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Vietnam Vets Return to My Lai, Where US Slaughtered 500 Civilians

Peace activists discuss the Vietnam War they were once a part of.

Content Warning: This video contains graphic footage of the Vietnam War.

As a group of Vietnam War veterans and peace activists travel back to Vietnam to mark the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, Amy Goodman and Juan González speak with three members of the delegation: Vietnam veteran Paul Cox, who later co-founded the Veterans for Peace chapter in San Francisco; Susan Schnall, former Navy nurse who was court-martialed for opposing the Vietnam War; and longtime activist Ron Carver, who has organized an exhibit honoring the GI antiwar movement at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, when US forces slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese women, children and old men. A group of Vietnam War veterans and peace activists have traveled back to Vietnam to mark today’s anniversary. Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I recently spoke to three members of the delegation that are in Vietnam today: Vietnam veteran Paul Cox, who later co-founded the Veterans for Peace chapter in San Francisco; Susan Schnall, former Navy nurse who was court-martialed for opposing the Vietnam War; and longtime activist Ron Carver, who has organized an exhibit honoring the GI antiwar movement at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. I began by asking Ron Carver about what happened 50 years ago today in My Lai.

RON CARVER: Well, 504 civilians, noncombatants, were mowed down by soldiers. As you said, it was horrific, but it was not an isolated incident. It was part of the culture of the war that had been created and fostered and was largely a product of the Pentagon’s insistence on high body counts in order to justify their continued war effort and their continuing, escalating insistence that the US Congress give them ever more money and ever more troops. This is what led to these kind of massacres. The significance to me, however, is of people like Hugh Thompson, who, at great risk, landed his helicopter, had his crew train their guns on the soldiers who were committing this massacre, and telling them that they had to stop or they would be shot themselves.

And that’s part of what has led to the development of this exhibit that will be held in Saigon — Ho Chi Minh City, today it’s called — on the 19th of March, three days after the anniversary of the My Lai massacre. It’s called “Waging Peace: The US Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed America’s War in Vietnam.” And it is to give credit and honor the folks who took great risks to oppose the war. Some of them went to jail in this country, like Dr. Howard Levy, who refused to train Green Beret troops in medical techniques. There are people in this exhibit. Honored are those who refused to deploy to Vietnam, like JJ Johnson and the two others who made the Fort Hood Three; people who went to Vietnam, like Paul, but then, confronting the horror of what they were doing, stopped going out and engaging in combat; some of them, like Bill Short, ended up being charged with conspiracy to mutiny, because he refused to engage anymore in combat and was sent to the stockade in Vietnam; others who deserted. And so, a lot of these folks will be on the tour in March, from Hanoi to My Lai and then to Saigon. And the exhibit will have photographs of them, information that they said, and feature the underground papers that they produced, telling other soldiers about what was going on, exposing the horrors and the injustice of that war.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Paul Cox, you enlisted in the military during the Vietnam War. Can you talk about your personal experience, why you decided to enlist, what you — what the consciousness of the soldiers were?

PAUL COX: Yeah, I joined in 1968. I had gotten my draft notice for a 2-year draft enlistment in the Army, but I wound up — I had no consciousness about the war, that I — you know, against it or for it, but I thought I had a duty to my country, so I joined the Marine Corps for four years. Not a deep thinker, but that’s what I did.

I spent 18 months in Vietnam, a tour and a half. Most of that time, I was up on the DMZ in unpopulated areas fighting North Vietnamese regulars, but with no contact with the Vietnamese civilians. But the last six months of my tour, I was down in the rice paddies south and west of Da Nang and got a much, much different view of the war and saw how poorly, to put it mildly, we were treating our so-called allies, the South Vietnamese, whose hearts and minds we were supposed to be winning. And that’s not what we were doing at all. We were operating in free-fire zones. I was involved in a small massacre of about 15 people in May of — I’m sorry, April of 1970. And that changed my entire view of the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the massacre you said you were involved with?

PAUL COX: We were running what the generals called “pacification programs.” Essentially, we would go out from our base, and sometimes only for a few hours, and we would sweep into a village and round up everybody and put them on trucks or helicopters and evacuate them to the strategic hamlets. And we did that many times.

