Friday, 16 March 2012

From My Lai To Panjwai

by James Burkinshaw

Last Sunday’s chilling massacre of sixteen unarmed civilians (nine children, three women and four men) in the Afghan village of Panjwai by American staff sergeant Robert Bales carries disturbing echoes of the infamous My Lai Massacre that took place 44 years ago today.

On March 16th 1968, approximately 500 unarmed and defenceless civilians (most of them children or women) in the Vietnamese village of My Lai were slaughtered by members of “Charlie Company”, an American Army platoon. It remains the single worst atrocity ever committed by American soldiers.

Vietnamese women and children in Mai Lai 
(photograph: by Ronald Haeberle; Public Domain)
Because of governmental secrecy, it took twenty months for the massacre to be made public in America. Eventually, 26 soldiers were charged for their involvement, but only one was convicted---platoon leader Lieutenant William Calley. Many potential witnesses refused to testify against their fellow soldiers. Although sentenced to life, Calley himself was released after only three years of house arrest. His defence was “I carried out the order that I was given.”

A U.S. military commission investigating the massacre found leadership, discipline and morale to be almost non-existent among many of the American units fighting in Vietnam. Men had been sent on multiple tours of duty to the extent that many of them were at psychological breaking point.

Giles Fraser argues: “Following this latest massacre (in Panjwai) there will be much talk of a lone gunman going off the rails. But the truth is more disturbing. One cannot set in place the conditions for easy killing, removing the inbuilt human safety catch, and then simply blame an individual soldier who flips out. And there is no way to ensure that such things do not happen again. This is what happens when soldiers are subject to a systematic process of dehumanisation.”

Staff Sergeant Bales is said to have recently completed three tours of Iraq before being sent to Afghanistan. He apparently made no attempt to cover up his killing of the villagers of Panjwai, saying simply, upon his return to the U.S. base, “I did it.”


A fictionalised account of the My Lai massacre is included in Oliver Stone’s film Platoon (1986):

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