Democratic Left

Remembering Wars, From My Lai to Iraq

Fifteen years ago this week, the U.S. invasion of Iraq began. I was teaching a class at the City College of New York, and we were reading Yeats. Despite the fast-breaking news of U.S. bombs falling on that nation, we nonetheless had to discuss what was on the class syllabus – Yeats’ response to the 1916 Easter Rising.  I and my students noticed many literary parallels to that 2003 moment. My students even spoke up against the Iraq war, and the pride I felt at their moral courage during those early days of the then-popular invasion cannot be overstated.

As that morning came back for me this week, I imagined that a similar courage likely came to those who discovered another tragedy that happened 50 years ago this week: the massacre of 500 civilians by U.S. troops in My Lai on March 16, 1968. Most of the public only learned about this tragedy 19 months later due to the stellar reporting of Army veteran Seymour Hersh.

For many people, the name My Lai evokes the historical trauma of Auschwitz, calling to mind images with which the mind has trouble coping. The tragedy of My Lai is also a story of a string of dissenters, all of whom deserve mention as beacons of courage in the darkness of war.

Photo taken by United States Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on March 16, 1968 in the aftermath of the My Lai massacre showing mostly women and children dead on a road. The photo is copied and used in many places which mention the massacre.

(Photo: Haeberle, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Intelligent analysis of U.S. foreign policy feels nearly impossible without the voices of those hired to enforce that policy who have witnessed its worst and spoken truth to its power. In the case of My Lai, those dissenters included not only Hersh and those who helped him get the word out, but also the soldiers who acted to stop it and ensured the tragedy was not forgotten.

Warrant officer Hugh Thompson did not plan to be one of these moral beacons when he flew over the province in support of Task Force Barker, 1st Infantry of the Americal Division of which the now-infamous Charlie Company was a part. The week of March 15, 1968, Task Force Barker’s mission was relatively straightforward: to wipe out the Việt Cộng 48th Infantry.

Despite the copies of the Geneva Conventions soldiers were instructed to carry, the division was also operating under orders that exempted “hot spots” like My Lai from the Conventions’ human rights protections. The directive from the division’s command stated, “Combat Operations: Minimising Noncombatant Battle Casualties,” but carefully noted that “Specified strike zones should be configured to exclude populated areas, except those in accepted VC bases.”[emphasis added]

As he flew over the area, Thompson knew that Charlie Company had just lost 34 men in a single grenade attack. He also knew that orders since the Tet offensive identified women and children as possible Việt Cộng. Despite this knowledge, Thompson and his crew were still astonished at what they saw from their helicopter on the 16th, reporting, “Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever.” As one platoon turned their guns full force on a farmer, a horrified U.S. Army photographer commented, “They just kept shooting at her. You could see the bones flying in the air chip by chip.”

Despite a wealth of documentary evidence, the official post-operation Army communique on the matter made no mention of civilian casualties, numbering the Việt Cộng body count at 128 and noting that Charlie Company had recovered two M1 rifles, a carbine, a short-wave radio, and enemy documents. As for Charlie Company, there were a number of opponents within the company itself. Sgt. Ernst Bunning told his squad leader, “I wasn’t going to shoot any of these women and kids.” Similarly, another soldier, Stephen Carter, refused to shoot a woman holding a baby coming out of her hut. Paul Meadlo, who did participate when pressured by his officer, was described as “sobbing and shouting and saying he wanted nothing to do with this.” But even these refusers never told the outside world to what had happened. It took over a year before the silence was broken.

Thomas Glen from the 11th Light Infantry tried to come forward in late 1968, writing to a U.S. general that these events “cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of Military Assistance Command Vietnam and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated.” Abrams never responded, but his assistant, Major Colin Powell (yes, THAT Colin Powell), reprimanded Glen for such a general complaint. Powell remarked, “There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs, [but] this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division.”

