The first big news story I ever covered was the court martial of Lt.William Calley for the My Lai massacre. Here I am more than 30 years later covering the investigations into what could very well turn out to be another massacre at Haditha in Iraq. Having sat through every day of Calley's court martial, I knew a lot more about what happened at My Lai than I currently do about what happened at Haditha, but there are some obvious similarities and some obvious differences.
First the differences. Hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were killed at My Lai – the exact number has never been established. Two dozen women, children and unarmed men were killed at Haditha. The Army investigated My Lai before it was exposed in the press. Haditha is under investigation only because Time Magazine found out about it and brought it to the attention of the U.S. command in Baghdad. Most of the soldiers at My Lai were there because they had been drafted into the Army. All the Marines at Haditha were volunteers.
Now the similarities. Both wars were dragging on with no end in sight and becoming increasingly unpopular back home. In both wars, U.S. troops were up against an enemy that hid among the local population. Both the soldiers at My Lai and the Marines at Haditha were angry and frustrated – taking casualties with little to show for it. And in both cases, there were photos of the bodies which made the killings all the more horrifying, although so far the pictures taken at Haditha haven't seen the light of day.
I came away from the Calley court martial convinced that none of the grim realities of Vietnam justified or even mitigated what happened at My Lai – and the jurors agreed, since they convicted Calley. I also came away thinking that Calley was just not officer material and never should have been put in command of men in combat. Had they been better led, My Lai would not have happened.
There was no officer in Haditha. The Marines were under the command of a sergeant with seven years experience. If he was the senior man in the squad, they were all probably in their 20s. We don't know yet whether the sergeant directed the killings or just allowed them to happen, but we do know that innocent people – young children – were shot dead, so it seems safe to say that if the Marines had been better led, Haditha would not have happened.
The media is all over this story now, tracking down members of the unit, calling the defense lawyers they've hired, squeezing details out of officials who have been briefed on the investigation. Once the defense lawyers get into the act, you can be sure we'll start hearing another side of the story. And we should. But everybody who knows what the investigation has found so far says it is ugly and will get uglier if and when the pictures taken of the bodies lying where they had been shot are released. From My Lai to Abu Ghraib, it was the pictures that turned a news story you could hardly believe was true into an undeniable reality.