My Lai Massacre

On March 16, 1968 the angry and frustrated men of Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division entered the village of My Lai. "This is what you've been waiting for -- search and destroy -- and you've got it," said their superior officers. A short time later the killing began. When news of the atrocities surfaced, it sent shockwaves through the US political establishment, the military's chain of command, and an already divided American public.

 My Lai lay in the South Vietnamese district of Son My, a heavily mined area of Vietcong entrenchment. Numerous members of Charlie Company had been maimed or killed in the area during the preceding weeks. The agitated troops, under the command of Lt. William Calley, entered the village poised for engagement with the elusive Vietcong.

 As the "search and destroy" mission unfolded it soon degenerated into the massacre of over 300 apparently unarmed civilians including women, children, and the elderly. Calley ordered his men to enter the village firing, though there had been no report of opposing fire. According to eyewitness reports offered after the event, several old men were bayoneted, praying women and children were shot in the back of the head, and at least one girl was raped, and then killed. For his part, Calley was said to have rounded up a group of the villagers, ordered them into a ditch, and mowed them down in a fury of machine gun fire.

 Word of the massacre did not reach the American public until November of 1969, when journalist Seymour Hersh published a story detailing his conversations with ex-GI and Vietnam veteran, Ron Ridenhour. Ridenhour learned of the events at My Lai from members of Charlie Company who had been there. Before speaking with Hersh, he had appealed to Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon to investigate the matter. The military investigation resulted in Calley's being charged with murder in September 1969 -- a full two months before the Hersh story hit the streets.

 As the gruesome details of the massacre reached the American public serious questions arose concerning the conduct of American soldiers in Vietnam. A military commission investigating the My Lai massacre found widespread failures of leadership, discipline, and morale among the Army's fighting units. As the war progressed, many "career" soldiers had either been rotated out or retired. Many more had died. In their place were scores of draftees whose fitness for leadership in the field of battle was questionable at best. Military officials blamed inequities in the draft policy for the often slim talent pool from which they were forced to choose leaders. Many maintained that if the educated middle class ("the Harvards," as they were called) had joined in the fight, a man of Lt. William Calley's emotional and intellectual stature would never have been issuing orders.

Calley, an unemployed college dropout, had managed to graduate from Officer's Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1967. At his trial, Calley testified that he was ordered by Captain Ernest Medina to kill everyone in the village of My Lai. Still, there was only enough photographic and recorded evidence to convict Calley, alone, of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, but was released in 1974, following many appeals. After being issued a dishonorable discharge, Calley entered the insurance business.


Perspectives on events at My Lai and the trial of Lt. Calley

 On March 16, 1968, each soldier at My Lai made a choice. What compelled these men to act as they did? Why did the massacre at My Lai happen? Can the actions of Charlie Company be explained? If they can be explained, can they be justified? Is there a difference in responsibility between officers who give orders and those enlisted men who follow the orders?

 

Here are a variety of perspectives and opinions about the events at My Lai, the nature of the Vietnam conflict, and the attitudes toward Vietnamese that some American troops developed. Some of these statements express opinions about the realities of war — not just the Vietnam War, but war itself. Military personnel and Vietnam veterans are identified as such.

 

In your opinion, which statements defend Lt. Calley? Which statements condemn his actions and support his "guilty" verdict? And which statements try to explain the acts of Charlie Company without either condemning or defending the men?

NOT everyone commits atrocities... armies from democracies tend to commit relatively few of them... Even though I saw horrific combat I never had any problem understanding that you weren’t supposed to kill civilians... I and everyone I know in the Vietnam veteran community was horrified and ashamed by My Lai, and consider it to be an aberration. That we acted on Hersh’s news reports and were able to... bring people to trial is very much to our country’s credit. Systematic torture and murder were used by the North as a means of waging war; U.S. atrocities were occasional and aberrations.
- Jack Smith, a decorated Vietnam veteran who now works as a national correspondent for ABC News.

 

 [I]n truth, because truth matters, my sympathies were rarely with the Vietnamese. I was mostly terrified. I was lamenting in advance of my own pitiful demise. After fire fights, after friends died, there was also a great deal of anger — black, fierce, hurting anger — the kind you want to take out on whatever presents itself. This is not to justify what occurred here [in My Lai]. Justifications are empty and outrageous. Rather, it’s to say that I more or less understand what happened..., how it happened, the wickedness that soaks into your blood and heats up and starts to sizzle. I know the boil that precedes butchery. At the same time, however, the men in Alpha Company [my company, stationed in Quang Nai a year after the massacre] did not commit murder... we did not cross that conspicuous line between rage and homicide.
- Tim O’Brien, "The Vietnam in Me," The New York Times Magazine. O’Brien, who has authored fiction and nonfiction books about the Vietnam War, served a tour of duty in Vietnam with the Army infantry.

 

When we first started losing members of the company, it was mostly through booby traps and snipers. We never got into a main conflict... where you could see who was shooting and you could actually shoot back. We had heard a lot about women and children being used as booby traps and being members of the Vietcong. As time when on, you tended to believe it more and more... There was no question they were working for the Vietcong... You didn’t trust them anymore. You didn’t trust anybody... And I would say that in the end, anybody that was still in that country was the enemy.
- Fred Widmer, radio operator with Charlie Company in My Lai.

