Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Perspective: Death from above

Above: Kim Phuc was a resident in the village of Trang Bang, Vietnam. On June 8, 1972, South Vietnamese planes, in coordination with the American military, dropped a napalm bomb on Trang Bang, which was under attack from and occupied by North Vietnamese Army forces. She joined a group of civilians and South Vietnamese Army soldiers fleeing from the Cao Dai Temple located in the village along the road to safe positions. A South Vietnamese pilot mistook the group as a threat and diverted to attack it. Nick Ut earned a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph.

The first news stories about the most notorious massacre of the Vietnam War were picked up the morning after from a US Army publicity release. These proved fairly typical for the war. On its front page, the New York Times labeled the operation in and around a village called My Lai 4 (or "Pinkville", as it was known to US forces in the area) a significant success.

"American troops caught a North Vietnamese force in a pincer movement on the central coastal plain yesterday, killing 128 enemy soldiers in day-long fighting." United Press International termed what happened there an "impressive victory", and added a bit of patriotic color: "The Vietcong broke and ran for their hideout tunnels. Six and a half hours later, 'Pink Village' had become 'Red, White and Blue Village'."

All these 1968 dispatches from the "front" were, of course, military fairy tales. (There were no reporters in the vicinity.) It took over a year for a former GI named Ronald Ridenhour, who had heard about the bloody massacre from participants, and a young former Associated Press reporter named Seymour Hersh working in Washington for a news service virtually no one had ever heard of, to break the story, revealing that "red, white, and blue village" had just been red village - the red of Vietnamese peasant blood. More than 400 elderly men, women, children, and babies were slaughtered there by Charlie Company of Task Force Barker, an ad hoc unit commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Barker Jr, in a nearly day-long rampage.

Things move somewhat faster these days - after all, Vietnamese villagers and local officials didn't have access to mobile telephones to tell their side of the slaughter - but from the military point of view, the stories these past years have all still seemed to start the same way.

Read the rest at Asia Times