Rewriting history

This column was originally going to be about a couple of law professor-pundits, Hugh Hewitt and Glenn Reynolds, who specialize in defending the Bush administration. My learned colleagues are now busy claiming that the supposed “media frenzy” regarding the apparent massacre of civilians in Haditha, Iraq, is a product of liberal bias, rather than of a sense of professional obligation to report a major news story.

But in the end it’s not very interesting to point out that Bush administration dead-enders are willing to defend anything it does. (Hewitt in particular seems past praying for: If President Bush came out in favor of compulsory late-term abortions for the wives of NASCAR drivers, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hewitt found something to praise in the proposal.)

What’s more interesting are the following comments from Peter Beinart, editor in chief of The New Republic. After noting that Americans can be as barbaric as anyone, Beinart argues that “what makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world is our very recognition of that fact.” While it’s true “we are capable of Hadithas and My Lais,” America is nevertheless almost unique among nations because, when we confront such atrocities, we are “capable of acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again.”

What’s disturbing about this claim is that it illustrates how a person in a position of considerable public influence can simply concoct an imaginary past to suit the propaganda needs of the present war.

Consider three of the best-known atrocities committed by American troops during the Vietnam War. (I say “best-known” rather than “well-known,” since the vast majority of Americans have only heard of one of them at most. So much for our supposed national willingness to “acknowledge what happened.”)

  • My Lai. Remarkably, Beinart invokes this massacre of between 200 and 500 Vietnamese villagers by American troops as an example of “bringing killers to justice.” In fact, with one exception, none of the many soldiers and officers responsible for committing and covering up this mass murder was ever convicted of anything. The one exception, Lt. William Calley, was pardoned by President Richard Nixon after spending three years under house arrest.
  • Tiger Force. For several months in 1967, a platoon of elite soldiers known as Tiger Force went on a frenzied killing spree, during which its members murdered hundreds of civilians, and engaged in such barbarities as wearing necklaces made out of human ears. A four-year investigation of the unit by the Army was suddenly called off, reportedly at the highest levels, in November 1975 _ the same month in which Donald Rumsfeld became secretary of defense and Dick Cheney was named President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff. Despite overwhelming evidence, no charges were ever brought in the matter.
  • Thanh Phong. In 1969, 13 villagers were killed in the village of Thanh Phong during an operation led by Bob Kerry, who would eventually become a Medal of Honor winner, a U.S. senator and a presidential candidate. A great deal of evidence suggests the villagers were massacred by Kerry and six other soldiers. The incident was never investigated by the military.

All wars are terrible, but guerrilla wars in particular practically guarantee that, as in Vietnam, atrocities against civilians will become commonplace, that most such incidents will never be investigated, and that those that are investigated will rarely lead to punishment.

Indeed, the only reason we know about My Lai, Tiger Force, Thanh Phong and now Haditha is that in each case unusually dedicated journalists refused to accept the official version of these events, which without exception absolved American troops of any wrongdoing.

That right-wing ideologues peddle jingoistic nonsense about American exceptionalism is only to be expected. That the editor of a prominent liberal magazine should do so as well helps explain how we’ve managed to entangle our troops in yet another nightmarish guerrilla war.

(Paul C. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)