Hot Air: The Bad & The Ugly

This recent development on the part of the President Gag admin. seems to be yet another of the definitive acts of his unfortunate reign:

I’ve never been under any illusion that this holy land has represented uniformly and without exception, from its beginning to now, from top to bottom, the better angels of human nature. Our land, being the world’s most diverse nation, has always been and remains to this day a mishmash of our entire species’ best and worst impulses.

Still, we held concepts like human rights to be paramount and worth fighting for. We howled whenever other lands violated the rights of their citizens, especially those we didn’t do much business with or who committed the unforgivable sin of embracing communism. We did this even as we denied human rights to many, many of our own citizens. We did our best to look upon our own rights transgressions as outliers, mistakes, the results of isolated bad guys somehow ascending to the top in, say, Alabama and Mississippi. Even as slavery or Jim Crow remained codified in our laws, the victims of those atrocities, many of them, remained hopeful that the high-minded words of the US Constitution, “all men are created equal,” would one day be realized.

As Martin Luther KIng Jr. said the evening of April 3, 1968:

I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

This from a man who’d be executed the very next evening, a fate he knew would eventually befall him because he fought so hard to secure basic human rights for a people detested by so many other Americans.

But Li’l Duce arose from a party that, beginning in the mid-1960s, has spit on and/or pissed on most, if not all, downtrodden, marginalized, forgotten, or despised peoples. The very idea that the Republicans have fought tooth and nail since the ascent of St. Ronald Reagan to deny half the American citizenry its full rights under the law should have been indication enough that the GOP was becoming a malignancy in the body politic.

And now, we’re not even playing lip service to lofty principles. In fact, we don’t even want to be around others who talk about them.

We’re not a dying nation.

We’re dead.

Digging, Digging, Digging…

Got a late start this AM. See, I’m like a lot of other members of my species’ gender — I read in the bathroom.

Why? Hell, why not? As longed as I’m parked there waiting for Nature to act I may as well nourish my mind. And this AM I was engrossed so much in a certain chapter of Seymour Hersh’s new memoir, Reporter, that even after Nature had done its thing, I remained in my home’s littlest occupiable room, standing at the sink, reading Hersh’s account of digging up the story of the My Lai massacre and the US Army’s subsequent attempts to make the scandal go away.

The sad thing is as soon as my contemporaries completely die off — and, believe me, they’re beginning to already — My Lai will be forgotten. For the uninitiated, a US Army infantry company on a routine reconnaissance (read: search & destroy) mission led by Capt. Ernest Medina executed hundreds of unarmed civilians (most sources place the death toll above 500), including the elderly, women, children, and even little babies, in a couple of hamlets in the Quang Ngãi province near the then-North Vietnam border.

Soon To Be Forgotten.

Hersh broke the story nationally, despite Pentagon obstruction and outright lying, despite the lack of interest from the likes of Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington PostLife, Look, and other self-described news gathering organizations, and despite a certain “patriotic” resistance to a reporter stirring up such a hideous pot of shit.

In several instances, the US soldiers forced people into trenches and then opened fired on the mass of bodies therein until not a sound could be heard. One soldier recalled his colleagues ceasing fire to listen for any sounds of life and discovering a toddler crawling out from underneath the blood-soaked pile of humanity. They shot that tiny human being to death as well.

The incident has been compared to Nazi atrocities in Poland, Russia, and other areas the Wehrmacht had invaded, the only difference being the Nazis usually lined their victims up on the lip of the trench so that their lifeless bodies could tumble, efficiently, into the pit.

Similar US Army atrocities began as early as 1965, although those preceding My Lai were not as blatant or numerically astounding. This is not to say US soldiers are more brutal than those of any other country, only that war turns otherwise decent young people into outright savages at times. If a nation must go to war, if it must take the risk that some of its young soldiers will be transformed into beasts, it had better be for a worthy cause. Vietnam was not.

Anyway, Hersh eventually got wide circulation for his scoop by utilizing a small, outsider-ish kind of syndicator, the Dispatch News Service. Some 30 newspapers, including the Hartford Courant, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Philadelphia Bulletin, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, picked up his first piece about the massacre. Those papers’ headlines raised the curiosity of the rest of the nation’s news purveyors. The likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post sent their own reporters out to verify what Hersh had written and then printed stories under their own people’s bylines. In any case, coming just a year and half after the Tet Offensive, stirring the first widespread, Middle-America public outcries against the war, the My Lai revelations further inflamed opposition to the war. It would take another three years for the United States to admit defeat in Vietnam but it can be said Hersh was among the key figures to make that happen. Hell, given what we now know about decades-long quagmires (see Afghanistan) we might still be in Vietnam, fighting insurgents and losing our own soldiers, and perhaps still destroying straw-hut hamlets and every living thing in them, for pity’s sake.

