On the 45th Anniversary of the My Lai Massacre…

by Corey Robin on March 17, 2013

On the 45th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre,  you may want to read this, from the Washington Post:

Pham Thanh Cong leans forward, his 55-year-old face a patchwork of scars and dents, and explains what’s wrong with My Khe hamlet. Vietnamese families are built around a three-generation structure, Cong says. Parents work the fields while grandparents take care of children. In time, children will become caregivers and grandparents the cared-for. Eventually, the generations will shift and the cycle will repeat. Families have been this way since there were families in Vietnam.

But in My Khe, a generation is missing.

On the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, you may want to read this, from Dan Savage in 2002:


War may be bad for children and other living things, but there are times when peace is worse for children and other living things, and this is one of those times. Saying no to war in Iraq means saying yes to the continued oppression of the Iraqi people.


While the American left is content to see an Iraqi dictator terrorizing the Iraqi people, the Bushies in D.C. are not. “We do not intend to put American lives at risk to replace one dictator with another,” Dick Cheney recently told reporters. For those of you who were too busy making papier-mâché puppets of George W. Bush last week to read the papers, you may have missed this page-one statement in last Friday’s New York Times: “The White House is developing a detailed plan, modeled on the postwar occupation of Japan, to install an American-led military government in Iraq if the United States topples Saddam Hussein.”

These developments–a Republican administration recognizing that support for dictators in Third World countries is a losing proposition; a commitment to post-WWII-style nation-building in Iraq–are terrific news for people who care about human rights, freedom, and democracy.


The War on Iraq will make it clear to our friends and enemies in the Middle East (and elsewhere) that we mean business: Free your people, reform your societies, liberalize, and democratize… or we’re going to come over there, remove you from power, free your people, and reform your societies for ourselves.

And as you reflect on the 45th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre and the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq—and ponder what those events might mean, and how they might appear, to the peoples of the world and to the victims of US power—you may want to read this, from Frederick Douglass:


What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.




rootlesscosmo 03.17.13 at 3:23 pm


Kaveh 03.17.13 at 3:55 pm

I feel like these hypocrites are the ones who are still basically happy with Obama and willing to give him benefit of doubt re the drone strikes, transparency, and civil liberties. They want to be seen as having good intentions towards the world outside their particular interest group, but they are political opportunists who can’t be bothered to get a handle on basic facts. And they need to be called out.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 03.17.13 at 3:59 pm

In several respects, Turse does not so much provide us with a “pioneering investigation [of] violence against Vietnamese civilians [that] was not at all exceptional,” but a systematic account of facts that have long been well-known in some circles (like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War), and was made public, for example, in The Winter Soldier Investigation, January 31-February 2, 1971, the verbatim transcript of which runs to almost a thousand pages but was condensed into a little book with the subtitle, “An Inquiry into American War Crimes,” and published by Beacon Press in 1972. As Robert Jay Lipton wrote in 1971, “My Lai illuminates, as nothing else has, the essential nature of America’s war in Vietnam.”* Lipton pointed out that “My Lai was itself the product of earlier, smaller My Lais,” and was soon followed by the extension of the war into Laos and Cambodia, which included unprecedented aerial bombing of civilians.** A full knowledge of this history does indeed make it perfectly pellucid that for “revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

* See Richard A. Falk, Gabriel Kolko, and Robert Jay Lipton, eds., Crimes of War (Random House, 1971), which includes a section on Vietnam.
** See Marilyn B. Young’s chapter in the volume she edited with Yuki Tanaka: Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History (The New Press, 2009)


seth edenbaum 03.17.13 at 4:04 pm

Free Gaza


NomadUK 03.17.13 at 6:25 pm

You could also read this, which proves that Nixon basically had the blood of three or four million people in addition to those at My Lay on his hands, though, of course, we all already knew that.


Doctor Memory 03.17.13 at 7:25 pm

At the risk of a slight tangent…

I can’t really argue with those people incapable of forgiving Dan Savage for his idiotic support of the invasion in 2002: in the end, it’s not forgivable. But I have to give him a bit of credit for one thing: unlike nearly other now-embarrassed (or not) cheerleader for the war, he actually learned the correct lesson from it, namely that he was not competent to comment on foreign policy and has, amazingly, refrained from discussing it ever since.

