February 22, 2013

My Lai

PBS American Experience

The Slide Into Barbarism

Graham Greene (1904 – 1991):
The long, slow slide into barbarism of the Western World seems to have quickened.
[These] photographs are of torturers belonging to [the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam — an army] that could not exist without the American aid and counsel.
Does this mean that American authorities sanction torture as a means of interrogation?

William Peers (1914 – 1984) [General, US Army]:
  1. During the period 16-19 March 1968, US Army troops of [Task Force] Barker, 11th Brigade, Americal Division, massacred a large number of noncombatants in two hamlets [My Lai and My Khe] of Son My Village, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam.
    The precise number of Vietnamese killed cannot be determined but was at least 175 and may exceed 400.
  2. The massacre occurred in conjunction with a combat operation which was intended to neutralize Son My Village as a logistical support base and staging area, and to destroy elements of an enemy battalion [mistakenly] thought to be located in the Son My area.
  3. The massacre resulted primarily from the nature of the orders issued to persons in the chain of command within TF Barker.
  4. The task force commander's order and the associated intelligence estimate issued prior to the operation were embellished [such that they] ultimately presented to the individual soldier a false and misleading picture of the Son My area as an armed enemy camp, largely devoid of civilian inhabitants.
  5. Prior to the incident, there had developed within certain elements of the 11th Brigade a permissive attitude toward the treatment and safeguarding of noncombatants which (contributed to the mistreatment of such persons during the Son Ply Operation).
  6. The permissive attitude in the treatment of Vietnamese was, on 16-19 March 1968, exemplified by an almost total disregard for the lives and property of the civilian population of Son My Village on the part of commanders and key staff officers of TF Barker.
  7. On 16 March, soldiers at the squad and platoon level, within some elements of TF Barker, murdered noncombatants while under the supervision and control of their immediate superiors.
  8. [Crimes] visited on the inhabitants of Son My Village included individual and group acts of murder, rape, sodomy, maiming, and assault on noncombatants and the mistreatment and killing of detainees. …
  9. Some attempts were made to stop the criminal acts …
    [But,] with few exceptions, such efforts were too feeble or too late.
  10. [There was] no evidence that any member [engaged in the] operation was under the influence of marijuana or other narcotics.
(Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident, Department of Army, 1970)

William Westmoreland (1914 – 2005) [General and Chief of Staff, US Army]:
The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.
Life is plentiful.
Live is cheap in the Orient.
(Peter Davis, Hearts and Minds, 1974)

Dallas Morning News:
Supposedly the purpose of fortified villages is to keep the Vietcong out. …
Vietnamese farmers are forced at gunpoint into these virtual concentration camps.
Their homes, possessions and crops are burned.
[Seven villagers had their] stomachs slashed, their livers extracted and put on display.
These victims were woman and children.
In another village, expectant mothers [had their stomachs] ripped open and their unborn babies removed.
(1 January 1963)

Vietnamese Democratic Bulletin:
It is certainly an ironic way to protect the peasant masses from Communism. …
(September 1963.)

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970):
The advantages of successful war are doubtful, but the disadvantages of unsuccessful war are certain.
(Creeds as sources of power, Power, 1938, p 103)

John Kennedy (1917 – 1963)

You can never defeat the Communist movement in Indochina until you get the support of natives …
[And] you won't get [that support,] until the French … pull out and give this country the right of self-determination and the right to govern themselves.

[I believe] that no amount of military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy that is everywhere and at the same time nowhere — "an enemy of the people" which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.

(Chris Matthews, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, Simon & Schuster, 2011, Reader's Digest, 2013, pp 67 & 98)

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

… South Vietnam was part of French Cochin-China, but after a long process of civil war, the French were excluded from the whole region.
A conference was summoned to meet at Geneva in 1954.
The conclusions reached were sensible and, if they had been carried out, no trouble would have arisen.
Vietnam was to be independent and neutral, and was to have a parliamentary government established by a General Election.
The Americans did not like this.
They professed to suspect that [a unified] Vietnam would become part of the Communist bloc if left to itself… in spite of reiterated statements by the Government of North Vietnam that they wished to be neutral. …

There were in South Vietnam three parties:
  • the peasants [—] who constituted the large majority;
  • the Buddhists; and
  • a tiny minority of Christians [—] who had been supporters of the French.
The Americans [chose] to support [the Catholics.]
[Consequently, war] ensued between the American-supported minority and the Buddhists and peasants. …

It has been warfare of an incredibly brutal kind [—] brutal to a degree seldom equaled by any civilised power. …
It is generally admitted that there is no hope that the Americans can win this war. …

Eight million [South Vietnamese] have been put in barbed wire concentration camps involving forced labour.
The country — civilians, animals and crops, as well as warriors and jungle — has been sprayed with jelly gasoline and poison chemicals.
Fifty thousand villages were burnt in 1962 alone. …

[The] anti-Communist Democratic Party of Vietnam told the International Control Commission that:
Decapitation, eviscerations and the public display of murdered women and children are common.

