On March 16, 1968, up to 500 civilian Vietnamese were massacred by United States forces at Mai Lai. The unit responsible for the massacre was initially praised by General Westmoreland. Maj. Colin Powell, who did an initial investigation of the incident, was characterized as trying to “whitewash” the incident.
In December 2002, the Toledo Blade, a small newspaper in Ohio, obtained previously unreleased documents about a US team called “Tiger Force.” In an exposé that won the reporters the Pulitzer Prize, the newspaper exposed how this unit went on a seven-month killing spree in Vietnam in 1967. The investigation into Tiger Force was hampered at every level of government, civilian and military.
In 2010, thanks to the work of WikiLeaks, a video has now been released, of a US military helicopter firing upon a small crowd in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2007, that included two Reuters journalists. The military response to this video is that the US unit involved followed the “rules of engagement” and no investigation will result. In July 2007, the military had already produced its official response: “There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad. The video shows a different story, however.
There is no doubt that, when in combat, a soldier’s instinct for self-preservation will kick in and soldiers will shoot at anything and anyone they perceive to be a threat. There is also no doubt that there are, and have been, instances where our troops have acted in ways that are outside the rules of engagement and entered the realm of war crimes. The moral compass of our country is supposed to guide our response to the latter, and, repeatedly, we have seen our government and military fail to meet that measure. Worse, is the fact that those who were willing to cover up these crimes were promoted, while those who exposed the crimes saw themselves ostracized.
Maj. Colin Powell became Gen. Colin Powell. In the run-up to the war with Iraq, it was Gen. Colin Powell who went before the United Nations and stated that the United States had evidence that warranted the invasion. His presentation has since been thoroughly repudiated, leaving his career and his credibility beyond repair despite a number of speaking engagements meant to portray him as a victim, a person who was simply used by the Bush administration.
The rules of engagement are put forth to our soldiers in place for a reason. They are meant to explain, clearly, how and when soldiers are to engage the enemy. Yet, as the video referenced above clearly shows, the helicopter was in sight of the “crowd” and the crowd never engaged the helicopter in combat. In fact, the helicopter specifically requested permission to engage the crowd in combat. To believe that the unit involved followed the rules of engagement is to believe that our military is TAUGHT to believe that anyone they believe might be a threat is someone they are authorized to shoot and kill, because, frankly, that is exactly what the video shows happening. This is not about killing the enemy. It is about killing EVERYONE in the pursuit of “pacifying” the populace.
As someone who has been to Iraq twice during wartime, I am quite familiar with the rules of engagement. At no time did I take them to mean that I could shoot at anyone I THOUGHT was a threat, much less, someone walking down the street that didn’t engage me in combat. Yet, when I was at Ft. Bliss, Texas, going through the military program designed for contractors in 2006, that was exactly what was being presented: if you THINK they are a threat, you have authorization to fire to defend yourself. If contract civilians are told this, what is our military being told? The video shows the proof of what they are told.
As General McChrystal stated, “We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.” Our military continues to kill people who posed no threat. And the soldiers who did so are increasingly returning to the United States with post-traumatic stress disorder and worse, perpetrating crimes upon their own families. Joshua Tabor, a US soldier, was charged with torturing his 4-year-old daughter, including by holding her head under running water because she couldn’t recite her ABC’s.
Still, the military continues to try and cover up actions of wrongful conduct by our military and – when proof emerges and is presented to the public – they simply go on the defense. True to form, the people involved in trying to cover up the incidents are simply promoted to higher authority. Then, Maj. Colin Powell becomes Gen. Colin Powell, and, instead of trying to whitewash the investigation of Mai Lai, they are in the position to go before the United Nations with a presentation stating the United States has proof that Iraq is a threat. After that presentation is debunked, and their career hangs in tatters, they go on a mea culpa campaign about how they are the victim.