Remembering My Lai in Light of Haditha

Thomas Ricks reports on the coverup of Haditha:

Despite what Marine witnesses saw when they arrived, that official version has been allowed to stand for six months. Who lied about the killings, who knew the truth and what, if anything, they did about it are at the core of one of the potentially most embarrassing and damaging events of the Iraq war, one that some say may surpass the detainee abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison … That same month, a top military official arrived in Iraq who would play a key role in the case: Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the new No. 2 military officer in the country … Not long after Chiarelli arrived in Baghdad, an Iraqi journalism student gave an Iraqi human rights group a video he had taken in Haditha the day after the incident. It showed the scene at the local morgue and the damage in the houses where the killings took place. The video reached Time magazine, whose reporters began questioning U.S. military officials. Pool, the Marine captain, sent the reporters a dismissive e-mail saying that they were falling for al-Qaeda propaganda, the magazine said recently. “I cannot believe you’re buying any of this,” he wrote. Pool declined last week to comment on any aspect of the Haditha incident. But Army Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a more senior spokesman in Baghdad, notified Chiarelli of the questions. The general’s response to his public affairs office was short: Just brief the Time magazine reporter on the military investigation into the incident that Chiarelli assumed had been conducted. The surprising word came back: There had been no investigation. Chiarelli told subordinates in early February he was amazed by that response, according to an Army officer in Iraq. He directed that an inquiry commence as soon as possible. He wanted to know what had happened in Haditha, and also why no investigation had begun … On March 10, the findings were given to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, the first Marine ever to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Rumsfeld told aides that the case promised to be a major problem. He called it “really, really bad – as bad or worse than Abu Ghraib,” recalled one Pentagon official. On March 11, President Bush was informed, according to the White House … The first public indication that the military was taking those allegations seriously came on April 7, when Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, a reserved, quietly professional officer from northwestern Colorado, was relieved of command of the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marines, Kilo Company’s parent unit. Also removed were two of his subordinates – Kilo’s commander, Capt. Luke McConnell, and the commander of another company. Even then, the Marine Corps didn’t specify why the actions were taken, beyond saying that the officers had lost the confidence of their superiors. Then, on May 17, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) let the news slip out. In the middle of a rambling statement at the outset of a news conference on Capitol Hill, he said – almost as an aside – that what happened in Haditha was “much worse than reported in Time magazine.” He asserted that the investigations would reveal that “our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” … The facts of the shooting incident seem now to be largely known, with military insiders saying that recent news articles are similar to the internal reports they have received from investigators. But considerable mystery remains about how Marine commanders handled the incident and contributed to what some officials suspect was a coverup. “The real issue is how far up the chain of command it goes,” said one senior Marine familiar with the case. “Who knew it, and why didn’t they do something about it?” The Marine Corps still has not corrected its misleading Nov. 20 statement asserting that the Iraqi civilians were killed in a bomb blast. A Marine Corps spokesman didn’t return calls on Friday asking why it had not.

While I had thought the debate over My Lai was seared in my memory, I learned quite a bit from the Wikipedia coverage of the massacre that occurred on March 16, 1968 and the subsequent cover-up. First, the date – which was before Richard Nixon succeeded Lyndon Johnson. One of my tenth grade teachers liked to turn his students loose debating the hot topics of the day and when My Lai came up, I was instantly the most unpopular person in class as I tried to argue that the prosecution of Lt. Calley should go forward. I was not surprised that the hawks generally wanted no investigation – with the notable exception of some William Buckley wannabe who agreed with me on this particular issue (he never agreed with me on anything else). I was generally surprised that the doves wanted to excuse Calley’s actions as they had blood lust for Nixon. So how was it that we heard about My Lai only after Nixon become President. Wikipedia details the cover-up:

Henderson interviewed several soldiers involved in the incident, then issued a written report in late April claiming that approximately 22 civilians were inadvertently killed during the military operation in My Lai … Six months later, a 21-year-old soldier of the 11th Light Infantry (The Butcher’s Brigade) named Tom Glen wrote a letter accusing the Americal Division (and other entire units of the U.S. military, not just individuals) of routine brutality against Vietnamese civilians; the letter was detailed, its allegations horrifying, and its contents echoed complaints received from other soldiers.

Next comes a familiar name – Colin Powell – who was the army major charged with looking into what Glen wrote:

Powell wrote: “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” Later, Powell’s refutation would be called an act of “white-washing” the news of My Lai, and questions would continue to remain undisclosed to the public.

The story continues with a letter from Ron Ridenhour, which he sent in early 1969 to President Nixon, the State Department, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several members of Congress. Most recipients of Ridenhour’s letter ignored it, with the notable exception of Representative Morris Udall. We also see another interesting name – Seymour Hersch – who wrote a November 12, 1969 article letting the public know of this massacre.

Some apologists for the Haditha incident are noting that we are not covering-up this massacre in the same fashion that we covered-up My Lai. But there was an attempt at a cover-up even if this one failed sooner than the cover-up back in the late 1960’s. Just as Richard Nixon knew about My Lai by March 1969 but did not tell us, George W. Bush knew about Haditha by March 2006 but choose not to tell us. There were heroes during My Lai and there may be heroes today. Alas, the President of the United States was not a hero during either incident.