Home‎ > ‎Politics and government‎ > ‎

The My Lai Massacre: Vietnam’s darkest moment (Fall 2012)

            The acts of a few individuals usually shape any historical event; the My Lai massacre would not be different. From Lieutenant Calley to Colonel Henderson there were definitely many discrepancies throughout this ugly blemish on American history. These people were at the center of what many believe to be the one of the lowest moments in American military history. They were the face of the controversy when it was brought back state side and would stay front and center until the end of the ordeal nearly 5 years later when Calley’s life sentence would be pardoned into a 3-year house arrest by president Nixon. The political atmosphere in 1954 drew us into the bloody conflict known as the Vietnam War. The United States was fighting to stop the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia and didn’t have the support for this war that they had for previous wars. As a result standards for training and acceptance into the military were way down. It was the youngest fighting force that the United States had trained and it would result in a lot of very immature decisions that would cost people their lives. 

            The Viet Cong (VC) had pledged to continue sniper and booby-trap attacks for the remainder of the time the United States military was present in Vietnam. American troops did not often have direct confrontation with the enemy. On March 16th, 1968, Charlie Company, a military unit, entered the My Lai Village believing they would meet the enemy. After losing many men to invisible killers, they would have their chance for revenge. Instead they entered a village of only non-combatants. In the eyes of a select few of the men that day, all of the villagers were VC sympathizers. They proceeded to kill, what the Vietnamese would later estimate to be 500 non-resisting men, women, and children. Accounts of a two year old boy being deliberately shot down, and women raped, were all disturbing incidents, which would later make up the details of the My Lai massacre. In the immediate months following, deceitful reports were made grossly underestimating the number of civilians killed. The persistence of a few men brought the massacre to the attention of high-level authorities and later to the public. Few men were tried for their actions during the incident, and only one was convicted. The story of My Lai is a sad chapter in American History. As a large international contributor, the United States must hold itself to the highest standards of moral action.

            The Vietnam War (also called the Vietnam Conflict and the Second Indochina War) pitted North Vietnam and the VC, their allies in the South, against the government of South Vietnam and their principal ally, the United States. The war officially began in 1954. The conflict occurred during the height of the cold war and the domino theory was on the mind of every US politician. The United States entered the war under the pretense of stopping the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia. The political leader of North Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh started the Viet Minh communist party, who became the leaders of the guerilla tactic fighting force that would terrorize American troops for the duration of the conflict.

            The conflict would continue for 20 years, with total casualty estimates around 2 million people, nearly half of them Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian civilians. The United States lost just over 58,000 soldiers during the war. US involvement in the war peaked in 1969 as the US had over 500,000 soldiers serving a tour in Southeast Asia. This was also the time of the highest opposition to the war. There were countless protests against the war as a large majority of Americans opposed the now 15 year-old conflict. President Nixon signed a treaty in 1973 to withdraw troops from Vietnam and the war would officially end in 1975 as the North Vietnamese overran Saigon and took control of the South Vietnam government reuniting Vietnam as on sovereign nation. 

            Almost all of Charlie Company had volunteered for the draft. The “grunt” unit only had a few members who had gone to even one year of college.  During World War II, enlisting was much more popular and men of all education levels and social classes joined the military. This was not the case in Vietnam. Ministers, divinity students, those who opposed to the war for reasons of conscience, farmers, college students, married men were all excused from the draft. The National Reserves were also a safe bet for many men, as politics kept the number of reserve troops deployed to a minimum. The number of men with a college degree drafted in 1965 through 1966 was 2 percent. The army the US sent to Vietnam was younger and less educated than both the Korean War and World War II. The government accepted 100,000 men into service, kids who had not scored well enough on the basic intelligence tests to normally be eligible. Special standards were set; lower than previous standards so these men could be permitted into the military.  

            Their military education focused on combat tactics and the absolute duty to obey orders. Michael Belknap in ‘The Vietnam War Trial’ noted that “What the men of Charlie Company remember far better than occasional dull classes on the Geneva Convention and how to treat their Vietnamese hosts was the emphasis on following the orders of their superiors-absolutely and without reservation-that permeated their training.”

            No exception to the common poor educational background was Lieutenant Calley. Born in 1943, into white middle-class in Miami, William Calley should have easily been able to prevent himself from entering in the draft. However his school record told otherwise.  Rusty as he became to be known, from his reddish brown hair, moved in and out of military and public schools until he graduated 666th out of 731 from public school. He had $4.80 in his pocket the day he walked into the recruiting office. He was as many were a “draft-induced volunteer.” There he trained as a clerk typist.  The two most telling factors pointing to Calley’s poor leadership capability were his inability to read maps, and his lack of command presence. A rifleman Allen Boyce later described him as “…a kid, a kid trying to play war.”

            Together the men of Charlie Company including Lieutenant Calley, were in Vietnam. An early image of the enemy in Vietnam was painted by a book published by The National Observer, “Vietnam: The War.”  Viet Cong (VC) portrayed as “exclusive masters of brutality and terror” and executed torture and slow death to perfection. Their earliest targets were schoolgirls and working women. Recruiting was done at gunpoint. Not only were men fighting in Vietnam enraged at the actions of the Viet Cong propaganda published in the U.S there was heightened hatred at home.

