A Look at the My Lai Massacre

Written by Heather Wilhelm

Being a Global Studies and History major has allowed me an interesting perspective on the history of war.  One war that I have studied quite a bit was the Vietnam War and more specifically the My Lai massacre that occurred in March of 1968.  I had heard a few years ago that Oliver Stone was planning to bring the horrors of this historical event to the big screen in another one of his epic political films, but recently learned that the production of “Pinkville” (what the My Lai massacre is more commonly referred to) had been halted.  Now whether or not there is any political posturing behind this production delay, I felt that I would bring the story of My Lai to you in writing and allow you to understand not only what happened on that fateful March 16, but also how the American government and their treatment of soldiers led to this horrific event.

The My Lai massacre was one of the greatest war tragedies of all time.  Hundreds of lives were lost in that small village in March of 1968, and along with them, the souls of countless soldiers went missing that day.  While the American public struggled to figure out why and how this could happen, the soldiers who were involved were asking themselves the same question.  It was a question that would never be answered.  There were many theories as to how such a catastrophic event could occur under American leadership.  Racism was a reoccurring speculation, as many of the soldiers had been trained since day one to hate the Vietnamese.  “The many hours the men spent during combat training listening to their instructors referring to the Vietnamese as ‘gooks’ and ‘slants’.[1] Another explanation explored was the language barrier.  The army felt that because their soldiers and the Vietnamese could not communicate, there had been a misunderstanding at My Lai.[2] This theory was quickly quashed by the testimony of the soldiers who had been present that day in the village.  Drugs and alcohol were another possible “reason” for the massacre.  The troops had been drinking the night before the massacre[3], but again the testimony of Charlie Company proved that theory wrong.  It is still hard to say exactly what caused all those soldiers to react the way they did in Vietnam that day, and throughout the rest of the war, but it is safe to say that there are some factors that contributed more than others.  Through conscription and a lack of training of soldiers, as well as jungle warfare involving an invisible enemy, and the need for revenge by the soldiers fighting the war, the My Lai massacre was able to occur, and it became a direct reflection of the Vietnam War in general.

The Vietnam War was America’s longest and most unresolved military conflict.[4] As a result, hundreds of thousands of young American men were forced to join the army through conscription, and were provided very little training as soldiers with regard to the Law of Land Warfare and the Geneva Conventions.[5] While American involvement in the Vietnam War was getting deeper and deeper, the government began to rush to find men to fight the war overseas.  They used conscription as a means to accomplish this feat, and were consequently left with thousands of men who were well below military standards.  “…what came to be called McNamara’s 100,000, the Project 100,000 men well below the Army average in terms of aptitude and intelligence and deemed unlikely to met peacetime entry qualifications.”[6] The standards for acceptable soldiers in Vietnam were so low, that it was not unimaginable that the My Lai massacre could happen.  Many of these men did not have the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong, and were therefore unable to protest what was ordered at My Lai.  Another problem with conscription was that many young men were forced into fighting the war.  “‘I was scared.  I didn’t want to go, but I had to,’ remembers Bergthold.  ‘Because if I didn’t I’d probably get court-martialed.’”[7] Unwilling young men across America were drafted into the army, and they could not protest without being put in jail.  When given these two bleak options, most men chose to fight the war, although they never truly accepted that they had to.  They felt trapped and in most cases, did not care about the war at all.[8] They wanted to go home, and this meant providing the government with high body counts.  “In a war that did not offer territory as a reward, body count became the index of success and failure in the whole war.  Officers who did not achieve satisfactory body counts were replaced; units who performed well were rewarded with leave.  The body count was the key statistic after each firefight and the pressure to produce high figures was enormous.”[9] These soldiers knew that if high body counts were provided they could go home, and they soon stopped caring about who they were killing.  The Vietnam War had an astronomical amount of civilian casualties and this was due, in large part to soldiers who did not care about or understand the war they were fighting.

