My Lai Massacre
On March 16, 1968, in the Quang Ngai region of Vietnam, specifically My Lai, the United States military was involved in an appalling slaughter of approximately 500 Vietnamese civilians. There are numerous arguments as to why this incident even had the capacity to occur. Although some of the arguments seem valid, can one really make excuses for the slaughter of innocent people? The company that was responsible for the My Lai incident was the Charlie Company and throughout the company there were many different accounts of what happened that reprehensible day. Therefore there are a few contradictions about what had occurred, such as what the commanding officers exact instructions for the soldiers were. Even with these contradictions the results are obvious. The question that must be posed is whether these results make the American soldiers involved that day “guilty”. There is the fact that the environment of the Vietnam War made it very confusing to the soldiers exactly who the enemy was, as well as providing a pent up frustration due to the inability to even engage in real combat with the enemy. If this is the case though, why did some soldiers with the same frustrations refuse the orders and sit out on the action, why did some cry while firing, and why then did one man go so far as to place himself between the Vietnamese and the firing soldiers? If these men who did not see the sense in killing innocents were right with their actions, then how come the ones who did partake were all found not guilty in court? The questions can keep going back and forth on this issue, but first what happened that day must be examined.
Captain Earnest Medina was in charge of giving orders to the Charlie Company and in the early evening of March 15th a meeting was called. CPT Medina told the company that the next morning they would be moving into My Lai and attacking Vietcong forces there. He told them that all the civilians would be at the market or would have already been moved out by the time that the soldiers arrived to carry out their planned attack. He said all that would be left in the village would be the Vietcong of the 48th battalion and Vietcong sympathizers. It was never clear what CPT Medina had said to do in the event of coming across civilians. Medina claimed in court that he had told the GI’s not to kill women and children, to use their common sense, but the soldiers did not recollect this statement. All of the soldiers were said to be excited after the meeting and they were ready for whatever the next day’s “battle” would bring. They drank themselves to extreme drunkenness that night and talked of the next day’s events, cleaning out or “sanitizing” My Lai.
On the morning of March 16th the company moved in. They were instructed by Lieutenant William Calley to shoot every living thing in sight, from animals to babies, for the animals would feed the Vietcong and the babies would one day grow up to be them. From many soldiers’ accounts, non-of the people shot that day seemed to pose any threat to the American soldiers. In fact, women, children and old men made up a huge majority of the victims. Barely any weapons were found and according to most of the soldiers the Vietnamese people were trying to cooperate but there was the barrier of language. When the soldiers yelled things in Vietnamese they weren’t even sure if they were saying the right thing because Vietnamese is a language based on inflection in the voice. LT Calley ordered his soldiers to kill all of the Vietnamese in massive slaughters. They were herded into big groups, and some groups were forced into ditches and then fired upon. “The few that survived did so because the were covered by the bodies of those less fortunate.” (Linder) After the massacre was over there was an extensive cover-up, the commanders even reported My Lai as a success with 123 enemy deaths and some weapon recoveries. It wasn’t until a man named Ronald Ridenhour, over a year later, began to write letters about the incident to very important people including the President of the United States at the time, Richard Nixon. Ridenhour became informed about My Lai through stories that his fellow veterans had told him. He stated, “I wanted to get those people. I wanted to reveal what they did. My God, when I first came home, I would tell my friends and cry-literally cry.” (Linder) The letters he wrote, for the most part were cast aside, but some recipients were curious. Representative Morris Udall decided the letter was not to be ignored and what Ridenhour claimed had happened needed to be investigated. This is where the trials and the questioning of what actually happened, who was to blame, and what the reasons for this calamity were, began. The real query though was, even if the above questions could be answered would there ever be a clear explanation/excuse for this tragedy.
