This piece I wrote provides a critical historical analysis of the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, specifically looking at culpability at all levels within the military leadership.
On the morning of March 16, 1968, members of the US Army Charlie Company entered the hamlet of My Lai 4 in the South Vietnamese village of Song My. They were expecting to locate and engage the Vietcong’s 48th Local Force Battalion.1 What they found instead were unarmed residents eating breakfast and preparing for the day. Without provocation these American soldiers began a rampage of rape and murder, killing over 400 villagers.2 Public exposure of these horrific crimes (over a year later) sparked tremendous debate among Americans. The magnitude of the massacre at My Lai, the Army’s subsequent concealment, and the eventual outpouring of similar stories, left many Americans with questions about the general conduct of the war.
With public pressure mounting, the Army conducted a series of investigations, the results of which were unsurprisingly very controversial. Two officers, Major General Samuel Koster and his assistant Brigadier General George Young, received reprimands for their participation in the initial cover-up of the slaughter. Captain Ernest Medina, who was present at My Lai and by some accounts actively participated in the murders that day, was acquitted of all charges. In the end only one person was convicted for participating in the killings. On March 29, 1971, Lieutenant William “Rusty” Calley was found guilty by a military court of the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians.3 With this conviction the Army ended its investigations of individual or collective guilt in what had been dubbed the My Lai massacre. Other participants were either acquitted or had charges dropped. The Army read the rhetoric of justice and declared the case closed. Perhaps the Army feared that further probing would only lead to the revelation that the My Lai Massacre was not altogether unique.
(Lt. William "Rusty" Calley)
After Lt. Calley’s conviction was announced, Robert Johnson—a Vietnam veteran and West Point graduate—told a reporter, “Rusty Calley is a scapegoat of United States policies.” Johnson was representing the views of several other former officers who were coming forward to tell of their own participation in acts similar to those that led to the murder verdict against Calley.4 His statements also summed up the views of many Americans who saw the results of the My Lai investigations as a whitewashing of Army culpability at the highest levels. While it was generally agreed upon that Lt. Calley’s conviction as a war criminal was justified, it was also widely viewed as a strategic sacrifice by the US Army to the American media.
The purpose of this essay is to explore two facets of Lt. Calley’s position as a scapegoat. In the first place, this paper will show that Lt. Calley’s prosecution reflects what should have been extended to other GIs and officers who either planned or took part in the atrocities that day. Regardless of whether they took direct initiative or were merely following orders, these soldiers are culpable for their actions under international standards. Secondly, this paper will explore the idea that Lt. Calley’s position as scapegoat hints at the culpability of the entire American war effort. That Lt. Calley was held solely responsible for the atrocities of that day speaks to a corrupt and cynical military justice system. But more importantly, it represents an attempt to deflect attention away from an obvious truth: the My Lai Massacre was but one manifestation of a war strategy based upon attrition through terror. Read most meaningfully, the scapegoating of Lt. Calley indicts the designers of the war at the highest level.
Just Following Orders?
While the Army muddied the facts of the story, many of the men who participated in the assault on My Lai spoke openly with internal investigators and reporters, giving detailed accounts of the atrocities. Their testimony reveals just how badly the Pentagon’s press department had extirpated the truth from official reports of the incident. More importantly, their accounts suggest a broad scope of culpability, both in the killings of that day, and in the countless other acts of brutality they experienced during their time in Vietnam. By all accounts it is clear that Lt. Calley used his position as an officer to directly order soldiers under his command to gather and execute the citizens of My Lai 4. But is also clear that other GIs took initiative in the killings. The members of Charlie Company went on a killing spree, shooting, stabbing, and raping multitudes of unarmed people huddled together and pleading for their lives. Most of these men did not require Lt. Calley’s insistence and encouragement in order to commit these murders.