This lack of regard for noncombatants in Vietnam was a direct result of the lack of training that was provided to soldiers before deployment.[10] While rushing to deploy young soldiers, the armed forces relaxed their training methods with regard to the rules of engagement.  This meant that most soldiers received less than one hour of training on the proper treatment of noncombatants in foreign countries.  “On paper, all soldiers received at least one hour’s instruction on the Law of Land Warfare and the Geneva Conventions.  In practice, it made little, if any, impression on men who were spending hundreds of hours being trained to follow orders and learning how to kill.”[11] So few hours were spent teaching these men how to deal with the Vietnamese civilians that there is no wonder they showed them no regard in My Lai.  They were not taught to communicate with them, or to understand their culture, and as a result they saw them as less than human.[12] The soldiers did not have any remorse for killing noncombatants in My Lai, and throughout Vietnam because they were not taught how to treat them as human beings.  “Rules of engagement were designed to limit the risk of civilian casualties.  In theory, they were issued to every serviceman; in practice, they might as well have been written on water.”[13] Rules of engagement was a term that was rarely heard amongst these soldiers.  Such a miniscule amount of time was spent teaching these men how to behave in a war, that they invented their own rules.  In doing so, they forgot to see humans, and instead saw animals when dealing with the Vietnamese.  In My Lai, they did not see innocent civilians, they saw human scum, something to kill, something to desecrate[14].  This was the case all over Vietnam, where blameless peasants were being killed every day due, in part, to a growing frustration within the army companies.  This frustration stemmed from the massive number of American soldiers the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were killing[15].  They were fighting a war that the United States was unaccustomed to, and therefore soldiers were losing their friends and fellow fighters on a daily basis.

Jungle warfare was a foreign method of war for the Americans, and they were losing many soldiers as a result[16].  After years of fighting against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, they were still unable to identify friendly civilians from enemy soldiers.  “In a conventional war, it is clear who are civilians and who are soldiers, but guerillas wear no uniforms or insignia to differentiate themselves from noncombatants.”[17] These silent forces were killing soldiers each day, and there was no way to stop it from happening.  They simply could not tell who was good and who was bad.  “‘How can you distinguish the enemy?  How can you distinguish between the good and the bad?  All of them looked the same.  And that’s why the war was so different.  You know it wasn’t like the Germans over here or the Japanese over there.  They all looked alike, North and the South.  So how can you tell?’”[18] This statement sums up the soldiers’ attitudes towards the Vietnamese.  Their confusion was at an all time high, as they tirelessly plowed through the rice paddies searching for enemies.  They saw old men in fields and young children playing in the villages, and everyone was a threat to their safety.[19] The more unhinged they became, the more dangerous they became.  Being unable to see their enemy led them to fire their weapons haphazardly, to attack without provocation, and to injure the innocent.[20] These seemingly normal young men were becoming killers and this was never more apparent then when they entered My Lai village.

Meanwhile, as the American soldiers grew increasingly frustrated, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army grew only in power.  “The Viet Cong meanwhile grew in numbers and confidence and learned how to deal with the tactical innovations of the American advisors.  In spite of millions of dollars of US military aid, and the presence of thousands of military advisors, the Viet Cong had grown steadily stronger.”[21] The increase in power and number of the Viet Cong only added to the desperation of the American soldiers.  They grew to hate the Vietnamese more vehemently then ever and displayed this hatred through the destruction of their villages, and the rape of their women.  “‘the VC/NVA apparently lose only one sixth as many weapons as people, suggesting that possibly many of the killed are unarmed porters or by-standers.’”[22] Never was this more apparent than in My Lai village, where hundreds of unarmed women, children and elderly men were murdered.[23] Being unable to distinguish between the enemy and noncombatants led the soldiers to see everyone as a threat, so therefore, everyone in My Lai village had to die.

