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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 1, 2009
Page 2 of 2
DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA
From My Lai to Lockerbie
By Nick Turse

Butchery in the Mekong Delta

A few weeks after McNamara's death, Julian Ewell, a top army general who served in two important command roles in Vietnam, also passed away. For years, the specter of atrocity had swirled around him, but only among a select community of veterans and Vietnam War historians. In 1971, Newsweek magazine's Kevin Buckley and Alex Shimkin conducted a wide-ranging investigation of Ewell's crowning achievement, a six-month operation in the Mekong Delta code-named Speedy Express, and found evidence of the widespread slaughter of civilians. "The horror was worse than My Lai," one American official told Buckley. "But ... the civilian casualties came in dribbles and were pieced out over a

 

long time. And most of them were inflicted from the air and at night. Also, they were sanctioned by the command's insistence on high body counts."

As word of the impending Newsweek article spread, John Paul Vann, a retired army lieutenant colonel who was by then the third-most-powerful American serving in Vietnam, and his deputy, Colonel David Farnham, met in Washington with army chief of staff General William Westmoreland. At that meeting, Vann told Westmoreland that Ewell's troops had wantonly killed civilians to boost the body count - the number of enemy dead that served as the primary indicator of success in the field - and so further the general's reputation and career. According to Farnham, Vann said Speedy Express was, in effect, "many My Lais”.

A Pentagon-level cover-up and Newsweek's desire not to upset the Nixon administration in the wake of the My Lai revelations kept the full results of the meticulous investigation by Buckley and Shimkin bottled up. The publication of a severely truncated version of their article allowed the Pentagon to ride out the coverage without being forced to convene a large-scale official inquiry of the sort which followed public disclosure of the My Lai massacre.

Only last year did some of the reporting that Newsweek suppressed, as well as new evidence of the slaughter and the cover-up, appear in a piece of mine in The Nation and only in the wake of Ewell's death was it mentioned in the Washington Post that a long-secret official Army report, commissioned in response to Buckley and Shimkin's investigation, concluded:
[W]hile there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was in fact substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000).
A year after the eviscerated Buckley-Shimkin piece was published, Ewell retired from the army. Colonel Farnham believed that the general was prematurely pushed out due to continuing army fears of a scandal. If true, it was the only act approaching official censure that he apparently ever experienced, far less punishment than that meted out to Megrahi, or even Calley.

Yet Ewell was responsible for the deaths of markedly more civilians. Needless to say, Ewell's civilian slaughter never garnered significant TV coverage, nor did any US president ever express outrage over it, or begrudge the general his military benefits, let alone the ability to spend time with his family. In fact, in October, following a memorial service, Julian Ewell will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Chain of command
In his recent remarks, William Calley emphasized that he was following orders at My Lai, a point on which he has never wavered. The army's investigation into My Lai involved 45 members of Medina's company, including Calley, suspected of atrocities. In a second investigation, 30 individuals were looked into for covering up what happened in the village by "omissions or commissions". Twenty-eight of them were officers, two of them generals, and as a group they stood accused of a total of 224 offenses. Calley, however, was the sole person convicted of an offense in connection with My Lai. Even he ultimately evaded any substantive punishment for his crimes.

While an opportunity was squandered during the Vietnam era, Calley's apology and the response to Megrahi's release offer another chance for some essential soul-searching in the United States. In considering Calley's decades-late contrition, Americans might ask why a double standard exists when it comes to official outrage over mass murder.

It might also be worth asking why some individuals, like a former Libyan intelligence officer or, in rare instances, a low-ranking US infantry officer, are made to bear so much blame for major crimes whose responsibility obviously reached far above them; and why officers up the chain of command, and war managers - in Washington or Tripoli - escape punishment for the civilian blood on their hands. Unfortunately, this opportunity will almost certainly be squandered as well.

Similarly, it's unlikely that Americans will seriously contemplate just how so many lived beside Calley for so long, without seeking justice - as would be second nature in the case of a similarly horrific crime committed by an officer serving a hostile power elsewhere. Yet he and fellow American officers from Donald Reh (implicated in the deaths of 19 civilians - mostly women and children - during a February 1968 massacre) to Bob Kerrey have gone about their lives without so much as being tried by court martial, let alone serving prison time as did Megrahi.

In the immediate wake of Calley's contrition, it wasn't a reporter from the American media but from Agence France-Presse (AFP), which thought to check on how Vietnamese survivors or relatives of those massacred at My Lai might react. When an AFP reporter spoke to Pham Thanh Cong, who saw his mother and brothers killed in the My Lai massacre (and now runs a small museum at the village) and asked what he thought of Calley's apology, he responded, "Maybe he has now repented for his crimes and his mistakes committed more than 40 years ago." Maybe.

Today, some of Calley's cohorts, the mostly anonymous others who perpetrated their own horrors in Southeast Asia and never faced even a modicum of justice for their crimes, go about their lives in American cities and suburbs. (Others, who have committed unpunished offenses in the Global War on Terror, are still on active duty.) As a result, the outrage over what happened to the only man convicted of the terrorist act against Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, has a strikingly hollow ring.

A failure to demand an honest accounting of the suffering the United States caused the Vietnamese people and a willingness to ignore ample evidence of widespread slaughter remains a lasting legacy of the Vietnam War. So does a desire to reduce all discussion of US atrocities in Southeast Asia to the massacre at My Lai, with William Calley bearing the burden - not just for his crimes but for all US crimes there. And it will remain so until the American people do what their military and civilian leadership have failed to do for more than 40 years: take responsibility for the misery the US inflicted in Southeast Asia.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the recent winner of a Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. A paperback edition of his book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books), an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, has recently been published. His website is NickTurse.com.

(Copyright 2009 Nick Turse.)

(Used by permission Tomdispatch)

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