Horrors Were The Tactics Of Battle
by ELLIS HENICAN
April 27, 2001
Ron Ridenhour warned me about this, 20 years ago.
"My Lai was not an aberration," he said one steamy morning over mugs of
strong caf au lait. "It was an operation. Pure and simple. An intentional
operation of war. And didn't just happen once." That's how Ron always
talked. Straight, punchy sentences and a conspiratorial tone. A touch of
melodrama, maybe. A touch of paranoia too. But a funny thing about Ron
Ridenhour and his far-fetched claims: Most of the time, they turned out to
Ron and I were reporters together on a little paper in New Orleans. We were
different people from different places, but we quickly became friends. I
was just out of college, hanging around my old hometown. He was 35 or so, a
bear of a guy from Arizona with a salt-and-pepper beard and maddening
tendency to call me "Bub." Ron was famous long before we'd met. He was the
soldier who had blown the whistle on the worst massacre of the Vietnam War,
the killing by American soldiers of many unarmed civilians in the village
of My Lai.
I think about Ron a lot. Yesterday, I couldn't get him out of my mind.
I was leaning against a wall in a chandeliered ballroom at the New York
Sheraton. Up on the stage, in front of a tall, blue curtain and a single
American flag, Bob Kerrey was trying to explain himself.
Kerrey, a former governor and senator from Nebraska, now the New School
president in New York, has always been one of the more thoughtful men
around politics. His name has come up a couple of times as a Democratic
presidential possibility, although now you can probably kiss that idea
goodbye. Kerrey wasn't talking about his life in politics or in academia
yesterday. He was answering questions, increasingly pointed and skeptical,
about his own My Lai.
Kerrey's wartime massacre occurred Feb. 25, 1969, not quite a year after My
Lai. His hamlet was called Thanh Phong. Kerrey was a 25-year-old lieutenant
with a six-man Navy SEAL squadron. He swore his men were only returning
fire that night.
"When we fired, we fired because we were fired upon," he said. "In short,
we did not go out on a mission with the intent of killing innocent people."
But innocent people died. Women, children and old men. Somewhere between 13
and 20 of them. And Bob Kerrey had kept this a secret for 32 years-through
a Bronze Star, a Medal of Honor and a thousand stump-speech introductions
that featured the words "war hero." Some crucial details of Kerrey's
account are contradicted now by one man on his team. Gerhard Klann says
Kerrey knew full well he was ordering the killing of civilians, that the
young lieutenant even held down one old man while his throat was slashed.
Kerrey flatly denied that yesterday.
And he said he is still trying to bring perspective to what happened that
"It may be that I did nothing wrong," he said. "But I felt like I did
something wrong. Here's what happened, and I cannot justify it." Kerrey is
lucky Ron Ridenhour was back in Arizona in February of 1969. He's lucky Ron
isn't around this week. The secret of Thanh Phong would never have lasted
32 years. Kerrey's new version might not stand 'til Sunday.
Ron died of a heart attack almost three years ago. He was playing handball
in the summer heat of New Orleans. He was 52.
But long ago he told me his story wasn't done.
When Ron got started in this, he didn't have so much as a press pass. He
was just another helicopter door gunner with a notebook and a pen.
He wasn't at My Lai on March 16, 1968. But he had trained with some of the
men who were. And soon after the killing, he started hearing stories from
They mentioned a village called Pinkville, where they said something
unspeakable had occurred.
Pinkville was the U.S. code name for My Lai, and Ron started asking around.
And he kept on asking-then asked some more.
When he got back home to Arizona, he put it all down on paper, a
three-page, single-spaced report. He made 30 copies and sent one to every
politician he could name, including his local congressman, Mo Udall.
In exacting detail, he laid out the story of My Lai.
How a whole village was annihilated, women, children and old men.
How babies were shot by American servicemen at point-blank range.
How women were rounded into groups and riddled with machine-gun rounds.
How high-ranking U.S. Army officers flew overhead, watching the carnage
How everybody knew.
"With My Lai," Ron said that long-ago morning at breakfast, "the government
has always tried to minimize. 'It was one crazy lieutenant,' they said.
'Calley went berserk.' "Well, My Lai was a whole lot more than one crazy
lieutenant. And there were plenty of My Lais.
"It was an operation, not an aberration. It was never an isolated thing."
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