As the assault on My Lai grew closer there was another change in the American soldiers.  More than just not being able to differentiate between the Viet Cong and the civilians, the soldiers sought revenge against all Vietnamese to avenge the deaths of their fellow soldiers.  “There then took shape a terrible psychological sequence in which there were real deaths in one’s unit, as there had been in C Company before My Lai.  There were two central deaths – one of a much-beloved sergeant who was a kind of father-figure.  There was a fierce sense of anger and grief in the men…”[24] Here lays one of the central reasons for the My Lai massacre.  The soldiers felt such guilt and shame for the deaths of their fellow officers and friends that they began to seek revenge against anyone they could.[25] The Vietnamese were all to blame for the tragedies that befell their troops, and as such, they would all pay.  In My Lai, the soldiers entered a village of noncombatants, but all they saw were enemies, because they had long ago forgotten that there was any good in Vietnam.  These enemies who were killing off their friends one by one with booby traps in the woods, and snipers in the trees had all become a single enemy:  the Vietnamese[26].  Everyone was to blame, so everyone must pay for the deaths within their troops.

Revenge was a key factor throughout the entire Vietnam War; it was not exclusive to the My Lai massacre.  The rape of numerous women in villages throughout Vietnam quickly became a silent problem for the American military.[27] Michael Berhardt was a soldier in C Company and he noticed that the soldiers in his troop had adopted a new code of conduct that permitted the brutal rape of civilians.  When he was questioned about whether rape was a prevalent problem by investigators he stated, “I thought it was, sir.  It was predictable.  In other words, if I saw a woman, I’d say, ‘Well, it won’t be too long.’  That’s how widespread it was.”[28] The soldiers had taken on a new attitude about war.  Instead of protecting the weak and powerless they were exploiting them on a daily basis.  Lieutenant William L. Calley recalled witnessing one of his soldiers raping a civilian and telling him “to get his pants back up and get over to where he was supposed to be.”[29] Instead of reprimanding his subordinate for committing a crime of war, the Lieutenant casually tells him to stop and does not instill any type of punishment.  The soldiers in Vietnam were not being punished for their crimes, and as a result started to believe that their behavior was acceptable.  These blasé attitudes towards civilians were another contributing factor in the massacre.  When the soldiers stopped behaving like civilized humans, the people who paid the ultimate price were the women, children, and elders of My Lai village.

There are few people who would argue that the My Lai massacre was a tragedy of unbelievable proportions, although there are not too many people who know that this tragedy occurred.  There was a large effort made by the American government to minimize what actually happened that day and eventually the ‘massacre’ became an ‘incident’ that was quickly swept under the carpet and forgotten about.[30] The government’s attitude towards the massacre was similar to most of the soldiers of ‘C’ Company who thought they were simply following orders that day.  The lives that were taken that day were not human to them; they were something lower, something inhuman.  This mind frame allowed the soldiers to murder hundreds of souls without a second thought.  Again, this occurred for several reasons.  Racism, language barriers, and drugs and alcohol could all have played a role in the mindset of some of the soldiers, although there are several reasons that play a stronger role.  Conscription and a lack of training of soldiers left the American troops weaker then they had ever been.[31] The young soldiers did not have the mentality or the courage to stand up and refuse to take part in My Lai because they were scared and inexperienced.  The guerilla war that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were fighting was something that the American military was not accustomed to.  This resulted in numerous American casualties, which produced vengeful soldiers on a mission to avenge the deaths of their friends and fellow soldiers.[32] That being said, through conscription and a lack of training of soldiers, as well as jungle warfare involving an invisible enemy, and the need for revenge by the soldiers fighting the war, the My Lai massacre was able to occur, and it became a direct reflection of the Vietnam War in general.  Thankfully, since that fateful day in March of 1968 many of the soldiers who fought in My Lai have had the opportunity to reflect on the wrongs that they committed against the human race.  Unfortunately, there are others still who do not understand the consequences of the murders they were a part of, because they were never punished for them.  Hopefully, some lessons were learnt from these past mistakes, and the world will never have to witness another My Lai massacre.

