how we might have behaved in their situation. But before answering we do well to chew on the findings, oft and widely replicated, of Asch and Milgram, Janis and Zimbardo.
Richard Milhous Nixon may have had similar thoughts when, just three days into Calley’s life sentence of hard labour, he used presidential prerogative to commute that sentence to house arrest. Three years on even this was lifted, and for the next decade or so Calley would give self serving interviews to all media comers. But My Lai proved an accelerant for growing domestic opposition to a deeply unpopular war. Nixon had come to office the previous year on a ticket of withdrawing US forces from Vietnam. Weasel words. In truth he still thought he could do so on the back of unconditional victory.
(And I say the world owes a huge debt of gratitude to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Does anyone suppose for a moment that, had America retained its nuclear monopoly, Hanoi would not have gone the way of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Those who do should revisit a key assumption about why Fat Boy and Little Man were deployed in August 1946. Here’s a starter…)
Nixon stepped up the bombing of Hanoi, along with use in the south of the defoliant, Agent Orange – whose removal from productive use, and for decades to come, of millions of hectares of prime agricultural land forms but one of many strands to a comprehensive answer to Sa’s question – and of napalm. He also extended the bombing, quite illegally, to neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. These latter decisions, though unpalatable in the detached moral universes we like to pontificate from, were logical and – given that the Congress which had sanctioned war on Vietnam now endangered its “boys” by baulking at doing the same in Cambodia and Laos – had a military justification Hiroshima and Nagaski never had. They also led seamlessly to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and all that followed …
… which puts me in mind of a post I’ve been intending for some months to write. A superficial reading of my blog could easily lead to the conclusion I am anti American. I’m not, and am truly grateful to the fact, revealed by Google Analytics, that some of my political posts draw a third of their readers from the USA. I’ve visited the States several times and found, speaking broad brush, a hospitality and big heartedness that puts Brits to shame. I also have good and longstanding American friendships, list at least three American novelists in my all time top ten, and frequently read American pundits to the left of me. And that’s before we even get to the fact this country gave us the twentieth century’s three great musical genres. Unlike my parents’ generation, which never came to terms with a balance of global power transformed by WW2, I have great respect for many aspects of American culture, in all senses of that word.
Let me put this another way. Those Brits who – these days more discreetly – believe the British Empire conducted itself with greater civility and humanity really do need to look to such as the events of Amritsar 1919*** and the way the dregs of Scotland’s and North East England’s criminal communities were recruited for HM Duty across the Irish Sea as the infamous Black & Tan Regiment: mad dogs let loose for Albion.
As I may have mentioned once or twice in other posts, I’m a materialist not an idealist. I don’t look to the Hadiths to understand Islamic State, or to Mao’s Red Book to make sense of Pol Pot. In the same way I don’t look to some peculiarity in the American psyche for explanation of the most traumatising war in that nation’s history, or its inevitable consequences in such as My Lai. Vietnam was the wholly logical product not only of cold war but of capitalism at what Lenin once dubbed its highest stage; that of imperialism. And yes, I do know that’s a big statement; one I’ll have to back up sooner or later.
Not today though. No disrespect to the murdered but I’ve spent too much of March 16, 2016 on this. I’m a typical bloke. In my no doubt emotionally retarded worldview, anniversaries neither enhance nor detract from the gravity of the original event. So what if it is forty-eight years to the day since Calley led his men into My Lai, a two hour drive from where I now type? It’s time I got out and strolled the sands of Danang where, fifty-one years and eight days ago, the first landing craft beached up to disgorge their cargoes of Soldiers for Sam.