Just as Powell was writing this missive, however, Corporal Ron Ridenhour was preparing to prove him wrong. Ridenhour had learned the news hinting at the intentionality of the massacre of My Lai from an old friend who had joined Charlie Company. Seized by the horror of the knowledge, Ridenhour tracked down members of Charlie Company one by one. “They couldn’t stop talking,” Ridenhour would say later. “They were horrified that it had occurred, that they had been there, and in the instances of all of these men, that they had participated in some way.”

In March 1969, Ridenhour wrote a letter as specific as Glen’s was vague, naming every soldier he’d interviewed with details of their accounts, including that the commanding officer of Charlie Company had warned soldiers never to speak about My Lai. “I remain irrevocably persuaded,” he told the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President, and every television network, “that... we must press forward a widespread and public investigation of this matter.” The resulting interviews and photos ran nationwide during the week of the moon landing in July 1969, so it took some time for all of us to get this glimpse of what we now know was standard operating procedure during that war.

In the discussion of My Lai, and retrospectives on U.S. imperial adventures more generally, I believe attention must be paid to the moral courage of those soldiers who dissented. In addition to reflecting on the sobering horrors of these and other tools of empire, we must also commemorate those who refused to participate and those who took risks to tell the truth.


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A Reflection from the DSA Veterans Working Group on the 15th Anniversary of the Invasion of Iraq

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. On March 20, 2003, the United States began a large-scale bombing campaign, proudly referred to as “shock and awe.” The hubris of those initial days was misplaced. On this fifteenth anniversary, let there be no doubt: the war in Iraq was an abject catastrophe.

Premised on fabrications around Iraq’s nuclear ambitions and chemical weapons’ stockpiles, the war was illegal. The United States government knowingly fostered untrue speculation and fantasy in order to convince allied countries to join an invasion of another sovereign state. The fallout from the invasion continues to profoundly affect not only the people of Iraq, but also the world as a whole, with each tragic year compounding the horror of the last.

The Democratic Socialists of America Veterans Working Group is composed of people recovering from U.S. American imperial misadventures, and among our comrades are many Iraq War veterans. We deplore the war, condemn those who planned and effected it, beg forgiveness of the Iraqis we helped to brutalize, and call on our fellow U.S. Americans to own up to the murderous mistake that this conflict is and always has been. The ruling classes wanted a war to bring about a wider U.S. American empire. They never cared about U.S. American service members dying and never will. Their eyes now rest squarely upon Iran and North Korea, hoping to hoping to set the stage for intervention - not unlike they did in 2003. They will try again, as they can clearly see that no punishment occurred for any Iraq War architect or advocate. We must not let them succeed.

The Iraq War was an incalculable human and ecological catastrophe for the entire region. We sullied the earth and water of a country already impoverished and polluted by sanctions and airstrikes, while the war itself led to deaths, regional conflicts, permanent migrations, evacuations, epidemics, and other human disasters throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa. We did this out of imperial hubris and a desire for access to oil. In the process, we gravely worsened the environment of a fragile region. The U.S. government wanted a permanent base in the Middle East, a staging area to attack Iran, and a wholesale corporate raid of a resource rich nation.

The Iraq War was an economic catastrophe. With a lifetime total cost of $6 trillion, the war’s current estimated cost is $2.4 trillion. For the cost of an illegal and unjust war that ended so many lives, what might we have bought instead? By contemporary estimates, a nationwide Medicare for All plan would cost $1.4 trillion a year. A free college and trade school program would cost $70 billion a year. Had we not invaded Iraq, we could have educated hundreds of millions of U.S. Americans and improved the health of so many more. Instead of funneling taxpayer funds to corrupt multinational defense companies and local warlords, we could have improved the lives of our neighbors. Instead, our nation festers under the twin plagues of militarism and neoliberalism. We hear that we cannot afford any improvements to our quality of life or to our communities because, as we see from all the evidence before us, it was more important to take $6 trillion and set it ablaze in the deserts of a country that we tried and failed to conquer.

