March 16, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre

My Lai (a book review) PART TWO

A book review of:
By Howard Jones
Oxford: 2017

[Click here to return to Part One]


First before the bar at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 1969 was Calley’s platoon sergeant, David Mitchell, whom witnesses described as someone who carried out the lieutenant’s orders with particular gusto. Then in January it was Sergeant Charles Hutto’s turn at Fort McPherson, Georgia. Hutto had admitted turning his machine gun on a group of unarmed civilians. These two men were so patently guilty in the eyes of their own comrades that theirs were among the strongest cases the investigators had constructed for the prosecution. Both men were acquitted in trials that can only be described as judicial parodies.

At Mitchell’s trial the judge, ruling on a technicality, did not allow the prosecution to call witnesses with the most damning testimonies, like Hugh Thompson. Hutto had declared in court that “it was murder”, but claimed “we were doing it because we had been told”. When the jury refused to convict him because Hutto had not known that some orders could be illegal, Jones nails how the court was sanctioning “the major argument that had failed to win acquittal at Nuremburg”.

Shortly after Hutto’s trial, the Army dropped all charges against the remaining soldiers, fearing their claims to have been following orders would likewise find merit in the prevailing temper of the military juries. Heeding the judicial trend, Lieutenant General Jonathan Seaman, a regional commander exercising jurisdiction over officers above the rank of captain, dropped all charges against Major General Koster. By some opaque calculation that convinced no one, Seaman had concluded that Koster was not guilty of “intentional abrogation of responsibilities”. A hue and cry followed in the press and on Capitol Hill, denouncing Seaman for “a whitewash of the top man”. The outcry did prod the Pentagon to take punitive action against Koster. The general had already been dismissed as the commandant of West Point, and he was now demoted to brigadier general and stripped of his highest commendation.

Seaman informed Koster, through internal channels, that he held him “personally responsible” for My Lai, a kind of symbolic snub among gentlemen. But in exonerating the Americal commander, Seaman had — by design, it can be argued — inoculated the higher reaches of command, right up to General Westmoreland, from being held responsible for the actions of their subordinates, a blatant act of duplicity in light of the ruling at the Tokyo trials after the Second World War, where a lack of knowledge of atrocities committed by his troops had not prevented General Yamashita from being sentenced to death.

With Calley’s court martial already in progress, only three other officers remained to be tried: Medina and the Task Force Barker intelligence officer, Captain Eugene Kotouc, for war crimes, and 11th Brigade commander Henderson, for the cover-up. Jones deftly unspools how the flawed and self-protective system of military justice enabled trial judges in each case to provide improvised instructions to their juries that all but dictated the acquittal of all three men. Kotouc had been charged with murdering a prisoner, whom, given the available evidence, he almost certainly had; still the jury found him not guilty in less than an hour. Asked if he would stay in the military, Kotouc gushed, “Who would get out of a system like this … it’s the best damn army in the world.” 2

Henderson’s and Medina’s trials were media spectacles in their own right, but they were mere sideshows compared with the main event at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Calley trial opened in November, soon after the My Lai revelation. By the middle of March, when the talented young prosecutor, Captain Aubrey Daniel, began his closing argument, a great majority of US citizens had been glued to the courtroom drama for four months. Calley had a courtly elderly gent, George Latimer, a former chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court and later an original member of the US Court of Military Appeals, to lead his defense. Clearly Latimer knew his way around the arcana of military justice; moreover, as a veteran of the Second World War who had achieved the rank of colonel, he was of the very caste. Latimer was confident he’d prevail. As the trial progressed, the testimony of nearly 100 witnesses so prejudiced his client that Latimer desperately veered the defense towards an insanity plea, a strategy that foundered after three Army psychiatrists judged the accused to possess “the mental capacity to premeditate”. Finally Calley took the witness stand and quickly blundered. In a rigorous cross-examination, Captain Daniel marched Calley back across the killing fields of Pinkville, at each step recapping eyewitness accounts, including the testimony of Hugh Thompson. Before he grasped the significance of his misstep, Calley had confessed to shooting into the ditch filled with Vietnamese victims. The verdict seemed ordained.

Yet it was no slam dunk for the prosecution. The jury took eighty hours to deliberate, in the end finding Calley guilty of murder by a vote of four to two — one ballot shy of a mistrial, if not an outright acquittal. Convicted of a capital felony, Calley might have received the death penalty, but Daniel argued only for life imprisonment. On 29 March 1970 the judge agreed and passed sentence. Calley appeared shaken as he faced the court. Surely the shrinks had got it wrong in not certifying a case of mental dissociation as acutely obvious as Calley’s? He seemed the perfect robotic tool of the Cold War. Hadn’t he been madly insisting all along that he had been killing not humans but only communists, including babes at the breast who would grow up one day to be communists themselves? Then again, maybe Calley wasn’t as clueless and out of touch as he came across. In addressing the judge at sentencing, Calley pleaded, “I beg you … do not strip future soldiers of their honour” as he had been stripped of his, a message defending the common man and shrewdly aimed at a wider audience beyond the courtroom that the defendant must have known was substantially in his corner.

The polls quickly confirmed this. Seventy-nine per cent of the public opposed the conviction. Across an ideological divide embracing both the war’s supporters and its opponents, a large majority saw Calley as a scapegoat, one man custom-made to bear the blame for the entire Vietnam fiasco. Nixon played this public frustration to his advantage. There was little opposition when the president saw fit to have the prisoner removed from the stockade, where he’d spent only one night, and returned to his own Fort Benning apartment. Calley would serve only three and a half years under house arrest before going free, but, after the trial, he quickly faded into anonymity.