 

Our mission was not to win terrain or territory or seize positions, but simply to kill; to kill Communists and to kill as many of them as possible... Victory was a high body count, defeat a low kill ratio, war a matter of arithmetic. The pressure on the unit commanders to produce corpses was intense, and they in turn communicated it to their troops... It is not surprising, therefore, that some men acquired a contempt for human life and a predilection for taking it.
- Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War, 1988, N.Y., New York, Ballentine Books. Caputo, a Vietnam veteran, served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps.

 

When you’re in an infantry company, in an isolated environment like   [rural Vietnam], the rules of that company are foremost... The laws back home don’t make any difference. What people think of you back home don’t matter... What matters is how the people around you are going to see you. Killing a bunch of civilians in this way — babies, women, old men, people who were unarmed, helpless — was wrong. Every American would know that. Yet this company... didn’t see it that way... [The company] was all that mattered. It was the whole world. What they thought was right was right. What they thought was wrong was wrong. The definitions for things were turned around. Courage was stupidity... and cruelty and brutality were seen sometimes as heroic. That’s what it turned into.
- Michael Bernhart, one of Charlie Company who refused to take part in the massacre, reflecting on the "laws" of Charlie Company. Four Hours in My Lai, p. 19.

 

Under no circumstances do I think a person placed in the situation of being required to kill should be punished for killing the wrong people.
- Jerry Cramm, a student from Oklahoma City, letter to Life magazine in December 1969.

 

When you lose 21 men in an hour’s time in a minefield, you tend to want something back for it. We actually wanted heavy contact out there. We were hoping for it.
- Lawrence La Croix, squad leader, 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company.

 

We were kids, 18, 19 years old. I was 21 years old at the time [of the My Lai massacre]. I was one of the oldest people around among the common grunts.

Most of them [Charlie Company] had never been away from home before... Here are these guys who had gone in and in a moment, in a moment, following orders, in a context in which they’d been trained, prepared to follow orders, they do what they’re told, and they shouldn’t have, and they look back a day later and realize that they probably made the biggest mistake of their lives. [There were] only an extraordinary few people who were in those circumstances who had the presence of mind and the strength of their own character that would see them through. Most people [in Charlie Company]didn’t.
- Ronald Ridenhour was a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam during 1968 stationed near My Lai, although he was not present at My Lai on March 16. Ridenhour’s letters to government officials about what had happened at My Lai triggered the original Army investigation of the massacre.

 

You really do lose your sense... not of right or wrong, but your degree of wrong changes... A different set of rules [emerges] and I don’t think that any of us quite knew what those rules were.
- Greg Olsen, a soldier in Charlie Company.

 

I thought that people were basically good and that they couldn’t do this. I thought most of the values people held were pretty solid, that when we defined things as being good or bad, that they were good or bad and that we would know something was really bad. But I had seen that that was not the case. I wasn’t sure that I could trust anyone again. I wasn’t sure I could ever get close to anyone very closely because of what I’d seen over there.
- Michael Bernhart, a soldier in Charlie Company who did not participate in the massacre.

 

I would expect that the President of the United States...would stand fully behind the law of this land on a moral issue which is so clear and about which there can be no compromise. For this nation to condone the acts of Lt. Calley is to make us no better that our enemies and make any pleas by this nation for the humane treatment of our own prisoners meaningless.
- Capt. Aubrey Daniel, the Army’s prosecutor in the Calley trail, in a letter to President Richard Nixon rebuking the President for granting Calley parole.

 

This is God’s punishment to me Calley, but you’ll get yours. God will punish you, Calley.
- Paul Meadlo to Lt. Calley after Meadlo had stepped on a landmine the day after the massacre. Meadlo, who admitted to killing civilians at My Lai during the investigation, lost one of his feet.

 

How can I forgive? I can’t forgive myself for the things — even though I knew it was something I was told to do... [H]ow can you go ahead with your life when this is holding you back. I can’t put my mind to anything... Yes, I’m ashamed, I’m sorry, I’m guilty. But I did it. You know. What else can I tell you. It happened.

This [memories of My Lai] is my life. This is my past. This is my present and this is my future. And I keep it [an album of news clippings about My Lai] to remind me... This is my life. This is everything. This is the way I am. This is what made me this way.
- Varnado Simpson reflecting to the authors of the book Four Hours in My Lai. Simpson committed suicide in late 1997, a few months prior to the 30th Anniversary of the My Lai massacre.

 

The massacre at My Lai and its subsequent cover-up stand in the history of the Vietnam War at the point where deception and self-deception converged. If the Tet Offensive of 1968 had mocked America’s complacent expectation of an imminent victory, My Lai’s exposure late in 1969 poisoned the idea that the war was a moral enterprise. The implications were too clear to escape. The parallels with other infamous massacres were too telling and too painful. My Lai had been on the same scale as [some of the Nazi’s] World War II atrocities... Americans, who at Nuremberg had played a great part in creating the judicial machinery which had brought the nazi monsters to book, now had to deal with a monstrosity of their own making.
- Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, Four Hours in My Lai.

 

I think about it all the time, and that is why I am old before my time. I remember it all the time. I think about it and I can’t sleep... I think of my daughter and my mother, both of them dead...

I won’t forgive. I hate them [the soldiers of Charlie Company] very much. I won’t forgive them as long as I live. Think of those children... still at their mother’s breast being killed... I hate them very much.
- Troung Thi Le, who lost nine members of her family during the massacre. Mrs. Le spoke to authors Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim through an interpreter. Four Hours in My Lai, p. 23.


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