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Greenfield: Echoes of another war, another massacre

Like Vietnam, troops in Iraq face constant danger

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

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Mililtary officials are investigating whether U.S. Marines unjustifiably killed 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Consider these facts: Americans in combat, in a far-away country, fighting against an enemy that may lurk behind every wall, in every home.

After one of their own is killed, something snaps. Civilians die -- and the truth about what happened appears to have been deliberately concealed. That may have happened in Haditha, in Iraq. It is clearly what happened in another time, another place, another war.

By the spring of 1968, some half-a-million Americans were fighting in Vietnam -- and dying at the rate of nearly four hundred every week. The enemy could be around the next turn in a road, or inside an apparently peaceful village.

So when Lt. William Calley and the men of Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal division, entered the village of My Lai, they were, by official reports, angry and frustrated.

When they were told, "This is what you've been waiting for. Search and destroy," they went on a frenzy of killing. Men, women, children -- about 500 of them -- were killed.

A Vietnam veteran named Ron Ridenour heard of the killings from members of Charlie Company. He spent months telling his story to Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and by the fall of 1969, Lt. Calley had been charged with murder. He later claimed a superior officer had ordered the killing.

But it wasn't until November 1969, a year-and-a-half after the slaughter, that a young reporter for Dispatch News Service named Seymour Hersh broke the story in newspapers across the country. Life magazine published pictures of the massacre months later.

By then, the tide of public opinion on the war had shifted. President Nixon had already embarked on a program of "Vietnamization," which was meant to lessen the U.S. presence.

And a military commission suggested that one key reason for the massacre was that as the war progressed, many "career" soldiers had either been rotated out or retired or died, leaving scores of draftees whose fitness for leadership in the field of battle was questionable at best.

What does My Lai have to tell us about alleged atrocities in Haditha, where news reports say a small group of U.S. Marines killed 24 men, women and children after a homemade bomb killed a fellow Marine?

The Iraq war is very different. There are no draftees, for one, and the Marines pride themselves on a particularly rigorous commitment to discipline. And in a world of ubiquitous media, questions about Haditha began to surface relatively quickly.

But what My Lai and Haditha may have in common is the special complexity that involves a war where the people we are fighting for and the enemy occupy the same space.

There was little talk in World War II about the morality of, say, fire-bombing Dresden, Tokyo, or Hiroshima, where countless thousands of civilians died. They were the "bad guys." In a war like Iraq, those bullets that flew in Haditha may have inflicted particular damage on the cause those Americans were there to support.

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