June 29, 2006

Haditha, My Lai and the Media:
The Massacre at My Lai

In military slang, the village of My Lai 4 was called Pinkville. One of nine My Lai villages in the province of Songmy, it was known by military intelligence to be a stronghold for the Viet Cong.

On March 15, 1968, intelligence reports indicated that the 48th Viet Cong Battalion was holding out in the village. The area had been declared a "free-fire zone," which meant that civilians were urged to leave before the military arrived. Anyone who remained would be considered hostile.

Three platoons of Company C, First Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Infantry-Brigade, were to head out on the morning of March 16, 1968 to take My Lai. All three were under the command of Capt. Ernest Medina, a 13-year soldier and recipient of the silver and bronze stars. Sgt. Michael Bernhardt, a member of one of Medina's platoons, later said that a few days before the My Lai mission, his squad hit a landmine, and suffered nearly 20 casualties and one death. As Bernhardt recalled, "the men's general contempt for Vietnamese civilians intensified" because of this.

The 11th Infantry-Brigade went into My Lai at 7 a.m. on March 16. Military intelligence led the company to believe there would be no resistance, but once there the group got reports that their gunships were receiving fire. 1st Lt. William L. Calley Jr., one of the platoon leaders, relayed an order to "clear the area."

Accounts at the time differed widely about what happened, but by the end of the day, My Lai was indeed cleared of its inhabitants.

"I Sent Them a Good Boy and They Made him a Murderer"

On Sept. 6, 1969, the AP ran a small story on Lt. Calley, who was at the Ft. Benning stockades awaiting court-martial on the charges of murdering Vietnamese civilians. The charges were filed only after members of Congress and the Army received disturbing letters from ex-GI Ronald Ridenhour, who described the My Lai incident based on eyewitness accounts from his Army friends, including Sgt. Bernhardt.

But the press didn't give Calley's charges much coverage until November of that year, when a reporter named Seymour Hersh published his stories on My Lai with little-known Dispatch News Service. Hersh's accounts were the first public renderings of what happened at My Lai, and included testimony from Bernhardt, Calley, and Pvt. Paul Meadlo, another member of the 11th Brigade.

Hersh's profile of Calley emerged on November 13, 1969. Calley's lawyer, George W. Latimer, told Hersh, "This is one case that should never have been brought. Whatever killing there was was in a firefight in connection with the operation." Illustrating the dangers of dealing with an insurgency, Latimer continued, "You can't afford to guess whether a civilian is a Viet Cong or not. Either they shoot you or you shoot them."

In Hersh's following articles, Bernhardt and Meadlo both verified a civilian massacre. "I walked up and saw these guys doing strange things," Bernhardt said to Hersh in a November 20 article. "... You could see piles of people all through the village... all over... .We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties...As a matter of fact, I don't remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive."

About four weeks later, in a profile titled, "The Story of a Soldier Who Refused to Fire at Songmy," which ran in The New York Times on December 14, 1969, reporter Joseph Lelyveld (much later the executive editor of the paper) got Bernhardt to elaborate. According to Bernhardt, Lelyveld wrote, "Captain Medina was explicit and matter-of-fact: The village and its inhabitants would be destroyed."

Lelyveld continued, "[Bernhardt] doesn't remember what ended the shooting or even whether he himself took part in the burning of the village... .What he does remember best are a few gruesome vignettes--one soldier, in particular, who laughed every time he pressed the trigger... and others who used hand grenades and grenade launchers to do the job of small arms... Perhaps a dozen of the men he watched struck him as having gone berserk... "

While Bernhardt had stated to Lelyveld that he refused to take part in the shooting of civilians, Meadlo admitted to killing civilians at My Lai. "There must have been about 40 or 45 civilians standing in one big circle in the middle of the village," Meadlo said to Hersh in a November 25 article. "... Calley came back [and said], 'Get with it ... I want them dead.'"

"I just thought we were supposed to do it," the 22-year-old said. But Meadlo also admitted that the killing "did take a load off my conscience for the buddies we'd lost. It was just revenge, that's all it was."

Meadlo's mother expressed her outrage at the Army to Hersh in the same article: "I sent them a good boy, and they made him a murderer."

The Army and the Press Stand Accused

Soon after Hersh's articles were published, the Army established what was to be known as the Peers Commission. Named after its ranking member, Lt. Gen. William R. Peers, the board's mission was to uncover the exact events of March 16, 1968, and investigate whether these actions had subsequently been ignored or hidden by Army officials. The Army announced it was investigating 26 men.

