The My Lai Massacre in Pictures Written by ppavone
Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle Flying over the sparse villages of Vietnam, helicopter pilot Officer Hugh Thompson struggled to see where the flames and screams rising from the ground, were coming from. He lowered the aircraft in order to distinguish bodies from bamboo. As he had grown accustomed to seeing, Officer Thompson observed spurting blood, burning land and people engaged in combat. However, Officer Thompson was taken aback to find the fallen were not soldiers, but rather women and children. â€œWe kept flying back and forth, reconning in front and in the rear, and it didn't take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we'd look, we'd see bodies. These were infants, two, three, four, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever.â€?
Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle Officer Thompson landed the helicopter, compassion overtaking him as he saw ditches full of bloodied women and children, families huddled together for protection, and the elderly in their last, and worst, moments of life. Frantically, the pilot turned to his fellow American soldiers, asking for help in rescuing the survivors. â€œI'll help... put them out of their misery,â€? one soldier snorted, and proceeded to shoot the moaning people on the ground. The horrific truth dawned upon Officer Thompson: his peers had caused this evil. American soldiers were murdering helpless Vietnamese civilians, without a hint of mercy.
Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle The horror that Officer Hugh Thompson witnessed on the morning of March 16, 1968 would come to be known as the My Lai Massacre. Five hundred people â€“ all women, children, and elderly men â€“ were slaughtered by the 23rd Infantry Division, otherwise known as Charlie Company, of the United States Army. Charlie Company arrived in Vietnam less than 3 months before the massacre. Between December 1967 and March 1968, its men had not engaged in battle, but casualties abounded due to land mines and hand grenades.
Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle
Finally, Charlie Company was given a direct assignment. The soldiers were deployed to target a village suspected of harboring Viet Cong fighters. They were told anyone in the village was either a member of the Viet Cong or a Viet Cong sympathizer, and therefore set out expecting to only encounter the enemy. However, the Americans found civilians instead. Frustrated, and eager to practice the American military strategy of 'seek and destroy,' a policy of combing through the Vietnamese jungles destroying anything or anyone that might aid the enemy, the soldiers massacred the bystanders â€“ raping women, burning homes, and mutilating children.
Photo: Ronal L. Haeberle
While civilian casualties do occur in war, the deaths of the unarmed Vietnamese innocents were not tragic byproducts of a necessary military campaign – they were intentional acts of brutality. The excessive barbarism on display thoroughly justifies its description as a massacre. Massacre is a very different word from battle. Battle is a consensual act of war, rooted in principle. Massacre on the other hand strips heroism from our perception of the military. Reckless and indiscriminate slaughter compromises any honor that soldiers might have.
Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle When Americans and others abroad learned of the shocking occurrences on that March day, opposition to the Vietnam War dramatically increased. As the first televised war in history, Vietnam was already under hyper-scrutiny. The truth of the violence on the battlefields was conveyed through a powerful medium. Visual representation expresses magnitude unlike statistics, and these pictures, converted into posters with tag lines of “And babies,” persuaded the public of the need for an end to the war.
Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle The photographs were taken by army photographer Ronald Haeberle. He was assigned to capture on film the success of Charlie Company defeating the Viet Cong. However, the day hadn't gone as planned, and Haeberle, who had been carrying both a professional and a personal, color-photo camera, snapped images of the massacre instead. When the day ended, he relinquished the black and white camera to the Army Information Office as per protocol, but secretly retained his own camera, containing the incriminating evidence. Haeberle sold the color photographs to Life Magazine in December 1969.
Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle Despite the truth captured in the photographs, the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre did not offer justice. Only one man, Second Lieutenant William Calley, was convicted of war crimes, but was given a mere 4-month jail sentence. Not until thirty years later did Officer Thompson and his crew receive medals commending their heroism, and not until last August did Calley make a public apology to the Vietnamese.
Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle The My Lai Massacre not only accelerated the US withdrawal from Vietnam, but,
in the long-term, forced the American military to evaluate its treatment of civilians during wartime. To ensure massacres do not ever again occur, the military has created the policy of 'courageous restraint', currently employed in Afghanistan. Courageous restraint encourages soldiers to do all in their power to prevent civilian casualties. Even when a soldier feels threatened by a group of civilians, he is not to fire.
Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle History has taught us that the bravery of a soldier is determined by his regard
for human life and respect for human principle, and not by his willingness to engage in conflict. Though it is difficult to intellectually distinguish necessary from excessive death in wartime, pictorial depictions can alert our hearts to what is right and what is wrong. Reading about, and particularly seeing photographs of the My Lai Massacre can evoke doubt in the military, and in humanity as a whole. However, we can also use these moving images to remind us of catastrophic errors we shall never return to.
