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The My Lai Comparison

"What happened at the Iraqi My Lai?" asked an editorial printed in the Los Angeles Times yesterday. The Times was referring to the alleged murder by US Marines of unarmed civilians, including women and children, in Haditha, Iraq on Nov. 19, and the alleged cover-up that followed. The incident is now being investigated by the U.S. military. "If the worst charges in this Haditha case are borne out by the investigation, it could have more damaging implications for U.S. presence in Iraq than even the Abu Ghraib prison scandal," according to CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer.

The My Lai comparison has been invoked quite a bit in recent days. "My Lai on the Euphrates?," asked the Guardian Unlimited. "Massacre in Iraq just like My Lai" said the Daily Telegraph. In the New York Times, Maureen Dowd called Haditha a "My Lai acid flashback." There are many more such examples.

But is the comparison legitimate? The My Lai massacre, as it has come to be known, refers to the killing of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War. What began as a "search and destroy" mission ended with the massacre of more than 300 apparently unarmed residents of My Lai, among them women, children, babies, and the elderly. Some were reportedly tortured and raped. The incident, notes PBS, "sent shockwaves through the U.S. political establishment, the military's chain of command, and an already divided American public."

There are some obvious similarities here, should the allegations in Haditha bear out, chief among them the fact that both incidents involved the massacre of apparently mostly unarmed innocents by an occupying U.S. military force. There is also the fact that both involved an apparent cover-up of the facts, and both are the types of incidents that can have a serious impact on public opinion, both in America and abroad.

There are also differences. For one, even if the worst of the allegations are true, this was not a massacre on the scale of My Lai. That does not lessen the horror, but it should also not go ignored. Bruce Kesler argues that the media is overreaching in making the comparison. "The only thing that seems pretty clear at this point is that it is definitely not, either by MSM imagination or reality, analogous to My Lai. There is no officer leadership of the Marines in the engagement, there is no command cover-up, there is no hint of purposeful rather than reactive action, the scale is far smaller."

Even if all that is true, does that mean the comparison is completely unfair? Not necessarily. But there are reasons for journalists to think twice before making it. Unless we are completely sure we have the full story from Haditha – and while it looks bad, the investigation is ongoing, and all the facts are not out at this point – bringing up My Lai seems to be jumping the gun to make a comparison that portrays the U.S. military in the worst possible light. There may come a time when it's useful to talk about Haditha as "the Iraqi My Lai," and there may not. But until we know more of the facts, I wonder if a little more restraint is in order.