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 indicated their guilt.

One of the most telling facts about the Peers panel is that one of its seemingly most diligent members was Colonel J. Ross Franklin. A year later Franklin had formal charges filed against him by Lt. Colonel Anthony Herbert for essentially the same derelictions of duty in failing to report war crimes that he so hypocritically and savagely imputed to the enlisted men and lower ranking officers who came before the Peers Commission. General Peers himself was not especially keen on following the letter of the army’s law, for as a New York Times article of June 4, 1972, indicates, he obviously failed to pursue the prosecution of the members of Bravo Company of Task Force Barker, who were busy murdering approximately ninety civilians over in Mykhe 4, a mile and a half from where Medina’s men were searching and destroying My Lai and its inhabitants.

The descriptions of My Lai in this book recalled my own experience as a medic in Vietnam, where I saw enough violations of the Geneva Convention to be subject to prosecution myself. Even in an American hospital I saw wounded Vietnamese POWs subjected to physical punishment and the threat of torture, or denied surgery until they gave information. Military intelligence interrogators (who wore no name or rank) were rarely questioned about their brutal methods of gathering information. Inhumane and racist treatment of the Vietnamese was commonplace among the medical corpsmen. (I remember an amiable American nurse suddenly hitting in the stomach a POW suffering from a bad stomach wound.)

A large group of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, including myself, offered on April 20, 1972, to testify before Congress in detail about war crimes and to submit to prosecution for the purpose of exposing these de facto and systematic policies of violating the rules of war. Our offer to submit to prosecution, and the attendant testimony, was of course ignored. The Subcommittee on National Security Policy and Scientific Developments, chaired by Clement J. Zablocki, refused to hold further hearings on the testimony offered by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Zablocki claimed that the pressing business of a Public Works Bill and jurisdictional difficulties presented serious blocks to further testimony, even though the subcommittee was at that time hearing evidence about the treatment of American prisoners of war. When we met in his office, Zablocki swore bitterly at me that no more testimony about war crimes would be presented because the “North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were doing it too.”


The description of My Lai at Medina’s trial also makes me think of another episode in America’s history:

They [English soldiers and Narraganset Indians] approached the same with great silence and surrounded it both with English and Indians, that they [Pequod Indians] might not break out; and so assaulted them with great courage, shooting amongst them, and entered the fort with all speed…others ran into their houses and brought out fire and set them on fire, which soon took in their mat; and standing close together, with the wind all was quickly on a flame…those that scaped the fire were slain with the sword, some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped.

—William Bradford
History of Plymouth Plantation

As Melville points out in The Confidence Man, in the chapter “The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating,” racism found rich soil in Christian America. We have made it an American ethic to identify the “gook” and hunt him down: “the only good —- is a dead —-.” Americans have always displayed this talent for finding victims for their sick racial fantasies. Captain Ernest Medina may not measure up to Melville’s arch Indian-hater, Colonel Moredock, but he was the right man for the job of CO of Company C, of the Americal Division’s Task Force Barker.

Mary McCarthy observes of Medina’s actions on March 16, 1968:

A smart company commander did not criticize every little thing. When Ernie Medina saw some bodies, he did not stupidly start thinking. He promptly attributed them to gunships or maybe artillery fire—a military response as automatic as a knee jerk and showing excellent coordination: if you see something wrong, blame it on some other service and keep going.

Medina and his men, and in fact the whole of Task Force Barker kept going that day, right on through the other hamlets and sub-hamlets of the village of Sonmy; and on the next day they continued to burn their way down the Batangan peninsula.

Medina would seem to offer an interesting character for study, and his trial at first seemed a promising one for the news hounds and morally superior observers. However, Mary McCarthy notes that the verdict of the press and spectators who sat through the early stages of the trial “was simply that the trial was boring, a waste of time.” The courtroom at Fort Benning became nearly empty. But clearly, she believes, many of the questions raised by the Medina trial are crucial to individuals and to the country:

Had public pressure been maintained, it might not have been left to the army to decide when enough was enough. If there was a conspiracy, it was a great nationwide breathing together of left, right, and much of the middle to frustrate punishment of the guilty.

She implies that blame for the failure to prosecute fully lies with the people of the nation, and that this blame extends to all citizens. Later, however, she compares the American soldier’s ability to persuade himself that he is innocent with the “self-persuasion of guilt on the part of many young rebels, which they redistribute, though, to their elders and to the country at large or, more vaguely, the system.” She warns that “such virtuous ‘indictments’ of a whole culture in its ordinary pursuits are politically sterile.”

This is a problem which she does not quite resolve. She points out, “The VC and the North Vietnamese are always careful to distinguish ‘the American people’ from ‘the US imperialist aggressors.’ ” She seems to feel that to call the whole nation to task for its failures is to wallow in the inaction of self-incrimination. The people, after all, do not make policy. She is right; but she also suggests a “nationwide” failure of citizens to ensure that the government is accountable to them. Contrary to what most Americans want to believe, the Vietnam war still entails a responsibility for citizens to act as citizens, or to try hard to do so.

Yet many of the arguments for the acceptance of national guilt manage to slip into the past tense when the tragedy of the war is being discussed. In an article in The New York Review of December 2, 1971, on the debate between Daniel Ellsberg and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., over whether Vietnam was a “villainous tragedy” or a “tragedy without villains,” Leslie Gelb said, “While our values explain why we got into Vietnam, they do not explain or justify the scope and character of the war, the cruel calculus of the debate, and the careless and devastating way it was fought” (italics are mine). Perhaps he was speaking of the ground war, but I think it illustrates how consistent we are in trying to put our crimes behind us, to bury them in the past.


