By David K. Shipler
It’s not often that a two-word question can shake a country’s self-regard as deeply as Mike Wallace’s to Private Paul Meadlo, the soldier he interviewed about the My Lai massacre.
“And babies?” Wallace asked.
“And babies,” Meadlo answered.
Here was a plain farm boy from Indiana, driven by Wallace’s interrogation, confessing with raw candor and flat emotion. The crime now looked real. Nobody could deny it any longer, as the Army had in covering it up, as the major news organizations had in refusing to run the story as broken by the reporter Seymour Hersh.
Wallace’s interview, broadcast Nov. 25, 1969, accelerated Americans’ disillusionment with the war, and with themselves for waging it. It came to me like a punch in the stomach, the same feeling I’d had when I’d been 14, seeing the searing photograph of a white girl screaming hatefully at a black girl, Elizabeth Eckford, who was integrating Little Rock’s Central High in 1957. Iconic images of our immorality are sometimes required to jolt us into self-correction. So Wallace’s question and Meadlo’s answer became the only text that was needed in a famous antiwar poster, superimposed in red type on a photograph of sprawling dead women and children.
Oddly, the interview went unmentioned in the obituaries of Wallace, who died on Sunday, that were published in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and in a remembrance last night by the PBS NewsHour. Perhaps the writers and editors are too young to remember.
But I remember. And the impact on me was strong enough that I mentioned it to Wallace the first time I met him, years later. He seemed surprised. I thought that asking three times about babies, with a beat of disbelief on each occasion, was an authentic reflection of the shock that his audience would feel, listening to this young man we’d sent to make our war. Wallace represented all of us in the moment, reacting as any of us would.
He brushed this off and said it was an act, a performance, a stage technique. Perhaps. He had a tough reputation and a hard shell to maintain it. But my wife, Debby, and I wondered and still wonder whether he was as calculating as he made himself seem. I never got to know him beyond a few encounters, so I can’t say.
Morley Safer said on the NewsHour last night that Wallace walked a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity, tipping toward sadism. Whether as an infuriating sadist who loved to torture on camera, or as a curious reporter who loved probing past people’s facades, or as a mere performer, as he insisted to me, his interview with Meadlo remains a work of journalistic art.
Here is a partial transcript:
Q. How many people did you round up?
A. Well, there was about 40-45 people that we gathered in the center of the village. And we placed them in there, and it was like a little island, right there in the center of the village, I’d say. And—
Q. What kind of people—men, women, children?
A. Men, women, children.
A. Babies. And we all huddled them up. We made them squat down, and Lieutenant Calley came over and said, you know what to do with them, don’t you? And I said Yes. So I took it for granted that he just wanted us to watch them. And he left, and came back about 10 or 15 minutes later, and said, how come you ain’t killed them yet? And I told him that I didn’t think you wanted us to kill them, that you just wanted us to guard them. He said, no, I want them dead. So—
Q. He told this to all of you, or to you particuarly?
A. Well, I was facing him. So, but the other three, four guys heard it and so he stepped back about 10, 15 feet, and he started shooting them. And he told me to start shooting. So I started shooting, I poured about four clips into the group.
. . .
Q. And you killed how many? At that time?
A. Well, I fired them on automatic, so you can’t—you just spray the area on them and so you can’t know how many you killed ’cause they were going fast. So I might have killed 10 or 15 of them.
Q. Men, woman and children?
A. Men, women and children.
Q. And babies?
A. And babies.
. . .
Q. Now you’re rounding up more?
A. We’re rounding up more … Lieutenant Calley told me, he said, Meadlo, we got another job to do. And so he walked over to the people, and he started pushing them off and started shooting …
Q. Started pushing them off into the ravine?
A. Off into the ravine. It was a ditch. And so we started pushing them off and we started shooting them, so altogether we just pushed them all off, and just started using automatics on them. And then—
Q. Again—men, women, children?
A. Men, women and children.
Q. And babies?
A. And babies. And so we started shooting them, and somebody told us to switch off the single shot so that we could save ammo. So we switched off to single shot, and shot a few more rounds. And after that, I just—we just—the company started gathering up again. We started moving out, and we had a few gooks that was in—as we started moving out, we had gooks in front of us that was taking point, you know. …
Q. Taking point. You mean out in front? To take any fire that might come.
. . .
Q. Obviously, the thought that goes through my mind—I spent some time over there, and I killed in the second war, and so forth. But the thought that goes through your mind is, we’ve raised such a dickens about what the Nazis did. Or what the Japanese did, but particuarly what the Nazis did in the Second World War, the brutalization and so forth, you know. It’s hard for a good many Americans to understand that young, capable American boys could line up old men, women and children and babies and shoot them down in cold blood. How do you explain that?
A. I wouldn’t know.
Q. Did you ever dream about all of this that went on in Pinkville?
A. Yes, I did . . and I still dream about it.
Q. What kind of dreams?
A. I see the women and children in my sleep. Some days . . . some nights, I can’t even sleep. I just lay there thinking about it.