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Posted June 6, 2002
No headline could to justice to the story or the book
If you are over 50 and contributed to the William Laws Calley Defense Fund, you may not enjoy this book about what happened when Charlie Company of Task Force Barker, 11th Brigade, Americal Division murdered between 350 and 400 unarmed noncombatants under their control in the village called My Lai 4 in Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam. The authors have organized the telling of the story well. Each section is generally topical with the topics being presented as they pertained chronologically. This leaves some overlaps in the timeline between sections, but not much. The elements of the story are drawn mostly from the Army¿s own investigation and from interviews with eyewitnesses and participants. Only the section on the Nixon administration¿s handling of the massacre rely substantially on other sources. The details of the circumstances, the incident itself, the cover-up, the investigation, and the subsequent white-wash are presented with chilling dispassion by the authors. I was 24 years old, married for one year, and in my second year of study toward my Ph.D. when I was first confronted with Ron Haeberle¿s photographs in the pages of Life magazine. As a student of the Soviet Union and the People¿s Republic of China I had no illusions about the nature of the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Communism ¿ but I also harbored no illusions about the strategies and tactics or the possibilities of ultimate success in the United States¿ prosecution of the war. Having been raised in a military family ¿ though not in service myself ¿ I had plenty of close second-hand knowledge of the fundamental brutality of war and the effects of that brutality on otherwise decent men. I had also been raised on concepts of duty, honor, and discipline. There were things that one simply did not do. The undeniable fact that at least one company of United States soldiers had behaved like Nazi Sonderkommandos was what the big-word people call ¿a major cognitive disruption.¿ I take only one exception to this book. It stresses, but I believe insufficiently, the role played by poor training, lack of discipline, and the incompetent and negligent leadership provided by the officers in command of this unit all the way up the chain of command to the division level. Nor does it seem to find enough outrage in the manner in which ¿ticket-punching¿ career-building officers rotating through the combat zone were eager to sweep the matter under the rug lest it interfere with their plans for advancement. But the picture painted here is not totally without redemption. There were members of Charlie Company who refused to obey when ordered to shoot down unarmed villagers. There was Hugh Thompson who intervened his helicopter between soldiers and their would-be victims and threatened to fire on the soldiers. There was General Peers, whose thorough investigation and no-holds-barred report was in the best tradition. In the end my question is this. After more than 30 years, two careers, and a family ¿ after being witness to subsequent outstanding and honorable performance by the military ¿ after taking great pride in some of the accomplishments of the United States ¿ why do I ¿ who have never seen the village called My Lai 4 ¿ still feel dirty?
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Posted July 16, 2009
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