            Americans in Vietnam did not often see the enemy but proceeded with fear of booby traps and snipers.  Quang Ngai was an area known as a VC stronghold. It was commonly called Pinkville because “on the military maps it was shaded a bright kind of shimmering pink.” This name became strongly associated with a high probability of death. Within the Quang Ngai province, was the Son My Village. Four hamlets formed the village: My Lai, Tu Chung, Co Luy, and My Khe. My Lai (4) is a sub hamlet to the larger hamlet My Lai.

            Miserable conditions made for very hot dry seasons, temperatures reaching over 100 degrees, and a constantly wet monsoon season. From scorching hot steel helmets to endlessly saturated boots, soldiers were never comfortable. There was rarely enough water to shower and hot meals were few and far between, even toilet paper was usually unavailable. Contact with poisonous snakes, rats, mosquitos, and fire ants became the norm. For a period between 1968 and 1969 men were being wounded at higher rates than in World War II and the Korean War. Soldiers were being killed by ambush, booby traps, mines, and unseen snipers. Former Navy Seal and U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey stated that many men died “because they didn’t realize a woman or a child could be carrying a gun.”

            Many men were lost on February 25th, as they walked into a minefield, and some tried to flee triggering more explosives. The incident could have been avoided had if their leader captain Medina had decided to maneuver around the area, known to have mines. Despite this fact, Medina received the third highest medal for valor in his acts in rescuing the wounded. This was a turning point in Calley’s and many of the soldiers minds, it was no longer a game. These heightened emotions were still with them on the day they entered May Lai. In the days leading up to Charlie Company entering My Lai, a booby trap killed a popular officer, Sargent Cox and wounded several others. On the night of March 15, an informal funeral for the sergeant was held, and revenge clouded the soldiers’ minds. 

            After the funeral, Captain Medina informed the men of the mission for the next morning. The men were told women and children would be gone to market. Intelligence given to Medina by Captain Kotouc and Lieutenant Captain Barker, was they were going to meet the Viet Cong 48th Battalion, one of the VC’s most notorious units. According to Douglas Linder, they were to “explode brick homes, set fire to thatch homes, shoot livestock, poison wells, and destroy the enemy.” Medina testified at Calley’s court-martial that he told them “…we could expect a hell of a good fight and that we would probably be engaged.” With those thoughts the men of Charlie Company prepared to enter My Lai.

            The area they entered was known to be “VC staging and logistical support base.” Two previous attempts at capturing the expanse resulted in casualties and retreat.  Just before eight-o’clock in the morning, all units were on the ground, they had not received any resistance while landing or at any point during the day. As a unit who had not seen much action that they could quantify, this was their chance to prove their worth. As they advanced through the hamlet, villagers who were not killed on the spot were forced into two groups. Both groups were later shot and killed, one in a ditch and the other on a walking trail. There were no less than 90 old men, women and children. While sweeping the northern half of My Lai, the 2nd platoon killed 60-70 Vietnamese and raped several women. Many of the victims were calling out: “No, VC! No, VC!” Though orders to cease-fire had been given, the 1st platoon had completed their sweep before complying. Evidence suggests that only three or four of the 175-200 (US military estimate) killed in My Lai were confirmed Viet Cong. VC sympathizers were present but unarmed.

            Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson reported mass killings and murder to his company commander, Major Fredrick Watke; his allegations were supported by other pilots and crew men who had been flying over My Lai as support. Thompson had landed his helicopter multiple times to assist inhabitants and to stop the killing. At one point Thompson instructed door-gunner Lawrence Colburn to aim at American soldiers to prevent them from shooting at villagers. He waited there until the villagers could be evacuated. In a second incident they transported a wounded boy to the nearby city, where they knew he would be taken care of.

            Photos of the incident also surfaced. Army photographer, Sergeant Ron Haberle, was assigned to the unit who entered My Lai on March 16, 1968.  He was armed with only cameras, an army issued black and white and his personal color camera.  During the massacre he documented interrogations and burning of huts with the black and white camera, and submitted those pictures to the Army.  The photos from his personal camera however, he kept, fearing their destruction.  These photos were very graphic, showing piles of bodies, including children.  He kept the photos after his discharge, but the impact of seeing 100 plus civilians killed haunted him. 

            He admits to destroying the most graphic and personal pictures, however as his conscious wore on him he organized a slide show that he shared throughout his community, partly on the good done during the war, but including these photos.  Eventually these photographs of slaughtered women, children and old men were published in his hometown paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer in an internationally exclusive story, which shocked the world. The photographs would become a historic legacy to the atrocities at My Lai.

            Ten men were charged but only one was sentenced; Lieutenant Calley. Two reasons surfaced for opposition to Calley’s conviction. The first groups came to be called Hawks, and saw the lone conviction as punishment for a government’s war that he was simply a pawn in. He had done his duty and should not be punished for it. Doves believe Calley was just another victim of failed policy, and “all who had shared support for the policy must share Calley’s guilt…” Both groups agreed that the Vietnam should end as soon as possible.

