By RICHARD PYLE
The Associated Press
Friday, June 2, 2006; 6:06 PM
NEW YORK -- On a March morning in 1968, American troops swept into a village on South Vietnam's central coast in search of communist guerrillas. Instead, they found unarmed civilians _ and gunned them down, leaving bodies huddled in ditches.
Nearly four decades later, the notorious name of that hamlet _ My Lai _ has been summoned from memory again, as the U.S. military investigates allegations of mass civilian killings by a group of Marines in the western Iraqi town of Haditha.
While the numbers differ _ upward of 300 at My Lai, compared to 24 at Haditha _ some of the circumstances are eerily similar.
Haditha, a deceptively quiet town in the Euphrates valley, is known as a center of insurgent activity, just as My Lai was 38 years ago.
The killings at My Lai were attributed by some to U.S. troops seeking vengeance for booby traps and mines _ the "improvised explosive devices" of that time. Just two days earlier, the same infantry unit had suffered casualties from a booby trap.
Flash forward to another war, in another time.
Last Nov. 19, a Marine was killed when an IED struck a four-vehicle convoy at Haditha. The Marines reported that 15 Iraqi civilians also died in the blast, and eight insurgents were killed in an ensuing firefight.
But that story didn't stick. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a leading critic of the Iraq war, said after being briefed by military officials that the Marines actually had killed unarmed civilians at the scene, and others in nearby homes. Lance Cpl. James Crossan of North Bend, Wash., who was wounded by the roadside bomb, told a Seattle TV interviewer the incident might have caused others to be "blinded by hate ... and they just lost control."
Investigators want to know not only what happened, but whether officers of the 3rd Marine Regiment covered up the truth _ as did senior officers of the Army's Americal Division, to which the My Lai unit belonged.
While the two incidents appear to have similarities, there are key distinctions between the Vietnam era's military and today's _ an all-volunteer armed force that officials consider more professional and better motivated.
Perhaps most important is that all U.S. service members now undergo training in the "law of armed conflict," which spells out rules for dealing with civilians in a combat situation, said Scott Silliman, a law professor and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.
"That didn't kick in until the 1970s, and My Lai was the watershed case," Silliman said. "But this (Haditha) is not My Lai, and those that try to make a direct comparison are not well informed. It may be a gut reaction, but today's troops are much better educated, trained and disciplined than those at My Lai."
My Lai occurred on March 16, 1968, as troops launched Task Force Barker, a "search and destroy" operation in one of South Vietnam's most dangerous areas. It was the turf of a seasoned Viet Cong guerrilla battalion, where locals displayed sullen hostility toward U.S. troops and an estimated 80 percent of casualties were from booby traps and mines.
In what was later depicted as a combination of systematic killing and uncontrolled rampage, the GIs forced men, women and babies from their homes, herded them into groups and shot them.
The incident was noted in the next day's war communique by MACV, the U.S. command headquarters in Saigon. It said U.S. forces had killed 128 "enemy" in a sweep in Quang Ngai province. The name My Lai was not mentioned.
In a particularly chilling moment at his 1970 court-martial, Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader, testified that the "order of the day" from his company commander, Capt. Ernest Medina, had been to move the villagers, and if they refused, to "waste them."
The body count ranged between 250 and 300 by Calley's estimate, and more than 400 by some others. A later U.S. inquiry would settle on 347.
The first inkling of such incidents came months after My Lai, in a letter from a former soldier to the division commander. The letter, which did not specifically mention My Lai, was referred to the operations officer, Lt. Col. Colin Powell _ the eventual Secretary of State _ who investigated and reported that the claims were groundless.
It was not until November, 1969, that the truth finally surfaced, after Ron Ridenhour, another ex-GI who had learned of My Lai from participants, wrote letters to President Nixon, the Pentagon, State Department and members of Congress.
The My Lai affair had several outcomes, and few were satisfied. Acquitted of murdering 102 Vietnamese after a skillful defense by attorney F. Lee Bailey, Medina later admitted he had suppressed evidence and lied to superiors about the death toll. Fourteen Americal Division officers were accused of taking part in a cover-up, but none was convicted. Lt. Col. Frank Barker, for whom the operation was named, died a few weeks later in a helicopter crash.
Calley, the lowest-ranking officer charged, was convicted of premeditated murder in 1971 and faced life at hard labor. But Nixon ordered him moved from the stockade to house arrest. In 1974 he was paroled and returned to a civilian life of obscurity in Columbus, Ga.
My Lai did have its heroes, however. Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson and two helicopter crew mates landed their reconnaissance chopper in the middle of the killing spree, threatened to shoot any soldiers who continued firing, and directed the evacuation of 12 wounded villagers.
All three eventually were awarded the Soldier's Medal for bravery. Thompson died of cancer in January 2006 and was buried with military honors. In a 2004 television interview, he had said he wanted to forgive what had been done at My Lai, but "I swear to God, I can't."
Richard Pyle covered the Vietnam War for five years and was AP's Saigon bureau chief 1970-73.