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Archive for March, 2011

On Saturday morning, March 16, 1968, Truong Moi, an 18-year-old fisherman from the hamlet of Mỹ Lai in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, went out to check his fishnets that he had set in a nearby river.  Troung was a member of a community of about 700 people, including the hamlet of My Khe.  They lived in thatch-roofed huts and redbrick homes in the village of Sơn Mỹ, located on Vietnam’s South Central Coast.  Mỹ Lai and My Khe were quiet and peaceful hamlets.  Untouched by the war, villagers generally did not see soldiers.

That all changed when the brunt of the Vietnam War abruptly entered their lives: On that Saturday morning around 7:30 A.M., a barrage of American artillery rounds and strafing by Huey Cobra attack helicopters bombarded Truong’s village.  Following the shelling, a little less than a third of a mile from where Truong was collecting his night’s catch, three platoons from Americal Division’s Charlie Company disembarked and fanned out from Huey Slick choppers.  Two platoons surrounded and cordoned off Mỹ Lai, bottling up the perimeter while infantrymen from the 1st platoon spearheaded the invasion into the village.  Led by Second Lieutenant William Calley, they entered Mỹ Lai hamlet.  On orders from the Company‘s Captain Ernest Medina, they went into the hamlet firing at anything that moved including women and children.  They set fire to huts, blew up homes, killed animals, and poisoned drinking wells.

These actions were routine in “free-fire zone” designated search and destroy missions in Vietnam.  But, what transpired was not routine, although it was not an isolated event, either.

When Charlie Company landed, Truong was terrified and took cover.  After the hell he had witnessed from his position in hiding had ended, and was sure the Americans had left, he returned to his commune.  In their home, he found the charred remains of his mother, and the remaining members of his family at the foot of a watchtower.  His brother, his sister and her two children were dead.  In all twenty-four members of his immediate family had been slaughtered.  He found piled bodies along paths and in ditches including children with their throats slit and others naked and disemboweled.

His father, like Truong was working in the rice fields and escaped.  His brother was spared from the slaughter because he had hidden under bodies that shielded him from the soldier’s bullets.

At about 9 A.M., at the height of the massacre, Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, Jr., along with his crew, Specialist Glenn Andreotta and Specialist Lawrence Colburn, was flying his Raven observation helicopter over Mỹ Lai.  On an earlier flyover, Thompson had marked the location of several wounded Vietnamese with green smoke, signaling they needed help, but noticed that they were now dead.  He and his crew saw Captain Ernest Medina walk up to a wounded Vietnamese woman whose location Thompson also marked earlier that morning.  Medina nudged her with his foot and then killed her.  His flyover included a view of an irrigation ditch with dozens of bodies.  There was movement in the ditch indicating some were still alive.  Thompson landed.  Thompson requested help for the people in the ditch from Squad Leader Sergeant David Mitchell.  Second Lieutenant William Calley interceded, commanding Thompson had “better get back in that chopper and mind your own business.”

Thompson returned to his chopper and took off.  His crew chief, Specialist Andreotta, reported that Squad Leader Mitchell was executing people in the ditch.

Thompson and his crew spotted a group of unarmed Vietnamese, including children, running from infantrymen of the 2nd Platoon.  Thompson landed knowing the soldiers intended to execute them.  He put himself between the Vietnamese and their adversaries.  Thompson commanded his crew to give him cover and to shoot the Americans if they began shooting at the fleeing villagers.

He confronted 2nd Platoon Leader Lieutenant Stephen Brooks, telling him he was going evacuate the Vietnamese and requested his help.  Thompson persuaded the pilots of his two Huey gunship escorts to evacuate eleven survivors.  Later, on his return from refueling, crewmember Specialist Andreotta found a boy alive, who Thompson flew to a hospital in Quang Ngai.

When it was all over, Charlie Company deliberately massacred 347 Vietnamese in Mỹ Lai and 157 in the hamlet of My Khe.  Warrant Officer Thompson, because of his actions at Mỹ Lai, took sharp congressional criticism.  Congressmen Mendel Rivers stated opinion was that Thompson should be the only soldier punished, and Rivers even attempted to have him court-martialed.  It took thirty years for America to recognize the heroic actions of Thompson, Andreotta, and Colburn when they were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for bravery.  Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and he, Andreotta and Colburn were awarded Bronze Stars.

Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, Jr. retired from the Army with the rank of Major in 1983 and died in 2006.  Specialist Andreotta was killed in action three weeks after Mỹ Lai’s engagement.

These events are troubling enough, but what makes them even more so are there acceptance, perceived as part and parcel of war.  Many believe that the U.S. Military or an American soldier would not deliberately perform such acts, and if they did, there were other reasons for their actions.  Here is a typical comment: “Until you have faced the terrors and stress of war far from your home, I’d be quite hesitant to point your finger. Neither of us was there and could never understand, but many of us are now returning with unspeakable experiences.”  And, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “… in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored,” despite the fact that at the time he essentially whitewashed the Mỹ Lai atrocities.