            There is no longer any debate over whether or not noncombatant, civilian men, women, and children of all ages were brutally and systematically murdered by American troops. What commanding officers actually had planned for the morning of March 16, 1968, will never be truly known. American forces had retreated out of the My Lai area in the weeks preceding the incident, and an order to do whatever was necessary to take the area may have been issued. However all of those who landed in the My Lai village were compelled to think for themselves and act with common morals. Many men did that day. It is the acts of a few, which define a day, a Company, and even a war. William Calley’s actions were unimaginable and unacceptable; however the cover-up that follow was no less inexcusable. Though the officers may be trying to protect their men and the honor of the military or Army, they are protecting crime against the greater good. 

            The military is based on a strong sense of duty to follow orders. Emphasis should be taken away from following orders blindly and encouraging soldiers and commanding officers to individually evaluate orders handed down to them. War is a time of high emotion, and often does not allow for time to ponder moral values. Moral actions should be engrained in a soldier before they are sent into combat. As a world leader the U.S. needs to hold very high standards for their own men, to provide an example and encourage abidance of the law of war.

            To both those in the military and non-military, having discipline while facing any situation with poised discipline will shorten the conflict. Decide early what the desired goals are and believe in them, act upon them, and know the limit of what is too far. In Lieutenant Calley had believed he was there to aid civilians, March 16th, 1968 would not have been remember in history as the Massacre at My Lai. The blame does not solely lie with Calley, however as a society we cannot continue to protect perpetrators of crimes against the Law of War. We must make certain, immoral actions, killing of civilians, and defying the law of war will not be tolerated from the U. S.

  1. "Calley was charged with four specifications alleging premeditated murder in violation of Article 118 of Uniform Code of Military Justice." Famous American Trials: The My Lai Court-Martials 1970. University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law, n.d. Web. 6 May 2012. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/MYL_ctchar.htm >.
  2. "Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field.” Geneva, 12 August 1949." International Humanitarian Law - Treaties & Documents. International Committee of the Red Cross, 2005. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/FULL/365?OpenDocument>. 
  3. Goldstein, Joseph, Burke Marshall, and Jack Schwartz. "The Peers Commission Report." The My Lai Maassacre and Its Cover-Up: Beyond the Reach of Law?. New York: The Free Press: A Division of Macmillan Publishing Company, 1976. Print.
  4. Goodman, Barak, dir. My Lai. PBS, 2010. Film. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/mylai/player/>.
  5. Hersh, Seymour M. Hersh. My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath. New York: Random House, 1970.
  6. Peers, William. "Summary Report." Peers Report. United States Army, n.d. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/summary_rpt.html>.
  7. Ridenhour, Ronald. "About Ron Ridenhour:letter that Ron Ridenhour wrote to Congress and the Pentagon." The Ridenhour Prizes. The Nation Institute, 29 Mar 1969. Web. 9 May 2012.
  8. “Summation of George Latimer for the Defense.” Famous American Trials: The My Lai Court-Martials 1970. University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law, n.d. Web. 6 May 2012. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/defense.html>.
  9. "The United States Army Field Manual." Documents Pertaining to the Law of War. United States Army, 1956. Web. 9 May 2012.
  10. "American Vietnam War Casualty Statistics." Vietnam War Casualty Statistics by Race, Sex, Religion, Etc... Military Factory. Web. 09 May 2012. <http://www.militaryfactory.com/vietnam/casualties.asp>.
  11. Belknap, Michal R. The Vietnam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court-Martial of William Calley. United States of America: University Press of Kansas, 2002. Print.
  12. "Biography: Selected Men Involved with My Lai." American Experience. PBS, n.d. Web. 9 May 2012.
  13. "Introduction to My Lai." American Experience. WGBH Educational Foundation for PBS, n.d. Web. 8 May 2012.
  14. Linder, Douglas. "An Introduction to the My Lai Courts-Martial ." Famous American Trials: The My Lai Court-Martials 1970. University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law, n.d. Web. 6 May 2012. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/Myl_intro.html>.
  15. Linder, Douglas. "William Calley." Famous American Trials: The My Lai Court-Martials 1970. University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law, n.d. Web. 6 May 2012. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/myl_bcalleyhtml.htm>.
  16. "My Lai Pilot Hugh Thompson." npr. N.p., 06 Jan 2006. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5133444>.
  17. "Peers Inquiry: Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident." Military Legal resources. Federal Research Division: Library of Congress, 10 Jul 2010. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/Peers_inquiry.html>.
  18. Theiss, Evelyn. "My Lai photographer Ron Haeberle exposed a Vietnam massacre 40 years ago today in The Plain Dealer." Cleveland.com. Cleveland Live LLC, 20 Nov 2009. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://www.cleveland.com/living/index.ssf/2009/11/plain_dealer_published_first_i.html>.
  19. "Vietnam War." History.com. A&E Television Networks. Web. 09 May 2012. <http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war>.
  20. Welsh, Douglas. The History of the Vietnam War. London: Hamlyn, 1981. Print.