War crimes are nothing new to Americans. They have been eager enough to recognize them when other nations or cultures have committed or been party to them. The Nixon Administration would be sure to try to convict any of the Viet Cong who were party to the action in Hue during the Têt offensive of 1968, if they could. The Supreme Court was quick enough to recognize, on February 4, 1946, the nature of the responsibility of those in command for the actions of their troops. In The Matter of Yamashita it confirmed the conviction and death sentence of the Japanese general whose troops did such a fine job of “pacification” in the Philippines.
The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal went a little further and found in its majority judgment that political leaders who were responsible for setting up criminal battlefield practices, or who even had knowledge of these practices, were in fact responsible for the commission of war crimes. The United States is a party to the specific rules of the Geneva and Hague conventions. In this war it has systematically violated almost every one of them. From President Johnson to the Pfc., many people should be held responsible for war crimes committed on March 16, 1968, in the village of Sonmy.
What Mary McCarthy tries to establish in Medina is that at all points the public should have brought pressure on the military and the government to pursue these prosecutions to the fullest possible extent. Not to do otherwise, she argues, is to indulge one’s cynicism at the expense of human life; and that failure to make demands on government has led to a situation in which “now any member of the armed forces in Indochina can, if he so desires, slaughter a reasonable number of babies, confident that the public will acquit him, a) because they support the war and the army or b) because they don’t.” What she most passionately argues is that if Medina had been convicted as he ought to have been, then it would have been far more difficult for the military to acquit or release from criminal charges those higher up in the chain of command, Generals Young, Koster, and Westmoreland, and the nation’s political leaders.
Although the army still refuses to release most of the report by General Peers on what happened at My Lai, much of the information has been made available in Seymour Hersh’s Cover-up.1 The Peers Commission’s secret investigation showed that every individual who was recommended for prosecution, and those who were already being prosecuted, were in fact guilty of war crimes or of trying to hide war crimes, itself a crime. The only case that led to a conviction was Lieutenant Calley’s, and his sentence has been reduced. The cynics whom Mary McCarthy chides were to some extent right about the Peers Commission and the various courts-martial. The army was extremely reluctant to find any of the accused guilty, even after a preponderance of testimony plainly…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.