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Former able-seaman (RN) Dave Hallsworth recalls when atrocities were not called war crimes, because they were committed by US soldiers

Those who live in glasshouses...

Watching the judges of the new war crimes tribunals in Europe and Africa deliberate over who is guilty of 'crimes against humanity', I recalled the time nearly 30 years ago when the USA had to put its own soldiers on trial on similar charges - and let them off, of course.

In 1968, US troops wiped out the entire Vietnamese village of My Lai within four hours. The army kept the My Lai massacre secret for 18 months. After news finally leaked out in November 1969, Lieutenant William Calley (the officer commanding the attack) was tried (at the US army's own court martial) on charges of killing at least 109 'Oriental human beings'. Sentenced to life with hard labour in 1971, Calley appealed three times, and each time his sentence was reduced, culminating in his release in 1975. On the orders of President Richard Nixon, he served his short sentence under 'house arrest' in an army flat. Calley did not spend a day in prison.

Compared with the confusing cocktail of hearsay and 'expert' opinion at the war crimes tribunals, the testimony given at the Calley court martial was a clear-cut and candid first-hand account of cold-blooded mass murder. Read a few extracts, and ask yourself what is a war crime anyway?

Court marital testimony of Private Paul Meadlo:

Q What did you do?
A I held my M-16 on them.
Q Why?
A Because they might attack.
Q They were children and babies?
A Yes.
Q And they might attack? Children and babies?
A They might've had a fully loaded grenade on them. The mothers might have thrown them at us.
Q Babies?
A Yes.
Q Were the babies in the mothers' arms?
A I guess so.
Q And the babies moved to attack?
A I expected at any minute they were about to make a counter-balance.......
Q What happened then?
A He [Lieutenant Calley] started shoving them off and shooting them in the ravine.
Q How many times did he shoot?
A I can't remember.

Court martial testimony of Private Gene Oliver

Q Did you see any dead Vietnamese in the village?
A Yes sir.
Q How many?
A Most of them. All over.

Court martial testimony of Private Richard Pendleton

Q Can you describe what you saw?
A There was a large mound of dead Vietnamese in the ditch.
Q Can you estimate how many?
A It's hard to say. I'd say 40-50.
Q Can you describe the ditch?
A It was seven to 10 feet deep, maybe 10-15 feet across. The bodies were all across it. There was one group in the middle, and more at the sides. The bodies were on top of each other.

Court martial testimony of Private Charles Hall

Q How did you know they were dead?
A They weren't moving. There was a lot of blood coming from all over them. They were in piles and scattered. There were very old people, very young people, and mothers. Blood was coming from everywhere. Everywhere was all blood.

Court martial testimony of Lt William Calley

Q What were they firing at?
A At the enemy sir.
Q At people?
A At the enemy, sir.
Q They weren't human beings?
A Yes sir.
Q They were human beings?
A Yes, sir.
Q Were they men?
A I don't know, sir. I would imagine they were, sir.
Q Didn't you see?
A Pardon, sir?
Q Did you see them?
A I wasn't discriminating.
Q Did you see the women?
A I don't know, sir.
Q What do you mean, you weren't discriminating?
A I didn't discriminate between individuals in the village, sir. They were all the enemy, they were all to be destroyed, sir.

Court martial testimony of Private Frank Beardslee

Q Did you receive any hostile fire at all any time that day?
A No, sir.

Court martial testimony of Private Salvatore La Matina

Q What were your orders?
A Kill anything that breathed.

Court martial testimony of Private Dennis Conti

Lieutenant Calley came out and said take care of these people. So we said, okay, so we stood and watched them. He went away, then he came back and said, 'I thought I told you to take care of these people?'. We said, 'We are'. He said, 'I mean kill them'. I was a little stunned and I didn't know what to do...I stood behind them and they stood side by side. So they - Calley and Meadlo - got on line and fired directly into the people...it was automatic. The people screamed and yelled and fell. I guess they tried to get up too. They couldn't. That was it. The people were pretty messed up. Lots of heads were shot off. Pieces of heads and pieces of flesh flew off the sides and arms.

Private Varnado Simpson, quoted in Four Hours in My Lai

I just went. My mind just went...I just killed. Once I started the...the training, the whole programming part of killing, it just came out... I just followed suit. I just lost all sense of direction, of purpose. I just started killing any kinda way I could kill. It just came. I didn't know I had it in me.

Court martial testimony of Private Robert Maples

Q Did you open your pants in front of a woman in the village of My Lai?
A No.
Q Isn't it a fact that you were going through My Lai that day looking for women?
A No.
Q Didn't you carry a woman half nude on your shoulders and throw her on the ground and say that she was too dirty to rape? You did that didn't you?
A Oh, yeah, but it wasn't at My Lai.

Anybody who thinks that warfare is other than this, is living in a pipe dream. 'War crimes' are defined not by the degree of barbarity, but by who pulls the trigger. If you come from a poor country, you are in danger of being branded a war criminal; if you come from the West, you are likely to be let off or even honoured.

And don't think the British are any better than the Americans. In 1949, I served on HMS Jamaica transporting the 41st Royal Marine Commandos to Penang, Malaya, where the rebels were fighting for independence from the Empire. About a week after we arrived the marines invited us to go on patrol with them. We went on an armoured train to Kuala Lumpur. While on patrol they stopped at a village which was said to be providing food and shelter to insurgents. The marines found the two elders, tied them to a tree and slit their stomachs open with machetes, so their intestines fell out. Then they marched the village past them. A sailor by the name of Bertie Bell took photographs of this, but when he got back to the ship they were confiscated by officers. Of course, nobody was accused of war crimes; they were just Royal Marines, doing their job for Queen and Country.

  • Report of the Department of the Army, Review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai incident, Volume 1, 14 March, 1970,
  • Report of the Peers Commission in Richard Hammer, The Court Martial of Lt Calley, 1971;
  • CBS Evening News, 25 November 1969 in
  • Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, Four Hours in My Lai, 1992

Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997

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