Dennis Conti, a GI in Calley’s 1st Platoon, explained to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) investigators what happened: “We were all psyched up, and as a result, when we got there the shooting started, almost as a chain reaction. [We] had expected to meet VC combat troops, but this did not turn out to be so…the next thing I knew we were shooting at everything. Everybody was just firing. After they got in the village, I guess you could say that the men were out of control.”5
According to Harry Stanley, a soldier in Lt. Calley’s 1st Platoon, the slaughter of the villagers began when an unprovoked GI, “pushed [a] man up to where we were standing and then stabbed the man in his back with his bayonet.”6 Other GIs then began killing villagers, mostly old men, women and children. Soon after the first few murders, Lt. Calley gathered around eighty people in the village center and ordered them dead. The carnage continued into mid-afternoon as soldiers shot, blew-up, or stabbed “everything in sight, boasting about the number of ‘dinks’, ‘slopes’, and ‘slants’ they’d shot for themselves.”7 Lt. Stephen Brooks and his men in the second platoon to the north had also begun to systematically ransack the hamlet, killing the livestock, destroying the crops, and slaughtering the people. Men poured machine-gun fire into huts without knowing or caring who was inside.8
(Photo from Life Magazine, Dec 1, 1969, by Ronald L. Haeberle.)
Many soldiers were observed to have acted independently in murders, and were apparently not acting solely under Lt. Calley’s orders. Herbert Carter, who served as a “tunnel rat” in the 1st squad of Lt. Calley’s 1st Platoon, and who refused to fire at civilians at My Lai, remembered seeing a woman holding a baby coming out of a hut. She was crying because someone had shot her little boy. “She came out of the hut with her baby and [Sgt. Frederick] Widmer shot her with an M16 and she fell. When she fell, she dropped the baby and then Widmer opened on the baby with his M16 and killed the baby too.”9 Others witnessed or participated in similar episodes. Lt. Calley remembered seeing one man raping a woman, whom he told “to get his pants back up and get over to where he was supposed to be.”10
Some men refused to participate in the initial killings, but as they patrolled the village after the slaughter, they came across badly wounded people. Since medical care was not being given to wounded civilians, some of these troops engaged in what they called “mercy killings” in order to “finish them off.”11 While the issue of “mercy killings” certainly raises a different set of moral issues, the fact remains that these men cleaned up the mess of their fellow soldiers without demanding treatment for the wounded and without reporting the actions of their fellow soldiers to superior officers. This suggests that while these men may have had moral qualms with what took place at My Lai, they also found the course of events to be consistent with the objectives of the mission and the overall strategy of the war.
(Photo from Life Magazine, Dec 1, 1969, by Ronald L. Haeberle.)
Some have attempted to explain the actions of these American soldiers by pointing to what they expected to find—namely firmly entrenched Vietcong troops and enemy fire. But this is no defense since they were greeted with relative peace and no immediate panic from the villagers. Vietcong forces, if they existed at all in the village, were simply not visible to the Americans12. Regardless of what they expected to find, these men’s actions are indefensible both under international law and under US Army standards and rules of operation13. By their own accounts, these men had targeted and summarily executed unarmed civilians in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions. Even if they were under direct order by Lt. Calley (or others) to kill, these men had an obligation to resist those orders. Considering the sheer number of men involved, and given the fact that they had all supposedly been trained according to international rules of war, it is difficult to understand how the massacre could have been allowed to occur.
The fact that so many men are reported to have willfully and enthusiastically participated in these events suggests that they were led to believe that they were doing what was expected of them by their superior officers. Only the wide-scale perception by these soldier that they had the implicit and explicit encouragement of higher ranking officers can thoroughly account for the annihilation of the entire village and the murder of nearly all its occupants. This is evident given the fact that Lt. Calley was not a well respected officer, and some of the men even had a history of confronting Lt. Calley about orders that they found to be misguided.14
The most controversial figure to be implicated in the slaughter—and yet also flatly exonerated by the Army—was Captain Ernest L. Medina, a well respected figure within Charlie Company. While conflicting testimony makes it impossible to conclusively determine Medina’s orders before the slaughter, it is clear that he deserved at least a certain measure of blame for inciting the men to engage in these murders.