(The Labour Party's Foreign Policy, LSE, 15 February, 1965)

YOU are in the cross-hairs of a bomb-sight an enemy is centering on you.
YOU are a citizen of the Free World; a citizen of the United States of America.
YOU are the target!

Oliver Stone (1946)

Enemies: Foreign and Domestic

In the early 21st century there would be almost 300 million guns in American homes.
We are the most heavily armed nation in the world.
But when any nation goes to an extreme degree to protect itself, it's inevitable that that protection will never seem, psychologically, to be enough.
It is also often true that the image of the enemy will grow proportionate to the size of the defence, resulting in an overreaction and accelerated spending of energies in a futile attempt to liquidate that fear which never seems to erode.

Fear and uncertainty are two inescapable elements of human life since the beginning of time.
They are to be accepted as one accepts birth and death. …
[Indeed, it is by] containing our fear and uncertainty [that] we become naturally stronger. …

Clearly, in hindsight, American leaders had exaggerated the threat from an enemy they felt they needed.
Wanting to frame the world as an existential clash between two antagonistic social systems. …

[By 1950,] the United States had forged the foundation of a new mindset.
It had developed into a full fledged, if unique, kind of empire.
Economically supreme and massively armed, policing the world while professing liberty and democracy.
For a policeman, it's necessary to locate and arrest enemies of its social system. …

[At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh,] who had received US assistance when he had led the resistance to the Japanese … asked President Truman for help in setting up an independent Vietnamese state.
He received no response.
In 1950, he found out why: Truman was backing the other side.

By April of 1954, Ho Chi Minh's peasant army [was laying] seige to an encircled French army at Dien Bien Phu. …
Incredibly, the United States was paying for 80% of the French war costs. …
On May 7th, after 57 grueling days, the French garrison fell and France's days of colonial [glory] in Asia were over. …

Despite the fact that his forces controlled most of the country, Ho gave in to pressure from the Soviets and Chinese who feared US intervention.
[At the Geneva peace conference he] accepted a proposal to temporarily divide Vietnam at the 17th Parallel …
A national election was scheduled for 1956 to unify the country.
The US promised not to interfere — but it did. …
Dwight Eisenhower:
[As] of the time of the fighting, possibly 80% of the population would have voted for the communist Ho Chi Minh. …
[Within] a few short years, the French war would become the American. …

(The 50s — Eisenhower, the Bomb & the Third World, The Untold History of the United States, 10 December 2012)

[Lyndon Johnson] was a man, a potential giant, who, in denying his compassion, suffered from a truly American obsession.
Fear of weakness. …

[According to the Vietnamese,] the US threatened to use nuclear weapons on thirteen different occasions.
But that had not changed their policies.

Although they would pay a terrible price for their independence, the Vietnamese understood a basic truth that America's leaders never grasped.
The Vietnamese foreign minister later said:
We knew they could not stay in Vietnam forever; but, Vietnam must stay in Vietnam forever.
The Vietnam war was about independence and time.
Not territory and body counts.

John Quincy Adams (1767 – 1848) [6th President of the United States, 1825-1829]:
A nation should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
It has here in Vietnam that the US ran into its ultimate monster.
An enemy that could not be defeated; because, they were fighting to protect their homeland against foreign invaders. …

[In 1995, Robert McNamara conceded that] 3.4 to 3.8 million Vietnamese had perished.
In comparison, 58,000 Americans died in the fighting and 200,000 were wounded.

{The US dropped three times as many bombs on tiny Vietnam as it did in all of World War II.}
… 9,000 of South Vietnam's 15,000 hamlets [were destroyed.]
In the North, all six industrial cities, 28 of 30 provincial towns and 96 of 116 district towns.
Unexploded ordinance still blankets the countryside.

Nineteen million gallons of herbicide had poisoned the environment. …
The effects of chemical warfare alone lasted for generations. …
Surviving children born with horrid birth defects and deformities and cancer rates much higher than in the North.

[And yet,] the chief issue in the United states was, for many years, the hunt for 1,300 soldiers missing in action.
A few hundred of them presumed taken as captives by the North Vietnamese …

The outcome [of the war] has been shrouded in sanitized lies. …
The Vietnam veteran's memorial in Washington … contains the names of 58,282 dead or missing Americans.
The message is clear: the tragedy is the death of those Americans.
But imagine if the names of 3.8 million Vietnamese and millions of Cambodians and Laotians were also included. …

Johnson, convinced that communists were behind the anti-war movement, ordered the CIA to uncover proof …
[The] CIA's illegal domestic operations lasted almost seven years [but] failed to prove communist involvement. …

In 1965, with CIA support, General Suharto led the army in crushing [President] Sukarno's supporters.
In the following months Suharto's militias and civilian mobs went from house to house killing a half million to a million suspected communists and their families.
US, British and Australian intelligence provided thousands of names of suspected communists to the army. …
In 1968, the CIA acknowledged that the Indonesian massacre ranked as one of the worst mass murders in the 20th century. …

(Johnson, Nixon & Vietnam: Reversal of Fortune, The Untold History of the United States, 24 December 2012)


In December 2014, Stone made statements supporting the Russian government's narrative on Ukraine, portraying the 2014 Ukrainian revolution as a CIA plot and former Ukrainian president (who was ousted as a result of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution) Viktor Yanukovych, whose responsibility for the killing of protesters is claimed by the new Ukrainian government, as a legitimate president forced to leave Ukraine by "well-armed, neo-Nazi radicals."