[1] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[2] Gershen, M. (1971). Destroy or die: the true story of mylai. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House.

[3] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books.

[4] Gershen, M. (1971). Destroy or die: the true story of mylai. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House.

[5] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[6] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[7] Gershen, M. (1971). Destroy or die: the true story of mylai. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House.

[8] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[9] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[10] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[11] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[12] Anderson, D. (1998). Facing my lai: moving beyond the massacre. Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas.

[13] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[14] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[15] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[16] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[17] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[18] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[19] Anderson, D. (1998). Facing my lai: moving beyond the massacre. Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas

[20] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[21] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[22] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[23] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books.

[24] Anderson, D. (1998). Facing my lai: moving beyond the massacre. Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas.

[25] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[26] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[27] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books

[28] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books.

[29] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books.

[31] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books.

[32] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

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2 comments

  1. I cannot recall how I got your link, but I have read the article written Ms. Heather Hilhelm. Although I was not personally at My Lai, I remember the event very clearly because the massacre was in the news each and every night. I am in disagreement with her saying it did not make headlines and thus quickly buried by the government from the American public. What did happen however, was news journalists prayed heavily upon this story. It was followed up each night on nightly news at 6 and at 11, this was a big story, I can clearly hear it as I am writing this response. I know in my heart that Lieutenant William Calley, the Officer convicted of the massacre was following orders that he received prior to his mission, or, orders he received while out in the field from his superiors. And the news media pushed this story very hard. So hard in fact that the government had to do something and do it in a hurry. They had press hearings and every other thing you could think of, but our government needed someone to hang out to dry for this atrocity. Who, the better victim to try for all those charges, than the low guy on the pole, a platoon leader, a low ranking officer. I am convinced that other officers were just as involved as any other soldier there at My Lai, and I bet there were a few high ranking officers. In combat, soldiers follow orders or else, you are not allowed to say no, you followed orders or go to jail. Believe me, they can trump up all kinds of charges on a soldier for not following orders. So the guy sitting at his desk, safe, not out in the field to see hear or know what is really going on at the time, can order anything. Does this make it right, no, not at all, My Lai was wrong, it was atrocious, meaningless, senseless and a crime against humanity in the worst possible way. All I am saying is this, the higher ranking officers, those that had a career to loose were let go, a fast and speedy trial was needed and a pretty poor investigation put together all pointed to just one man, Lt. William Calley. Others should have taken a fall with him as well. I also have a few more replies to this article so I may as well put them all out for viewing pleasure, but first, may I just say, to those soldiers that were there, the war id over now, what is past is past, it is now history. What I am trying to say is this, try hard to let it go, you were young and you were a soldier following orders, please, forgive yourself now, it is long over due for you all.

    Also in the article I read that she said soldiers were not taught about the Geneva convention, rules of engagement, or how to act in a war no one wanted. First of all, when I enlisted in the Army, I received training on all of this, and a whole lot more than just one hour. She writes “Through conscription and a lack of training of soldiers, as well as jungle warfare involving an invisible enemy, and the need for revenge by the soldiers fighting the war, the My Lai massacre was able to occur, and it became a direct reflection of the Vietnam War in general.”

    Well, yes, men were drafted, but many ran also, some to Canada, others burned draft cards, others went to college and even others went to hide out. What would happen to our great country if everyone had done this, not one soldier enlist or go due to their being drafted? Would we have an Army or even a military today? To me, that was a crime, every one that ran away, cowards, themselves, cry babies. Look at me, I am on the news and I don’t and won’t go to any war, draft or not. In the end, they were pardoned and forgiven for their acts of violence against the American Soldier, and I have learned to forgive them also. But a lot of guys died so they could be at LAX when I arrived back home from over there to be spit on, then hauled away by Military Police and loaded on a bus. Was that fair?

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