When Charlie Company’s Lt. William Calley ordered and encouraged his men to rape, maim and slaughter over 400 men, women and children in My Lai in Vietnam back in 1968, there were at least four heroes who tried to stop him or bring him and higher officers to justice. One was helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr., who evacuated some of the wounded victims, and who set his chopper down between a group of Vietnamese and Calley’s men, ordering his door gunner to open fire on the US soldiers if they shot any more people. One was Ron Ridenhour, a soldier who learned of the massacre and began a private investigation, ultimately reporting the crime to the Pentagon and Congress. One was Michael Bernhardt, a soldier in Charlie Company, who witnessed the whole thing and reported it all to Ridenhour. And one was journalist Seymour Hersh, who broke the story in the US media.
Today’s war in Afghanistan also has its My Lai massacres. It has them almost weekly, as US warplanes bomb wedding parties or homes “suspected” of housing terrorists that turn out to house nothing but civilians. But these My Lais are all conveniently labeled accidents. They get filed away and forgotten as the inevitable “collateral damage” of war. There was, however, a massacre recently that was not a mistake – a massacre, which, while it only involved fewer than a dozen innocent people, bears the same stench as My Lai. It was the execution-style slaying of eight handcuffed students, aged 11-18, and a 12-year-old neighboring shepherd boy who had been visiting the others in Kunar Province on December 26.
Sadly, no principled soldier with a conscience like pilot Thompson tried to save these children. No observer had the guts of a Bernhardt to report what he had seen. No Ridenhour among the other serving US troops in Afghanistan has investigated this atrocity or reported it to Congress. And no American reporter has investigated this war crime the way Hersh investigated My Lai.
There is a Hersh for the Kunar massacre, but he’s a Brit. While American reporters, like the anonymous journalistic drones who wrote “CNN’s” December 29 report on the incident took the Pentagon’s initial cover story – that the dead were part of a secret bomb squad – at face value, Jerome Starkey, a dogged reporter in Afghanistan working for the Times of London and the Scotsman, talked to other sources – the dead boys’ headmaster, other townspeople and Afghan government officials – and found out the real truth about a gruesome war crime – the execution of handcuffed children. And while a few news outlets in the US like The New York Times did mention that there were some claims that the dead were children, not bomb makers, none, including CNN, which had bought and run the Pentagon’s lies unquestioningly, bothered to print the news update when, on February 24, the US military admitted that in fact the dead were innocent students. Nor has any US corporate news organization mentioned that the dead had been handcuffed when they were shot. Starkey reported the US government’s damning admission. Yet still the US media remain silent as the grave.
Under the Geneva Conventions, it is a war crime to execute a captive. Yet, in Kunar on December 26, US-led forces, or perhaps US soldiers or contract mercenaries, cold-bloodedly executed eight hand-cuffed prisoners. It is a war crime to kill children under the age of 15, yet in this incident a boy of 11 and a boy of 12 were handcuffed as captured combatants and executed. Two others of the dead were 12 and a third was 15.
I called the secretary of defense’s office to ask if any investigation was underway into this crime or if one was planned, was told I had to send a written request, which I did. To date, I have heard nothing. What the Pentagon has done – no surprise – is to pass the buck by leaving any investigation to the International Security Assistance Force – a fancy name for the US-led NATO force fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s a clever ruse, since Congress has no authority to compel testimony from NATO or the ISAF as it would the Pentagon. A source at the Senate Armed Services Committee says the ISAF is investigating, and that the committee has asked for a “briefing” – that means nothing would be under oath – once that investigation is complete, but don’t hold your breath or expect anything dramatic.
I also contacted the press office of the House Armed Services Committee to see if any hearings into this crime have been planned. The answer is no, though the press officer asked me to send her details of the incident. (Not a good sign that House members and staff are paying much attention – the killings led to countrywide student demonstrations in Afghanistan, to a formal protest by the office of President Hamid Karzai and to an investigation by the Afghan government, which concluded that innocent students had been handcuffed and executed and, no doubt, contributed to a call by the Afghan government for prosecution and execution of American soldiers who kill Afghan civilians.)
There is still time for real heroes to stand up in the midst of this imperial adventure that may now appropriately be called Obama’s War in Afghanistan. Plenty of men and women in uniform in Afghanistan know that nine innocent Afghan children were captured and murdered at America’s hands last December in Kunar. There are also probably people who were involved in the planning or carrying out of this criminal operation who are sickened by what happened. But these people are, so far, holding their tongues, whether out of fear or out of simply not knowing where to turn. (Note: If you have information you may contact me.)
There are also plenty of reporters in Afghanistan and in Washington who could be investigating this story. They are not. Don’t ask me why. They certainly should not be able to call themselves journalists – at least with a straight face.