By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
- Behind Colin Powell's Legend -- My Lai
On March 16, 1968, a bloodied unit of the Americal division
stormed into a hamlet known as My Lai 4. With military
helicopters circling overhead, revenge-seeking American soldiers
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 junior 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.
A pilot named Hugh Clowers Thompson Jr. from Stone Mountain,
Ga., was furious at the killings he saw happening on the ground.
He landed his helicopter between one group of fleeing civilians
and American soldiers in pursuit. Thompson ordered his
helicopter door gunner to shoot the Americans if they tried to
harm the Vietnamese. After a tense confrontation, the soldiers
backed off. Later, two of Thompson's men climbed into one ditch
filled with corpses and pulled out a three-year-old boy whom
they flew to safety.
A Pattern of Brutality
While a horrific example of a Vietnam 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 when
Americans acted primarily as advisers.
In 1963, Capt. Colin Powell was one of those advisers, serving a
first tour with a South Vietnamese army unit. Powell's
detachment sought to discourage support for the Viet Cong by
torching villages throughout the A Shau Valley. While other
U.S. advisers protested this countrywide strategy as brutal and
counter-productive, Powell defended the "drain-the-sea" approach
then -- and continued that defense in his 1995 memoirs, My
American Journey. (See The Consortium, July 8)
After his first one-year tour and a series of successful
training assignments in the United States, Maj. Powell returned
for his second Vietnam tour on July 27, 1968. This time, he was
no longer a junior officer slogging through the jungle, but an
up-and-coming staff officer assigned to the Americal division.
By late 1968, Powell had jumped over more senior officers into
the important post of G-3, chief of operations for division
commander, Maj. Gen. Charles Gettys, at Chu Lai. Powell had
been "picked by Gen. Gettys over several lieutenant colonels for
the G-3 job itself, making me the only major filling that role
in Vietnam," Powell wrote in his memoirs.
But a test soon confronted Maj. Powell. A letter had been
written by a young specialist fourth class named Tom Glen, who
had served in an Americal mortar platoon and was nearing the end
of his Army tour. In a letter to Gen. Creighton Abrams, the
commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, Glen accused the
Americal division of routine brutality against civilians. Glen's
letter was forwarded to the Americal headquarters at Chu Lai
where it landed on Maj. Powell's desk.
"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
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 was also being
inflicted on Viet Cong suspects, Glen reported.
"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
"It would indeed be terrible to find it necessary to believe
that an American soldier that harbors such racial intolerance
and disregard for justice and human feeling is a prototype of
all American national character; yet the frequency of such
soldiers lends credulity to such beliefs. ... What has been
outlined here I have seen not only in my own unit, but also in
others we have worked with, and I fear it is universal. If this
is indeed the case, it is a problem which cannot be overlooked,
but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of MACV
(Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and the Geneva
Conventions, perhaps be eradicated."
Glen's letter echoed some of the complaints voiced by early
advisers, such as Col. John Paul Vann, who protested the
self-defeating strategy of treating Vietnamese civilians as the
enemy. In 1995, when we questioned Glen about his letter, he
said he had heard second-hand about the My Lai massacre, though
he did not mention it specifically. The massacre was just one
part of the abusive pattern that had become routine in the
division, he said.
Maj. Powell's Response
The letter's troubling allegations were not well received at
Americal headquarters. Maj. Powell undertook the assignment to
review Glen's letter, but did so without questioning Glen or
assigning anyone else to talk with him. Powell simply accepted
a claim from Glen's superior officer that Glen was not close
enough to the front lines to know what he was writing about, an
assertion Glen denies.
After that cursory investigation, Powell drafted a response on
Dec. 13, 1968. He admitted to no pattern of wrongdoing. Powell
claimed that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were taught to treat
Vietnamese courteously and respectfully. The Americal troops
also had gone through an hour-long course on how to treat
prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, Powell noted.
"There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and
POWs," Powell wrote in 1968. But "this by no means reflects the
general attitude throughout the Division." Indeed, Powell's
memo faulted Glen for not complaining earlier and for failing to
be more specific in his letter.
Powell reported back exactly what his superiors wanted to hear.
"In direct refutation of this [Glen's] portrayal," Powell
concluded, "is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers
and the Vietnamese people are excellent."
Powell's findings, of course, 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 aggressive 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. Glen's letter disappeared into the National Archives
-- to be unearthed only years later by British journalists
Michael Bilton and Kevin Sims for their book Four Hours in My
Lai. In his best-selling memoirs, Powell did not mention his
brush-off of Tom Glen's complaint.
Powell did include, however, a troubling recollection that
belied his 1968 official denial of Glen's allegation that
American soldiers "without provocation or justification shoot at
the people themselves." After mentioning the My Lai massacre in
My American Journey, Powell penned a partial justification of
the Americal's brutality. In a 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 so. 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 certainly true that combat is brutal, mowing down
unarmed civilians is not combat. It is, in fact, a war crime.
Neither can the combat death of a fellow soldier be cited as an
excuse to murder civilians. Disturbingly, that was precisely
the rationalization that the My Lai killers cited in their own
But returning home from Vietnam a second time in 1969, Powell
had proved himself the consummate team player.
(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post
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