As mentioned before the Vietnam War caused the soldiers to harbor a lot of hostility directed at their situation as opposed to just their enemy. These were all relatively young men fighting, 18-22, most without anything more than a high school education. They were in a strange foreign country fighting a war that most of them did not even understand. They were fighting “in an oppressively hot climate among peasants of an alien culture.” (Goff, Moss Terry, Upshur, 445) The main problem was that Vietnam was not a conventional war, it was very difficult to tell who the enemy was. “Members of the 48th Battalion reportedly lived with the local villagers in order to conceal their presence, often working as farmers during the day and fighting as guerillas at night.” (Olson and Roberts, 45) Also the Tet offensive occurred just about a month and a half before the My Lai incident, on January 30, 1968. The North Vietnamese launched an attack on the South during the traditional Vietnamese New Year. Although it is said that the American forces did not lose the battle, “with nearly total surprise, enemy forces had unleashed a massive attack that cast doubt on almost every premise of American involvement in Vietnam.” (Chafe, 346) This doubt reinforced how the soldiers were already feeling. As more and more causalities and injuries added up, from such things as booby traps and mines, the American soldiers wanted to fight. There was specific case of this in the Charlie Company. Two days before the My Lai incident occurred, on March 14th, a Vietcong booby trap had killed one man, blinded another and still wounded several others, all members of the Charlie Company. The funeral was held the day before the massacre, only shortly before CPT Medina’s speech. Therefore the rage was at near a peak for these men. After CPT Medina’s speech the soldiers believed that “Medina’s main message was that it was time for revenge, that they should think about all their friends who had been killed or wounded and then go into My Lai and settle some scores.” (Olson and Roberts, 19)
The main reason that the soldiers used in defense of their actions during the trials was that they were simply following orders given by their ranking officers. The soldiers asserted that following orders was one of the most essential points that they had learned in training. Paul Meadlo, a rifleman with the Charlie Company, said in the hearings, “from the first day we go in the service, the very first day, we all learned to take orders and not to refuse any kind of order from a non-commissioned officer. . .If you refuse the order, the son-of-a-bitch might shoot you or the next day you spend the rest of your life in stockade for refusing an order.” (Olson and Roberts, 11) According to the rules of land warfare if a soldier believes an order to be unjust and/or illegal then they do not have to carry it out and they must report it to a higher authority. Most of the soldiers did not remember learning of this rule or basically any of the rules. In fact only two hours total was spent on training soldiers of prisoner’s rights. Their training was learning to fight not how to treat the enemy justly. LT Calley claims he was simply carrying out the orders of CPT Medina by massacring a large group of civilians. He claimed in his testimony, “If I questioned an order, I was to carry it out and come back and make my complaint.” (Olson and Roberts, 183) It seems as if most of the soldiers didn’t understand their right to refuse unreasonable orders, but some did. Those who refrained from participating in the My Lai incident make it obvious that those who did participate could have declined as well.
Some men who participated not only followed through with the orders but they did so with great brutality. There were many cases of rape, most frequently young girls, cases of young children being shot in the head at point blank range and even a case of an older man thrown down a well only to have a grenade lobbed in after him. Other soldiers refused to take part in the senseless killings. There were even accounts of men shooting unwillingly with tears in their eyes. Many of these soldiers were riddled with guilt and confessed to their wrong doings in court. Aside from the soldiers mentioned above there were even what some consider to be My Lai heroes. One specific case, is the case of Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, an army helicopter pilot assigned to fly reconnaissance for My Lai. He noticed dead civilians lying all over My Lai as he was flying overhead the action. He became shocked and furious when he saw the bodies that filled the ditches. He claims to have seen no draft-age people, which were what the soldiers were supposed to look for as the enemy. He landed in attempt to evacuate the living, as well as the wounded civilians. He saw a bunker full of women, older men, and children. He informed the soldiers of Charlie Company he would be taking them out, a soldier responded by claiming he would take them out with a grenade. Thompson “told Calley to hold his men there while he evacuated the civilians.” (Linder) He even told his helicopter crew to open fire on the Americans if they showed any violent force against the civilians. He guaranteed the safety of those Vietnamese people by placing himself between them and the soldiers. Thompson was very mad, sad, and extremely frustrated that day, he came very close to giving up his wings. He had little faith in the system, thinking that this could have been just one incident among many. He was one of the main witnesses for the hearings of My Lai. He testified again and again about the atrocities of the day. If men like Thompson existed that day, if he could see with clear eyes what was going on; why couldn’t others, why didn’t others?
