Week In Review

by by Fawzia Mahmood

No Lie: My Lai

The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal that leaked in 2004, the murder of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005 and the ongoing mistreatment of prisoners in Guantanamo have all been called the My Lais of the 21st century. But considering recent events, let's hope they're not. Only this past Sunday-- the 40th anniversary of the 1968 massacre of civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai--audio tapes of a secret 1970 Pentagon inquiry into the US Army's barbarism were finally broadcast. But it doesn't bode well for modern day My Lais that it has taken 40 years for the damning contents of the tapes to hit the airwaves.

In a BBC news release on March 15, Celina Dunlop, the British journalist responsible for unearthing the My Lai tapes in the US National Archives, wrote, "I spent many months trying to track down the tapes. Again and again, I was told they did not exist but after much persistence, 48 hours of recordings from the key witnesses were declassified and made available to me." Dunlop, who is picture editor of The Economist, maintains that 400 hours of tapes were made and 403 witnesses were interviewed under oath.
Yet, despite not having gained wall-to-wall access to the My Lai archives, Dunlop's findings are the crucial missing link in explaining the dearth of evidence exposed during post-My Lai military tribunals. Since 1968, the My Lai death toll--no fewer than 504 Vietnamese civilians--has been grossly glossed over. Just one soldier, former Lieutenant William Calley, was eventually convicted of murdering 22 Vietnamese villagers during much-publicized court-martial proceedings in 1971. In his final words to the court-martial judge, Calley accounted for his actions by claiming that he had simply "followed orders"--precisely the soldierly defense that the Nuremberg Principles were designed to invalidate. Today, Calley, a retiree and still a classified War Criminal, resides in Atlanta. He has not spoken out against his conviction since his court-martial.

By all appearances, the alleged perpetrators of and witnesses to the My Lai slaughter have been reticent. But the secret My Lai tapes broadcast in the BBC Radio 4 exclusive this weekend shore up another story. Featuring interviews with soldiers and division commanders who took part in the Peers Inquiry (the official Pentagon investigation that preceded the public courts-martial), the tapes reveal why the testimonies have been boxed up for 40 years.

The My Lai tapes evidence the baleful truth: that the massacre wiped out not just one but three villages, My Lai, Binh Tay and My Khe; that two army companies, not just the infamous Charlie company, were involved in perpetrating the massacre; that extensive rape as well as a killing spree occurred that day; and that the slaughter was not brought about by the actions of a faction of renegade soldiers but, rather, premeditated by high-ranking US Army personnel with the aim of securing "a high body count."

The 40th anniversary of My Lai coincides with the fifth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq this week. The parallels between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq are glaring, yet one connection is less conspicuous: the young Army Major whose responsibility it was to investigate the initial letter that divulged the news of a My Lai cover-up to US Army generals was one Colin Powell. —FRM

Have you ever worried about racking up late fees? Well, someone in Finland has come up with an interesting solution: wait 100 years. Earlier this month, an unknown patron anonymously returned a century-overdue book to a public library in Vantaa, the fourth largest city in Finland.

The book was so long overdue that the branch of the library to which it was returned did not even exist at the time it was borrowed. Anna-Mari Rantala, head of the Korso district library in Vantaa, admits they do not even keep records of loans that old. In fact, they have no records of books taken out before the early 1950s.

Perhaps the book was so compelling that its possessor couldn't bear to part with it all these years. It was, after all, a 400-page selection of a monthly religious publication known as the Vartija. Who could resist?

Although there are no library records that substantiate this claim, a note attached to the book stated that it had been borrowed around 1900. The note also indicated that at that time, the fee for an overdue book was just 10 pennies per week.

As far as library-goers are concerned, the Finnish are quite an enthusiastic bunch. Today, the Finnish library system serves more than 5.3 million patrons with about 900 libraries. The average Finn goes to the library 11 times per year and takes out close to 20 books in the same period of time, whereas the number of library books borrowed by the average American in 2006 was about seven per year.

In Rhode Island, the maximum fine for failing to return a book to the public library after 60 days is just 25 dollars. The temptation to keep the book--especially if it's one you think you could reread for more than 100 years--may be enticing, but most library users opt for a clean borrowing record.

When an American named Robert Nuranen returned the book Prince of Egypt 47 years late to a public library in Michigan, he faced a late fee of $171.32. Unlike his Finnish counterpart, the seventh-grade social studies teacher paid his fee in order to set an example and to prove that it's never too late to turn in an old library book.

Even if the identity of the mysterious Finnish patron is never discovered, returning the book at all was probably better late than never, as the saying goes. Strange to wonder how many books like the 1902 Vartija or Prince of Egypt are out there being enjoyed by anonymous library-goers at this very moment. —ES