The Pardoner’s Tale: Colin Powell and My Lai
Colin Powell was not in Vietnam at the time of the My Lai massacre. His only known connection came when he provided evidence in the inquiry that did make the matter public. It is technically wrong to say he actually helped cover up My Lai. But while technical errors may bust a criminal accusation, political trust or mistrust has to use more realistic criteria. When this man faces a moral choice, does he uphold official morality or does he back his bosses?
Powell has backed Bush and now seems content to step down without any major criticism—he’s not expected to stay on as Secretary of State if Bush gets a second term. It’s part of a pattern, one that was made in Vietnam. Powell’s ‘pardoner’ attitude to the misdeeds of the Americal Division of the US army must have done wonders for his career.
A Pardoner in the sense that Chaucer used it in the Canterbury Tales was a dubious official who sold forgiveness of sins for a fixed sum of cash. In strict theological terms, the forgiveness was free, given repentance. But the Pardoner then sold a piece of paper documenting the forgiveness, legitimate at the time, though it was later forbidden. And Chaucer even has his Pardoner offering to sell his audience advance forgiveness for any sins they might feel like committing later on. I doubt that many non-theologians saw the subtle difference between selling forgiveness and selling a piece of paper recording this forgiveness.
Modern Pardoners have moved with the times. Within the Western system, and especially its Anglo branch, there is an officially unbreakable code. But also a widespread feeling that the code can and should be broken when the need is great. Hence the need for official investigators who will appear to check the facts, but actually be looking to sow confusion and cast darkness on any embarrassing incidents.
My Lai came to light, because Powell and his military colleagues were not doing the investigation. It came to light, because the war was being lost and the USA was full enough of self-doubt to let things drift. Colin Powell had been in charge of an earlier investigation into the Americal Division, one that didn’t name My Lai as such, but should have led to it. But Powell did a complete ‘Hutton’ on the matter: gave them a whitewash at a time when a pattern of attacks on ‘soft targets’ was being alleged.
“Powell had the bad luck to be caught up in two of the most notorious scandals of his time—the My Lai massacre and the Iran-contra affair… Though Powell discusses these incidents in his autobiography, the book smooths over some hard truths.
“My Lai: … as deputy operations officer of the Americal Division eight months later, the then Major Powell drafted its first official response to rumors that U.S. troops had run amok—and his denial of the event, in which up to 400 Vietnamese civilians died at the hands of U. S. soldiers, is part of what investigators concluded was a cover-up.
“Powell has consistently said he knew nothing about My Lai until much later—in his new book, he says nearly two years later. Senior officers who were in Vietnam at the time are quietly skeptical of his account. They point out that word of the massacre—which did not become public until November 1969—quickly spread through the region, and to the Americal Division’s headquarters. In the fall of ’68, the top brass in Vietnam had the first blurry hint in an ominous letter from an 11th Brigade grunt named Tom Glen. Powell got the job of drafting the division’s response. He reported the rumors were unfounded but never talked to Glen. And though Powell says he knew nothing of My Lai even after it became news in November ‘69, Lt. William Calley was charged with multiple murders in September—only nine months after Powell had dismissed the rumors.
“Iran-contra: As Weinberger’s military assistant, Powell was in the loop on the Reagan administration’s secret plan to supply Hawk and TOW missiles to Iran.” (Newsweek, September 11, 1995)
I’ll leave aside Iran-contra, where Powell may indeed have done nothing wrong. It is notable that Ronald Reagan’s memory got selectively bad, long before his current mental deterioration. And when Bush Senior succeeded as President, he made the baffling choice of Dan Quayle as his Vice-President. Baffling if you consider Quayle’s mediocre talents and habit of sounding stupid. But had Bush Senior been impeached or driven from office over his own role in one of the scandals of the Reagan years, Quayle would have inescapably succeeded as President. Understandably, US politicians lost there enthusiasm for removing Bush when they saw what it would mean.