Soon it was the lawyers who became stars in the press. George W. Latimer, Calley's attorney, accused the press of bias, claiming in a November 29, 1969 article that, "news stories concerning the case definitely have impaired the accused's chances of having a fair trial."

F. Lee Bailey, who was counsel to Capt. Medina, went further, on December 4, 1969 telling the Christian Science Monitor "he may file libel suits against major news publications that have reported eyewitness accounts accusing his client of wanton killing during the incident."

Bailey followed through on his threat two days later when he filed a $110 million libel suit against Time, Inc. The suit focused on the Dec. 5, 1969 issue of Time Magazine, in which an article quoted Richard Pendleton, a former rifleman in Medina's company, as saying that "he had observed Capt. Medina shooting a little boy who was surrounded by dead bodies." The article went on to observe, "The biggest mystery so far is why no charges have been placed against Capt. Medina." The case was later dismissed.

In a separate article in The New York Times on December 5, 1969, Medina himself weighed in on the press: "... I think the news media has been very biased and unfair, not only to myself but to any other soldier in uniform and to the United States Army... It's not fair to the other people that have served their country honorably, the people that are in uniform, and it's not fair to the soldiers that we have in Vietnam right now."

The Peers Commission finished its report in March of 1970, delivering it to the Army Chief of State, Gen. William Westmoreland. The report contained charges not only of murder, but of rape, sodomy, and assault of civilians as well. It concluded that "... certain individuals, either wittingly or unwittingly, by their action suppressed information from the incident from being passed up the chain of command... "

The Army brought charges against 14 men. A March 22, 1970 Los Angeles Times article noted that this was "believed to be the largest collection of high-ranking U.S. officers ever implicated in a single case." The men included two generals, five colonels, three majors, and four captains.

Over the course of the following four years, the American public watched as all but one officer went unpunished for the events that occurred at My Lai. The two highest-ranking men to be charged, Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster and Brig. Gen. George H. Young Jr., saw charges dismissed due to lack of evidence. Both were eventually disciplined by the Army; Koster was demoted to brigadier general and both he and Young Jr., were stripped of their Distinguished Service Medals.

Another high profile case was that of Col. Oran K. Henderson, who was one of the ranking officers present in a helicopter that hovered over Medina's units as they unleashed their force upon My Lai. Henderson was court-martialed and faced charges that he "willingly failed to conduct a proper and thorough investigation as it was his duty to do."

Henderson responded by saying to the Los Angeles Times in May 1971 that, "Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden some place." The only reason these atrocities aren't uncovered is that "every unit doesn't have a Ridenhour." Henderson was acquitted of all charges in December of 1971.

Capt. Medina faced charges of causing over 175 deaths, but was acquitted after Bailey was able to refute key witnesses and have photographs of the massacre that were taken by ex-GI photographer Ronald Haeberle excluded from evidence. "If you decide to hold soldiers to this sort of standard," Bailey told the jury, "then you should equip every soldier with an attorney to advise him on every occasion whether he has the right to shoot."

Medina was honorably discharged by the Army in 1971, and accepted a job as an assistant to the president of the R.J. Engstrom Corp., a civilian helicopter producer. The president of the firm was F. Lee Bailey.

In all, only Calley was convicted on charges relating to the massacre at My Lai. On March 29, 1971, after hearing testimony from soldiers such as Meadlo and Medina and seeing Haeberle's photographs of the massacre, the jury convicted Calley of premeditated murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, just two days after his trial, President Nixon ordered him released from prison pending his appeal.

Calley served three-and-a-half years of house arrest; eventually his sentence was diminished to ten years, only a third of which he served before being paroled.

In 1972, Seymour Hersh's book "Cover-Up" was published by Random House. Based on the 28,000 pages of documents from the Army investigation, Hersh's book accused the Army not only of "whitewashing" the story of My Lai, but also whitewashing the cover-up.

Further, Hersh added, there was another massacre on March 16, 1968 that was performed by Company C's parent unit, Task Force Baker. These and other details of wrongdoing by the Army were held within the Peers Report, but the information was in sections that were not formally released to the press due to "national security" issues. It was not until Nov. 14, 1974 that all pages were released. On that day, Hersh wrote in an article for The New York Times that "The Peers document showed that knowledge of the atrocity [of My Lai] was widespread throughout" the Army.

One Morning in Haditha

The chronology of what occurred at the Iraqi village of Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005 is eerily similar to that of My Lai.

Though the details of the 2005 event are still being pieced together, this much is known: The village of Haditha, located in the Anbar province, was particularly violent and played host to many Sunni Arab insurgents. On Nov. 19, 2005, the soldiers of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment hit an improvised explosive device (IED) with their Humvee on a road in Haditha. The explosion killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, a 20-year-old.