At the While House, only a week after the verdict, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger reassured Nixon that “the public furor … [had] quieted down … Let the judicial process … take its normal course”. Liberal efforts to stir “a feeling of revulsion against the deed” and turn the trial into a referendum against the war had failed. “In fact the deed itself didn’t bother anybody,” Kissinger added. “No,” Nixon agreed, picking up eagerly on his adviser’s cynical drift. “The public said, ‘Sure he was guilty but, by God, why not?’” Both laughed.

The “deed” these two twisted political misanthropes found so amusing is memorialised at a shrine in My Lai township listing the names of the massacre’s 504 victims, more than half of whom were under the age of twenty, including “forty-nine teenagers, 160 aged four to twelve years, and fifty who were three years old or younger”.

In reflecting on the sordid tale he has chosen to historicise anew, and on its reduction by the US political and military establishments to a judicial farce, Howard Jones explains that “My Lai made it imperative that the army institute major changes in training” and, further, that “to understand the importance of restraint in combat, soldiers and officers must learn to disobey illegal orders … and the importance of distinguishing between ‘unarmed civilians … and the people who [are], in fact, shooting at us’”. Jones documents the extensive effort undertaken to incorporate this thinking by updating the rules of war, to “make them more specific and then teach, follow, and enforce them”.

But in examining the next most infamous atrocity of modern memory, committed by US forces at Abu Ghraib during the recent Iraq War, Jones concludes that “the central problem … lies less in writing new laws and regulations than in having officers who enforce those already in effect”. That officers may not be inclined to such enforcement underscores the apparently insoluble dilemma of an autocratic institution, the military, at the heart of a civilian democracy to which it is, in principle, subordinate. But a panoply of legal proceedings has shown us that the military is a power unto itself, at least in its capacity to dispense justice. Jones does not follow that thought directly but instead indulges in a philosophical aside that dilutes the unhappy subject of his history in the horrors that attend all wars, concluding darkly that, in the right situation, we are all “one step away from My Lai”.

It’s not that the historian entirely buys Nixon’s aberration line; Jones does refer to other reported atrocities in Vietnam. But he does buy Peers’s “right situation” explanation for why My Lai stands out, quoting the Peers Commission report that “none of the other [investigated] crimes even remotely approached the magnitude … of My Lai”. That would depend on how one defines “magnitude”. Peers failed to do the maths, and so has Jones. The US invasion, and occupation for over a decade, left a trail of bloodshed and destruction throughout Vietnam that led elements of the anti-war movement worldwide to level the charge of genocide against the US.

What one pro-war historian lamented as a veritable “war crimes industry” had sprung up within the US, not from the campuses of the middle-class protesters but among the ranks of returning veterans, who, for roughly two years after My Lai was exposed, brought before the public their accounts of atrocities they had participated in or witnessed. Jones, to demonstrate historical balance, provides a cursory account of this effort, referring to a “sizeable segment of Vietnam veterans who considered … that My Lai was not an isolated incident and that Calley had become a scapegoat for the high ranking civilian and military officials who drew up the policies responsible for the atrocities”.

Having already established that Nixon denied the link between My Lai and “national policy”, Jones does not engage the argument further. But the war veterans (including the present writer) were not suggesting that the policy of genocide was etched in a secret covenant buried in a Pentagon vault. We were saying, in effect, don’t look just at the record body count attached to the slaughter at Pinkville and think you have a true picture of US crimes in that war. Count the day-to-day toll of Vietnamese civilian deaths that resulted from premeditated frames like “mass population transfers” (the Strategic Hamlet program) or “chemical warfare” (the saturation of the countryside with phenoxy herbicides like Agent Orange) that were already prohibited by the conventions of war to which the US was a signatory.

Other strategic tools, like the air war and the relentless, not atypically indiscriminate, bombardment by artillery and naval guns, were employed by US forces against the “unpacified” countryside with unprecedented savagery. While these displays of massive firepower are thought to have created the highest proportion of civilian casualties during the war, the battlefield tactics — search-and-destroy operations in free-fire zones; systematic torture and murder of prisoners; the “mere gook rule”, which turned every dead Vietnamese into an enemy body count — were a close second. These are facts available to anyone who cares to know them.

In both detail and presentation, with My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness, Howard Jones has produced a work of considerable value. It is fair to acknowledge that this book, as characterized in a brief note in the New York Times Book Review, must now be considered the standard reference for the massacre. As for the scale and volume of terrors inflicted on the Vietnamese people during the American War, Jones, hewing closely to official doctrine in the US, fails to acknowledge that My Lai was just a sliver of the whole.

[Click here to return to Part One]

Michael Uhl served with the 11th Light Infantry Brigade eight months after the My Lai massacre. On return from Vietnam he organized fellow veterans to make public their personal accounts of American atrocities in Vietnam. He presents this history in the war memoir, Vietnam Awakening (McFarland: 2007).

1) Heonik Kwon, in his study After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai, attributed to allied forces operating in Quang Ngai province, notably units of the ROK (Republic of Korea) Marines, “at least six large scale civilian massacres during the first three months of 1968.”
2) From Four Hours in My Lai, by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, the standard work on the massacre for the past twenty-five years.