Would that the rest of our ever-falling-upward punditocracy (Andrew Sullivan, Megan McArdle, Richard Cohen, etc etc ad infinitum ad nauseam) were possessed of such well-honed senses of shame and self-assessment.


Mathmos 03.17.13 at 7:54 pm

Frederick Douglass will provide in a posthumous manner the closing words to this current chapter of history.


Clay Shirky 03.18.13 at 2:11 am

And, apropos Douglass, there is Suwardi Suryaningrat’s anti-colonial piece from Indonesia, “Als ik eens Nederlander”, sometimes translated as “If I for once were to be a Dutchman”, which featured in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities:

In my opinion, there is something out of place – something indecent – if we (I still being a Dutchman in my imagination) ask the natives to join the festivities which celebrate our independence. Firstly, we will hurt their sensitive feelings because we are here celebrating our own independence in their native country which we colonize. At the moment we are very happy because a hundred years ago we liberated ourselves from foreign domination; and all of this occurring in front of the eyes of those who are still under our domination.

Does it not occur to us that these poor slaves are also longing for such a moment as this, when they like us will be able to celebrate their independence? Or do we perhaps feel that because of our soul-destroying policy we regard all human souls as dead? If that is so, then we are deluding against any type of oppression. If I were a Dutchman, I would not organize an independence celebration in a county where the independence of the people has been stolen.



Dr. Hilarius 03.18.13 at 4:49 am

The connection between My Lai and Dan Savage’s attempt at foreign policy analysis is a bit too tangential for me. In any case, why beat up on Dan Savage, there are far worthier targets, people who are even now influencing US foreign policy.

The continuing tragedy of My Lai is that it is almost unknown to those under the age of 50. Even those who have heard of it don’t know about it in any detail. The general perception was that it was a momentary action by a single killer with all the usual blather about the “fog of war.” Americans are no more accepting of an eight-hour, methodical massacre now then when it took place. Rarely is Colin Powell’s role mentioned. Or that Lt. Calley got a few years of home detention for mass murder. Americans on the whole are unable to accept responsibility for atrocities committed by our troops. Clashes too much with their “Support the Troops” bumper stickers.


Katherine 03.18.13 at 11:56 am

Well, I’ve seen US-made movies and documentaries about Vietnam, and I learned more from the comments section of that Washington Post piece than I have from anything else. Honestly, two seconds thought about history within living memory should have taught anyone from a US or European perspective that going into Afghanistan and Iraq was a terrible, terrible idea, and yet we still went ahead and did it. I am now deeply depressed about how fricking stupid people are.


NomadUK 03.18.13 at 12:36 pm

I am now deeply depressed about how fricking stupid people are.

Well, better late than never. Welcome aboard.


BobbyV 03.18.13 at 3:11 pm

Stupidity redux ….

“Sometimes, when I am particularly depressed, I ascribe our behavior to stupidity—the stupidity of our leadership, the stupidity of our culture. Thirty years ago we suffered military defeat—fighting an unwinnable war against a country about which we knew nothing and in which we had no vital interests at stake. Vietnam was bad enough, but to repeat the same experiment thirty years later in Iraq is a strong argument for a case of national stupidity.” Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “History and National Stupidity”, The New York Review of Books (Apr 2006)


Foster Boondoggle 03.18.13 at 3:56 pm

For those not clicking on @rootlesscosmo’s link: Turse’s book documents the way in which My Lai was just the tip of the iceberg. And for anyone looking for a chilling 45 minutes of podcast to listen to while you’re on the stairmaster, his interview with Terry Gross is on the Fresh Air website.

Which makes it especially disturbing that a majority (51-43) of the 18-29 year old cohort thinks that the US war in Vietnam was a good idea.

What this really shows, once again, is that the danger of having a permanent standing army of a size capable of launching an invasion anywhere in the world on short notice. Once a generation, after memories of the last horror show have faded, someone comes into a position of power who thinks it would be fine time to launch a lovely little war somewhere. Without the standing army, it would just be a nice little day dream for the Bushes and Cheneys of the world. With it, it becomes a small-scale holocaust for some poor peasants with different skin color or religion.

My prediction: the time from Abu Ghraib to the next mass atrocity by the US will be about 30 years.


Foster Boondoggle 03.18.13 at 3:57 pm

Forgot to link to the Gallup survey with the stat on the 18-29 year olds. It’s here: http://www.gallup.com/poll/161399/10th-anniversary-iraq-war-mistake.aspx

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