On March 16, 1968, US Army soldiers from the Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division dropped in on two villages in South Vietnam, known as My Lai and My Khe. In the subsequent few hours, these soldiers of Charlie Company would go on to kill over 500 villagers – men, women, children and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated. The massacre, which later came to be called “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War” would have been quietly buried but for an investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, who got a tip-off about the story more than 19 months later and pursued the case until he found the testimony of Lieutenant William Calley Jr. a platoon leader in Charlie Company.
Hersh, who was a freelancer in 1969, was turned down by all the prominent publications he approached with his story, none of whom wanted to question the armed services, especially at a time when the US was waging a war in Vietnam. The publications did not think it was “patriotic” to publish such an explosive story, because it would raise doubts about the military.
The wall of silence surrounding what has come to be known as the My Lai massacre was finally broken when Hersh managed to sell his story to the Dispatch News Service, a small news agency, that sent out the story to 50 newspapers. Within a few days, nearly 30 newspapers had picked up the story and it went on to become one of the greatest exposes of one of the largest massacres of civilians carried out by American troops in the 20th century.
State of war
Much has been written and said after the Director General of Military Operations announced that the Indian army had “conducted surgical strikes” at terrorists’ “launch pads along the Line of Control” on September 29.
The common refrain in all these arguments has been that the military should never be questioned. Doing so, it has been argued, would be tantamount to treason. The same argument was used in another case, when the New York Times went ahead and published a top secret report, the “Pentagon Papers”, which revealed that the US was losing the war in Vietnam.
Furious that the report had been leaked, the government went to court and sought an injunction, which was granted. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post were barred from publishing the story till the case was heard by the courts. In 16 days, the case travelled from the lower courts to the US Supreme Court, and the full bench of all the nine judges agreed to hear the case.
After hearing arguments from both sides, the US Supreme Court, in one of its most celebrated judgments in history, ruled by a majority of 6 to 3 that the newspapers had every right to publish the stories, even though the US was waging a war. In short, the majority judges ruled that in a democracy, the people had every right to question the government or the military.
Addressing the patriotic line of argument, put forth by government lawyers, Justices Hugo L Black, William O Douglas and Thurgood Marshall wrote in their individual opinion in the judgment that it was paramount for the free press “…to prevent any part of the Government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”
If these decisions weren’t exposed or challenged, then it would irreparably harm democracy, the justices said. “In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspaper should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly,” wrote Justice Black. “In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the founders hoped and trusted they would do.”
The Pentagon Papers judgment, delivered on June 30, 1971, continues to hold good for journalists in the US even today, and bars the government from making any attempts to hamper the press from publishing any classified material that will question decisions taken by public authorities, especially the military.
The need for the truth, especially in closed communities like the military, is essential for their well-being. The lack of exposure leads to practices within the military that finally undermine the institution. This has been witnessed in Israel, one of the few democracies that pre-censors any story by the media on the military. The Yom Kippur war in October 1973 found the Israelis severely wanting as Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a coordinated attack. Still high after its resounding success in the Six-Day war, the Israeli Defence Forces had been lulled into a sense of false confidence.
The lack of deep and insightful questioning by the media or the people gave the Israelis the false belief that they were invincible. The war finally ended well for Israel, but the damage had been done by then. Once again, in September 1982, allies of Israeli Defence Forces in the civil war in Lebanon carried out massacres in two refugee camps knows as Sabra and Shatila which, as per some estimates, were in the region of nearly 3,500 innocent civilians. The Israeli forces watched but refused to intervene, leading to the horrific massacre of innocent men, women and children.
In March 2012, a letter written by the then army chief and now minister of state for external affairs, General VK Singh, to the prime minister caused a major furore in Parliament. Singh wrote about the precarious condition of the Indian Army, the depleted stocks of critical ammunition and the inability to fight a war against China for more than two days because of lack of critical spares and equipment.
The Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence, blissfully unaware of the letter until it was leaked out, was furious. In a meeting with the defence secretary and the Vice Chief of Army, the MPs demanded to know the veracity of the Army Chief’s claims. Once confirmed, they demanded a time-bound action plan from the defence secretary to address the crippling shortages.
It comes down to individuals holding key positions in the military, in the end, whose vested interests have often prevailed while invoking and imposing a ban on information under the guise of national interest.
In 2005, the then Chief of Naval Staff did not reveal that his wife’s nephew was involved in a case of leak of secrets from the Naval War Room. For months a Board of Inquiry investigated the case but it was only after the relative’s name was revealed in a newspaper report did he offer to step down. Had the newspaper report not exposed the relationship, the Chief would have never offered to step down.
India’s chequered military history is replete with such instances. Originally raised as a colonial army to subjugate Indian citizens as well as fight the wars of the British Empire, its transition to the army of an independent republic has not been smooth. This has led to frequent clashes between the military and its civilian counterparts, especially over pay and perks and relevance in governance. Therefore, questioning the military and its claims becomes an essential requirement to maintain the professionalism and high standards that are necessary for apolitical organisations. Unless this is scrupulously followed, Indian armed forces face a real danger of going down the same path as that followed by their principal adversaries – the armies of Pakistan and China.