My Lai Massacre

In 1971, Colonel Robert Heini reported that: "By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near-mutinous."

For sometime stories had been circulating about deteriorating behaviour amongst US soldiers. Efforts were made by the US army to suppress information about the raping and killing of Vietnamese civilians but eventually, after considerable pressure from certain newspapers, it was decided to put Lieutenant William Calley on trial for war-crimes, In March, 1971, Calley was found guilty of murdering 109 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but he only served three years before being released from prison.

My Lai Massacre (16th March, 1968)
My Lai Massacre (16th March, 1968)

During the war, twenty-five US soldiers were charged with war-crimes but William Calley was the only one found guilty of the offence. Calley received considerable sympathy from the American public when he stated: "When my troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn't see, I couldn't feel, I couldn't touch... nobody in the military system ever described them anything other than Communists." Even Seymour Hersh, the reporter who had first published details of the My Lai killings, admitted that Calley was "as much a victim as the people he shot."

Critics of the war argued that as the US government totally disregarded the welfare of Vietnamese civilians when it ordered the use of weapons such as napalm and agent orange, it was hypocritical to charge individual soldiers with war-crimes. As the mother of one of the soldiers accused of killing civilians at My Lai asserted: "I sent them (the US army) a good boy, and they made him a murderer."

Philip Caputo, another US marine accused of killing innocent civilians, wrote later that it was the nature of the war that resulted in so many war-crimes being committed: "In a guerrilla war, the line between legitimate and illegitimate killing is blurred. The policies of free-fire zones, in which a soldier is permitted to shoot at any human target, armed or unarmed... further confuse the righting man's moral senses."

The publicity surrounding the My Lai massacre proved to be an important turning point in American public opinion. It illustrated the deterioration that was taking place in the behaviour of the US troops and undermined the moral argument about the need to save Vietnam from the "evils of communism". Vietnam was not only being destroyed in order to "save it" but it was becoming clear that those responsible for defeating communism were being severely damaged by their experiences.

Primary Sources

(1) Alistair Cooke, My Lai Massacre, Manchester Guardian (15th December, 1969)

There has been nothing in the memory of living Americans like the massacre of My Lai. They cannot stay for ever in the pit of horror. They must climb out of it and find an indecent scape-goat or some bearable explanation that can restore their self-respect. For the nightly TV interviews with ordinary people show how pitifully the people feel that their youth is on trial.

Now, from Saigon, comes a brave bit of analysis from William F Buckley, the brilliant conservative columnist who for once does not feel obliged to snatch a rightwing argument and give it maximum plausibility.

He faces the progressively grim alternatives by asking how many people were guilty, because an aberration must have limits. "Jack the Ripper was not a corporation, so that we can think of him as aberrant," which we cannot do about "the Nazis under Hitler or the communists under Stalin". But if 10, 20, 50 men "concerted in the act of genocide", then we must ask why "a cross-section of young America found itself capable of utterly barbaric behaviour".

The "preferable" explanation is that "the guilty company relapsed into a kind of catatonic frenzy". The second, "the horrifying" alternative, is that "America in AD 1969 has bred young Americans who can insouciantly murder grandmothers and little children."

(2) After the Vietnam War was over some American soldiers admitted acts of atrocities against the Vietnamese people. In the book Prevent the Crime of Silence, a former American intelligence officer described what happened to people suspected of being members of the National Liberation Front.

I never knew an individual to be detained as a VC suspect who ever lived through an interrogation... and that included quite a number of individuals... They all died. There was never any reasonable establishment of the fact that any of those individuals was, in fact, cooperating with the Vietcong, but they all died and the majority were either tortured to death or things like thrown from helicopters.

(3) In villages where the population was suspected of helping the National Liberation Front, torture and executions of civilians sometimes took place. On 16 March, 1968, American troops killed more than 500 people from the village of My Lai. A young helicopter gunner, Ronald Ridenhour who saw the massacre wrote to President Nixon about the incident. Attempts by the army to cover-up what had taken place were undermined by the journalist, Seymour Hersh, who managed to persuade several soldiers involved in the massacre to talk about what taken place at My Lai.

Some of Calley's men thought it was breakfast time as they walked in; a few families were gathered in front of their homes cooking rice over a small fire. Without a direct order, the first platoon also began rounding up the villagers... Sledge remembered thinking that "if there were VC around, they had plenty of time to leave before we came in. We didn't tiptoe in there."

The killings began without warning... Stanley saw "some old women and some little children - fifteen or twenty of them - in a group around a temple where some incense was burning. They were kneeling and crying and praying, and various soldiers... walked by and executed these women and children by shooting them in the head with their rifles.

There were few physical protests from the people; about eighty of them were taken quietly from their homes and herded together in the plaza area. A few hollered out, "No VC, No VC,"... Women were huddled against children, vainly trying to save them. Some continued to chant, "No VC." Others simply said, "No. No. No."