My Lai photographer Ron Haeberle exposed a Vietnam massacre 40 years ago today in The Plain Dealer Published: Friday, November 20, 2009, 4:10 AM 2009, 11:09 AM
Updated: Friday, November 20,
Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer Follow
Forty years ago today, black-and-white photographs of slaughtered women, children and old men in a Vietnamese village shocked the world -- or that portion of the world willing to believe American soldiers could gun down unarmed peasants and leave them to die in streets and ditches. The Plain Dealer, in an international exclusive, was the first news outlet to publish the images of what infamously became known as the My Lai massacre, which had taken place on March 16, 1968. "A clump of bodies," read the description on the front page of The Plain Dealer's Nov. 20, 1969, edition. At first some people were in denial about how these South Vietnamese civilians were killed, even after seeing the pictures. It was too hard, too painful, to comprehend.
Lisa DeJong, The Plain DealerRon Haeberle, a Fairview High School graduate, was a combat photographer in Vietnam. He was in the village of My Lai in 1968 when 300 Vietnamese civilians were killed by American troops. Haeberle, who still lives in Northeast Ohio, has finally broken his silence about got the photos and the impact they have had on his life and the history of his country.
But the atrocities committed by soldiers in the U.S. Army's Charlie Company were captured by combat photographer Sgt. Ron Haeberle, a Fairview High School graduate who'd been drafted after college. The Army did not begin investigating My Lai until the spring of 1969, a year after the killings, after a former member of Charlie Company sent a letter to government officials, including President Richard Nixon and numerous members of Congress. Army investigators came to Cleveland to interview Haeberle in August 1969. Upon his honorable discharge from the Army the previous year, he'd returned here and was occasionally giving slide-show talks to Kiwanis and Lions clubs about his war experience in general. Those groups would never expect the horrific scenes he'd documented. "First, I showed all the good we did there, what the medics did, and photos of Vietnamese people smiling. And then I'd go to the My Lai photos, and there'd be dead silence," says Haeberle today, in one of his first U.S. interviews in many decades. "They'd say, 'No, this can't have happened. That can't be true.' " They didn't want to believe it, as many people didn't when the photos were published, but it was true. Unbelievable massacre still reverberates On March 16, 1968, American soldiers, "the good guys," who were not under fire, entered a village where residents were eating breakfast, rousted them from their homes, raped young girls and then killed
them, their siblings, parents and grandparents. When the injured moved among the corpses they lay with, they were shot again until they were still. The U.S. Army set the number killed at 347; the memorial in My Lai lists the names of 504 dead. The story of the My Lai massacre became a significant part of our nation's history. Twenty-six soldiers of the 50-member unit were initially charged with criminal offenses for their actions, but only Lt. William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder. He served three years of a life sentence under house arrest after President Nixon reduced his sentence. Calley was silent about My Lai for 40 years, until making a public apology in August. But the term "My Lai" still reverberates: It's mentioned when there are civilian casualties at the hands of U.S. or allied troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Plain Dealer got the explosive My Lai photographs in November 1969 soon after Haeberle, then 28, was contacted by Army investigators. He called the newspaper, because The Plain Dealer was his hometown paper and because he recognized one of the bylines -Joe Eszterhas. They had attended Ohio University at the same time, and Eszterhas had edited the college paper. "I didn't have any connections, so Joe was the logical person for me to call," Haeberle says. Earlier that same week, a story about the massacre, written by a freelance writer named Seymour Hersh, was being distributed by a small news service. The story wasn't picked up by very many newspapers; it was met with incredulity, since neither Hersh nor his news service were well-known. Still, it garnered some notice. Mike Roberts, then a Plain Dealer
Washington bureau reporter who'd returned stateside after a year serving as the paper's Vietnam correspondent, remembers that copies of Hersh's story were slipped under office doors in the National Press Building. "No one believed it," said Roberts, of Orange Village. "Bill Ware, the [Plain Dealer's] executive editor, called; he wasn't sure if we should go with it. Almost simultaneously, this kid comes forward with these pictures -- Haeberle's photographs legitimized the story." Richard Conway, a retired Plain Dealer photographer in Solon, was working on the photo desk at the paper that night. "This guy brought the slides in -- I took a look at them, and it was shocking," he says. "They were in color. They showed the terror on people's faces right before they were shot." Man behind camera never sought fame The photographs would become historic in a war era that consumed a generation. But Haeberle quietly returned to obscurity. Forty years later, he continues to live a quiet life. After the war, he returned here to work at Premier Industrial Corp. in Cleveland, where he was a supervisor. For the rest of his career -- besides a brief stint as a photographer at Case Western Reserve University, which he found unexciting -- he worked as a supervisor at various manufacturing plants. Today, he lives in a nondescript house in a new development in a far western Cleveland suburb. He's 68, divorced and has a grown daughter. On his mantel, there's a Rube Goldberg sculpture trophy from 1969, a journalism award for his photos that ran in Life magazine. On his coffee table, there's hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger's book, "Highest Duty." Haeberle is fit and athletic -- he works out every day, whether at a spinning class, on the Pilates reformer he's got at home, or on ultralong bike rides. He also skis and kayaks.
