by David Obst, Santa Barbara resident and journalist during the Vietnam War. Obst helped Seymour Hersh expose the My Lai massacre and Daniel Ellsberg reveal the Pentagon Papers.
Sergeant George Cox (Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry) and Lance Corporal T.J. Terraza (Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment) were born a generation apart, but had a lot in common: They were both well-liked by their bunkmates, they were both killed in combat, and both of their deaths unleashed a brutal massacre of civilians by the men who served with them.
On March 16, 1968, with Sergeant Cox very much on their minds, Charlie Company entered My Lai, a small hamlet in South Vietnam, and systematically murdered its inhabitants. Hundreds of women and children where rounded up, pushed into ditches, and machine-gunned to death by young American boys. It was not an isolated incident in Vietnam, but the sheer magnitude of more than 400 civilians being shot in cold blood forced Americans to stop and examine what they had gotten themselves into.
Almost 40 years later, we’ve done it again.
Haditha, a city about the size of Santa Barbara, lies on the Euphrates River, northwest of Baghdad. This year, a group of marines was attacked by a roadside landmine, which killed one of their unit, Corporal Terraza. What happened next is something that will become an iconic image of American presence in Iraq. Members of Kilo Company methodically moved from house to house and executed crippled men, defenseless women, and finally, cowering children.
The first American response was to try to sweep the incident under the ample rug of “collateral wartime damage.” The marines originally reported that 15 civilians died in a roadside bombing that also killed one marine. A later report suggested the civilian victims may have been caught in a firefight. When that didn’t work, United States military officials came to the area and began dispersing $2,500 checks to the families of those killed. It was too late. This wasn’t Vietnam. Too many witnesses, too much media.
In 1969, I helped Seymour Hersh report the My Lai massacre. We won a Pulitzer Prize. We were able to get the CBS Evening News to actually put a poor, physically and morally crippled soldier — Paul Meadlo — on with Walter Cronkite. His confession of shooting babies in a ditch in the Vietnamese countryside stunned the nation. Our disclosure cleared the way for countless other accounts of previously witnessed American atrocities in South Vietnam to come out. The American press finally faced up to the fact that something very terrible had happened to our country. The atrocities were compared to the worst days of Hitler and Stalin. The indiscriminate killings made millions of our citizens realize that remaining in Vietnam was a mistake.
Now, once again, we are forced to witness the appalling sight of American soldiers gunning down helpless civilians, especially children and women, as the latter sought in vain to shield their offspring.
Sadly, it’s very easy to see how and why the Haditha massacre took place. Marines are our country’s shock troops. They are killing machines. They are the best we have when force is needed to make an enemy back down. They are trained to fight, kill the enemy, secure the objective, and move on to the next target. However, they are not nation builders. They are not police officers, they are not guards, and they have no business spending almost three years acting as target practice in the deadly video war game of the struggle to protect Iraq from a faceless enemy.
Like Vietnam, millions of Americans are now wondering why those poor marines are still there. Why are Lance Corporal Terraza and his fellow soldiers being forced to endlessly try to sweep clean roads that will never be safe for Americans or the people of Iraq?
Like Vietnam, we have given young men the most sophisticated weaponry in the world and sent them halfway around the globe. Most of these kids have never been out of their own states; none of them can speak the language. All of them are hot, tired, uncomfortable, and afraid. They do not know friend from foe. A young man offering you a smoke today may be wired with explosives tomorrow. A speeding motorist may be a terrorist or a pregnant woman trying to get to the hospital. It’s crazy and it’s scary. It was only a matter of time until some of them snapped.
President Bush and his cadre of “grownups” could not have come up with a worse strategy for fighting the war on terrorists. The little boys of Haditha, whose parents were shot in front of them, will become iconic images in the Arab world. Already their story is playing nonstop over Aljazeera, and every newspaper in the Middle East has featured grotesque pictures of a young girl crawling out of her dead parents’ house, pleading for help. A nine-year-old boy looks at the camera, tears running down his face, and promises that the death of his father, grandfather, brothers, and uncles will be avenged.
After the My Lai massacre was exposed, American presidents were never again able to regain the moral high ground. The American people had had enough; eventually, they forced the government to bring our troops home. Let’s hope that from the tragedy of Haditha, we can learn something and bring these poor boys home before they do any more injury to the people of Iraq, to what America stands for, and to themselves.