They Went In With Blood In Their Eyes and Shot Everything That Moved

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In 1969, the military released photos of My Lai by Army photographer Ronald Haeberle, along with some by John Smail. Years later, Haeberle admitted he destroyed every photo of any officer killing civilians.

On this day 50 years ago, early on March 16, 1968, Lieut. William Calley Jr. led about a hundred U.S. Army soldiers with Charlie Company into a hamlet known as My Lai 4, in South Vietnam's Quang Ngai province. Expecting to meet Vietcong forces, the troops found unarmed women, children and old men cooking their breakfast rice over fires. In a few hours, most were dead. “Many were rounded up in small groups and shot," Seymour Hersh later wrote. "Others were flung into a drainage ditch at one edge of the hamlet and shot, and many more were shot at random in or near their homes." Hersh described young women and girls raped then murdered, and G.I.s systematically burning  homes, destroying livestock and fouling wells. When it was over, 504 civilians had been killed; over 300 were under 12. "They went in with blood in their eyes and shot everything that moved,” recalled Hugh Thompson, an army helicopter pilot who, with his crew, were the only soldiers who actively intervened to stop the killing - by threatening to shoot their comrades.

What followed was a massive, elaborate cover-up, starting with Charlie Company's lie that they had killed 128 Vietcong in the village whose very name Americans got wrong; the Vietnamese called it Son My. Thanks in large part to Thompson and Hersh, the truth ultimately emerged, but military higher-ups persistently sought to burnish and obscure it. They moved to quash the "brutal" language of a preliminary report so that the victims became not “elderly men, women, children and babies” but “noncombatant casualties,” and asked that descriptions of rapes be "less graphic," and changed the term “massacre” to “a tragedy of major proportions.” Just six soldiers were court-martialed, and after military trials deemed "judicial parodies," only Calley was convicted; he tried in vain to use the same defense - he was following orders - that had failed at the Nuremberg trials. After Nixon stepped in, Calley served just days in prison, and a few years under house arrest, all the while garnering broad if unseemly public sympathy.

Today, in Vietnam, a museum commemorates the victims of My Lai, and pays tribute to Hugh Thompson. America, meanwhile, still struggles to fathom how its once-innocent sons could perpetrate such atrocities, to learn what lessons it can other than there are really no survivors, and to accept the harsh truth that, in America's wars of choice, My Lai was and remains more norm than anomaly. After a decade of research and over 100 interviews, Nick Turse concludes in his book “Kill Anything that Moves” that the American killing of Vietnamese civilians was “pervasive and systematic.” One veteran, says Turse, estimates there was "a My Lai a month." And they continue, up to Abu Ghraib and beyond. For years, an unaccountable military and their hawkish political supporters have worked to obfuscate the ugly fact that "turning a blind eye for expedience sake toward the pursuit of global power, consequences be damned, is as good as a national pastime" - and that our ongoing wars must inevitably descend into such crimes against humanity. In Trump's America, with torturers and warmongers on the rise, we remain, lamentably, "one step away from My Lai."

"Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men...ready to believe and to act without asking questions." - Primo Levy

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