Thereafter, the versions of what happened vary drastically.

According to a Nov. 20, 2005 Marine communiqué, the Marines received fire from insurgents in Haditha, and returned fire themselves. Once the battle ended, 15 civilians were dead. However, this story was soon challenged by allegations that the Marines killed civilians in reprisal for the death of Terrazas. After a preliminary investigation in February 2006 caused Marine officials to doubt the original communiqué, the military announced that the civilians had been shot dead and were not killed by the IED blast as previously stated.

Based on this new information, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Multi-National Corps Commanding General in Iraq, recommended a formal investigation into whether the Marines violated the rules of engagement at Haditha. The investigation now falls under the jurisdiction of the Navy's Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).

The main impetus behind the new investigation closely resemble those of My Lai.

Just as Ronald Haeberle's photographs of the My Lai massacre at the outset provoked outrage upon appearing in The Cleveland Plain Dealer (and were eventually admitted as evidence), a videotape by an Iraqi journalism student that showed the corpses of the Haditha victims--including a 3-year-old --caused the Marines to open a formal investigation into what occurred that November morning.

Just as Seymour Hersh's articles proved to be the catalyst for action, so too were the shocking eyewitness accounts provided by Tim McGirk in a March 27, 2006 article for Time magazine.

Titled "One Morning in Haditha," McGirk's article took the reader through the tragedy of Haditha, one that "has become numbingly routine amid the daily reports of violence in Iraq." A nine-year-old girl named Eman Waleed told McGirk that she "watched [the soldiers] shoot [her] grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. And then they killed [her] granny." Another witness, Yousif Ayed, told the reporter of how his four brothers were killed by U.S. troops: "We could tell from the blood tracks across the floor what happened ... The Americans gathered my four brothers and took them inside my father's bedroom, to a closet. They killed them inside the closet."

In the same article, Marines spokespeople stated that after the death of Terrazas, the Marines came under fire from the direction of the Waleed household.

The Pursuit of Justice

By April 2006, the Marines had publicly relieved three leaders of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment of duty. However, they denied that the disciplinary actions were related to Haditha. Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, insisted instead that it was because he "lost confidence in the officers."

The following month saw Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), himself a former Marine, saying in a May 18, 2006 Wall Street Journal article that the military inquiry would show that the Haditha killings were "much worse than reported," and that Marines had "killed innocent civilians in cold blood." A House Armed Services Committee (HASC) was set up to oversee the Haditha investigations in order to avoid any "whitewashing" of the type that occurred in the My Lai investigations.

As June 2006 arrived, further evidence surfaced in the press. The original inquiry that set into motion Lt. Gen. Chiarelli's request for a NCIS investigation was revealed to the public in a May 31 New York Times article. Col. Gregory Watt, an Army officer in Baghdad, led the three-week investigation that occurred in February and March of 2006. Watt's findings included several inconsistencies in the Marines' official story.

Currently, the press coverage has focused on the lawyers involved with the case -- much like the coverage of My Lai. Attorney Neal Puckett has taken the most forceful role; a former military judge himself, Puckett is representing Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who was the leader of one of the platoons on Nov. 19, 2005.

Puckett dismissed the ongoing investigations against his client in a June 12 article in the Los Angeles Times, saying that, "There will be no proof that these Marines intentionally killed civilians. To call this a massacre is completely groundless." He continued in a defense that almost directly matched George W. Latimer's defense of Lt. Calley: "That innocent people were killed is regrettable, but now to have people, in hindsight, say, 'Well, I would have done things differently,' is wrong. Unless you were on the ground that day, you can't judge."

He also has said: "My client did nothing contrary to his training on that day."

Much as Bailey and others did before him, Puckett brought accusations against the press, claiming that "an erroneous explanation given to the media" had caused much of the Haditha controversy, the whole story had not come out, and the media's wide coverage of Rep. Murtha's remarks had tainted the case.

As this article is written, the investigation into the alleged cover-up of the Haditha killings, is the most recent news. The Los Angeles Times on June 21, 2006 quoted an unnamed Defense Department official who said that this report concluded, "Virtually no inquiry at any level of command was conducted into the circumstances surrounding the deaths," even though "there were ... a number of red flags and opportunities to do so."

If history is any guide, it will serve the press well not to be cowed by claims of bias or lack of objectivity when dealing with such serious cases as Haditha -- especially since in today's overtly partisan atmosphere most readers will likely flock to positions without close attention to the evidence.


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