Acts of Violence in Grosvenor Square

Christopher Hitchens

  • 1968: Marching in the Streets by Tariq Ali and Susan Watkins
    Bloomsbury, 224 pp, £20.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 7475 3763 1
  • The Beginning of the End: France, May 1968 by Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn
    Verso, 175 pp, £10.00, May 1998, ISBN 1 85984 290 9
  • The Love Germ by Jill Neville
    Verso, 149 pp, £9.00, May 1998, ISBN 1 85984 285 2

I was just beginning to write about 1968 when I learned of the death in New Orleans of Ron Ridenhour, the GI who exposed the massacre at My Lai. He was only 52, which means that he was in his early twenties when, as a helicopter gunner in area, he learned of the murder of nearly 660 Vietnamese civilians. This was not some panicky ‘collateral damage’ fire-fight: the men of Charlie Company took a long time to dishonour and dismember the women, round up and despatch the children and make the rest of the villagers lie down in ditches while they walked up and down shooting them. Not one of the allegedly ‘searing’ films about the war – not Apocalypse Now, not Full Metal Jacket or Platoon – has dared to show anything remotely like the truth of this and many other similar episodes, more evocative of Poland or the Ukraine in 1941. And the thing of it was, as Ron pointed out, that it was ‘an act of policy, not an individual aberration. Above My Lai that day were helicopters filled with the entire command staff of the brigade, division and task force.’

A few weeks ago, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, the state finally got round to recognising the only physical hero of the story, a decent guy named Hugh Thompson who saw what was going on, landed his helicopter between Lieutenant Calley’s killing-squads and the remnant of the inhabitants, called for back-up and drew his sidearm. His citation had taken thirty years to come through. It was intended as part of the famous ‘healing process’ which never seems quite to achieve ‘closure’.

Ron wasn’t interested in any stupid healing process. He wanted justice to be done, and it never was. A single especially befouled culprit, the above-mentioned Calley, was eventually court-martialled and served a brief period of house-arrest before being exonerated by Nixon. The superiors, both immediate and remote, got clean away. A canny young military lawyer near the scene, Colin Powell by name, founded a lifelong reputation for promise and initiative by arranging to have the papers mixed up at the office of the Judge-Advocate General.

I once asked Ron Ridenhour what had led him to risk everything by compiling his own report on the extermination at My Lai and sending it to Congress. He told me that, poor white boy as he was (he left school at 14 and was drafted without protest), he had been in basic training when, in the hut one night, a group of good ol’ boys had decided to have some fun with the only black soldier in the detail. The scheme was to castrate him. Nobody was more astonished than Ron to hear his own voice coming across the darkened bunks. ‘“If you want to get to him, you’ve got to come through me.” I’d’ve been dead if I hadn’t been white and poor like them, but they gave up.’ Later, when his troopship called in at Hawaii en route for Saigon, he went ashore and bought a book about Vietnam by the late Bernard Fall. ‘Shit, this is what I’m getting into.’

A revolutionary moment requires both extraordinary times and extraordinary people, and Ron Ridenhour, despite his laconic attitude, was one of the latter. He wouldn’t have denied, however, that there was ‘something in the air’ in those days. It was getting to the point where you couldn’t shove black people around so easily, or invade any country that took your fancy. There were people who wouldn’t take it, and even people in the press and in the academy who were prepared to make an issue of that. (Though this can be overestimated: it took more than a year for the My Lai story to get into print – in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.) Nonetheless, the climacteric that was 1968 had been building for some time. What fused it into critical mass, and provided its most indelible slogans and imagery, was undoubtedly the correspondence between the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, both of them American and both of them therefore, in a time when ‘global village’ was a new cliché, universal in scope and appeal and reach.

Something has to be done to rescue that time from the obfuscations that have descended over it and to fend off the sneers and jeers that now attach so easily. Some people, of course, take a kind of pleasure in repudiating their own past. Some, whether they wish to or not, live long enough to become negations or caricatures. Or indeed partial confirmations: I am thinking of Lionel Jospin, now chief minister of France and in those days a member of an unusually dogmatic trotskiant group; a groupuscule, indeed, and perhaps an excellent school for the inflexible later canons of neo-liberalism. Robert Lowell once said that he was glad not to have been a revolutionary when young, because it prevented him from becoming a reactionary bore in his old age. I see the point: the fact remains that in midlife and in 1968 he acted eloquently and well, as a citizen of the republic of Emerson and Whitman should when the state is intoxicated with injustice and war. ‘Retrospectives’ which emphasise flowers, beads, dope and simplistic anarchism tend to leave him out, as they also omit the Ron Ridenhours.

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