Carter recalled that some GIs were shouting and yelling during the massacre: "The boys enjoyed it. When someone laughs and jokes about what they're doing, they have to be enjoying it." A GI said, "Hey, I got me another one." Another said, "Chalk up one for me." Even Captain Medina was having a good time. Carter thought: "You can tell when someone enjoys their work." Few members of Charlie Company protested that day. For the most part, those who didn't like what was going on kept their thoughts to themselves.

By nightfall the Viet Cong were back in My Lai, helping the survivors bury the dead. It took five days. Most of the funeral speeches were made by the Communist guerrillas. Nguyen Bat was not a communist at the time of the massacre, but the incident changed his mind. "After the shooting," he said, "all the villagers became Communists."

(4) Philip Caputo volunteered for the United States Marines after hearing a speech by President John F. Kennedy on the dangers of communism. After serving a year in Vietnam he was court-martialled for the murder of two Vietnamese civilians. He was found not guilty but received a reprimand for making false statements to his senior officers. In his book, A Rumour of War, Caputo attempts to explain how the Vietnam War turned some US soldiers into people who could commit atrocities.

The war was mostly a matter of enduring weeks of expectant waiting and, at random intervals, of conducting vicious manhunts through jungles and swamps where snipers harassed us constantly and booby traps cut us down one by one... At times, the comradeship that was the war's only redeeeming quality caused some of the worst crimes - acts of retribution for friends who had been killed. Some men could not withstand the stress of guerrilla-fighting: the hair-trigger alertness constantly demanded of them, the feeling that the enemy was everywhere, the inability to distinguish civilians from combatants created emotional pressures which built to such a point that a trivial provocation could make these men explode and the blind destructiveness of a mortar shell... I felt sorry for those children (soldiers arriving in Vietnam for the first time) knowing that they would all grow old in the land of endless dying. I pitied them, knowing that out of every ten, one would die, two would be maimed for life, another two would be less seriously wounded and sent out to fight again, and all the rest would be wounded in other, more hidden ways.

(5) Jeff Needle, Please Read This (1970)

A very sad thing happened while we were there - to everyone. It happened slowly and gradually so no one noticed when it happened. We began slowly with each death and every casualty until there were so many deaths and so many wounded, we started to treat death and loss of limbs with callousness, and it happens because the human mind can't hold that much suffering and survive... And when they came out of My Lai, I heard the stories they came back with. I didn't know whether they were true because I wasn't there. If they were true, it meant my company had murdered people ... it meant because of lies I had been told I was sitting in the middle of a useless war, it meant if I died in Vietnam my life would have been used and wasted ... It meant if I decided not to do my job anymore I would be sent to jail and court-martialed. It meant a lot of people would think I was a traitor to my country because I didn't believe in the war anymore... It meant a lot of bad things I didn't want to think about, based on stories I wasn't sure were true. So I decided to forget about it.

(6) John Kerry, a naval officer who was awarded several medals for his efforts in Vietnam became active in the 'Vietnam Veterans Against the War' organisation in the late 1960s. On 22nd April, 1971, Kerry gave evidence to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in South-East Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day to day basis with a full awareness of officers at all levels of command.

They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut-off ears, cutoff heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cutoff limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam...

I would like to talk to you a little bit about what the result is of the feelings these men carry with them after coming back from Vietnam. The country doesn't know it yet but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and trade in violence.

(7) Gary G. Kohls, The My Lai Massacre Revisited (16th March, 2009)

Thirty-eight years ago, on March 16,1968, a company of US Army combat soldiers from the Americal Division swept into the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, rounded up the 500+ unarmed residents, all women, children and old men, and executed them in cold blood, Nazi-style. No weapons were found in the village, and the whole operation only took 4 hours.

Although there was a massive cover-up of this operation (which involved a young up-and-coming US Army Major named Colin Powell), those who orchestrated this "business-as-usual" war zone event did not deny the details of the slaughter when the case came to trial several years later. But the story did eventually filter back to the Western news media, thanks to a couple of courageous witnesses and journalists whose consciences were still intact. An Army court-marital trial eventually convened against some of the soldiers, including Lt. William Calley and Company C commanding officer, Ernest Medina.

According to many of the soldiers in Company C, Medina ordered the killing of "every living thing in My Lai," including, obviously, innocent noncombatants – men, women, children and even farm animals. Lt. Calley was charged in the murder of 109 civilians. In his defense statement he stated that he had been taught to hate all Vietnamese, even children, who, he was told, "were very good at planting mines."

The massacre was documented by many of Medina’s soldiers and recorded by photographers, but the Army still tried to cover it up. The cases were tried in military courts with juries of Army officers, which eventually either dropped the charges against all of the defendants (except Calley) or acquitted those accused. Medina and all the others who were among the killing soldiers that day went free, and only Calley was convicted of the murders of "at least 20 civilians." He was sentenced to life imprisonment for his crime, but, under pressure from patriotic pro-war Americans, President Nixon pardoned him within weeks of the verdict.

The trial stimulated a lot of interest because it occurred during the rising outcry of millions of Americans against the war that was acknowledged as an "overwhelming atrocity." Many ethical Americans were sick of the killing. However, 79% of those that were polled strenuously objected to Calley’s conviction, veteran’s groups even voicing the opinion that instead of condemnation, he should have received medals of honor for killing "Commie Gooks."

