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Four Hours in My Lai.

Four Hours in My Lai. Michael Bilton, Kevin Sim. Viking, $25. Despite the fact that the Vietnam war was a moral morass, there emerged from it some principled men who were so horrified by what the writers call the "grotesque and horrible and shaming" truth about My Lai that they were not afraid to act upon their claims of conscience.

When one of those men, Captain Aubrey Daniel, the army lawyer who had successfully prosecuted Lieutenant William Calley for the murder of 22 people in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, learned that President Nixon had released Calley from military confinement pending his appeal, he was outraged. Only a captain, he took on the president of the United States, writing to Nixon that the president had not only damaged the military's judicial process, but "helped enhance the image of Calley as a national hero" and thereby lent credence to those who believed that Calley and his troops were merely "killing the enemy." Daniel lectured Nixon in a tone of indignation rarely heard when a subordinate addresses the powerful: "I would expect that the president of the United States, a man who I believed should and would provide the moral leadership for this nation, would stand fully behind the law of this land on a moral issue about which there can be no compromise." (This was before it became patently ridiculous to include "moral leadership" and Richard Nixon in the same sentence.)

Like the massacre and Nixon's subsequent suppression of its atrocities, Daniels' letter has become a victim of our national amnesia. All the more reason to praise this methodical, forceful, and well-documented book. Bilton and Sim, two British journalists and documentary filmmakers, have laid out the complete story, from the raid to the coverup, in straightforward and often agonizing detail. My Lai was not just another "battle." Instead, 400 unarmed Vietnamese villagers were shot, raped, sodomized, mutilated, and executed, SS style. The authors draw especially on the Army's Crime Records Center, its Vietnam War Crimes Working Group and the papers of the Peers inquiry, interviews with Charlie Company troops and more than 100 survivors, as well as the pioneering work of journalist Seymour Hersh. The result is a devastating commentary on a war that continues to haunt us. Bilton and Sim take us into the events leading to the crime and into the various efforts by the Army, the White House, and some congressional hawks to discredit the men who later reported, as did Vietnam veteran Ronald Ridenhour, that "something rather dark and bloody" had indeed taken place in May 1968.

After an orgy of bloodletting, PFC Paul Meadlo stopped shooting. Bilton and Sim describe the scene:

Tears flooded down his cheeks. He

turned, stuck his rifle in [Dennis]

Conti's hand, and said, You shoot

them." Conti pushed the weapon

back: "If they are going to be

killed, I'm not doing it. Let him do

it," he said, pointing at Calley. By

this time Conti could see that only

a few children were left standing.

Mothers had thrown themselves on

top of young ones in a last desperate

bid to protect them from the

bullets raining down on them. The

children were trying to stand up.

Calley opened fire again, killing

them one by one....

Just then a child, aged about two

years and parted from its mother,

managed to crawl up to the top of

the ditch. [James] Dursi watched

horrified as Calley picked the child

up, shoved it back down the slope,

and shot it....

Under normal circumstances, Calley would not have done such monstrous things. He seemed to believe in the righteousness of his country's cause. Like his country, he should never have been involved in the war. "I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy," he said at his trial. "That was my job that day . . . I carried out the orders that I was given and I do not feel wrong in doing so." In his book Body Count, he further sought to explain why it happened: "We weren't in My Lai to kill human beings, really. We were there to kill ideology that is carried by-I don't know. Pawns. Blobs. Pieces of flesh. And I wasn't in My Lai to destroy intelligent men. I was there to destroy an intangible idea. To destroy communism. . . . I looked at communism as a Southerner looks at a negro, supposedly. It's evil. It's bad."

Nixon's "silent majority," unwilling to believe the war was a bad deal, saw Calley as a scapegoat and quickly transformed him into a national hero. "The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley" sold 200,000 copies in three days, and thousands of pro-Calley telegrams poured into the White House. Down in Georgia, we are reminded, Governor Jimmy Carter declared an "American Fighting Men's Day," urging Georgians to turn on their automobile headlights and "honor the flag as Rusty' had done." But My Lai had some genuine heroes-like helicopter pilot Hugh Clowers Thompson Jr., who spotted the massacre from the air. He promptly landed his copter and ordered his door gunner to shoot any Americans killing the villagers. Then he told his superiors what he had seen. But soon after began the coverup. After a superficial investigation, Thompson's charges were dismissed. Though he was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Thompson discarded it in protest. Nothing more was done until another hero appeared. Ronald Ridenhour, a helicopter door gunner with the 11th Infantry Brigade, heard of the massacre from another soldier and began his own investigation. Then he sent Rep. Mo Udall a damning 1,500word, three-page letter by registered mail in order to draw attention to its contents.

His charges were explosive in a Washington where the war had unhinged the White House and its prowar retainers in Congress. Bilton and Sim write that while Nixon issued a perfunctory condemnation of the massacre (government and army flacks preferred to call it an "incident," and "the media duly obliged," they note) he, typically, "secretly demanded a special investigation of Ronald Ridenhour" and, as always, tried to blame the media. But it was too late for Nixon's bag of tricks. Some Charlie Company soldiers had finished their tours of duty and were back home talking about My Lai. The intrepid Seymour Hersh-also targeted by the White House for investigation-was already on the story. All the White House could do was refuse to have a special commission take over the investigation and turn the matter over to the army, probably in the hope of shielding the president from any further embarrassment.

Fortunately, the army had some men for whom the massacre was just too much, notably General William Westmoreland and the judge advocate general, Maj. General Kenneth Hodgson, both of whom "were appalled and horrified by the killings." Westmoreland and Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor demanded a complete inquiry. In the process other heroes came forward. One was Colonel William V. Wilson of the army's inspector general's office, who decided after lengthy, grueling interviews of witnesses around the country that the allegations were legitimate. "I had prayed to God this thing was fiction and I knew now that it was fact," he said afterwards. And there was the remarkable General William PeersWestmoreland's choice to head up the investigation-who exposed the coverup and who probably failed to receive a fourth star or promotion to commander of the American forces in Korea because of his actions. When his friend and protector Westmoreland retired, Peers followed suit. My Lai was quickly forgotten.

Only one person involved in the massacre ever went to prison for the crimes-Calley, who spent a couple of months in Leavenworth. Many of the people who brought us this war went on to receive honors and rewards. Bilton and Sim prefer to lay most of the blame for the failure to resolve the case on the Nixon administration and "its complete failure to establish a clear moral lead for the nation." No surprise there. Still, we are left to decide if the atrocity was caused, as historian Guenter Lewy has argued, by "individual moral failure," or, as Ridenhour put it, by an outgrowth "of body counts and kill ratios and fire-free zones and search-and-destroy missions."

Whatever the truth, PFC Meadlo's mother's remark was a cry from the heart: "He wasn't raised up like that," she told CBS-TV after hearing her son speak of the massacre. "I raised him up to be a good boy and I did everything I could. They come along and took him to the service. He fought for his country and look what they done to him-made a murderer out of him."

I wonder if My Lai is ever discussed today in our colleges and universities. And if it isn't, why not?

Murray Polner
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Author:Polner, Murray
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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