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Tom Engelhardt: It's Bush Administration Officials Who Are Drawing the Vietnam Parallels Now

Tom Engelhardt, in www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute

Here was part of a May 4 conversation between Larry King and Colin Powell on Larry King Live about the photos from Abu Ghraib, and it was distinctly from the"a-few-bad-eggs" school of Iraqi analysis:

"KING: Let's go one by one. First, let's discuss the abuse of the Iraqi prisoners. I know you've called it despicable acts. Now, you've had a career in the military, served in Vietnam twice. Did you ever see anything like this?


"KING: Ever have a subordinate do anything like this?


"KING: What do you make of it. What's your view?

"POWELL: I don't know what to make of it. I'm shocked. I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they're still to be deplored. And what happened in this particular instance, as best I know from the pictures, was just totally despicable. There's no way to describe it. And it isn't just the fact that soldiers did it, but no American should do this to any other person.

"And so they not only violated all the laws of proper behavior and being a soldier, but it's just not something Americans should d. It seems to be a limited number of soldiers who may have been involved in this, and they will be subject to the justice of the United States Army, and I'm confident that all the investigations that are now underway will find out who was responsible for what and justice will be served. So it's a fairly small number of soldiers. Let's not let that take away from the magnificent contributions being made by most of our soldiers, the vast majority of our soldiers, who are building schools, repairing hospitals, who are defending themselves, going after the bad guys, but also putting in sewer systems for the people of Iraq."

It's always interesting to see what floats into the mind. If critics of the Bush administration's war and occupation policies in Iraq started talking about My Lai in the same breath with Abu Ghraib, you know what would be said. But it's a fact of this administration that part of its collective brain is still living in Vietnam (though Powell was the only one among its top officials not to escape that war in one fashion or another) -- hence the importance of the much-rejected Vietnam analogy. And of course, the murders of small numbers of Iraqis in prison and the abuse, torture and humiliation of many more is not the equivalent of the slaughter of more than 500 unresisting Vietnamese, mostly old people, women, and children in less than a day by Charlie Company of the Americal Division, while higher commanders circled overhead in helicopters. But it's interesting that My Lai leapt so quickly to Colin Powell's mind, and in fact there are parallels.

As a start, Powell's position on the nature of what happened in Vietnam (1968) and in Iraq (2003-04) is the same. A peripheral figure in the My Lai cover-up, Powell, as Nick Turse, an expert on war crimes in Vietnam, writes me,

"put together a memorandum for his superiors, in December 1968, that read in part: ‘Although there may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the [Americal] division. In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.'

"Powell's words were as soothing as they were disingenuous. Not only had soldiers of the division slaughtered an entire village en mass at My Lai, but on the very same day, in an auxiliary operation, up to 90 villagers of My Khe 4 were also massacred. These, however, were only the bloodiest of the known war crimes committed by the men of the division. In reality, Americal troops had long before, and would long after, March 16, 1968, commit numerous atrocities ranging from torture to assault to murder."

Beyond the similarities in Powell's position on two horrific events involving the American military in foreign lands across three and a half decades, lie two words that relatively few in this country were willing to pronounce back then and even less today --"war crimes." And yet, then as now, war crimes preyed on the minds of top American officials. Back in the days of My Lai, the military, far closer to World War II (rather than, as with a number of members of the present administration, World War II movies), had another fearful analogy in mind -- the post-war Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals. And so when the trials of members of Charlie Company were finally held, the defendants were scattered at military bases around the country -- the great fear of the military brass being"two dozen or more American soldiers, including generals, lined up in the dock a little like Nuremberg." In discussions with the Justice Department, Pentagon officials emphasized that a"mass trial" was not an option.

Oh, and here's another small but quite remarkable link between then and now, which, with (as far as I know) the exception of the New York Times' Frank Rich and the superb Paul Krugman, has not been seriously mentioned, no less highlighted in our press. The journalist who forced the story of the Abu Ghraib photos into the light of day -- after all, until CBS's 60 Minutes II heard that his piece was coming out in the New Yorker, they were still holding up their own report, as per the request of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers -- and so brought the issue of war crimes to the very tips of American tongues, had done exactly the same thing back in that ugly year of 1969. Until Seymour Hersh, the former Associated Press reporter, published his piece on My Lai with the then-unknown Dispatch News Service, the massacre had moldered in cover-up and silence for twenty full months. (The Abu Ghraib cover-up, though noticeably shorter thanks to the permeability of the Internet and email, still lasted from January 13 to the beginning of May.) Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story then; and, to push this analogy into the future, he should win another for his New Yorker two-parter about Abu Ghraib.

Note, by the way, that in 1969, as now, the My Lai story was first pushed to consciousness by a GI whistleblower who distinctly knew right from wrong (Ron Ridenhour then, Joe Darby this time around); and, as now, that nightmare story was driven by horrific images splashed across the mainstream media. Those were, of course, the color photographs of Ronald Haeberle, an Army photographer who had helicoptered into My Lai with Charlie Company. ("Guys were about to shoot these people. I yelled, 'Hold it,' and shot my picture. As I walked away, I heard M16s open up.") Haeberle took many of his massacre photos back to Cleveland when he left the service and there, for a year, he showed them to civic organizations in a slide show of his own creation. ("They caused no commotion… Nobody believed it. They said Americans wouldn't do this.") Finally, after the Hersh story broke, Haeberle's horrific photos appeared in a famous ten-page spread in LIFE magazine (an issue with an African antelope on the cover), labeled"a story of indisputable horror -- the deliberate slaughter of old men, women, children and babies." Now… well, I hardly need describe the photos of this moment as more of them are reaching the front pages of newspapers and TV screens every day. Then, President Nixon called My Lai an"isolated incident." Now George Bush calls Abu Ghraib, "the actions of a few people" and Gen. Myers blames a bare"handful" of Americans (even as Red Cross reports of the widespread nature of these abuses throughout our penal system in Iraq spread daily).

War crimes proved unacceptable as a category for Americans back then and so, as I wrote in my history of American triumphalism, The End of Victory Culture (from which I dug out many of the above details):"Of all the charges of the antiwar movement, the ones that disappeared most quickly were those concerning war crimes -- and the people who made them were as quickly forgotten." (At least, that is, until John Kerry became the Democratic candidate for president this year.)

"Containment" of the crisis back in 1969 (as in 2004) meant doing one's official best to keep the story to one location which, in turn, was to be identified with a single aberrant event; though such crimes were far more widespread as witness the ones still leaking out so many decades later. After all, the Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer this year for its vivid coverage of a never-prosecuted"seven-month rampage" of horror in Vietnam's Central Highlands in 1967 by a platoon of the 101st Airborne known as the Tiger Force. And on the 9/11 commission, of course, is Bob Kerrey, whose Vietnam horror story only made it into the press in 2001. Containment, then as now, also meant keeping whatever prosecutions there were to as low- level individuals as possible. (Does this sound faintly familiar?)

War crimes. Such a nasty term. In everyday logic, in fact, not that far from an oxymoron. In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, when Hersh broke the My Lai story, the subject of war crimes burst on American consciousness (and there was quite a backlash against it). Right now, it's at the very edge of being spoken -- but only in the most limited way, only in relation to the abuses that can be seen on photos from Abu Ghraib prison and only for a few"bad eggs" at the lowest level of a procedure which should really make its way up, up the ladder of command. But rest assured, there's so much more to come, and not just all the new photos, videos, and even possibly audios, promised by Donald Rumsfeld either. Terrible as it may be, we're only at the beginning -- and the one thing we know is that digital cameras and computers are everywhere.