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Revisiting the My Lai Massacre almost 50 years later

On 17 March 1968, American soldiers entered a group of hamlets located in the Son Tinh district of South Vietnam. Three hours after the GIs entered the hamlets, more than five hundred unarmed villagers lay dead, killed in cold blood.

The My Lai massacre remains one of the most devastating events in American military history. Initially covered up by military authorities, the events of that day slowly came to light and caused international outrage, eventually leading to the prosecution of nearly thirty United States Army Officers.

In the following excerpt from My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness, historian Howard Jones examines the aftermath of one of the darkest days in military history.

How should we look at My Lai now, nearly fifty years after the events? For most Americans, it was a rude awakening to learn that “one of our own” could commit the kind of atrocities mostly associated with the nation’s enemies in war. Even to those who defended the American soldier, his image changed from citizen-soldier to baby killer—from poster boy hero and virtuous protector of the defenseless to cowardly murderer and rapist. It seemed impossible to reconcile My Lai with the concept of the United States as a chosen nation—an exceptional nation—built on republican principles and predestined by God to spread freedom throughout the world. In his memoirs after he had left the presidency, Nixon expressed the opinion of many Americans when he called it an aberration, unrepresentative of our country.

From one perspective, the story of My Lai came full circle on 10 March 2008, when Pham Thanh Cong, director of the Son My War Remnant Site and a survivor of the massacre, met at My Lai with former corporal Kenneth Schiel, a participant in the killings and the first member of Charlie Company to return to the scene. Cong had lost his mother and four siblings that day in My Lai  and was surprised at Schiel’s appearance. Less than a week before the proceedings commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the massacre, they spent three hours discussing the events of 16 March 1968. Cong described the meeting as tense, though he appreciated Schiel’s effort to atone for what had happened. At first he did not admit to killing Vietnamese civilians. In the end, however, Schiel apologized even though continuing to maintain that he had been following orders. In August 2009, Cong would learn that in the United States William Calley had spoken publicly for the first time about his role in the killings.

Unlike Schiel, Calley refused to return to My Lai. Like Schiel, he claimed to have been following orders and felt no personal responsibility. To his friend Al Fleming, Calley still maintained, “I did what I had to do.”

How exceptional was My Lai? In The Guns at Last Light, Rick Atkinson shows that in the closing months of World War II American troops committed a number of horrific crimes against the French populace after landing in Normandy in 1944. Atrocities also took place in America’s other wars, including the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, the Korean War, and, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. To many Americans, however, Vietnam seemed to offer more examples, perhaps in part due to the war’s longevity. In Tiger Force, Michael Sellah and Mitch Weiss uncovered a series of atrocities and mass killings of Vietnamese civilians just below Da Nang, committed by an elite army contingent over the course of seven months beginning in May 1967. Nick Turse, in Kill Anything That Moves, argues that US soldiers killed civilians throughout the Vietnam War as a result of government policies that made atrocities acceptable. My Lai was thus one of many.

The mass killings of civilians, Turse argues, were “the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military,” and resulting in a “veritable system of suffering.” These policies established the conditions conducive to atrocities—a war of attrition based on body counts, search-and-destroy missions, free-fire zones, and soldiers trained to see the enemy as subhuman.

Image credit: My Lai massacre memorial site, in Quảng Ngãi, Vietnam by Adam Jones. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Turse draws heavily on thousands of pages of documents collected by the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret task force working out of the army chief of staff ’s office created by the Pentagon in 1970. The documents gathered by this wartime investigation, declassified in 1994, recorded hundreds of atrocities committed by US forces in Vietnam. Eight boxes of these materials, all extracts from the now-open CID and Peers Inquiry files, focused on My Lai, however, making it stand out from the others. General Westmoreland emphasized this point in his report. “The Army investigated every case, no matter who made the allegation,” but “none of the crimes even remotely approached the magnitude and horror of My Lai.” Whereas many of these atrocities in other parts of Vietnam came by air and at night, every victim at My Lai was killed during the day, many of them less than five feet away while facing their killers.

My Lai simply stands out, in part because of the numbers. 504 victims are listed on the marble plaque located near the entrance to the museum at the Son My War Remnant Site in My Lai. The victims broke down into 231 males and 273 females—seventeen of them pregnant. More than half of those killed—259—were under twenty years of age: forty-nine teenagers, 160 aged four to twelve years, and fifty who were three years old or younger. Of the remainder, eighty-four were in their twenties and thirties, and the rest ranged from their forties to the oldest at eighty. The numbers do not tell the whole story, but they say a great deal.

More than forty soldiers apparently took part in killing civilians. Of all the facts that emerged from the many investigations and reports, perhaps the most chilling is that not a single soldier on the ground tried to stop the killing.

My Lai made it imperative that the army institute major changes in training aimed at developing what Eckhardt called “professional battlefield behavior.” To understand the importance of restraint in combat, soldiers and officers must learn to disobey illegal orders. The only way to bring this about, Eckhardt insisted, was “to plainly state that the intentional killing without justification of noncombatants—old men, women, children, and babies—is murder and is illegal.” No one prior to My Lai had considered it necessary to teach US soldiers something so “obvious”; My Lai had made the obvious necessary.

Nothing today could ease the pain of what happened at My Lai, but it is crucial that we do not allow this tragedy to slip from memory.

Featured image credit: Co Luy – My Lai Massacre Village by Adam Jones. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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