THE MY Lai massacre was one of the US army's most notorious war crimes. On the morning of 16 March 1968 the soldiers of Charlie Company marched into the Vietnamese village of My Lai. Three hours later they had massacred over 500 people-men, women, children and babies.
The soldiers went berserk. They shot families huddled together in their huts. They raped young girls before killing them. They mutilated the bodies of their victims, carving "C Company" into their chests. Only one US soldier was injured. He shot himself in the foot while cleaning his pistol.
Around a hundred or so US soldiers refused to take part in the massacre. A handful were prepared to talk about the atrocity they had witnessed. The US military and political establishment launched a cover-up and suppressed all rumours about My Lai.
It was a whole year before US journalist Seymour Hersh (the same man who recently exposed the truth about Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq) broke the story of the massacre to a horrified public. The revelation of the massacre tore apart the lies which the US authorities had peddled about Vietnam. For many people it was a turning point which made them oppose the war.
The outcry forced the army to set up an investigation, the Peers inquiry. It heard from 400 witnesses and read 20,000 pages of testimony before it reported in March 1970.
The inquiry concluded that US soldiers had murdered, raped, sodomised, maimed and assaulted Vietnamese civilians. It concluded that brigade commander Colonel Henderson and commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker had "substantial knowledge" of the massacre but did nothing to stop it.
The inquiry recommended that charges be brought against 28 officers and two noncommissioned officers for their involvement in covering up what happened at My Lai.
But army lawyers decided that only 14 should face charges. Of these, only one case actually came to court. The soldier was acquitted.
The army's Criminal Investigation Division set up its own inquiry into what the soldiers did at My Lai. It reported that there was enough evidence to charge 30 soldiers with major crimes.
But 17 had already left the army and charges against them were quietly dropped. Top-ranking officers were charged with "dereliction of duty" rather than murder. They were acquitted despite evidence that they encouraged the killings. Captain Ernest Median told the soldiers, "Everyone in the village is a Communist," the night before the attack.
General Koster, in overall charge, watched the massacre from a helicopter. At one point the general radioed the soldiers, telling them to stop firing and "take a lunch break". But only enlisted men and lower ranking officers faced trials. At each trial, the army tried to portray what happened at My Lai as an isolated incident, carried out by a few rogue troops.
Charlie Company's commanding officer, Lieutenant William Calley, was the only one to be convicted. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour. He spent just three days in a military stockade before President Nixon ordered his release.
Calley was kept under house arrest for three years. In 1974 he was released on bail. Then his sentence was cut by ten years and he was released on parole. Colin Powell, today's US Secretary of State, was an up and coming young army officer based at US headquarters in Vietnam in 1968.
Powell was handed a letter written by a young soldier, Tom Glen, to General Creighton Abrams, commander of all US forces in Vietnam. Before Hersh broke the story, Glen reported rumours of a massacre of Vietnamese villagers at My Lai. The accusations were detailed and horrifying, and they echoed complaints received from other soldiers.
Glen warned that the abuses, "are carried on at entire unit levels and thereby acquire the aspect of sanctioned policy." Powell never even interviewed the soldier. Instead, he sent a memo to his superior claiming the young soldier had not given enough specifics upon which to base an inquiry.
After conducting a cursory investigation followed by a report faulting Glen, Powell concluded, "In direct refutation of Glen's portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." Colin Powell's memoirs do not mention the letter or any other part of his role in covering up the My Lai massacre.