One of the controversies surrounding Capt. Medina involves the question of what exactly he said to the men of Charlie Company on the eve of the attack. What Capt. Medina was told to do with any civilians by task force leader Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker, also remains somewhat unclear. Testimony regarding the briefing that Medina gave to the men of Charlie Company reveals that the meaning of his statement was profoundly vague, and interpretations varied significantly. Yet it is clear that he told the men to expect a “hell of a good fight.”15 He left no doubt that he wanted Vietcong killed and My Lai destroyed, and that he wanted nothing left that could provide support for the Vietcong.
Some of the men in Charlie Company alleged that Medina had ordered the men to “Let it out” and to “Kill every one. Leave no one standing.”16 Others claimed that Medina had not ordered the murder of civilians. Instead he had suggested that the area had been cleared of civilians, and so everyone remaining was the enemy.17 Whatever their recollections of Medina’s exact words, all of the men testified that Medina had given an impassioned speech and many had left the briefing with the impression that the next day would be the time to seek vengeance for the losses that they had suffered. “It was clearly explained that there were to be no prisoners,” recalled Sergeant Kenneth Hodges. “The order that was given was to kill everyone in the village. Someone asked if that meant women and children. And the order was: everyone in the village…It was quite clear that no one was to be spared in that village.”18
Multiple sources suggest that Capt. Medina took an active role in the murders that morning while accompanying Charlie Company’s 3rd Platoon into the village. Chief Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson was piloting one of the helicopters circling over My Lai 4 as the soldiers laid waste to the hamlet below. As Thompson began marking the location of wounded civilians with smoke so the GIs on the ground could move over and begin treating some of them, he noticed that men began approaching his flares and killing the wounded. “The first one that I marked was a girl that was wounded,” Thompson testified, “and they came over and walked up to her, put their weapon on automatic and let her have it.” Thompson later identified the officer who did the shooting as Capt. Medina.19 Herbert Carter also testified that he saw Medina participate in the slaughter while on the outskirts of the My Lai 4: “A woman came out of the village and someone knocked her down and Medina shot her with his M16 rifle. I was 50 or 60 feet from him and saw this. There was no reason to shoot this girl.”20 Despite these claims, Medina denied being present during any of the killings or ordering the deaths of any civilians. However he did not deny ordering the troops to “destroy everything in the village” nor did he deny testing minefields with Vietnamese prisoners.21
(Photo from Life Magazine, Dec 1, 1969, by Ronald L. Haeberle.)
Since the operations at My Lai were aimed at confronting and destroying the Vietcong 48th Battalion, and civilians had supposedly already been removed from the area, not much concern was given to planning for the treatment and relocation of the people who would be displaced by the destruction of their homes. In fact the displacement of Vietnamese communities had become commonplace in Quang Ngai and in the area around Son My. When pressed by Capt. Kotouc the night before the raid on My Lai about provisions to be made to secure the relocation of Vietnamese civilians, Col. Barker had apparently told him just to “do it like normally.”22
While the order to kill civilians had not been explicitly given by officers higher up than Calley and Medina, orders to destroy the village and burn the houses had. Those who heard task force leader Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker’s initial orders were certain that he wanted My Lai 4 leveled. Captain Eugene Kotouc remembered, “Colonel Barker said he wanted the area cleaned out, he wanted it neutralized, and he wanted the buildings knocked down.” Medina also recalled that Barker had given orders to destroy the village.23 Bulldozers and ‘Zippo squads’ often followed on the heels of GIs in their ‘pacification’ efforts, razing entire communities, bulldozing over their graveyards and burning their homes.
Attrition Through Terror
Given the relative ease with which the men of Charlie Company engaged in the murder of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, it is clear that the massacre at My Lai cannot be explained as merely the result of individual audacity. Nor can it be explained as soldiers “just following orders.” Instead it needs to be viewed in the context of the overall strategy of US operations in Vietnam. What happened that day at My Lai was the natural outgrowth of a system of war based on attrition. Terrorism against the people of South Vietnam was an essential element to cutting off support to the Vietcong.
