War anniversaries: finding courage 15 and 50 years ago

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: 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.

Chris Lombardi is a managing editor of the DSA blog. A working journalist, she is also the author of the upcoming book “I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, From the French and Indian War to the Forever War” (The New Press). A form of the text appeared on the book’s blog.