Ithaca College Quarterly 2005/1
South Hill Today

 

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So the next thing we know is, late April, CBS is messing the story -- they won't publish it, they won't do it. I pick up on it. So I end up getting the photographs. And more than that, CBS had some photographs. I get more of the photographs and I also get the report from somebody, from people inside who were really troubled by it. I publish it in the New Yorker.

What does the White House do? Oh my god. It's all in the chronology. What's going on? The president assigns a new general to be in charge. The president says: I was against torture, I'm always against torture. Condoleezza Rice says: Oh my god, the president made it clear where we stand. And she actually literally says, "I guess the army didn't get the message" -- she says this to one group of reporters.

What have they done in the four months since the time they're put on notice? Does the president immediately say to Rumsfeld: "What's going on in there -- this stuff is insane? We're fighting a war to win the hearts and minds of people and you're doing this kind of junk? I want everybody on the carpet for this." Does he demand an investigation? Does anything happen except the prosecution begins of the low-level people they want to bury?

That's all that happened.

They did nothing.

Ask about chain of command, ask about what the president knew or didn't know. That's all you need to know: They did nothing. They wanted the little boys and girls to get prosecuted. That's where we are right now. No officer has been charged.

And so, there we are. That's the chronology. All of a sudden there's gambling on the premises.

 

To me, the chronology is devastating, it's an indictment in spades of the leadership. You don't have to say that they knew in advance. I don't think they did know. But once they did know, they did nothing. What does that tell you? We now know what was going on all over. I think when we're done, we're going to find that Andersonville, the famous prison in the Civil War -- [the atrocities of the current situation] will equal that. No, this will be worse, because they killed them. Many died in Andersonville, but in terms of contempt for prisoners, once we find out what's happened in Guantánamo . . . when you get all the stuff from Guantánamo, folks, you're going to be so appalled. It's on videotape, they have a lot of it. What struck me after those stories came out, there was all this talk in the military about how there were rules and regulations; "Rumsfeld said we could do this" and "General Sanchez (the army general in charge of the war in Iraq) said we could do this" and "the Pentagon said we could this." I spent a lot of time talking to people about this, and I'll tell you what I understood the rules to be: Do whatever you want. Don't kill them, but do whatever you want. Whatever you want.

There were no rules. Of course there weren't any rules. It was just: Do what you can do.

So we've been dealing macro. I'll take you micro, because you've got to get a sense of this too. All this macro stuff. So what I was talking about, the little guys getting killed. Of course I think about My Lai, and most of you students don't remember. When I was growing up in the 1940s and early '50s in Chicago, World War I was way, far off the screen. It was Ernest Hemingway and Flanders Fields and ambulances, and so for your generation the Vietnam War is a distant vague memory. But there was a time. And some of us have gone through it, we survived it.

And there was a time you'd wake up every day and say, Oh, let's see, my country is raping, brutalizing, defoliating, sodomizing, and murdering a society today. That's how many of us felt about the war. It just got hopeless. In my case, I covered the war for the Associated Press and I learned to hate it on the job, just by seeing it. It wasn't because of any predilection to like or not like war. I was in the army. Didn't like it, but there are a lot of good people there. And a lot of bad people, just like there are everywhere. In any case, one day in Vietnam -- I'll just take a minute and tell you because there are analogies.

You see, in Vietnam we didn't see the enemy. There was a company called Charlie Company that had been sent to Vietnam in Christmas of '67, and by March of '68 they had never seen a soldier, a communist, a North Vietnamese communist, or a Vietcong. All they did was walk through fields and step on land mines and get shot at by snipers. Of the maybe 90 guys in the company, about 12 or 13 or 14 were dead and more wounded in three months. There was this inevitable build-up of rage at an enemy you couldn't see.

In Iraq, everybody wants to say it's so different.

But we don't see the enemy. All that happens is our guys drive around on trucks until they blow up. Then they jump off the trucks and shoot everybody they can shoot for a minute, and then we move on. Another day in the war. There are no set battles. There's very little of that stuff.

The soldiers in Charlie Company were part of a small task force, sort of like the kids we have today -- the underclass, the kids who join the army because it was a chance. A lot of Hispanics, a lot of African Americans then, just like now. It's a way to step up in the social ladder. And in this country right now, if you live in Guam or one of the countries that are protectorates of America, you can get citizenship by joining the army. So the army is full of a lot of people who don't even know the language, really. As you know from reading recruitment stuff, who wants to go there?

