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Posted at 8:30 PM ET, 04/ 7/2010

Pentagon should quickly come clean on killings

By Jeff Stein

“Once the first civilian was killed it was too late, period. Whoever killed the first civilian, that was the end of the situation. It went out of control.”

This is not an Army helicopter crew member explaining what happened in Baghdad on July 12, 2007, the shooting incident made instantly infamous via the Wikileaks video this week.

This is Fred Widmer, a soldier in South Vietnam 42 years ago, explaining in a new film how his unit massacred over 400 women, old men and children in the hamlet of My Lai, South Vietnam.

When an advance copy of a new PBS documentary on My Lai arrived in my mailbox this week, I thought it would be a long time before -- if ever -- I watched it. As a Vietnam veteran and author of two books on the war, I’d long ago had enough.

But then on Monday, the New York Times reported on another troubling incident in Afghanistan.

Near Gardez last Feb. 12, members of a joint U.S.-Afghan Special Operations team allegedly gunned down five civilians -- a local prosecutor, a police chief and two women, one of them pregnant -- and then dug the bullets from the victims’ bodies and concocted a cover story that the women had been stabbed to death in a domestic dispute before the raid. The Times reported:

At first, the American-led military command in Kabul said that the two men who died were “insurgents” who had “engaged” — in other words, shot at — the forces at the scene. The initial account also said that the troops then stumbled onto the bodies of three women “tied up, gagged and killed” and hidden in a room.

An Afghan investigator told the Times that “evidence tampering helps explain why NATO officials were so ‘confused’ initially and offered inaccurate accounts of the killings.”

At My Lai, with so many bloody bodies around them, the soldiers couldn’t have even considered a cover-up.

But they didn’t have to, because at Americal Division headquarters, Col. Oran K. Henderson was rushing to do it for them, making a “series of false and misleading reports to his commanding officer,” according to a much later investigation.

In the intervening months, the Army accepted Henderson’s version over the word of My Lai’s survivors and other soldiers who knew an atrocity when they saw it.

What’s the relevance to the current incidents?

Witnesses in the Afghan village told the Times they saw what happened, but officials at the U.S.-led NATO headquarters, hiding behind cloaks of anonymity, are denying a cover-up.

“We strongly deny having dug any bullets out of bodies,” a NATO official said. “There simply is no evidence.”

Here’s some:

"Mohammed Tahir, whose 18-year-old daughter was killed, said he had watched from the compound through an open door as an American knelt over one corpse with a knife and tried to extract the bullets," the Times reported.

Other villagers told the Times they didn’t see the carving but the wounds on the bodies looked far larger than the standard exit hole of a bullet. After a quarter century of almost continuous war, you'd think they would know.

An autopsy is pending. It shouldn’t be hard to determine the ground truth.

And how have U.S. commanders responded to the Baghdad helicopter assault, which killed 12 Iraqi men -- one carrying an AK-47, another with a grenade launcher -- among them two Reuters reporters, one of whom was plunked as he crawled for shelter?

An investigation went nowhere. For nearly three years the Army has tried to suppress the chopper’s video and audio tape.

And one can see why.

“Look at those dead bastards,” one pilot says, in just one of many sickening passages.

“Nice,” the other responds.

I'm not new to war. Killing people from helicopters began a long time ago.

But in hearts-and-minds struggles where being more careful is not only right, but a necessity for winning, as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has said again and again, the standards for engagement have to be higher.

It’s distressing to think how the military might have swept the incident under its rugs forever had not the video surfaced.

The fact is, there’s not much new in it. The Washington Post’s David Finkel fully reported on the incident in his 2009 book, The Good Soldiers, complete with a transcript of the pilots’ sickening dialogue.

But now, suddenly, the U.S. Central Command is maybe considering taking another look at what happened, “because of a question of the rules of engagement,” yet another anonymous official told Reuters.

The question is, “Were all the actions that are depicted on that video in parallel with the rules of engagement in effect at the time?" he said.

If they were, then something is seriously wrong with those rules.

As with the My Lai photos 42 years ago, public sentiment is sharply divided over the Wikileaks video.

The myth that soldiers took fire from My Lai and “understandably” went wild persisted for decades, and it’s likely a similar myth will grow up around the Baghdad killings, despite the unvarnished video.

Most, but not all, military bloggers and conservatives are sympathetic to the pilots, putting the killings in a “fog of war” context.

But as “My Lai: The Tragedy, The Coverup, The Aftermath” shows in a freshly wrenching detail, the soldiers who stuck to their lies for years finally gave in to the truth, that they’d murdered hundreds of innocent people.

Even William Calley, the feckless lieutenant who wasted 40 years insisting, falsely, that he was only “following orders” in My Lai, finally admitted he was wrong, and sorry, and in pain.

“There is not a day goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” he said on Aug. 19, 1969. “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”

It's too bad that the film doesn't air until April 26. It's supremely relevant right now.

As the journalist Jonathan Schell says all these years later, My Lai, in the end, was as much a question of “what is it doing to us?” as what we did to them.

The U.S. Central Command should remember My Lai, and come clean -- for its own sake.

By Jeff Stein  | April 7, 2010; 8:30 PM ET
Categories:  Military  | Tags:  wikileaks  
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The video speaks for itself. The Reuters journalists thought it would be fly to hang out with insurgents. They won't be doing that again.

Posted by: john_bruckner | April 7, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

And you know they were "civilians" because they weren't wearing uniforms.

Posted by: eukodol | April 7, 2010 10:44 PM | Report abuse

It's funny that I was thinking of My Lai as I read about the Iraq videotape this morning too.

People were aghast to hear soldiers saying, "pick up a weapon, pick up a weapon" while they waited to fire. In Vietnam, they didn't wait for anyone to pick up a weapon.

At My Lai, the presumption was that anyone in the area was an enemy combatant. Following that order literally is what created the moral confusion which led to the massacre. Massacres like My Lai were exactly what the enemy wanted -- the occupying force becomes frustrated with the confusion of guerilla warfare and retaliates against the civilian population. So you can say the soldiers were wrong, but you can't say that their errors were not a part of the enemy's plan to win.

Calley revealed some interesting things at trial. He knew intuitively that if he lost one troop, then he had to report back that at least 10 enemy were killed. This, he observed, was a challenge when you've been fighting just one sniper all day long.

Posted by: blasmaic | April 8, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

The video shows that the photographers were clearly hanging out with people with (at the minimum) an AK-47 and a RPG moments after a coalition unit was attacked just blocks away.

Comparing this to My Lai is clearly a stretch.

Posted by: mpdivo1 | April 8, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

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