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How he got that story

November 12, 2008, 12:57 pm

On this day in 1969, the nation learned that the U.S. Army was investigating accusations that Lieutenant William Calley had murdered at least 109 Vietnamese civilians in March 1968.  The Army called the location of the massacre “Pinkville.”  The Vietnamese knew it as My Lai.

The soldiers of Charlie Company had charged into the hamlet looking for Viet Cong.  They found only civilians.  “It was just like any other Vietnamese village—old Papa-san, women and kids,” said one witness. “As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive.”

Despite the absence of enemy soldiers or weapons, the soldiers began a frenzy of killing.  They set fire to huts and then shot the residents as they ran out; they herded the villagers into groups and machine-gunned them; they tossed grenades at the people who tried to hide in ditches.  The soldiers believed that they were taking revenge for the buddies they’d lost.  In that environment, they believed, it was impossible to tell friend from foe.  “And you know,” said another soldier, “if you can shoot artillery and bombs in there every night, how can the people in there be worth so much?”

The numbers are disputed, but the Vietnamese said that 567 people were killed that day.  The only U.S. casualty was a soldier who shot himself in the foot so he would not have to participate in the killing.

Though the Army tried to cover up the My Lai massacre, the word began to spread.  A young GI, Ron Ridenhour, who was not present at the massacre but heard about it later, began to write letters to public officials.  Eventually, two congressmen forced the Army to investigate.

The American public learned of the Army investigation thanks to the efforts of a free-lance reporter named Seymour M. Hersh, whose stories were distributed by a tiny outfit called the Dispatch News Service.  The story of Hersh’s reporting on My Lai is legendary among journalists.  Tipped off by sources, and funded by a small grant from a foundation, he spent days working the phone, and finally learned Calley’s name and the number of deaths.  Then he flew down to Fort Benning, Georgia, to try to find Calley.  He cajoled, bullied, and sneaked past various soldiers and Army officers in an effort to talk to the man at the center of the case.  In the course of a day, he knocked on hundreds of doors, downed many scotches and beers as he chatted up Calley’s fellow soldiers, and persuaded one soldier to steal Calley’s personnel file.  When he finally found the lieutenant himself, near midnight, Hersh convinced him to sit down, have some beers, and talk till dawn.

Hersh knew immediately what he had.  “If somebody would have said to me then: ‘What’s going to happen?’ I would have said: ‘I’m going to go work on this a little more and write the most incredible story that’s going to win me the Pulitzer Prize.  It’s going to be an incredible story.  The best story of anybody’s life.’  Okay?  I just knew it.”

He did work on it a little more, found more witnesses and participants, located a distributor (he knew that most newspapers and magazines wouldn’t touch it), and wrote an incredible series of stories that won him the Pulitzer Prize.  And he went on to spend a lifetime writing other incredible stories: CIA domestic spying; the secret bombing of Cambodia; the U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Salvador Allende.  And, oh yes, Abu Ghraib.

When I worked at a college newspaper in the 1980s, we all wanted to be Seymour Hersh.  Not Bob Woodward, who had gone all establishment, but Hersh. Now, the newspaper industry is in free fall, and many of those inspired by Hersh have left journalism.  But Hersh himself, now past 70, is still making those phone calls, knocking on those doors, and persuading his sources that the American people deserve to know the truth.

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