Alleged Iraqi Massacre Evokes Memories of Vietnam

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:22 PM EDT

( - The recent disclosures of an alleged U.S. Marine massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, Iraq, could prompt people who are old enough to compare the incident in Iraq to one of the darkest episodes of the Vietnam War - the My Lai massacre.

On March 16, 1968, U.S. soldiers were conducting a search and destroy mission in the village of My Lai in what was believed to be a Viet Cong stronghold. What followed were the killings of more than 500 women, children and elderly men. The leader of the soldiers, Lt. William Calley, was convicted in 1971 of ordering the killings, but he was paroled in 1974.

The current allegations, occurring against the backdrop of a controversial war that many Bush administration critics liken to the Vietnam War, involves the deaths of two dozen Iraqi civilians last November 19, following a roadside bomb that killed Marine Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it was a "fair assessment" to compare Haditha to My Lai, but said he doesn't think it will be a turning point in public opinion on the war.

He said more than anything else, the massacre is similar to My Lai because it shows soldiers' increased frustration with the mission. "Now you have at least some U.S. troops who are probably feeling more angry at Iraqis, more frustrated by the mission, less hopeful about the outcome," he said.

O'Hanlon said that "99.99 percent of them handle that (frustration) just fine but there's a greater chance that the person on the edge will flip over the edge under those circumstances."

The difference between Vietnam and Iraq, O'Hanlon said, is that the American people "are starting from a base of very positive feelings about the military, as they should." He said that the incident "may really start to take a little bit of a chink out of the armor of U.S. troops in the eyes of their fellow citizens, but I think that today's military is so respected."

He said Haditha "will prove that there were a few bad apples, and maybe even a few bad apples in positions of command who initially wanted to whitewash this, but my overall guess ... is that it will not have anything like the [effect] that My Lai probably did."

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said to compare the two incidents would be to "jump to that conclusion. We know so little about what really happened, other than the fact that something very bad did happen," she told Cybercast News Service.

Donnelly criticized lawmakers like Democratic U.S. Rep. John Murtha, who said on May 17 that U.S. Marines had killed innocent Iraqis "in cold blood" at Haditha. "Why is it that John Murtha and other people who are opposed to the war are pointing to this incident even though the official reports have not come in yet," Donnelly asked. "We don't know what the facts are."

She said she worried that the statements and images would inflame insurgents in Iraq. "They are there trying to help Iraq create a new nation, a new democracy." Donnelly said of the military, "but when inflammatory words combined with pictures coming from a senior member of Congress are out there being circulated on al-Jazeera, the best I can say is this is not helpful."

Paul Martin, an anti-war activist with Peace Action, said that while Americans need to compare current events to history for context, "there are a lot of differences between Vietnam and now." He was less willing to blame the soldiers involved in the Haditha killings than U.S. military leaders.

"Everyone needs to take responsibility because of their actions but I think the public can understand the position of a soldier who ... [is] in a situation where they're not getting leadership about how to treat the Iraqi civilians," Martin said.

Whereas the My Lai massacre helped turn American public sentiment against the Vietnam War, Martin said public opinion is already heavily stacked against the Iraq war, so the events in Haditha may have less impact. "When you have a near super-majority of the public saying that we're on the wrong track in Iraq there's already been pounds of straws on the camel's back on the issue of Iraq," Martin said.

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