This particular incident, we had been out for four days in old, abandoned rice paddies that had been all overgrown in elephant grass. And we stomped down the elephant grass, created a company-size perimeter and just sat there for four days, running a cloverleaf of patrols to the — in each of the four directions, and the same patrol each day on the same route, which is not smart. Eventually, on the fourth day, the squad that was in charge — that was doing the northern loop, somebody sniped at them. Nobody got hit, but the squad, unwisely, decided to sort of pursue the sniper. They hadn’t gone far until they found a booby trap, located it. Somehow the thing went off, killed one man, wounded three others. And that was it. That was the only action we had in those four days.

The next day, we were going to pull up stakes, and we were going to hike to a bridge, Liberty Bridge, and be taken back to the base. But to get to Liberty Bridge, we had to go through a village. The rest of that afternoon, before we left, there was a Piper Cub flying over this village with loudspeakers, yelling at them in Vietnamese, presumably telling them they needed to evacuate, because this was, after all, a free-fire zone.

The company commander — this was in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines — did an unusual thing: He told our lieutenant he wanted the squad that had lost the men the day before to walk point. And these guys were very angry, not just at the — they should have been angry at themselves for finding a booby trap and then being so silly as to set it off, but they were angry at the Vietnamese. So they walked point. And when they got into the village, they passed the word back past my squad, “Are there any friendlies in this area?” The company commander responded, up the line, “No, this is a free-fire zone.” Immediately afterwards, there was some firing.

As I got to the first hut, there was an old woman who had been — got shot, who was dying. The second hut we went to, there was a pile of six or eight people. These were children and women and an old man. In the third hut, there was another pile of people who had been shot dead. And then we just passed through the corner of the village. And when we got — everybody in the whole company walked past the same scene that I did. And when we got to the other side, the company commander asked for volunteers to go back in and search the rest of the village. None of the officers volunteered. I mean, there’s a chain of command. I mean, he should have said, “Lieutenant, take a squad,” or whatever. But he asked for volunteers. And so, a staff sergeant and some volunteers decided to go back in. There was a little bit more shooting. Most of us were kind of in shock. These people had been gunned down. This was not a battle. And none of us participated, in my squad, in that. So, the squad came back. We left. They called in airstrikes on the village, which is not the way you’re supposed to use tactical air.

A few days later, apparently, some of the survivors of this massacre had carried the body of a child and a woman to a nearby base and filed a formal complaint. There was an investigation. Nothing happened. Neither the guy — neither the men who pulled the triggers on those folks were relieved of duty. The company commander who set the whole thing up was not relieved of duty. And life just went on.

But that turned my head about the war. And I was not going to participate in that any longer. And I left Vietnam in August of ’70 very, very angry at myself, at the Marine Corps, at the American people, at the US government, and really determined that I was going to do what I could to help end the war. I still had two years left to do in the Marine Corps, and so I was a bit of a latecomer to the antiwar movement and the GI movement, but I tried to make up for it by working very hard. We put out — I was stationed at Camp Lejeune for the last two years of my tour. And we put out an underground newspaper called Rage — was not an example of high journalism, but it was the best we could do, and we were really working hard to tell the truth about the Vietnam War and about militarism in this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what was the reaction of the base commanders and the authorities to your publication?

PAUL COX: Well, we were underground as best we could be for a very long time. I don’t even have a photograph of that period, because we were afraid to take photographs as evidence. But the — I mean, I do have copies of the newspaper we put out. We used to distribute the newspaper in the middle of the night. We’d get 3,000 copies made, and bring them onto base in a couple of cars. And we would go through the barracks. This is a — Camp Lejeune is an infantry base. And we would just walk through the barracks at 3 a.m. in the morning and drop off these papers on people’s racks. And after three or four or five of these, suddenly we’d see MPs swarming towards where we had been earlier, and we decided, “OK, that’s enough for tonight,” and we would leave. It freaked them out. It was not something that they were willing to tolerate. But we never got caught on base.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring Susan Schnall into the conversation. Talk about your situation as a nurse and as a lieutenant in the Navy. What happened with you? You were court-martialed?

