Doomed to Repeat My Lai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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