On this day in 1969, Seymour Hersh broke the story about the My Lai Massacre, which happened 16 March 1968. Most people I talk to don’t know much about it. They know that it was something really bad. But it isn’t exactly something that we Americans like to dwell on. By the military’s accounting, 347 men, women, and children were murdered. Other estimates are higher. Some of the women were gang raped. It actually took place in two hamlets: My Lai and My Khe. Twenty-six soldiers were involved in this vile act.
There were three service members who tried to stop the massacre and rescue those Vietnamese who were hiding. Not surprisingly, these three were publicly smeared. They were shunned inside the military. It took the US government 30 years to recognize and decorate those three soldiers for their acts of heroism. One of them had died — less than a month after the massacre.
Of the 26 soldiers who were charged criminally, only one was found guilty. It’s amazing how “just following orders” works wonderful when it is your own army that is conducting the trial. The only one held accountable was Lieutenant William Calley. He was sentenced to life in prison. But within one day, President Nixon had his sentence changed to “house arrest.” He ended up serving only three and a half years. Ultimately, his defense to this day is that was just following orders.
The truth is that I’m somewhat sympathetic to that defense — just as I am to many of the Nazis who used that defense. When you are talking about the military, there is no sense of morality. The right thing to do is always whatever it is you are told. It is ridiculous to think that soldiers can be taught to always follow orders but that they shouldn’t under certain circumstances that imply future knowledge. The problem is the military and war itself. I hate hearing the outrage over things like the My Lai Massacre from people who are totally pro-war. Regardless of how bad the behavior, it is outrageous to think that wars are going to be fought without this kind of stuff. Wars are about dehumanizing people. And the My Lai Massacre is an obvious outcome of that.
Seymour Hersh is a great journalist. But my understanding is that the My Lai Massacre wasn’t exactly a secret. Hersh’s greatest attribute has always been his bravery. Journalism is probably worse today than it was then. But it has always been bad. Journalists don’t want to lose their access to powerful people. We would have a far greater press if our journalists simply changed their attitudes toward their jobs. It is to seek out the truth — not to collect powerful sources so as to make future banal stories easier to write.