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Friday, October 7, 2011

Concord and My Lai

     In General Thomas Gage's April 18, 1775 order sending forth Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, the rotund senior ranking officer selected by Gage lead several companies of grenadiers and light infantry, and a company of marines, to destroy a magazine of military stores at Concord, he specified: "But you will take care that the Soldiers do not plunder the Inhabitants, or hurt private property." At Lexington, no one knows for sure who fired the first shot, but the record remains well documented that the British commanders moved expeditiously to bring their troops under control.

     The Americans were on the hill overlooking the bridge. When they advanced on the bridge, the British crossed to the eastern side of the river, now marked by the memorial obelisk (and graves of two British soldiers). The Americans saw smoke and thought the town was burning. They moved down to the North Bridge. Panicking, the British officers moved back across the bridge, crowded on the east side of the river. Parsons was abandoned. This time there is no disagreement. Some British Regulars fired first. The Americans returned fire. The British fled, bumping into the late-arriving Smith. The Americans crossed the bridge and pursued. Parsons arrived, crossed the bridge undisturbed. Saw a soldier whose head had been split open. He had been wounded, and one Ammi White saw him, butchered him. The British soldier took an hour to die. The word spread among the British: the Americans were scalping the wounded.

     Here is the scene. The North Bridge, where the Americans made their stand and Ammi White hatcheted the wounded Regular.
     Look at the photograph again and think about that ebbing life. Then think about My Lai, during the Vietnam War.  On March 16, 1968, Lieutenant William Calley, around 25 at the time and not much older than Ammi White, ordered the killing of 175-200 villagers, according to the Peers Report, the official inquiry made by General William Peers on order from General William Westmoreland and the Scretary of the Army, in 1969. Calley's defense of following orders of his immediate superior was rejected. Why did Calley do it? He testified at his trial:

"I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children. They were all classified as the same, and that's the classification that we dealt with over there, just as the enemy. I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the order that I was given and I do not feel wrong in doing so."

     My Lai raised, and continues to raise, age-old questions. Balanced, if that word is even appropriate, against the killings were suggestions at the time that some of the killings by some of the soldiers were “mercy killings,” ending the lives of those whom others had shot, who were mortally wounded and suffering. Was Ammi White a mercy killer? Other questions, as suggested by Calley’s statement, are that soldiers were just “following orders.” No one contends Ammi White was following orders. No one punished him.

     These are things to think about, amidst the reality and mythology, the heroics and the manipulations, standing on the bank of the Concord River, where Ammi White took his hatchet to the head of that defenseless, wounded man.

     
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