SUSAN SCHNALL: Yes. I went into the Navy to take care of the wounded, to help them heal and to get back to their families and to their communities. As a part of the Navy, I saw what was going on, and I heard stories from the guys who came back. I was stationed in Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, and took care of the casualties and heard their stories. I didn’t hear them in quite the same detail that Paul has related, because at that time, I think, the war was too fresh, and they didn’t want to talk explicitly about what they had seen. But I heard their nightmares in the middle of the night. I heard them yelling and screaming and yelling out to their buddies. I saw some of the guys who had open wounds, having their arms and their legs held up by butcher-like contraptions, with infection coming out. And as I said, I heard them in the middle of the night and heard some of the stories that way.

I went in as a healer, and I felt at one point — and it was after about a year in the military — that I had become a part of the United States military, and I had helped perpetuate the war in Vietnam. And I just thought I had to live with myself and speak out against the war. I had heard about the United States dropping flyers on Vietnam, on the Vietnamese, urging them to go to protective hamlets to get away from the spraying, which we now know was Agent Orange, and to get out of harm’s way. And I thought — again, we were going — we were organizing a GI and Veterans March for Peace in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we had difficulty getting publicity out. We posted flyers. We handed — we put posters up, and they were torn down on the base. So, I thought, “If the United States can drop these flyers on the people of another country, why couldn’t we drop flyers on military bases publicizing the GI and Veterans March for Peace in the San Francisco Bay Area?”

I had a friend who was a pilot, and we rented a single-engine plane and loaded it with flyers announcing the demonstration. We dropped them on Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, where I was working; on Treasure Island; on Yerba Buena Island; on the Presidio, the Army base. And then we flew in to the Alameda Naval Air Station, because the USS Ranger was docked there, and we dropped the flyers on the deck of the aircraft carrier. I wore my uniform, and I had a press conference afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: You were a Navy lieutenant.

SUSAN SCHNALL: I was lieutenant junior grade. Yes, I was.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you afraid?

SUSAN SCHNALL: It was all — yes, yes. I was concerned about what the military would do to me. But I looked at that in proportion to what was going on with what we were doing with young American soldiers and how we were sending them in harm’s way to hurt and to kill and destroy people from another country thousands of miles away, and I thought about the terrible destruction and damage being done to Vietnam. And for me, it was an issue, as I said, of living with myself and just saying, “I’m in the military. I stand against the war. And there are many, many thousands of other soldiers, sailors and marines who will stand with me.”

So we dropped the flyers and had the press conference. I was issued this order to not wear my uniform in a public demonstration, expressing my partisan views publicly. And I thought, “You know, General Westmoreland goes in front of Congress asking for more men and more armaments and more money to fight this war. Why can’t I wear my uniform as a member of the military and stand up for peace?” So I wore my uniform in the antiwar demonstration and spoke out against the war.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you were court-martialed. And what happened?

SUSAN SCHNALL: That was six months later. I actually worked full-time in the military, had an Article 15, the captain’s mast, went on to a full general court-martial, was tried for two charges. One was intent to destroy the morale of the United States troops, and the other was disobeying a general Navy regulation and conduct unbecoming an officer. I was given a sentence, six months’ forfeiture of all pay and allowances, to be confined. The trial counsel wanted five years’ confinement and hard labor, and the court-martial board gave me six months’ confinement and dismissal from service.

AMY GOODMAN: And where were you confined to, and what did you have to do there?

SUSAN SCHNALL: I actually was sent back to full duty, because at that time the military also had a regulation that said if a woman received a sentence of under a year, she didn’t necessarily have to serve it. And since I received a sentence of six months, which I think was deliberate — we had a lot of publicity about the case — I was sent back to the hospital to full duty and reported and was then assigned to the women’s units and the children’s unit. And we put out an underground newspaper, but handed it out from person to person on the base.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Schnall, former Navy nurse who was court-martialed for dropping antiwar pamphlets from a plane over US military bases around San Francisco Bay. We’ll return to our conversation with her, Paul Cox and Ron Carver, all three now in Vietnam to mark the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. Stay with us.


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