The excusing or extenuation of these criminal acts is evidenced by the lenient sentences given to the participants in this massacre.  Second Lieutenant William Calley was the only participant convicted.  After various military and civilian court determinations, a pardon by President Richard Nixon ended up making Calley a free man.  Others were acquitted or never tried for their crimes.  Moreover, it is important to understand that German and Japanese soldiers were executed for similar acts committed during World War II.

On this forty-third anniversary of the Sơn Mỹ Massacre, it’s important to note that this massacre is only one out of many.  Other atrocities, such as the Thanh Phong Massacre, may not have had the same enormity, but we should not treat any of them as insignificant by doing no more than just fluff them off and say they are “to be deplored.”  Somehow, Americans need to be made to understand that American soldiers do kill whether they look like the enemy or not, it all depends on what commanders determine as the enemy, even pregnant women, infants, and children; that to kill is an infantryman’s training and purpose; that our Armed Forces do not have a benevolent purpose; that we need “to point our finger” at war’s immorality and wrongdoing; and we need to make a commitment and take all measures available to prevent sending an American to face “the terrors and stress of war.”

In a “60 Minutes” interview, Hugh Thompson said, “I mean, I wish I was a big enough man to say I forgive them [soldiers of Charlie Company at Mỹ Lai], but I swear to God, I can’t.”

And neither can I.

Sources:

Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, The Villagers of My Lai, excerpted interviews from their book “Four Hours in My Lai,” My Lai Courts-Martial

Associated Press, Vietnam atrocities revealed in report, Boston Globe

Wikipedia contributors, ‘My Lai Massacre’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 March 2011, 10:19 UTC, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=My_Lai_Massacre&oldid=419100294> [accessed 19 March 2011]

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Hugh Thompson, Jr.’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 March 2011, 22:20 UTC, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hugh_Thompson,_Jr.&oldid=417500201> [accessed 19 March 2011]

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Bob Kerrey’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 March 2011, 21:42 UTC, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Bob_Kerrey&oldid=417494439> [accessed 19 March 2011]

Seymour M. Hersh/St. Louis Post Dispatch, The My Lai Massacre, An Atrocity Is Uncovered: November 1969, Candide’s Notebooks: Texts reproduced from Reporting Vietnam, Part Two: American Journalism 1969-1975 (Library of America, 1998), pp. 13-27.

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In a December 2010 CNN documentary, “Life among U.S. enemies: Embedded with the Taliban,” Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal risked his life while embedded with the Afghan Taliban.  The film reveals a human side of the Taliban, and their regional commander, Dawran, as a father at home playing with his children after a day at war.  In the film, the Taliban sing, pray, and play games during long hours of downtime between ambushes.  The documentary also films Dawran directing an attack against U.S. forces, commanding them to “Attack, attack, with the help of God!”

James Carroll writes in his article for TomDispatch, The Disappearance of the Nightmare Arab: How a Revolution of Hope Is Changing the Way Americans Look at Islam, “Americans have been living with a nightmare Arab, a Muslim monster threatening us to the core, chilling our souls with the cry, ‘God is great!’”

But, above all else, what Americans remember of the Taliban’s brand of Islamic law is the indelible image of Zarmina, an Afghan woman shrouded in a blue burqa, brought to a soccer stadium and publicly executed with a shot to the back of her head for the steel hammer murder of her abusive husband as he slept.  Witnesses say that thirty thousand Afghans viewed that execution, with several people shouting, following the execution, “God is great.”

For a Muslim to praise or plea passionately for “Allah’s” help does more than chill the American soul: it infuriates us to the point that we are blinded to “what this religion actually looks like”; and instead of inquisitiveness, “God is great” drives our “human temptation to drown fear with blood.”

Many Americans perceive the Quran, considered by Muslims to contain revelations by God to Muhammad, as Satan’s Bible.  The Taliban claim that their version of Islam is a pure one that follows a literal interpretation.

Christians and Jews, too, claim the Holy Bible is pure, that it contains revelations by God to Man, and that its interpretation must be literal.

Americans, too, praise God, plea for His help, and claim He is on our side.  Our claim is that we are one Nation under God, a Christian nation.  And, it was General George S. Patton who famously said, “God of our fathers, who by land and sea have ever lead us to victory, please continue your inspiring guidance in this the greatest of all conflicts.  Strengthen my soul … If it be my lot to die, let me do so with courage and honor in a manner which will bring the greatest harm to the enemy, and please, oh Lord, protect and guide those I shall leave behind.  Give us the victory, Lord.”