Just like the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, the realities of My Lai deserve to be revisited so that it will happen "never again." The Vietnam War was an excruciating time for conscientious Americans because of the numerous moral issues surrounding the mass slaughter in a war that uselessly killed 58,000 American soldiers, caused the spiritual deaths of millions more, killed 3 million Vietnamese (mostly civilians) and psychologically traumatized countless others on both sides of the conflict.

Of course the Vietnam War was a thousand times worse for the innocent people of that doomed land. They were victims of an army of brutal young men from a foreign land who were taught that the Vietnamese people were pitiful sub-humans and deserved to be killed – with some GIs preferring to inflict torture first. "Kill-or-be-killed" is an attitude that is standard operating procedure for military combat units of every nation and ideology.

Vietnam veterans tell me that there were scores, maybe hundreds, of "My Lai-type massacres" to which the Pentagon refuses to admit. Execution-style killings of "potential" Viet Cong sympathizers (i.e., anybody that wasn’t an American at the time) were common. Many combat units "took no prisoners" (a euphemism for murdering captives, rather than having to follow the nuisance Geneva Conventions which requires humane treatment for prisoners of war). The only unusual thing about the My Lai Massacre was that it was eventually found out.

Very few soldiers or their commanding officers were ever punished for the many war crimes that occurred during that war because those in charge thought that killing during war-time is simply the norm, usually labeled "collateral damage." After all, as Donald Rumsfeld infamously says, "stuff happens."

The torture was enjoyable for some – for a while. (Witness Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay today.) And wars are profitable for many – and still are. (Witness Halliburton et al. today.)

Those who plan wars and/or participate in them, yet also profess to be Christians, pay no attention to the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25:31-46, unless they are prepared to reject the words and ministry of the namesake of their religion especially regarding the issue of homicidal violence (for Jesus says, in so many words: "Violence is forbidden for those who wish to follow me"). And what is most hypocritical is the fact that these so-called Christians also reject Jesus’ Golden Rule command: "Do onto others as you would have them do unto you."

The rejection of the Way of Jesus also includes his clear teachings on how his followers are to treat the neighbor, the stranger, the hungry, the naked, the captive, the enemy and all others in need of mercy. In order to participate in the legal homicide that takes place in all wars, the followers of Jesus must ethically reject the totality of Jesus’ teachings and then adopt the un-Christ-like, non-gospel Just War Theory of Augustine (which first appeared 3 centuries after Jesus). There is no ethical way for the follower of the nonviolent Jesus to participate in or condone the mass slaughter of war. One has to choose between two irreconcilable belief systems.

The whole issue of the justification of war, with its inherent atrocities, is rarely examined in an atmosphere of openness and historical honesty. Full understanding of the realities of war and its spiritual, psychological and economic consequences for the victims is rarely attempted, especially for American "Christians." If we who are non-soldiers ever truly experienced the horrors of combat, the effort to abolish war would suddenly be a top priority (perhaps even the current crop of "Chicken Hawk" warmongers in the Bush Administration).

If we actually knew the gruesome realities of war (or even understood the immorality of spending trillions of dollars on war preparation while hundreds of millions of people are homeless and starving) we would refuse to cooperate with the things that make for war. But that wouldn’t be good for the war profiteers who profit from war. So those businesses must hide the gruesome truths and try instead to make it look like something patriotic, with, for example, sloganeering like "Be All That You Can Be." Or they might try to convince the soon-to-be-childless mothers of doomed, dead or dying soldiers that their child had died fighting for God, Country and Honor instead of for domination of the Middle East’s oil reserves.

Let’s face it. The US military standing army system has been bankrupting America at $500+ billion year after year after year – even in times of so-called "peace." The warmongering legacy of the Pentagon is still with us, particularly among those who wanted to "nuke the gooks" in Vietnam. Policy-makers of that ilk are still in charge of US war-making today, and they have been solidifying their power to do so with the huge profits made off the deaths, screams, blood, guts and permanent disabilities of our hood-winked soldiers who were told that they were "saving the world for democracy" when in fact they were making the world fit for ruthless and exploitive global capitalism and the obscene profits of the few. And the politicians and businessmen of war don’t want that gravy train to stop.

Things haven’t changed much even from the World War II mentality that conveniently overlooked the monstrous evil that was perpetrated at Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, a war crime so heinous that the psychological consequences, immune deficiency disorders and cancers from that nuclear holocaust are still being experienced in unimaginable suffering 60 years later.

Things haven’t really changed. The military mentality that allowed the 500,000 deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians in the aftermath of the first Gulf War is still dominant.

So it appears that our military and political leaders haven’t learned anything since My Lai. Is it still true of the churches? The person sitting next to you in the church pew is, like most Americans, almost totally ignorant of the hellish realities of the war-zone, or he may choose to be blindly patriotic or prefer to be indifferent to the plight of the "other" who suffers so much in war. He may think, contrary to Jesus’ clear teachings to the contrary, that some people are less than human, and, therefore, if necessary, can be justifiably killed "for Volk, Führer und Vaterland."