The invasion was a moral catastrophe and an act of unabashed opportunistic aggression that has killed an estimated half-million people and destroyed the lives of many more, due to the tragic lack of preparations made for the war’s aftermath. The U.S. military’s overwhelming firepower killed innocent people, and its strategic incompetence killed even more. The war should never have happened.

On the memorial of this day of outstanding shame, let us sound the call to our comrades across the planet: we must never again allow this to happen. Fight imperialism at every turn, reject U.S. American empire, refuse to allow the war machine to move forward another inch. Never again another Iraq War. Never again another human catastrophe, another limitless shame, another mass killing, another bonfire incinerating all the possibilities of a better world.


In solidarity,

DSA Veterans Working Group

Letter from the Incoming Editor-in-Chief

Publishing pieces to the DSA website is a thankless job of behind the scenes work that often lurches along unnoticed. The outgoing editors of the Democratic Left, under the leadership of Barbara Joye, have been the stewards of this platform for a long time and I want to acknowledge their hard work. Thank you.

DSA is in the midst of a communications overhaul. Soon we will have new web forums, a bulletin, and a redesigned website. The print publication, Democratic Left, has already undergone an editorial transition. The digital media platform, formerly known as the Democratic Left blog, has a new editorial team and will soon be renamed. In fact, we invite you to submit suggestions for the new name and we will select from among the responses. The new editorial committee is divided into sections, with section editors tasked with curating and editing pieces in the following categories: organizing, chapter roundups and profiles, press and electoral, arts, and international affairs. We want to cultivate a diverse range of perspectives on these and other topics as we make this platform a vibrant political space for DSA and beyond.

DSA members and chapters have amazing stories. Take Charlottesville, where protesters were injured in the tragically fatal attack last August; DSA members have built a vibrant chapter even as Nazis continue to threaten them. When prisoners in Florida went on strike earlier this year, DSA Miami participated in a coalition that provided them with aid and support. We have chapters challenging police brutality with brake light clinics, campaigning for Medicare for All, and pressuring lawmakers to end the U.S. involvement with the war in Yemen. As the new editorial committee, we want to help our fellow members tell their stories. With thirty thousand members and an international presence, DSA’s digital media platform can be a global beacon of socialist political engagement.

To truly make a mark, we must do more than tell stories - we will have to wrestle with ideas as well. Debates regarding political differences as to the nature or mission of socialism, and the methods of struggle to achieve it shall arise on our collective journey. We want this site to be a forum for these discussions. Our new committee is in the process of establishing an editorial policy and publication guidelines, which will be released soon. I want to make one thing clear from the outset: we will edit for clarity and accuracy, but we categorically reject censorship as a means of dealing with political differences. We cannot be a multi-tendency big tent if ideological divergence is not allowed to surface within our organization. I and this editorial committee stand firmly committed to DSA’s multi-tendency principle. Embracing debate is the only way to overcome the inevitable political differences between tendencies, a process which will in turn make this organization a stronger and more unified force. We want this platform to be a space where people can think aloud in common, where thoughtful questioning and disagreement are virtues, where principled political discussion may reside.

I have the honor of presenting our new editorial committee:

Chris Lombardi, Managing Editor

Tyler Curtis, Managing Editor

Bonnie Bailey

Miranda Alsknis

Lisa Newcomb  

Evan Heitkamp-Boucher

Anne Clark     

Daniel Gutiérrez  

Jorge Tamames  

Joshua Whitaker

Jarek Ervin


We will begin our new publishing cycle April 1st. Get your popcorn.

Thank You,

R.L. Stephens, Editor-in-Chief

New Democratic Left Magazine: Focus on Medicare for All

From the National Director: This is How We Win

Socialists care about power. We want to win it, and we want to wield it. We want power because that is the only way to get free. But what is power? How do we build it?

Fighting Unequal Access

A program of universal healthcare such as Medicare for All would have a significant impact on African Americans.

Women’s Double Healthcare Jeopardy

Women of color and disabled women are even less likely than white women to have any paid time off from paid work to fulfill health or care needs.

Does Medicare for All Advance Socialist Politics?