The European Union “strongly opposes the death penalty in all circumstances.”  But as in Afghanistan, the United States does not, although we are more lenient with the types of offenses that are worthy of death.  As of January 1, 2010, there were 61 women on death row, and there have been 51 women executed in the United States since 1900.  Our methods of killing another human being may vary in that we don’t behead or allow public executions; nevertheless, we do kill prisoners convicted of capital offences by firing squad, hanging, electrocution, gas chamber, and lethal injection.

In war, each side claims the other to be evil.  We perceive Taliban actions as brutal, gruesome and evil.  Yet America’s wars are just as evil: what could be more brutal, gruesome, and cowardly for that matter, than maiming and killing men, women, children, babies, and the unborn in horrific ways from airstrikes against an enemy that does not even own an airplane.  In those strikes we decapitate and incinerate, bone and flesh are blown into many pieces, and bodies and faces are disfigured forever.

The only real differences between the Taliban and us lie in our religious and political extremes.  But, we all breathe the same air; we all want a better future for our families and especially our children; we all need life’s requirements of nourishment, safety, and health; and we all bleed.

The obstacles that prevent the full expression of our collective humanity are politics, religion, and money.  The one that stands out above all others is clashing religious perceptions of God.

The late Joseph Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and author on comparative mythology, had it right when he said, “Every religion is true one way or another.  It is true when understood metaphorically.  But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble; God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.  It’s as simple as that.”

If there ever is going to be a lasting peace, all of us must decide to embrace human values over religious values.  We must disregard literal interpretations of the Bible and the Quran, and abandon the notion that there is a God and Heaven external to us.

Collectively, we are the embodiment of that which we call God.

Related Video:

FRONTLINE, Behind Taliban Lines: 10 days living and filming with an insurgent cell allied with Al Qaeda

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Massive land armies facing each other on the battlefield has been in existence for some four thousand seven hundred and eleven years.  [1]

On Friday, February 25, 2011, two months into the eleventh year of our third millennium AD, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates delivered a speech to West Point cadets gathered at Eisenhower Hall.  Now you would think in better than four millenniums that the world would have made significant progress toward solving differences non-violently with greater strides into achieving a lasting world peace.  But, in looking for signs of a world with the promise of less conflict, Secretary Gate’s speech was not optimistic.

Instead of optimism, our Secretary of Defense claims that we are in what Army Chief of Staff General William Casey calls “an era of persistent conflict.”  Gates predicts that potential adversaries will seek to “frustrate” the Army’s “ability to shoot, move and communicate with speed and precision” in an asymmetrical/irregular warfare environment, with an Army of smaller forces brought on by necessity because of budget reductions.

And, at first, it might sound encouraging when the Secretary said, “…any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”  But, he qualified that by saying, “… potential conflicts in places like Asia or the Persian Gulf were more likely to be fought with air and sea power, rather than with conventional ground forces.”  So, in essence, there is no recognition that those wars were a mistake, but that sending a land army instead of air and sea power was a mistake.

In relationship to reduced dependency on Army firepower, his words where disappointing.  He said, “By no means am I suggesting that the U.S. Army will – or should – turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary [a reference to ideals of morality regarded as characteristic of the Victorian era] – designed to chase guerrillas, build schools, or sip tea [a reference to Greg Mortenson’s heroic efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan].”  Disappointing because that precisely should be our military mission: greater reliance on soft power and humanitarian aid as opposed to the hard power of a “shock and awe” blitzkrieg from air and sea that increases civilian casualties and does not win hearts and minds.

It’s not that the Secretary does not recognize the benefits of soft power; he doesn’t recognize that the Department of Defense should serve a central role in its execution.  In 2007 at Kansas State University Gates spoke of the need to enhance American soft power wherein he called for, “…  a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security — diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development.”  [2]

One of Gates greatest fears is that returning warrior officers at war’s end from Iraq and Afghanistan “may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever-expanding array of clerical duties,” concluding, “The consequences of this terrify me.”  His words reflect a lack of forward thinking and thinking outside the box.  His fear is his greatest weakness.  The Army, and all of the armed services, should expect to have a greater participatory role with the Coast Guard, assisting with rapid reaction disaster planning, homeland security assignments, and humanitarian assistance, and with development and deployment of soft power peacetime missions.

Secretary of Defense Gates has expressed his intent to leave office sometime this year, so perhaps our new Secretary will not stovepipe thinking that would keep the Department of Defense from solving its problem, but rather be more creative and innovative in its solution.

Sources:

[1] Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz, Chapter 1 – The Origins of War form A Short History of War: The Evolution of Warfare and Weapons, Strategic Studies Institute.  U.S. Army War College (Online version by Air War College)

[2] Thom Shanker, Defense Secretary Urges More Spending for U.S. Diplomacy, New York Times

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