Saturday, September 5, 2009

My Lai massacre, Afghanistan and what is forgotten

"accuracy is essential
we must not be wrong
even by a single one
we are despite everything
the guardians of our brothers
ignorance about those who have disappeared
undermines the reality of the world"

Zbigniew Herbert
As civilian deaths escalate in Afghanistan, President Obama, (despite supposedly opposing the war) is moving to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan.

The parallels with the Vietnam war become clearer by the day. Will Obama become another Lyndon Johnson? - a Democratic President elected on a platform of economic and social reform at home, whose Presidency is destroyed by being drawn further and further into an unwinnable war.

The legacy of Vietnam in the American memory has resurfaced in recent weeks following recent reports about the My Lai massacre. After 40 years the massacre is back in the news in the States.

On March 16, 1968 a unit of the US Army massacred 500 unarmed citizens in My Lai South Vietnam, all of whom were civilians and a majority of whom were women and children and elderly people. Many of the victims were sexually abused, beaten, tortured, and some of the bodies were found mutilated.

For over a year the killings were systematically covered up by the USA military and the mainstream USA press which refused to publish the initial story. It was largely as a a result of the efforts of a Vietnam veteran and the investigative journalist Seymour Hersch that the massacre became public. Many Americans were untroubled by revelations of the massacre. Twenty US soldiers were initially charged with criminal offenses for their actions at My Lai, but only one US soldier- William Calley- was convicted.

William Calley (who served only three years of an original life sentence, while on house arrest and had his sentence commuted by President Reagan) has recently spoken publicly for the first time, issuing a belated public apology. Calley was reported as saying:
"There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry."
Calley used the defense of most soldiers who commit atrocities- that he was only following orders.

As Christian Appy points out in his definitive oral history of the Vietnam War there was a major systemic cover up of the massacre. At least 50 American officers, up to and including generals, had significant knowledge of the massacre, either through firsthand observation or eyewitness accounts. All had actively supported the cover up. None suffered any consequences.

In a recent piece in investigative journalist Robert Parry documents the role played by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell in the cover up of the massacre. Parry meticulously shows how Powell's career was jump started by his role in the US Army's cover up of the My Lai massacre:

"Powell’s role in rebuffing an early appeal from a GI for an investigation of Americal Division abuses of Vietnamese -- encompassing My Lai -- was an important early marker in Powell’s career as he climbed the ladder of Pentagon and Washington success by never standing up for a principle that made a superior uncomfortable.

That pattern continued through the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s and culminated in the deadly falsehoods that Powell presented to the United Nations in 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq."

At a time of growing US military intervention in Afghanistan, and rapidly escalating civilian casualties, the story of My Lai is instructive. The historian Oliver Kendrick has argued that America and the American military learned nothing from the events. Attention was shifted away from the victims of the massacre, to who was responsible and how it happened . The Vietnamese victims were displaced, forgotten. Instead it was the American soldiers who became the victim.

Kendrick shows how the murder of civilians at My Lai (and during the Vietnam War) was filtered through a explanatory and justificatory framework that shifted blame and culpability. Kendrick argues that the massacre is now largely forgotten " a vague recollection of something unpleasant that happened during the Vietnam War".

In a recent piece in Tomgram Nick Turse has written of the long standing American aversion to facing what the U.S. did to Vietnam and its people during the war. Turse the author of the book The Complex: How the Military Invades our Everyday Lives has written of the long list of cover ups of mass murder by Americans during the Vietnam War and concludes:

A failure to demand an honest accounting of the suffering the United States caused the Vietnamese people and a willingness to ignore ample evidence of widespread slaughter remains a lasting legacy of the Vietnam War. So does a desire to reduce all discussion of U.S. atrocities in Southeast Asia to the massacre at My Lai, with William Calley bearing the burden -- not just for his crimes but for all U.S. crimes there. And it will remain so until the American people do what their military and civilian leadership have failed to do for more than 40 years: take responsibility for the misery the U.S. inflicted in Southeast Asia.

We see the same narrative at work in Afghanistan. There is little interest in the escalating civilian casualties. Instead from the American authorities (and the Australian authorities) there are just reasons and justifications for the continued murder of innocent civilians and the misery inflicted on Afghanistan.

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