The continuing tragedy of the My Lai Massacre, Part 1

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The problem with war is that it makes people who are otherwise good commit horrific acts of violence. One of the uglier examples of this was the My Lai Massacre, which saw between 347 and 504 Vietnamese civilians murdered by American troops of Charlie Company during the Vietnam War. Many of these victims were women and young children. If the cold-blooded slaughtering weren’t bad enough, what makes this even worse is that it appears that nothing was learned from it.

Here is a documentary about the My Lai Massacre and its aftermath. It’s not the shortest video, but it is worth the watch.

Charlie Company had been suffering casualties from booby traps and sniper fire after not seeing much action previously. Although they used to get along well with the villagers, the violence they suffered hardened them and made them distrust those they encountered. Who is the enemy? Who is a civilian? They responded by becoming abusive, burning down buildings and sometimes even raping the villagers.

It all came to a head when they expected to ambush a Viet Cong stronghold at a village but instead found only unarmed civilians. In their anger and frustration and delusion, they took to massacring the villagers. They tossed grenades into bunkers where families hid, they rounded up people and gunned them down, and they lined people up in front of ditches and executed them. It was a bloodbath—they literally blew babies’ heads off with their guns. And in a display of grisliness that sums up how little some human life is regarded during war, they even managed to take a lunch break.

Not all of the soldiers took part in the entire murderous rampage. Many of them refused to stand over the ditch and join Lt. William Calley as he killed mothers trying to cover their children. But none of them did anything to stop it except for one helicopter crew of three led by Hugh Thompson, Jr. who threatened to shoot any American soldiers who tried to kill any of the Vietnamese villagers they were helping to evacuate.

The My Lai Massacre was initially covered up despite Thompson immediately reporting it to his seniors. Following this, Thompson was sent on the most dangerous of missions—with his helicopter being shot down on several of them—likely as a way to make him “go away.” Representative Mendel Rivers called him a traitor and attempted to have him court-martialed for pointing his gun at his fellow American troops who were murdering innocent people. It was not until thirty years later that the Army officially recognized the helicopter crew for their bravery and moral character (although they did not want to award the honors publicly).

When the story of the massacre and its cover-up were finally broken, many of those involved (most those connected to the cover-up) were put on trial, but it was only Lt. Calley who was convicted—convicted only for the murder of the people he killed but not for ordering the murders that others carried out. His sentence was life in prison but President Nixon reopened the case and Calley eventually only served three and a half years under house arrest.

As shown in the documentary, there was a public outcry over Calley’s original conviction. Why Calley? Why was he the only one being singled out? It’s not fair that he was the one who had to go to prison in a war where some estimated that upwards of two million Vietnamese civilians were killed. In their view, it was the politicians and military leaders who had the blood on their hands.

They had a point. The politicians and military leaders did have blood on their hands for fighting such a war, putting their soldiers in such horrible situations making a recipe for massive human rights violations. The idea of civilian collateral damage is taken much too lightly. These are real people who are being killed by no fault of their own. They are human beings whose lives are worth every bit as much as anyone else who has ever walked the earth.

Yet while they are right about the rulers, their conclusion that it means that Calley should walk free is backwards. Those who give evil orders ought to be held accountable, but those orders can only be executed if there are people willing to pull their triggers. Had Charlie Company done, yes, the right thing that day, the My Lai Massacre would have never happened. They knew what they did was wrong.   They spoke about fearing getting into trouble in the days following the massacre and again when they were summoned to testify some time later.

Looking back at what happened, it does not appear that any of the veterans believe that what happened that day was anything but bad. But what is so disheartening is that several of them still refuse to take accountability for their actions. One said:

I am a soldier and I receive and obey the orders that are issued to me by my superiors. Their order was to kill or destroy everything in the village—the children happened to be there. The people of that village were Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers. Maybe some see it differently. That’s the way I see it.

And another:

As far as living with the shame of My Lai, I have no shame. I did what I was supposed to be doing. Shame rests with the politicians and the military, not with me, the other members of Charlie Company, Lieutenant Calley, or Captain Medina. Shame lays with them. It’s a national shame.

These views are pitiful and so obviously mistaken. As mentioned earlier, it was wrong that they were put in those situations in the first place, but the mindset to blindly follow orders is utterly dangerous. Clarence Darrow’s words from Resist Not Evil could not be more appropriate:

The lowest standard of ethics of which a right-thinking man can possibly conceive is taught to the common soldier whose trade is to shoot his fellow man. In youth he may have learned the command, “Thou shalt not kill,” but the ruler takes the boy just as he enters manhood and teaches him that his highest duty is to shoot a bullet through his neighbor’s heart,—and this unmoved by passion or feeling or hatred, and without the least regard to right or wrong, but simply because his ruler gives the word.

This confused mindset is the mindset that so many people have today. People will defend the actions of American troops today in Afghanistan and Iraq who are responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians by saying that they are just following orders. When does following an order trump the basic rights of a fellow human being? Though any given incident today may not produce the numbers that My Lai did, the bullets add up. Countless innocent lives have been lost at the hands of the United States military since the Vietnam War. Despite knowing that the loss of civilian lives is inevitable and significant, people don’t dare to question those whose hands hold the warm guns. Until they do, the terrible acts of violence will continue.