Former Secretary of State Colin Powell once dismissed the infamous My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1968, saying, “In war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”
This amounts to a slap on the wrist for one of the blackest marks in US military history. Investigations revealed attempts to coverup the military’s brutal killings of My Lai’s civilian victims, reputedly as many as 504, mostly women and children.
In March 1969, Ron Ridenhour, a proud soldier who served in Vietnam, wrote to President Nixon, members of Congress, the Joint Chiefs, and the Pentagon, among others. He detailed the merciless slaughter at My Lai as described by several military colleagues who had been there. Ridenhour did his homework, carefully documenting the facts, giving his readers enough information to launch an investigation.
Although initially ignored, the horror of My Lai eventually refused to be contained.
Before it was over, 26 soldiers were charged. Only one, William Calley, was convicted. No one seemed to notice the absurdity of the conclusion that one soldier, however deranged, could kill 504 people by himself.
The shadow of My Lai spills long and dark over Iraq. In Haditha, up to 24 innocent people are thought to have been killed by a group of US Marines. More recently and equally horrifying, a 14-year-old girl was raped and her body burned in Mahmudiyah. Her parents and her five-year-old sister were also murdered. Steven Green, a recently honorably discharged soldier, stands accused in connection with this. Weeks later, four other military colleagues are aFormer Secretary of State Colin Powell once dismissed the infamous My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1968, saying, “In war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”lso being charged.
Such despicable and shameful incidents, and others about which we will never know, make up the dark side of the military and para-military legend. Soldiers, police, prison guards, and even firefighters, have sometimes assumed a sense of overentitlement. Those who don’t properly understand their public obligation imagine that their jobs allow them to be held to a different moral and even legal standard. Substance abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, gay-bashing, and even murder can enter into the mix. Worse, the hierarchies to whom such personnel allegedly answer have been known to whitewash wrongdoing.
Society, on the other hand, chooses to focus on such images as the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, and award-winning photographs of soldiers, police, and firefighters rescuing those in distress or giving toys to toddlers.
If Steven Green is found guilty of the criminal behavior of which he is accused, the Army’s diagnosis of his “personality disorder” is the tip of a persistent and unacceptable iceberg in which the word “honorable” has no relevance.
In his letter to government exposing My Lai, Ridenhour quoted words from Winston Churchill that ring truer than ever today: “A country without a conscience is a country without a soul, and a country without a soul is a country that cannot survive.”
Ron Ridenhour is dead now. Who has the courage to try to fill his shoes?