Marking the 47th anniversary of the Vietnam War’s infamous massacre at My Lai, the inimitable Seymour Hersh – whose chilling dispatches from the war helped stir public outrage against it – has written about visiting “the scene of the crime” for the first time. After so many years and stories, he thought he knew “most of what there was to learn about the massacre.” He’s wrong. He hears more stories “told in bland, appalling detail”; he meets Vietnamese who have forgiven but not forgotten; he revisits an atrocity he is reminded was “not an aberration,” unique only in scale. Most vitally, he enjoins us to remember its lessons: Duplicitous and ignorant U.S. political leaders ensnared the country in a war about which they long obfuscated, withheld information and just plain lied, and the war ended when it did, in part, because at least some brave members of the press insisted on telling the truth about it – “that the war was morally groundless, strategically lost, and nothing like what the military and political officials were describing to the public” – and some brave Americans insisted on protesting against that truth.
On the morning of March 16, 1968, about a hundred U.S. soldiers known as Charlie Company arrived at My Lai, having received faulty intelligence that it held Vietcong troops. When they found “only a peaceful village at breakfast,” they slaughtered all its inhabitants anyway. A museum now at the site – there are also “memory day trips” there – lists the grisly statistics: 504 victims, including 182 women, seventeen of them pregnant, and 173 children. The numbers include 97 people killed the same day in another nearby village by members of Bravo Company. The rule of the day was famously articulated by Lieut. William Calley, Charlie’s commander and the only person ever convicted of any crime; his order, used by Nick Turse as the title for his harrowing book on Vietnam, was “Kill Anything That Moves.”
The message of both Turse’s book and Hersh’s trip is the same: “What happened at My Lai 4 (the name U.S.military used) was not singular, not an aberration.” Writing in The New Yorker, Hersh describes meeting veterans who acknowledge “it was just revenge” and who, once amidst the war’s horrors, “began to question who we were as a nation.” When he talks with an elderly Vietnamese leader and former soldier who now works with victims of Agent Orange, she emphasizes, “There was not only one My Lai – there were many.” Most went unnoticed and unreported; My Lai didn’t largely thanks to Hersh, who unearthed and wrote five articles about the massacre. After being turned away by both Life and Look, the large mainstream magazines of the time, he wrote them for the Dispatch News Service, a small D.C. anti-war news agency. Hersh’s stories, in conjunction with countless dispatches from the field from other truth-telling reporters, helped fuel public opposition to the war, including the Washington anti-war march that drew half a million people.
The empire’s response to the growing revelations was as honorable as their conduct in the war. When Calley was convicted in 1971 of pre-meditated mass murder of 109 “Oriental human beings” and sentenced to life at hard labor, Nixon intervened and placed him under house arrest; he was freed three months after Nixon left office in disgrace. Before he left, Nixon had also approved the use of “dirty tricks” to discredit a key witness to the massacre and thus cover up yet one more obscene truth of his dirty little war. Still angry and sorrowful, Hersh painfully digs out new nuggets from a tawdry history he clearly feels remains relevant -and which we remain in danger of repeating. He also summons a Robert McNamara on his deathbed who was said to feel that “God had abandoned him.” Notes Hersh, “The tragedy was not only his.”