Haditha, Vietnam & War Crimes
June 13, 2006
When George W.
Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq more than three years ago, much of
what has happened since was predictable and even inevitable: armed
resistance, house-to-house fighting, mistreatment of suspected enemy
fighters and, yes, atrocities.
The slaughter of 24 civilians at Haditha on Nov.
19, 2005, has now put that final element of predictable events at the
world’s doorstep, next to inevitable comparisons with another U.S.
massacre of civilians more than 38 years ago in the Vietnamese village
of My Lai.
The history of My Lai – where American soldiers
also were fighting a shadowy foe in an alien environment – is certain to
hover over Haditha like some unwanted specter as the full story of what
happened in the Iraqi town continues to unfold.
Iraqi witnesses have recounted a five-hour
systematic massacre of unarmed civilians by U.S. Marines in apparent
retaliation for the death of a fellow Marine from a roadside bomb.
Marines have denied murdering civilians, but acknowledge indiscriminate
use of deadly force that killed unarmed men, women and children.
Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who led the
squad, was the first to go public – through his lawyer Neal Puckett –
denying that civilians were executed, but describing an aggressive use
of fragmentation grenades and firepower inside and outside the houses
killing the two dozen Iraqis. [Washington Post, June 11, 2005]
Wuterich said his squad was operating within “the
rules of engagement” when it tossed grenades into the homes at Haditha
and strafed the rooms, according to Puckett. But – if true – Wuterich’s
description of the killings suggests that the slaughter of civilians in
pursuit of Iraqi insurgents may be far more commonplace than generally
In other words, the Haditha case may come down to
whether Marines willfully murdered civilians or whether the rules of
engagement were so loose that the rules countenanced the wanton deaths
of civilians simply for being in the vicinity of suspected insurgents.
The first image is of Marines lining up unarmed
men, women and children for execution; the other is of Marines spraying
bullets around a residence and lobbing in fragmentation grenades without
first clearly identifying an enemy target.
Either way, it’s not hard to understand why this
counterinsurgency strategy is generating so much anger across Iraq,
throughout the Islamic world and around the globe.
My Lai Comparison
The Haditha slaughter is also drawing unavoidable
comparisons with the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, when a bloodied
unit of the Army’s Americal Division stormed
into a hamlet known as My Lai 4.
With military helicopters
circling overhead, revenge-seeking American soldiers under the command
of Capt. Ernest Medina and Lt. William Calley rousted Vietnamese
civilians – mostly old men, women and children – from their thatched
huts and herded them into the village’s irrigation ditches.
As the round-up continued, some Americans raped the girls. Then, under
orders from officers on the ground, soldiers began emptying their M-16s
into the terrified peasants. Some parents desperately used their bodies
to try to shield their children from the bullets. Soldiers stepped among
the corpses to finish off the wounded.
The slaughter raged for four hours. A total of 347 Vietnamese, including
babies, died in the carnage that would stain the reputation of the U.S.
Army. But there also were American heroes that day in My Lai. Some
soldiers refused to obey the direct orders to kill and one helicopter
crew intervened to save some of the Vietnamese.
A pilot named Hugh Clowers Thompson Jr. from Stone Mountain, Ga., landed
his helicopter between one group of fleeing civilians and American
soldiers in pursuit. Thompson ordered his helicopter door gunner
Lawrence Colburn to shoot the Americans if they tried to harm the
“Keep your people in
place,” Thompson shouted at an Americal officer. “My guns are on you.”
After a tense
confrontation, the rampaging soldiers backed off. Later, two of
Thompson's men – Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta – climbed into
one ditch filled with corpses and pulled out a three-year-old boy whom
they flew to safety.
While a horrific example of a war crime, the
My Lai massacre was not unique. It fit a long pattern of indiscriminate
violence against civilians that had marred U.S. participation in the
Vietnam War from its earliest days. Haditha now marks a similar dark
rite of passage for the Iraq War.
After the first reports of Haditha emerged, I
called Colburn – the one surviving member of Thompson’s brave crew – to
seek his perspective. (Andreotta died in combat a couple of weeks after
My Lai and Thompson died of cancer on Jan. 6, 2006.)
“If this did happen, I’m not surprised,”
Colburn said of Haditha. “It’s an unusual thing when you see brothers in
arms killed; it’s a strong bond, one that happens quickly. … Some people
can control that primitive rage, and some just can’t. A lot of people
are unstable. If you view the military as a sub-class of our society,
you can’t be surprised at this type of behavior.”
At My Lai, Colburn said he witnessed barbaric
actions by some U.S. soldiers. “They were raping; some were committing
sodomy,” Colburn said. “I saw Captain Medina, we thought they were
taking the woman to an aid station, when he kicked her, then blew her
Regarding Haditha, Colburn also put blame on
the pattern of rotating military units through Iraq on multiple tours.
