Revolution #49, June 4, 2006
From My Lai to Haditha:
The Recurring Horror of U.S. War and Occupation
On November 19, 2005, U.S. Marines stormed into the village of Haditha and murdered 24 people in cold blood.
It started at 7:15 a.m. Nine-year-old Eman Waleed was at home with her family when she heard explosions. An IED (improvised explosive device) had just exploded nearby and killed a U.S. Marine. She then heard gunshots: the Marines had started a rampage of revenge by killing four people who had been nearby the spot where the roadside bomb went off.
Eman's family had started praying for their safety when the Marines burst through the door, shouting in English, pointing their guns at the whole family. The soldiers killed her grandfather and grandmother right in front of her. A man and a woman, carrying a baby, ran from the house to escape the gunfire—and the Marines shot and killed the man. The woman is said to have escaped with her baby, but among Eman's family, only she and one little brother survived, wounded, after the other adults died protecting them from the U.S. soldiers' bullets.
The Marines went on to the next house. They broke down the door and threw in a grenade that exploded in the kitchen. They then stormed in and killed the survivors: eight people, including a two-year-old child and three other small children.
They moved on. The next house belonged to Ahmed Ayed; his son Yousif lived next door and tried to rush to his father's house when he heard prolonged gunshots. He told Time magazine that Iraqi soldiers forced him to stay back, saying “Don't come closer, or the Americans will kill you too.” The Marines dragged four men into a closet and shot them there.
When the soldiers were done five hours later, they had killed 24 people. The Marines involved immediately set out to cover it up: they reported that the IED had killed 15 civilians, and that the rest of the dead were “insurgents” that the Marines had killed after they came under fire. But it was immediately obvious that this was a lie. The bodies bore no shrapnel wounds, but instead had gunshot wounds at close range–execution-style. The Marines' own photos, and a video taken the next day, show that the houses were riddled with bullet holes on the inside—but there were no bullet holes on the outside, which disproves the Marines' claim to have engaged in a fierce firefight with “insurgents.” That remained the official story, however, even after the survivors and other townspeople told their story to the Associated Press right after the massacre. Not until January, when Time contacted Marine officials with video evidence and survivors' stories, did the Marines finally admit that Marines had done the killing—and they said the civilians were “collateral damage.” A spokeswoman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq told Time that “the fault for the civilian deaths lies squarely with the insurgents, who 'placed noncombatants in the line of fire as the Marines responded to defend themselves.'”
Many writers are comparing this to the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. On March 16, 1968, the “Charlie Company,” already known for its viciousness, killed more than 500 people, almost all women, children, or old men. The day before, the company's commanding officer, Ernest Medina, told officers that they had free rein to kill anyone they found in the village that day.
The soldiers dragged people out of huts and bayoneted them; they ordered people into ditches and shot them. They raped several of the women before killing them. Lt. Calley, the leader of the massacre, grabbed a two-year-old child who had tried to climb out of the ditch, threw him back in, and shot him.
At 11a.m., they took a break for lunch. Then they finished their food and resumed killing.
The story was quickly covered up, though it was openly known within the military. Photos taken by one of the soldiers showed bodies of children and women lying in a ditch. Another group of soldiers led by Officer Hugh Thompson had grown disgusted with the killings and began evacuating children to safety. Thompson landed his helicopter between the soldiers and the villagers, and ordered his own soldiers to fire on the men of Charlie Company if they killed anyone else.
Eventually one soldier, Ronald Ridenhour, heard these stories and began writing letters to President Nixon, members of Congress, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but the letters were almost entirely ignored; it wasn't until the story got to journalist Seymour Hersh that My Lai came out in the media—a year and a half later.
This too was not an aberration; it was standard practice for soldiers to get credit for high body counts, and the famous phrase was “anything that's dead and isn't white is a VC for body count purposes.” (VC, or Viet Cong, was the derogatory term used by the U.S. soldiers to describe the Vietnamese national liberation fighters.)
The Marines reported on May 26 that the Haditha killings were “unwarranted,” and there is talk of filing murder charges against some soldiers. But let's learn from My Lai: Only one soldier (and no high-level commanding officer) was ever convicted–Lieutenant Calley, who kept saying to his men, “Haven't you got rid of them yet? I want them dead. Waste them.” He was ordered released by Richard Nixon, served a few years of house arrest, and was paroled in 1975.
With both these massacres, there was first a cover-up, and then a backtracking when evidence became too overwhelming to be ignored. Then the justifications and excuses: that the soldiers couldn't tell the difference between the “enemy” and the people, and felt under attack by everyone. Both My Lai and Haditha were strongholds of resistance to U.S. forces. (This “everyone hates us” argument should sound familiar to anyone who's heard cops use this same line to justify their brutality and murder against the masses.) This begs the question: if everyone hates the U.S. soldiers—and with profound justification—then what does that say about what the U.S. soldiers are really doing there? How can anyone claim that this is about anything other than brute occupation and the collective punishment of an entire people when they try to resist?
The response is to claim, once again, that this was the work of a “few bad apples.” No. Jody Casey, a soldier who is now with Iraq Veterans Against the War, told independent journalist Dahr Jamail that “you could basically kill whoever you wanted.” Casey says that all the soldiers had to do was plant a shovel by the body and then claim that the dead person had been caught in the act of digging a hole for a roadside bomb. He said it has been common practice for soldiers to carry shovels in their vehicles for this purpose. Again, how is this different from the way cops in the U.S. carry “throw-down” guns—to put down next to the bodies of the mostly Black and Latino youth they kill, so that they can claim they had to shoot in self defense?
Killing hundreds in Fallujah in November 2004 to punish the village for opposing the occupation. Cutting off water to the town of Tel Afar in September 2004 and then keeping it on lockdown for days to try to force the people to stop hiding resistance fighters. Kicking down doors, shouting in English as terrified children cower on the floor, treating an entire population as the enemy. And the blood of children, soaking desert ground in Haditha—this is the nature of the U.S. occupation and war in Iraq.
- “Probe Finds Marines Killed Unarmed Iraqi Civilians,” Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2006.
- “Collateral Damage or Civilian Massacre in Haditha?” Time magazine, March 19, 2006.
- “The My Lai Courts-Martial,” a web page at the University of Missouri Kansas City's Law School, contains photos, trial transcripts, maps, and timelines
- PBS's “American Experience: Vietnam Online”
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