There was obviously much dirt, but was it Powell’s dirt? Best to give him the benefit of the doubt. My Lai is much clearer, and much worse. Iran-contra was a technical breach of the rules in a process that was generally assumed to be happening and was supported. Massacres were not how the USA was supposed to be fighting. It was in fact the way they won several key conflicts in South America, not to mention Indonesia, where the supposed ‘Communist coup’ was almost certainly a dummy to give the army a pretext for massacre. But all of these things were done with ‘local agents’ who buffered the guilt and could be repudiated. This had indeed been the pattern in Vietnam, but the ‘local agents’ were left-overs from French colonial rule and were ineffective. Powell himself would have been familiar with all this:
“While a horrific example of a Vietnam war crime, the My Lai massacre was not unique. It fit a long pattern of indiscriminate violence against civilians that had marred U.S. participation in the Vietnam War from its earliest days when Americans acted primarily as advisers.
“In 1963, Capt. Colin Powell was one of those advisers, serving a first tour with a South Vietnamese army unit. Powell’s detachment sought to discourage support for the Viet Cong by torching villages throughout the A Shau Valley. While other U.S. advisers protested this countrywide strategy as brutal and counter-productive, Powell defended the ‘drain-the-sea’ approach then—and continued that defense in his 1995 memoirs, My American Journey… (Behind Colin Powell’s Legend—My Lai, by Robert Parry & Norman Solomon)
As Powell himself puts it:
“Why were we torching houses and destroying crops? Ho Chi Minh had said the people were like the sea in which his guerrillas swam. Our problem was to distinguish friendly or at least neutral fish from the VC swimming alongside. We tried to solve the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of war, what difference did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?” (A Soldier’s Way, page 87, Arrow Books 2001.)
The difference is how many innocents you hurt, and at no time was Powell much bothered. One thing he boasts about, is his role in getting official recognition for the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’. This was the nickname for units of black cavalrymen with white officers, who were used against the Native Americans after the American Civil war. Powell sees nothing odd about black men killing red men so that white men could take the land, land where black men were mostly not allowed to settle. There was no law against it, but there was a system of local government that allowed a voting majority to enforce its prejudices.
One noticeable product of the buffalo is bullshit. And we’ve had plenty from Mr Powell. He’s been part of the general Anglo pattern of making enemy civilians the main target, on the grounds that they are easier to fight than enemy troops.
If you define terrorism as ‘using military methods against non-military targets’, then Britain and the USA have used terrorism continuously throughout the 20th century, and show no sigh of stopping. And this is different from a proper guerrilla war, where the guerrillas do not attempt to hold fixed territories but do concentrate their attacks on the enemy state machine.
Anglo practice has been to split authentic terrorism into terrorism and ‘strategic bombing’. Likewise guerrillas get labelled as terrorists or freedom fighters on political grounds, without much regard for facts. In Vietnam, the Viet Minh had fought a consistent war against Japanese, French and American, without ever much changing their methods. Against the Japanese they were part of the anti-Fascist liberation, against the Americans and pro-Western Vietnamese they were re-labelled ‘Viet-Cong’, though all Vietnamese knew the continuity.
Against guerrillas who fought American troops, the USA decided the best method was to attack civilians who were probably guerrilla supporters. That’s the logic of what Powell calls ‘making the whole sea uninhabitable’. Burning and destroying were the standard methods, but actual massacres followed on very logically.
In the 1960s, there were still Americans who found this shocking. A young man called Thomas Glen must have supposed that what he’d seen was an aberration, and therefore wrote to the high command:
“’The average GI’s attitude toward and treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is a complete denial of all our country is attempting to accomplish in the realm of human relations,’ Glen wrote. ‘Far beyond merely dismissing the Vietnamese as ‘slopes’ or ‘gooks,’ in both deed and thought, too many American soldiers seem to discount their very humanity; and with this attitude inflict upon the Vietnamese citizenry humiliations, both psychological and physical, that can have only a debilitating effect upon efforts to unify the people in loyalty to the Saigon government, particularly when such acts are carried out at unit levels and thereby acquire the aspect of sanctioned policy.’
“Glen’s letter contended that many Vietnamese were fleeing from Americans who ‘for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves.’ Gratuitous cruelty was also being inflicted on Viet Cong suspects, Glen reported.