To comprehend terrorism of this scale, it is first necessary to understand the role of dehumanizing racism in instilling soldiers with the capacity to justify their brutality. The men of Charlie Company committed these atrocities because they disregarded the humanity of the villagers of Song My and conflated all Vietnamese people with “the enemy.” In his testimony to the Peers Commission in 1970, Michael Bernhardt, a member of Charlie Company who spoke some Vietnamese, described this attitude as the “dink complex.” Bernhardt explained that many of the men felt that since the Vietnamese were speaking a seemingly indecipherable language, “what they thought were these people were a whole lot less than human…making a sort of whipping boy out of the South Vietnamese population.”24
Military policy reinforced these stereotypes and beliefs. The logic behind “free-fire” zones, large areas where anything moving might be shot, contributed to the idea that few Vietnamese could be trusted. In theory, “free-fire” zones were areas from which non-combatants had been removed, and so those left behind were inevitably Vietcong. In “free-fire” zones, American soldiers went on “search and destroy” missions. In these missions GIs would essentially be used as bait. Their missions sometimes involved entering thickly forested areas in order to draw enemy fire and locate Vietcong forces. Once located, US troops were to fall back and call in air strikes on the enemy positions. In practice, whatever its original intent, “search and destroy” became the generic term for combat in Vietnam. Instead of exclusively meaning sweeps through sparsely populated areas in search of regular North Vietnamese forces or Vietcong guerillas, at times it was used to describe troops patrolling through heavily populated areas. When unarmed civilians were the targets of US machine guns, whether by accident or on purpose, the troops shrugged off guilt by assuring themselves that those they killed were “probably feeding the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] with rice anyway, so therefore they are the enemy.”25
The men of Charlie Company had been participating in these “search and destroy” missions for over a month by the time the My Lai Massacre occurred. As casualties mounted, due to small scale ambushes and booby traps, these troops increasingly viewed all Vietnamese they encountered as potential enemies. These soldiers came to view the villagers themselves as a legitimate target for elimination, since they were the ultimate source of all the aid.
While the goal of “pacification”, according to the US strategists, was to “create a popular base of support in the countryside”26 for the Saigon regime and US occupation, in reality it meant the annihilation of any resource within the countryside that could be used to provide material aid to Vietcong guerillas. In this context, the massacre at My Lai can be seen as the logical extension of “pacification.” This perspective is bolstered by the fact that while the massacre at My Lai may have been of an unprecedented scale, it was not an isolated incident. In fact it wasn’t even the only massacre that took place that day. In a related mission aimed at My Lai 1, which was considered to be the headquarters and hospital area of the 48th Vietcong Battalion, but which got diverted to the nearby hamlet of My Khe 4 because of booby traps, members of Bravo Company killed an estimated 100 unarmed civilians.27
An even earlier example comes from 1965, when CBS reporter Morley Safer accompanied US Marines into the village of Cam Ne. Several unarmed villagers were killed or wounded by Marines and 150 houses were burned to the ground. A helicopter was supposed to have preceded the Marines into the village, telling everyone to evacuate. “If you’re left there you’re considered VC,”28 was the order of the day. Safer had been disturbed by the mission and had personally tried to rescue villagers who failed to understand the command, given in English, to leave their homes.29
Exactly how many other similar atrocities occurred at the hands of US soldiers remains a mystery. Some of the men of Charlie Company insisted that what had occurred at My Lai was quite typical of their overall experience in Vietnam. Nicholas Capezza, a medic in Charlie Company, insisted he saw nothing unusual that day and complained that the news media was “blowing it all out of proportion. To me it was just like another day in Vietnam. Something like this is always happening. If you really wanted to find stories, you could find fifteen or twenty that could make this look like a nursery rhyme.”30 While this rhetoric may be overblown, Capezza’s comments and the subsequent revelation of other incidents similar to the My Lai tragedy reveal the dark secret of US involvement in Vietnam.