If we are to talk about the strategic importance of M4A for socialist politics, we must make an honest assessment of the contemporary power of the left.

Devil in the Details: Disabilities and M4A

Medicare For All is a fight that needs to be joined. But it presents special challenges for disabled people, and a universal program will require remedial legislation on the congressional level with attention to the regulations that provide the foundations of the program.

Labor’s Stake in Medicare for All

If a united labor movement were to get behind the campaign, it would be a game changer. Not only would it benefit millions of people, it would revitalize a beleaguered labor movement.

Hospital Closings Threaten Survival of Rural Areas

Rural hospital closings are killing rural America. A strong push by DSA to combat the trend through building support for single-payer healthcare could give rural Americans hope.

Changing the Conversation: Igniting a Poor People’s Campaign

One commemoration to which democratic socialists should pay particular attention, in part because their forebears had so much to do with it, may be slighted in the mainstream media: the Poor People’s Campaign launched by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

DSA Across the USA

A round-up of DSA Chapter actions and activities across the country.

DSA National Electoral Strategy

DSA Electoral Committee

Our national electoral strategy was formulated by a coalition of electoral organizers from our chapters across the country and was recently unanimously passed at our National Political Committee meeting on January 27th, 2018. You can read it in its entirety at the link below.

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How to Raise Money Without the Rich


By Colleen Shaddox

Say what you will about capitalists, they’re good to have at a fundraiser. But as DSA chapters raise bail money for comrades arrested at protests, few capitalists will be riding to the rescue. So, I share the story of a fundraiser mounted by an ongoing resistance group in the small, rural town of East Haddam, Connecticut, without benefit of the usual philanthropic class. 

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Review: When Karl Marx Was Young and Dashing

By Michael Hirsch

Photo (left to right): Vicky Krieps, August Diehl, Stefan Konarske in The Young Karl Marx.  Credit: The Orchard.

Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx is the best buddy movie since George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969. It’s also among the most important films in decades, bringing to a mass audience not just the revolutionary ideas of Marx and his friend and collaborator Frederick Engels in the early days of modern capitalism, but an approach to politics and history that still has no peer. Charting the world as he saw it, Marx wrote: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.” Has anything changed?

The film is the story of two young men, beginning in 1844 when they challenged not only leading thinkers of the academy but radicals abstracted from real struggles. It ends with the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848 when neither of the authors was yet 30 years old

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This International Women’s Day, Fight for Health Care, Fight for Women

By Christine R. Riddiough

March 8 is International Women’s Day – celebrating the struggles and achievements of women around the world. While IWD was initiated by the Socialist Party in the United States, for decades it was ignored in the U.S. until the second wave of the women’s movement revived it in the 1970s.

Yet its revival isn’t reflected in the actions of Congress. For example, on January 28, Republican leaders in the Senate scheduled a vote on the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks. The procedural vote set by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell failed as expected, but the attempt to further restrict reproductive rights came just a week after the Trump Administration introduced new rules granting health care workers the license to discriminate against women seeking an abortion. These two measures expose both the Trump administration and GOP perspectives on women and health care and are in stark contrast to the Medicare for All bill introduced by Bernie Sanders last September.

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Talking About Socialism Webinar

March 25, 2018

This training is at 7:00 pm ET, 6:00 pm CT, 5:00 pm MT, 4:00 pm PT

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Join Steve Max, a founder of the legendary community organizing school, the Midwest Academy, to practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table or canvass. This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources. Questions? Contact Theresa Alt <> 607-280-7649.

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NEC Training on Field Operations

March 28, 2018

8pm ET/7pm CT/ 6pm MT/5pm PST

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DSA NEC Training Committee members Jasmin Oppenheimer and Tootie Welker will discuss how to run field operations over the course of an electoral campaign.

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New Member Call

April 08, 2018

8pm ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT

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You've joined DSA - Great! Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision. And, most importantly, how you can become involved.

Questions or Comments? Contact: 
Barbara Joye

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