In the trials that followed the revelation of this horrible event, it was decided to prosecute twenty-five men. LT Calley was the only one convicted because the evidence of his brutality was overwhelming. “At one point, a two-year-old child who somehow survived the gunfire began running towards the hamlet. Calley grabbed the child, threw him back in the ditch, then shot him.” (Linder) He had also been the one to give the orders of shooting all the civilians that had been gathered in the ditches. The soldiers were made to feel that it was okay to wipe out the entire village by their leaders, like Calley, and these leaders were the men they were to trust and to look to for guidance. Paul Meadlo was one of the soldiers who had fallen victim, if that is what it can be categorized as, to Calley’s orders. After Meadlo had gathered some civilians in a ditch, Calley had said, “You know what to do with them, Meadlo.”(Linder) Meadlo had assumed that Calley had meant to simply guard them. When Calley returned, “he said, how come they’re not dead?. . .He backed off twenty or thirty feet and started shooting into people.” (Linder) Meadlo did so as well, only later to be seen with his head in his hands crying. If Meadlo had believed these were actually Vietcong as he testified in court, then why would he have cried? Calley was sentenced to hard labor for the rest of his life. Later he was removed from stockade by Richard Nixon and placed under house arrest, only then to be paroled by the Secretary of the Army. If the man that showed the most cruelty, and had caused others to be just as cruel, was virtually pardoned for his actions, then there seems to be no one to blame. Calley had blamed CPT Medina, saying he was just following Medina’s orders. It seems that everyone got out of prosecution by blaming someone else when they all seemed to be guilty of one thing or another.
By trying to answer all these questions about My Lai it seems as if more questions just arise to take their place. What happened that day seems to be pretty clear, and the question of why it happened can even somewhat be answered. It is also a enormously common opinion that the incident was horrible and it shouldn’t have happened. Blame is the question that repeatedly comes up over and over again. Should there be blame placed, who should take the blame, or is there to many things to blame to even begin to deal with? Following orders, unidentified enemies, the frustration of the Vietnam War, a looming sense of revenge, and the inexperience and youth of the soldiers, seem to come up again and again. These explanations got many soldiers out of being convicted of war crimes, but should anyone get out of mass murdering a group of women, children, and old men? In Meadlo’s testimony he was asked if the babies laying in the ditches, in their mother’s arms, posed a threat to potentially attack. His answer of, “I expected at any moment they were about to make a counterbalance.” (Linder) was obviously ridiculous and gave the soldier’s confusion of who the enemy was less credibility. Although it seems quite obvious that the men knew what they were doing, which wasn’t killing a threatening enemy, there was just too many people involved in too confusing a situation to point the finger at any certain person or persons. It can be said that the Vietnam War was a just plain bad situation for the United States to be in, especially by 1971, which was when the trials took place. The blame could keep going upwards, eventually landing on the president for putting the soldiers out in the jungles of an un-winnable war. In conclusion, there are just too many people and too many things to place blame easily for this disturbing event. So the easy road was taken, just do not let this happen again. The military took time out to think about their training of soldiers. “Commanders sent troops in the Desert storm operation into battle with the words, “No My Laisyou hear?” (Linder) History is said to be good for one reason- to learn from past mistakes so they will not be repeated, and that is a very good lesson to learn from My Lai and one that all hope was, in fact, learned.
Chafe, William H. The Unfinished Journey: America Since
World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Goff, Richard, et al. The Twentieth Century: A Brief Global
History. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
Linder, Doug. “An Introduction to the My Lai Courts
Martial.” Famous American Trails: The My Lai Courts
Martial, 1970. 15 Nov. 1999 faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/Myl_intro.html>.
Olson, James S., and Randy Roberts. My Lai: A Brief History
With Documents. Boston: Bedford, 1998
My Lai Massacre