On March 16, 1968, Lt William Calley brought his platoon from Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division, into the village of Mai Lai, in pursuit of an enemy that was a master of guerilla warfare, adept at striking and then folding into the relative anonymity of the closest village. The inability to distinguish “Charlie” from the next person you met coming out of the jungle was one of their greatest weapons. American boys lost their lives to this invisible enemy every day in the jungles of Vietnam, adding to the daily stress of survival in a war zone.
On November 19, 2005, Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, drove down the road approaching the village of Haditha. Never considered a friendly environment, scores of bombs were uncovered every day along the roadside leading to the Marine camp. Watching the civilians along the way, they could never be sure who was a member of the insurgency or who was just a resident of the village. Such is the nature of the war for American troops in Iraq.
On the night before Charlie Company entered Mai Lai, they had been instructed to destroy the village. US Military Command had informed them that any genuine residents of the village should have departed for the marketplace by 7:00 AM and therefore they could assume that any persons remaining in the village were either VC or active VC sympathizers. On the morning of March 16, 1968, Lt William Calley led his platoon into Mai Lai. The initial investigation of the Mai Lai massacre was undertaken by the 11th Light Infantry Brigade's Commanding Officer, Colonel Oran Henderson, under orders from Americal's Assistant Commanding Officer, Brigadier General Young. Henderson issued a written report in late April claiming that approximately 22 civilians were inadvertently killed during the military operation in Mai Lai. The army at this time was still describing the event as a military victory resulting in the death of 128 of the enemy.
The IED was attached to a large propane tank and triggered by remote control. It hit the humvee, killing the driver, Lance Corporal Miguel (T.J.) Terrazas, 20, from El Paso, Texas and injuring two others. On November 20th a Marine communiqué from Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi reported that Terrazas and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by the blast and that "gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire," prompting the Marines to return fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding one other.
On the morning of March 16, 1968, in the village of Mail Lai, Vietnam hundreds of civilians – primarily old men, women, children, and babies died at the hands of Lt William Calley and members of Charlie Company. At some point, dozens were marched into a ditch and executed with automatic weapons. The carnage at Mai Lai might have gone unknown to history if not for another soldier, Ron Ridenhour, who sent a letter to President Nixon, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and numerous members of Congress. Ridenhour learned about the events at Mai Lai secondhand, by talking to members of Charlie Company while he was still enlisted. The copies of this letter were sent in March, 1969, a full year after the event. Most recipients of Ridenhour's letter ignored it. Calley was charged with several counts of premeditated murder in September 1969, and 25 other officers and enlisted men were later charged with related crimes. It was another two months before the American public learned about the massacre and trials when independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh broke the Mai Lai story on November 12, 1969.
In January, 2006, after Time Magazine presented military officials in Baghdad with a conflicting account of the Marines' actions in Haditha, the U.S. opened its own investigation, interviewing 28 people, including the Marines, the families of the victims and local doctors. According to military officials, the inquiry acknowledged that, contrary to the military's initial report, the 15 civilians killed on Nov. 19 died at the hands of the Marines, not the insurgents. The military has announced that the matter has been handed over to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which will conduct a criminal investigation to determine whether the troops broke the laws of war by deliberately targeting civilians. Lieut. Colonel Michelle Martin-Hing, spokeswoman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq, told Time the involvement of the NCIS does not mean that a crime occurred. And she says 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."
On March 17, 1970, the United States Army charged 14 officers with suppressing information related to the incident. Most of these charges were dropped. U.S. Army Lt. William Calley was convicted in 1971 of premeditated murder in ordering the shootings and initially sentenced to life in prison; two days later, however, President Richard Nixon ordered him released from prison, pending appeal of his sentence. Calley served 3½ years of house arrest in his quarters at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was then ordered freed by Federal Judge J. Robert Elliot. Calley claimed that he was following orders from his captain, Ernest Medina; Medina denied giving the orders and was acquitted at a separate trial. Most of the soldiers involved in the Mai Lai incident were no longer enlisted. Of the 26 men initially charged, Lt. Calley's was the only conviction.
Because the incident is officially under investigation, members of the Marine unit that was in Haditha on Nov. 19 are not allowed to speak with reporters. But the military's own reconstruction of events and the accounts of town residents —including six whose family members were killed that day— paint a picture of a devastatingly violent response by a group of U.S. troops who had lost one of their own to a deadly insurgent attack and believed they were under fire.
According to Eman Waleed, age 9, "We heard a big noise that woke us all up. Then we did what we always do when there's an explosion: my father goes into his room with the Koran and prays that the family will be spared any harm." Eman says the rest of the family—her mother, grandfather, grandmother, two brothers, two aunts and two uncles—gathered in the living room. Eman says she "heard a lot of shooting, so none of us went outside. Besides, it was very early, and we were all wearing our nightclothes." When the Marines entered the house, they were shouting in English. "First, they went into my father's room, where he was reading the Koran," she claims, "and we heard shots." According to Eman, the Marines then entered the living room. "I couldn't see their faces very well—only their guns sticking into the doorway. I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny." She claims the troops started firing toward the corner of the room where she and her younger brother Abdul Rahman, 8, were hiding; the other adults shielded the children from the bullets but died in the process. Eman says her leg was hit by a piece of metal and Abdul Rahman was shot near his shoulder. "We were lying there, bleeding, and it hurt so much. Afterward, some Iraqi soldiers came. They carried us in their arms. I was crying, shouting 'Why did you do this to our family?' And one Iraqi soldier tells me, 'We didn't do it. The Americans did.'".
On April 7, 2006, the Marines relieved of duty three leaders of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, which had responsibility for Haditha when the shooting occurred. They are Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, and two of his company commanders, Capt. James S. Kimber and Capt. Lucas M. McConnell. McConnell was commanding Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, the unit that struck the roadside bomb on Nov. 19 and led the subsequent search of the area. The Marines' announcement didn't tie the disciplinary actions directly to Haditha, saying only that Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, had lost confidence in the officers' ability to command.
Is it fair to place these incidents side by side? Certainly the scale places them miles apart. The claims of self defense in Haditha are still officially under investigation** and therefore, left standing; separating the incidents even further. However it is not the outcome that brings these places together. Rather it is the harsh reality of war’s potential to fundamentally change – if only for a moment – the humanity of good people.
Much of the reporting on the incident at Haditha was done my Time Magazine reporter, Tim McGirk and appeared in his story published in those pages on March 19, 2006.
Chad (The Left) Shue
** A more recent update on the incident at Haditha can be found by clicking on the title of this article.