In the spring, he often heads West and cycles through Utah -- "In Moab, I feel like an ant among the mountains" -- and California. The only things he documents with his camera these days are his travels and the beauties of nature he finds during his travels. In contrast to today's celebrity-seekers, Haeberle is a throwback. A low-key man by nature, he has almost never -- until now -- talked to reporters about 1969 and how those photos affected his life. He did give a straightforward interview to the BBC in 1989 and will be part of a documentary about My Lai slated to run on PBS next year. He doesn't talk much about his moment in history. But if the subject comes up, he'll talk about those terrible four hours and why he kept shooting photos. "That was my job -- I was walking around with two cameras strapped around me, mine and the Army's, and my job was to document wherever we went, what the unit did," he says. When Charlie Company landed in My Lai and began shooting people, Haeberle shot photos. "It was reactive," he says. "I was trying to figure out, 'How am I going to capture the event and go back to headquarters and show them what we were doing?' " But, he says, "I didn't make it to certain parts of the village where other things were going on, the rapes and the cutting of tongues and scalping and all that stuff. I didn't see any of that. "Later on, when I was interviewed by the CID [the Army's Criminal Investigation Division] and they explained everything that happened there, I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I didn't know it was quite that bad." What was the My Lai massacre? â—? The My Lai massacre occurred on March 16, 1968, less than three months after the start of the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese on U.S. troops. â—? By the time the U.S. Army's Charlie Company headed for My Lai, it had lost several men to mines and booby traps. The soldiers were warned that "VC" could be anyone and were hiding everywhere.
â—? That set the scene for the unit's attack and shootings that left hundreds dead in the village of My Lai.
Photographs changed lives, perceptions On that night in 1969, when Plain Dealer editors were considering publication, the evidence looked very, very bad. "It was such a horrific idea that American troops could do this, to women and children," says Conway of The Plain Dealer. "I thought it was amazing we had these -- such a big story out of Vietnam." Of course, it wasn't a fait accompli that the photos would run. First, the paper had to verify that Haeberle was who he said he was. That was confirmed when an Army prosecutor named Aubrey Daniel strongly suggested The Plain Dealer not publish Haeberle's photos. Conway was just one of many people who thought the images "might be a little too much for the paper." Publisher Thomas Vail had to approve publication, and he did. Eszterhas later said that Plain Dealer editors were hopeful they'd win journalism prizes for the incendiary scoop. Eszterhas, speaking from his home in Bainbridge Township earlier this month, well remembers the intensity of the hours leading up to publication. "Daniel told us, 'You have no right to run those photos because [Haeberle] was using an Army camera," Eszterhas recalls. "And we told him he'd had his own camera, too." Eszterhas wrote the news story that accompanied the photos, and told of Haeberle's experiences at My Lai. He and Haeberle then sold the photos to Life magazine, sharing less than $20,000. "It was a huge scoop," says Haeberle. "It changed my life a little -- I got to travel a bit. It changed Joe Eszterhas' life a lot." Within a few years, Eszterhas had fallen out of favor and was fired from The Plain Dealer. But he went on to write for Rolling Stone magazine and then became a successful Hollywood screenwriter who
made millions. Haeberle has never wanted to dwell on the events at My Lai. But he has read books and watched several documentaries on My Lai, wanting to learn more about what happened in that village. "My understanding was the company [which he joined the morning of My Lai] had been taking losses right and left, seeing their buddies killed by mines, and they'd become hardened. Around the Web PBS: The American Experience: My Lai TIME MAGAZINE: The My Lai Massacre MY LAI PEACE PARK PROJECT:Today in My Lai
"But what happened that day did not have to happen. No. No way." Does Haeberle feel his decision to share the photos with the newspaper changed history, or people's lives? Quietly, nonchalantly, he says: "Oh, I'm sure it did. I've talked to people over the years, Army people even, who did mention it helped bring a turning point to the war, bring about the end of the war, maybe. "At least that part, that makes me feel good, that part coming out." Eszterhas, too, points out that the publication of the My Lai photos, coupled with the Kent State shootings six months later, which he also covered, began a critical shift in Americans' perceptions of the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, a shocking memorial In 2000, Haeberle went back to Vietnam for the first time. He bought a number of original works by Vietnamese artists, which hang in his living room today. Most are abstracts; one is a black-and-white, delicately needleworked portrait of a woman, gracefully reaching one arm toward the sky. He and a group of cyclist friends biked 775 miles from Hanoi to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, with stops along the way. One was at My Lai, where women still push and pull water buffalo
alongside green rice fields and where there is now a museum and peace garden memorializing the dead. Haeberle's traveling friends knew of his role in My Lai's past. "But we just kept it quiet. They were protective." He walked into the small museum -- "It's beautiful," he says -and was shocked to see the 16-by-20-inch photos on the wall. The massacre photos were all his, some color, some black-and-white; there was even a black-and-white shot of him. "I never gave them the photos," he explains. "So the Army must have." He won't say he got choked up, exactly, but he was affected by being in that space, his own powerful images of horror looking back at him from the walls. "I found myself making an apology for what happened," he says. "I walked around by myself. No one else was around, and I was making silent amends. "For something that didn't have to happen, but did."