“Glen’s letter echoed some of the complaints voiced by early advisers, such as Col. John Paul Vann, who protested the self-defeating strategy of treating Vietnamese civilians as the enemy. In 1995, when we questioned Glen about his letter, he said he had heard second-hand about the My Lai massacre, though he did not mention it specifically. The massacre was just one part of the abusive pattern that had become routine in the division, he said…
“The letter’s troubling allegations were not well received at Americal headquarters. Maj. Powell undertook the assignment to review Glen’s letter, but did so without questioning Glen or assigning anyone else to talk with him. Powell simply accepted a claim from Glen’s superior officer that Glen was not close enough to the front lines to know what he was writing about, an assertion Glen denies.
“After that cursory investigation, Powell drafted a response on Dec. 13, 1968. He admitted to no pattern of wrongdoing. Powell claimed that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were taught to treat Vietnamese courteously and respectfully. The Americal troops also had gone through an hour-long course on how to treat prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, Powell noted.
“’There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs,’ Powell wrote in 1968. But ‘his by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division.’ Indeed, Powell’s memo faulted Glen for not complaining earlier and for failing to be more specific in his letter.
”Powell reported back exactly what his superiors wanted to hear. ‘In direct refutation of this [Glen’s] portrayal,’ Powell concluded, ‘is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.’” (Behind Colin Powell’s Legend—My Lai, by Robert Parry & Norman Solomon)
Powell concluded that the Americal Division could not have done something like the My Lai massacre, a few months after they had actually done it and in response to an accusation that this was normal. Now there may be officers who really could be so out of touch, but was Powell ever such a man? Understandably, Powell’s biography makes no mention at all of the Glen letter. And his account of the investigation of My Lai is rather strange:
“I was custodian of the division’s operational journals… He asked me to produce the journal for March 1968. I explained that I had not been with the division at that time… I started thumbing through the journal, and after a few pages one entry leaped out. On March 16, 1968, a unit of the 11th Brigade had reported a body count of 128 enemy dead on the Batangan Peninsula. In this grinding, grim, but usually unspectacular warfare, that was a high number. ‘Please read that entry into the tape recorder’, the investigator said
By now, both my curiosity and my guard were up. I asked if he would excuse me while I called the division chief of staff. ‘Cooperate with him’, the chief of staff said firmly. (A Soldier’s Way, pages 142-143)
Sometimes it pays to ‘listen for the silences’. Powell never specifically says that he was ignorant of the My Lai massacre at the time he was questioned. Or whether he could work out quickly enough what must have really happened, since he’s a very smart fellow. His rise from a poor Harlem-born child of West Indian immigrants to US Chief of Staff and now Secretary of State required cleverness, but also a willingness to ‘go with the flow’ and be part of the system.
Colin Powell fails to clarify why he was so reluctant to confirm official US army records for an official US army investigator. You could read it as an explanation for fellow-soldiers as to how he failed to stifle that particular investigation into a pattern of abuse that was well known to ‘insiders’. Was it perhaps Calley’s foolishness in listing an improbable 128 enemy ‘kills’ for the day of the massacre that got him convicted?
No one besides Calley was convicted, although others were clearly involved. A court-martial found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. But the US public were against this and Nixon reduced it to three years of comfortable house arrest. And the pattern of massacred and targeting civilians has gone on, with Colin Powell remaining very much part of the system.
All through the governments of Reagan, Bush Senior, Clinton and Bush, the USA has been using a mix of methods including terrorism to turn the rest of the world into an extended US backyard. They did it to Latin America, so once the Soviet Union was gone, why not do it everywhere?
But Reagan had merely revived the USA’s normal post-1945 strategy, the policies that came unstuck in Vietnam. He managed to ‘re-blood’ the USA, beginning with the invasion of tiny Grenada. And has now led them into Iraq, where lies were used to persuade a reluctant public. Powell is now joining the chorus of those claiming they authentically believed in the non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’. But seen in the light of his time in Vietnam, is this believable?
This was written in 2004, when Colin Powell was US Secretary of State.
The general pattern of massacres is documented in a recent book called Kill Anything That Moves, though it says little about Colin Powell.