The ultimate conclusion is that My Lai occurred because the designers of the war effort at the highest level set up a strategy whereby the targeting of Vietnamese civilians would be a key tool in waging the war. That the massacre at My Lai 4 occurred was a logical extension of a war designed to succeed through attrition. The war strategy at the very top involved targeting the innocent in order to starve the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army of the material and political support that it needed to continue operating. The murder of 400 civilians, who themselves were thought to be Vietcong sympathizers and supporters, seemed to many GIs to fit in quite well with the overall strategy of the war. In fact, it seems that according to some troops, the murder and summary execution of whole communities was commonplace to their experiences in Vietnam.
Terrorism against the Vietnamese people extended far beyond the brutality of American soldiers on “search and destroy” missions. An example of this can be seen in the controversial Phoenix program, which claimed to have killed 15,000 suspected Vietcong in its first 13 months. This program was harshly criticized for killing civilians, denying suspects the due process of law, and for using illegal forms of interrogation.31 As well, the almost non-stop bombing of targets in North Vietnam, the defoliation of huge swaths of land in South Vietnam, and the constant introduction of chemicals of death into the ecosystem, can rightly be seen as systematic terrorism.
Looking at the overall scale of terror waged against the people of Vietnam, the massacre at My Lai seems almost small in comparison. It also seems very commonplace. With this understanding we see that Lt. Calley was indeed a scapegoat. While the men of Charlie Company, including Rusty Calley, all deserve blame for their actions in the field, those who deserve the greatest level of blame are those who created a situation in which the targeting of unarmed civilians seemed like a logical extension of combat operations. The real criminals at My Lai were those who designed a war of terror—including top military and civilian officials, advisors, and even President Johnson.
1 Olson, James S. and Roberts, Randy, My Lai; A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998), 18.
2 Hersh, Seymour, My Lai 4 (New York: Random House, Inc., 1970), 99-101.
3 Bigart, Homer, “Calley Guilty of Murder of 22 Civilians; Sentence Expected Today,” Special to the New York Times, New York Times, March 30, 1971.
4 Press Dispatches, “Protest Grows into Roar,” The Milwaukee Journal, April 1, 1971, 2.
5 Hersh, Seymour, My Lai 4, 51.
6 Ibid., 49.
7 Lehmann-Haupt, Cristopher, “Book of the Times,” New York Times, May 6, 1970.
8 Hersh, Seymour, My Lai 4, 51.
9 Olson, James and Roberts, Randy, My Lai, 21-22.
10 Ibid., 21-22.
11 Ibid., 75.
12 Hersh, Seymour M., “What Happened at My Lai,” in America in Vietnam (New York: Grove Press, 1995)
13 Olson, James and Robert, Randy, My Lai, 34-35.
14 Hersh, Seymour, My Lai 4, 19.
15 Olson, James and Roberts, Randy, My Lai, 19.
16 Bigart, Homer, “Slaying Order for My Lai Denied” Special to the New York Times, New York Times, March 6, 1971.
17 Olson, James and Roberts, Randy, My Lai, 20.
18 Olson, James and Roberts, Randy, My Lai, 20.
19 Hersh, Seymour, My Lai 4, 58-59.
20 Olson, James and Roberts, Randy, My Lai, 79.
21 “No Medina Denial Planned,” New York Times, December 18, 1970 and “Captain Denies Seeing Massacre” New York Times, December 5, 1970.
22 Olson, James and Robert, Randy, My Lai, 61.
23 Ibid., 59-61.
24 Olson, James and Robert, Randy, My Lai, 49-52.
25Young, Marilyn B., The Vietnam Wars (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), 164.
26 Ibid., 144.
27 Hersh, Seymour, Cover-up (New York: Random House, 1972), 18.
28 Young, Marilyn, The Vietnam Wars, 143.
30 Hersh, Seymour, My Lai 4, 184.
31 Ayres, B. Drummer Jr. “Allies Gain in Drive to Root Out The Vietcong’s Political Agents.” Special to the New York Times, New York Times, January 6, 1970.; and “Phoenix: To Get Their Man Dead of Alive” New York Times, February 22, 1970; and Peterson, Iver, “Vietnam: This Phoenix is a Bird of Death” New York Times, July 25, 1971.