Mary McCarthy is perceptive about the men of Charlie Company she heard at the Medina trial, for whom “conscience seemed to be chiefly an organ of self-justification. It did not tell you to refrain from an action but helped you explain what you did, afterward, when questioned. The witnesses talked about casualties inflicted on them by the enemy as though…they themselves were civilians.”

In Vietnam, alcohol and marijuana were the standard drugs we used to keep at a distance what we were seeing and doing to Vietnamese civilians. Americans still there are killing their consciences and themselves with heroin. The nurses used to make Ritalin, “a mood elevator,” available to the medics in my section. If it hurt to recognize something, you could bury it or fly above it, and later on you could rationalize it, as the Charlie Company witnesses did at Fort Benning. One remembers the testimony of the Bravo Company soldiers who put palm leaves over the bodies of the victims they had just murdered at Mykhe 4, a pathetic effort to hide their crimes not so much from the helicopters circling above as from themselves. What is so appalling about the questions raised by Medina is that this is still going on.

As in her earlier books about the war, Vietnam2 and Hanoi, 3 the most impressive quality that Mary McCarthy brings to bear on her subject is a keen moral sensibility. This is her real guide as she picks her way through the legal debris in the Georgia courtroom, sorting its facts, examining its participants, and salvaging the key issues. What emerges is not a document that vilifies the rather shallow figures of the trial but a polemic that tries to pull us closer to recognition of the nature of our involvement in this action. She had already warned in Hanoi, “We will be lucky, though we do not see it, if failure, finally, is the only crime we are made to confess to.” Ironically and sadly enough, while she was in Hanoi that March of 1968, Task Force Barker was slaughtering civilians in the Batangan peninsula of Quang Nai Province. The massacres at My Lai 4 and Mykhe 4 were the most spectacular in Vietnam, but clearly they are remarkable only because of the sheer number of the victims. Their main importance is that they acutely represent the planned and criminal violence of our efforts there.

Medina follows logically from Mary McCarthy’s other books on Vietnam. It illustrates what happened in one trial “back in the world,” where the accused was asked to confess to something more serious than failure, and where, by extenuation, the whole command and the nation are implicated in the cover up of war crimes. Mary McCarthy denounces those who would say that the men of Task Force Barker and all men in Vietnam had no other option than to do what they did—because they were victims of the “system,” themselves, or the war. She also concludes that US policy in Vietnam is criminal in the sense that:

The ultimate (or residual) aim of the Search and Destroy operations was to eradicate an entire rural way of life, based on a mono-culture—rice—and closed off to modernization…. The desired sequel was forced urbanization, usually an irreversible process.

The current bombing policies are intended to follow this pattern of warfare, and they result in more killing.

Mary McCarthy says that the US does not recognize the creation of refugees as a war crime, but the Principles of Nuremberg do in sections “b” and “c” of Principle VI. It was at the urging of the US in 1945 that the United Nations endorsed the principles of international law that were followed by the Nuremberg Tribunal, and in 1950 the UN’s International Law Commission spelled out those principles. The specific act or convention recommended by the Law Commission has not been ratified by the United States. Senator McGovern, speaking before the Congressional Conference on War and National Responsibility in 1970, stated, “Finally ways must be found to revive the moribund institutions of international law. One wonders why Congress could not pass a resolution asking a group of foreign nations to test the legality of the Vietnam war under the Nuremberg rules and the United Nations Charter.”

That would be one way to achieve fair and just trials for our crimes, and justice for the Vietnamese people. Perhaps Johnson would finally get the chance to serve another term. The chances are slim, however, that Americans would be willing to do their time. Already we are sliding back from the recognitions we almost made. We seem as a nation to be accepting the premise that we were tricked into accepting the Vietnam tar-baby, and Indian-hating has resumed its usual place as part of the collective American “conscience.”

The trial of Lt. Colonel Henderson, Medina’s superior officer, is another sad commentary on this backsliding. The hero of Mary McCarthy’s Medina is Hugh Thompson, who, at the time of My Lai, was a warrant officer flying a helicopter in the Sonmy region, and who gave frank testimony at Medina’s trial. She describes Thompson as a man of “very ordinary intelligence,” who had not yet learned that according to the “evolution in army morals” Vietnamese civilians were fair game. She observes:

If there were American heroes at My Lai, they were the bubble-ship pilot, Chief Warrant Officer (now Captain) Hugh Thompson, and his door gunner, Lawrence Col-burn…. Thompson and his crew made three rescue lifts, on their own, independently of any orders, and with rifles on the ready to shoot any man of Charlie Company who tried to interfere.

At Colonel Henderson’s trial, however, Thompson seems to have smartened up. He testified at that trial in September, 1971, one day before Medina was found not guilty. He was no longer sure that he had reported directly to Henderson on Monday, March 18, when he made charges about war crimes at My Lai 4. Testimony to the Peers Commission indicated that he, Colburn, and Jerry Culverhouse had all given statements to Henderson on that day. Even Henderson himself had identified Thompson before the Peers Commission as the pilot he had interviewed. “…I went into what Thompson had reported to me,…” he had said, according to Seymour Hersh’s account of the Peers Commission hearings.

But everyone’s memory got fogged at Henderson’s trial. Thompson and Culverhouse, who had also been promoted to captain, could no longer remember if Henderson was the man, and the judge didn’t allow Larry Colburn, who could remember, to identify Henderson, because the CID had once shown him a snapshot of him. Mary McCarthy is right about cynicism being a “poor guide to political action,” but here it seems as inevitable as it is indulgent.

This Issue

September 21, 1972