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Haditha, Vietnam & War Crimes

By Richard Fricker
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 known.

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 Vietnamese.

“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 away.”

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.”

Powell Connection

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 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 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 excellent.”

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 months.

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 complaint.

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 Vietnamese.

“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 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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