‘Accidents’ of War

The first news stories about the most notorious massacre of the Vietnam War were picked up the morning after from an Army publicity release. These proved fairly typical for the war. On its front page, the New York Times labeled the operation in and around a village called My Lai 4 (or “Pinkville,” as it was known to U.S. forces in the area) a significant success. “American troops caught a North Vietnamese force in a pincer movement on the central coastal plain yesterday, killing 128 enemy soldiers in day-long fighting.” United Press International termed what happened there an “impressive victory,” and added a bit of patriotic color: “The Vietcong broke and ran for their hide-out tunnels. Six-and-a-half hours later, ‘Pink Village’ had become ‘Red, White and Blue Village.”


All these dispatches from the “front” were, of course, military fairy tales. (There were no reporters in the vicinity.) It took over a year for a former GI named Ronald Ridenhour, who had heard about the bloody massacre from participants, and a young former AP reporter named Seymour Hersh working in Washington for a news service no one had ever heard of, to break the story, revealing that “red, white, and blue village” had just been red village — the red of Vietnamese peasant blood. Over 400 elderly men, women, children, and babies had been slaughtered there by Charlie Company of Task Force Barker in a nearly day-long rampage.


Things move somewhat faster these days — after all, Vietnamese villagers and local officials didn’t have access to cell phones to tell their side of the slaughter — but from the military point of view, the stories these last years have all still seemed to start the same way. Whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, they have been presented by U.S. military spokesmen, or in military press releases, as straightforward successes. The newspaper stories that followed would regularly announce that 17, or 30, or 65 “Taliban insurgents” or “suspected insurgents,” or “al-Qaeda gunmen” had been killed in battle after “air strikes” were called in. These stories recorded daily military victories over a determined, battle-hardened enemy.


Most of the time, that was the beginning and end of the matter: Air strike; dead enemies; move on to the next day’s bloody events. When it came to Iraq, such air-strike successes generally did not make it into the American press as stories at all, but as scattered, ho-hum paragraphs (based on military announcements) in round-ups of a given day’s action focused on far more important matters — IEDs, suicide car bombs, mortar attacks, sectarian killings. In many cases, air strikes in that country simply went unreported.


From time to time, however, another version of what happened when air strikes were called in on the rural areas of Afghanistan, or on heavily populated neighborhoods in Iraq’s cities and towns, filtered out. In this story, noncombatants died, often in sizeable numbers. In the last few weeks “incidents” like this have been reported with enough regularity in Afghanistan to become a modest story in their own right.


In such news stories, a local caregiver or official or village elder is reached by phone in some distant, reporter-unfriendly spot and recounts a battle in which, by the time the planes arrive, the enemy has fled the scene, or had never been there, or was present but, as is generally the case in guerrilla wars, in close proximity to noncombatants going about their daily lives in their own homes and fields. Such accounts record a grim harvest of dead civilians — and they almost invariably have a repeated tagline when it comes to those dead: “including women and children.” In an increasing number of cases recently, reports on the carnage have taken not over a year, or weeks, or even days to exfiltrate the scene, but have actually beaten the military success story onto the news page.


In the past, when such civilian slaughters were repo

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