“These guys are doing back-to-back tours,”
Colburn said. “What do people expect from these groups? The people I
resent are the architects who put our people in that position. It’s not
fair to do this to our own troops.”
One historic figure who had at least indirect
ties to both My Lai and to the policies that led to the Iraq War and to
Haditha was Colin Powell – a young Americal major arriving in Vietnam
shortly after the My Lai massacre and secretary of state during the
run-up to the Iraq War.
In one of the quirks of history, Powell was
assigned to conduct an investigation into the Americal’s alleged abuse
of Vietnamese civilians that had been lodged by a young Americal
enlisted man, Tom Glen. In a letter to Gen. Creighton Abrams, Glen
described patterns of brutality against Vietnamese.
“The average GI’s attitude toward and
treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is a complete denial of
all our country is attempting to accomplish in the realm of human
relations,” Glen wrote. “Far beyond merely dismissing the Vietnamese as
‘slopes’ or ‘gooks,’ in both deed and thought, too many American
soldiers seem to discount their very humanity; and with this attitude
inflict upon the Vietnamese citizenry humiliations, both psychological
and physical, that can have only a debilitating effect upon efforts to
unify the people in loyalty to the Saigon government, particularly when
such acts are carried out at unit levels and thereby acquire the aspect
of sanctioned policy.”
Glen’s letter contended that many Vietnamese were fleeing from Americans
who “for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and
without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves.”
Gratuitous cruelty also was inflicted on Viet Cong suspects, Glen
“Fired with an emotionalism that belies unconscionable hatred, and armed
with a vocabulary consisting of ‘You VC,’ soldiers commonly
‘interrogate’ by means of torture that has been presented as the
particular habit of the enemy. Severe beatings and torture at knife
point are usual means of questioning captives or of convincing a suspect
that he is, indeed, a Viet Cong.”
Glen’s letter went to Powell, who, in 1968,
was an ambitious and fast-rising officer. After a brief investigation
that amounted to little more than talking to Glen’s superior officer,
Powell reported back that there was no substance to Glen’s complaints.
Powell claimed that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam
were taught to treat Vietnamese courteously and respectfully. “In direct
refutation of this [Glen’s] portrayal,” Powell concluded, “is the fact
that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are
Exposing the Cover-up
Powell’s findings were false. But it would
take another Americal hero, an infantryman named Ron Ridenhour, to piece
together the truth about the atrocity at My Lai. After returning to the
United States, Ridenhour interviewed Americal comrades who had
participated in the massacre.
On his own, Ridenhour compiled this shocking information into a report
and forwarded it to the Army inspector general. The IG’s office
conducted an official investigation and the Army finally faced the
horrible truth. Courts martial were held against officers and enlisted
men implicated in the murder of the My Lai civilians.
But Powell’s peripheral role in the My Lai cover-up did not slow his
climb up the Army’s ladder. Powell pleaded ignorance about the actual My
Lai massacre, which pre-dated his arrival at the Americal by a few
Glen’s letter disappeared into the National
Archives – to be unearthed only decades later by British journalists
Michael Bilton and Kevin Sims for their book Four Hours in My Lai.
In his best-selling memoirs, My American
Journey, Powell did not mention his brush-off of Tom Glen’s
However, Powell did
include a recollection that belied his 1968 official denial of Glen’s
allegation that American soldiers “without provocation or justification
shoot at the people themselves.” After briefly mentioning the My Lai
massacre in My American Journey, Powell penned a partial
justification of the Americal's brutality.
In one chilling passage,
Powell explained the routine practice of murdering unarmed male
“I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male,”
Powell wrote. “If a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked
remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in
front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile
intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him. Brutal? Maybe
“But an able battalion
commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen [West Germany], Lt. Col.
Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs
from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of many. The
kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of
right and wrong.”
While it’s true that combat is brutal, mowing down unarmed civilians is
not considered combat under the rules of war. It is regarded as a war
crime. Plus, the combat death of a fellow soldier cannot be cited as an
excuse to kill civilians. That was precisely the rationalization that
the My Lai killers cited in their own defense – and now is being used to
explain the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha.
But Powell’s see-no-evil
approach in Vietnam served his career well. He skyrocketed through the
military ranks and into the Washington political stratosphere. Though he
recognized the risks of invading Iraq in 2003, he again played the role
of the compliant “good soldier” as he lent his personal credibility to
the case for going to war.
On Feb. 5, 2003, Powell
went before the United Nations Security Council and told the world that
there was no doubt that Iraq was concealing large quantities of weapons
of mass destruction.
With Powell’s impassioned
speech, the little remaining skepticism in Official Washington melted
away and the path to war was clear.
Now, however, the specter
of Vietnam – which the Bush administration was determined to exorcise
from the Iraq War debate – has returned with the Haditha massacre and
the distant memories of other young American soldiers slaughtering
inhabitants of another country that the United States barely understood.
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