A soldier of extraordinary moral courage
What My Lai tells us about how to lose a war
By Ed Ruggero
Article Source San Jose Mercury News
Forty years ago today, American soldiers conducted a helicopter assault against Pinkville, their name for a string of tiny villages that were a staging ground for Viet Cong guerrillas. Their officers told them the only Vietnamese they would encounter were VC combatants who might pose as civilians. In time, most Americans would come to know Pinkville by its other name: My Lai.
Over the next few hours that day, some soldiers engaged in an orgy of violence, herding unarmed villagers - women, babies, old men - into clearings and ditches where they were machine-gunned. "It was a Nazi kind of thing," one of the men would later admit.
Pfc. Paul Meadlo was told to guard a group of women and children. His lieutenant, William Calley, a baby-faced college dropout, told Meadlo, "You know what to do with them," according to Meadlo's testimony at Calley's court-martial.
Calley returned a few minutes later and demanded, "How come they're not dead?" Meadlo testified that he said he didn't know he was supposed to kill them. "I want them dead," said Calley, who then backed off a few yards and began shooting the prisoners. Calley ordered Meadlo to fire, and the private - by this time crying hysterically - joined in.
A picture taken by Army photographer Ronald Haeberle shows a terrified cluster of villagers: a middle-age woman cries and wrings her hands; a young mother holds a child of about 3 on her hip. Another girl, 5 or 6 years old, tries to hide behind an adult; her tiny face is twisted, hysterical.
"Guys were about to shoot these people," Haeberle later testified. "I yelled, 'Hold it,' and shot my picture. As I walked away, I heard M-16s open up. From the corner of my eye I saw bodies falling, but I didn't turn to look."
As many as 500 civilians were murdered in a few hours at My Lai. When news of the incident broke, the public was shocked, and soon the outrage focused on Calley, the harmless-looking lieutenant. Many people thought him a scapegoat, a victim of the anti-war movement's plot to destroy America.
Calley's simple response to the charges was that he was following orders - the same justification the Nazis used two decades earlier.
Calley's commander, Capt. Ernest L. Medina, was charged with murder but was acquitted. The case against the lieutenant was stronger, and in 1971, a military court convicted Calley of 22 counts of murder and sentenced him to life in prison. President Nixon commuted his sentence to house arrest, and Calley was later paroled after serving 3 1/2 years.
What are we to make of this dark anniversary?
We often hear the old saw about people who don't remember history being condemned to relive it. But, collectively at least, we don't forget history. Instead, we often simplify, turning our most complex problems into a stark choice. Take the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. Although more and more people now see Iraq, at least, as a lost cause of our own making, there are still those who reduce it to only two options: You are either a patriot or a scoundrel, a supporter of the troops or a danger to the republic.
Hugh Thompson - courage extraordinary
Yet a full accounting of what happened at Pinkville shows there were heroes among the villains. Some soldiers committed murder at My Lai, but others refused to follow their clearly illegal orders. Hugh Thompson Jr., a Georgia-born helicopter pilot, landed amid the carnage that day and snatched a handful of civilians from certain death. He was awarded the Soldier's Medal for bravery, but not until 1998; and Pentagon bureaucrats, still afraid of publicity, tried to hand him the medal in a private meeting, with no media present. Thompson, displaying the same moral courage he showed in 1968, demanded a public ceremony at the