Hersh would win the 1970 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his series on the massacre.

How did he do it? Well, hell, that’s the reason I stood at my bathroom sink for the better part of an hour this morning, reading his recollection of the story. Some tipster whom he’d cultivated for who knows what eventual end some years before whispered in his ear that some kid named Calley was up on charges for killing a bunch of civilians while in Vietnam. That’s all he had. A last name.

Hersh had no idea what branch of service Calley was in, where he was being held — if anywhere, what exactly the charges were, or where the supposed incident took place. It turned out one member of Calley’s Charlie Company had written to the president as well as high-ranking Army officials to complain about the massacre and demand an investigation. The cat out of the bag, the Army, knowing officers and hundreds of soldiers had participated in the massacre, decided to pin the whole thing on some punk second lieutenant named William “Rusty” Calley. Rusty Calley, the Army was hoping its official records would reflect, was a crazed lone wolf who did the deed while his company-mates were safely ensconced back at their base, sipping orange juice and reading their Bibles.

Hersh knocked on doors and rang phones in the Pentagon, asking about this Calley fellow. Most people had no idea what he was talking about. Several of them, though, hung up the phone or warned Hersh off his line of inquiry. That’s when he knew he had a story.

Another tipster whispered the name Latimer in Hersh’s ear. Latimer was Calley’s defense attorney. Again, all Hersh had was a last name. Hersh had to dig around until he found the right attorney Latimer in Salt Lake City. Hersh essentially borrowed money to fly to Utah to speak with Latimer who revealed, correctly, that he couldn’t say much because Army courts martial are done in military secrecy.

Hersh, though did read some key information off Latimer’s official charge sheet that the attorney had on his desk. The charge sheet was classified information, not to be shared with anyone else. But Hersh, the seasoned reporter, was adept at reading upside down and so found a helpful tidbit. Calley was at Ft. Benning in Georgia.

Hersh flew there. Again he knocked on every door he could and rang every telephone number he could find until he found another tipster who told him where Calley was living. Hersh then parked himself around that address and waited until Calley showed up. In that way, he was finally able to get a face to face interview with the soldier.

Using this time-consuming, hit-or-miss method Hersh dug up some other Charlie Company members, including one guy from Indiana named Paul Meadlo who’d participated in the killings, although he was loath to do so. The next morning, after the massacre, he stepped on a landmine that blew his foot off. At he was being evacuated, he was overheard to say, again and again, “God has punished me and God will punish you, Lieutenant Calley, for what you made me do!”

Where was Meadlo? Hersh had no idea. So he started calling every Indiana town’s directory assistance number, asking for Paul Meadlo. He started with those towns at the north border of the state and worked his way south. Only when he reached the operator in the town of New Goshen in Vigo County, south of the state’s midline, did he find Meadlo. So off Hersh went to Vigo County to interview the man.

By such means, Hersh cobbled together his series of shocking stories.

Again, I feel compelled to mention Hersh never went to journalism school. He simply was born with an insatiable curiosity and an almost-spectrum-disorder drive to find what he was looking for. Do they teach those things in what, for instance, our hometown Indiana University now calls its “media” school?

In fact, there’s a little sticker on Hersh’s book featuring a blurb by the noted suspense novelist John le Carré. It reads:

This book is essential reading for every journalist and aspiring journalist the world over.

I wonder if any IU media school professor will assign Reporter as required reading in next fall’s classes.

2 thoughts on “Hot Air: The Bad & The Ugly

  1. Mori Coe says:

    Fascinating reading of the story’s birth that has haunted some of us military people especially from the Vietnam war. As a country we seem to not learn from our past so we repeat it. Somewhat similar atrocities have happened in the Mid-East and probably more will occur in the future. Thanks for story behind the story.

  2. David Paglis, Lake County Republican says:

    I’m a bit conflicted about this. My Lai happened and it was shameful. It needed to be exposed and we can thank Mr. Hersh for that. But, here comes the conflict, did he also report on similar and far more common atrocities committed by the other side in the cause of being fair and objective? I don’t think he did. His aim was to make a buck and a name for himself by busting on America, forget him.

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