And so, in My Lai one day, March 15th, they were told they were going to meet a North Vietnamese combat division, ready to kill in a set-up fight: "This is it, guys." So they did what kids did then. They toked it up and smoked it up and drank it up and got ready and jumped on choppers at four in the morning, all juiced up, and ran into combat, guns held, terrified.

There are 530 or 540 women, children, and old men. It's about six in the morning and they're around the pots, cooking their rice for morning meals in the village. And for some inexplicable reason -- but maybe it's not so inexplicable, but just what happens -- as we know, this is the My Lai fore-story. The soldiers gather [the villagers] into three large groups and begin to shoot them.

 

I ended up spending a year or so running around talking to people about it, kids in the unit. By the time I got to the story, it was the fall of '69, 18 months later. Most of them were draftees and had come home. It's not like we have now. Now they stay in forever, which makes it harder to get stories in a way, obviously.

One of the things I'm telling you is anecdotal. People take issue when I say it, but it's my experience that there was a disproportionate share of African Americans and Puerto Ricans and Hispanics. The "underclass." But most of the kids who did the killing were the white kids. The African Americans and the Hispanics shot up into the air. They didn't want to be caught not shooting, because in that war, that's a bullet in the back if you're not going along. It was a different war. A lot of what they call fragging. You didn't rat out other guys. They shot, but they didn't shoot. And whether that's a wrong impression, I'm sure that every race can do anything it wants, but that was the experience that I found.

So anyway, they kill all [the villagers], and there are a remarkable couple of things that you have to know about because you have to understand. At one moment, they stopped and had a coffee break, or a lunch break. The meal's ready to eat -- [they had] C-rations then -- amidst all this. They really stopped and had their lunch.

And a mother had tucked one of her babies in this ditch full of bodies. (There were photographs later, just like there were photographs of Abu Ghraib.) And they heard a noise, and some boy about two somehow had survived. The mother had tucked him under her stomach and the onslaught had somehow missed him. And he got up and crawled out of the bodies, full of blood, other people's blood, and he began to run across the paddy, or the walkway.

Lieutenant Calley, the infamous Calley, is the main player, but there were three companies, five or six officers. But he was the one that was the most articulate about it, I guess, in his own demented way.

Calley said to the soldiers: Kill him; plug him. And nobody could move. Something about that one boy. So he grabbed a rifle and ran and shot him, threw him in the ditch.

Everybody remembered that.

 

The next day, one of the kids who had done much of the shooting, a guy named Paul Meadlo, had his foot blown off; he had stepped on a land mine. I was re-creating this by finding kids in the company, just running around the country. And at that time, I had just started [using the] American Express card, and I keep thinking, That's one ad you'll never see. Remember me? I solved the My Lai story with my American Express -- I had no money, but I had a card so I could fly around.

Anyway, Meadlo gets his foot blown off and he's being medivac'd -- the kids all tell me this. After an hour or so it comes out. He started shrieking, "God has punished me, Calley. He's going to punish you." It's one of those blood oaths that just somehow hung, whether you believe in such things or not. It was one of those chilling moments. So I went looking for Meadlo, and I finally found him. He lived in Indiana. I remember I was in Salt Lake City and I jumped on a plane and went to Chicago, went down to Indianapolis, got a car. He lived in a place called New Goshen in the south of Indiana. I remembered that part of the state because it was very heavy KKK [Ku Klux Klan]. It was as bad there as Mississippi, really, at least in the early part of the last century, not so bad later.

So I found him. I called the night before and got his mother. They were on a farm. And I told her what I was doing, and I told her I was coming to see her son. And she said, "Well, I don't know. I don't know if he'll talk to you." I said, "Well, I'm coming." And she said, "Do what you want. I can't promise anything." So I came.

And I drive up. Norman Rockwell used to do these little American paintings for the Saturday Evening Post 30 or 40 years ago. This was out of a Norman Rockwell painting. It was as poor as you could make it, a chicken farm. I didn't see any crops, just rows of chickens. No men, no man around. She was by herself with her son, and the most weather-beaten shacks passed for the house, the home. So when I pull up, she comes out, and naturally she's weather-beaten. She looks 70, but she's about 50, a slight woman. And I said, "I'm here to see your boy." And of course I'm polite, I introduce myself. She said, "He's in there." And I said thank you, and as I started to walk in, this rural woman said to me, quote unquote, she said, "I gave them a good boy and they sent me back a murderer."

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Photo by Charles Harrington

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