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:
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).
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."
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
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.