(Wikipedia, 2 July 2017)

PBS American Experience

My Lai (2010)

Barack Goodman: Writer & Director

Lawrence La Croix [Squad Leader]:
[We started] throwing grenades into the bunkers [and] hearing the screaming from inside.

Pham Thanh Cong [Villager]:
[Three] American soldiers came to my house.
They pushed six of us down into the shelter and threw a hand grenade in behind us.
[Then] they used their machine guns to shoot us down.
My entire family was blown into pieces. …
(p 13)

Ronald Haeberle [Army Photographer]:
I was the photographer on the operation that day. …
I was coming up to a group of people who were huddled and they had some [American GIs] surrounding them.
One soldier spoke up and said …
Here’s a person with a camera!
[Sure] enough, the soldiers backed off and I moved up and I took a photograph of these people.

You can see the fear in the faces on there especially the small children, and the older woman trying to protect the daughter.
Then, [in] the next instant, automatic fire.
They were all shot [and] I saw them drop to the ground.

Dan Millians [Attack Helicopter Pilot]:
[I was] tagging along behind the OH-23 flown by Hugh Thompson [who died in 2006.]

[We] started seeing bodies accumulate in the village.
Women, kids — I’d never seen anything like that. …
(p 14)

Lawrence Colburn [Observation Helicopter Gunner]:
We lingered by one of the bodies that we marked, it was a young female with a chest wound, but she was still alive.
[Hugh] Thompson decided he’d move back, stay at a hover and watch, and we saw a captain approach the woman, look down at her, kick her with his foot, step back and just blew her away, right in front of us.
Later on we found that it was [the Company Commander, Captain] Ernest Medina …

(p 15)

Michael Bilton [Writer]:
[Charlie company] gathered together about a hundred and seventy old men, elderly women, mothers with small children, and pushing them, herding them, across to the eastern side of the village near to where a big drainage ditch was situated. …
Calley gave the order to start firing and [he and private Meadlo turned] their M16 rifles on this group and began shooting.
Mothers started diving with their children into the ditch.
One mother described it later as like ducks, going into the water. …
(p 16)

Thomas Turner [Team Leader]:
[Lieutenant] Calley yelled at me to come help him and I just kept walking …
I didn’t even turn around and answer him. …
I thought at the time,
[That’s] disobeying an order …
[He] can do anything he wants to me …
[But] I didn’t care.
I wasn’t gonna help him kill people in a ditch.
To this day, I [ask] myself
[What] could I have done to stop [it?]
(p 17)

Trent Angers [Writer]:
[The observation helicopter pilot, Hugh] Thompson, now sees a small group of Vietnamese people … running for their lives, heading for a bunker [pursued by] men from Charlie Company.

Lawrence Colburn:
Mr Thompson calculated they had less then thirty seconds to live.
Hugh Thompson:
I’m going over to the bunker and get these people out myself.
And if these American soldiers fire on these people or me, when I’m getting them out of the bunker, shoot ‘em. …
Thomas Turner [Team Leader]:
I was … less than 50 yards from this helicopter …
I remember the door gunners … pointing their machine guns directly at me and thinking,
Oh my god what are they gonna do? …
Dan Millians:
Hugh and his crew had a group of people gathered up to be taken out.
[I] landed the helicopter, put 'em on, and we left with them.
A gunship just never landed out in the boonies like that to pick up somebody.
It was just not done.
I don't know why we did it, other than … that those people needed to be out of there.
(p 18)

Walter Cronkite [CBS News Anchor]:
At Fort Benning, Georgia, today the prosecution opens its case against 1st Lieutenant William Calley, Jr charged with the murder of more than 100 South Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. …

Aubrey Daniel [Army Prosecutor]:
He was not charged with the massacre.
He was charged with what he did.
[He] was responsible for more [of the] killing than anybody else there by a long shot. …
(p 28)

Walter Cronkite:
[Under political pressure] President Nixon has ordered Lieutenant William Calley released from the stockade and confined to his quarters pending review of his conviction life sentence for the My Lai massacre.
(p 30)

Michael Bilton [Writer]:
Ultimately, he had to serve … about four months …

Jerome Walsh [Investigator, Peers Commission]:
… Nixon's intervention passed the word that:
Nobody is going to get punished for what happens here …
[The] result of this was to completely undermine any further prosecutions of other officers.
Calley got away with it – and all the other people who were involved got away with it also. …
(p 31)

Michael Bilton:
If you take the total number of people who died at My Lai, which was five-hundred and seven, and put that along side the two-million civilians who died, it doesn't seem very much.
But it in terms of impact on America and on the rest of the world, about how they conducted that war, clearly it changed people's opinions towards the war.
It was too big a price to pay …
[If] you were going to have to win this war by this kind of conduct, then it wasn't a price worth paying. …
(p 32)

William Calley (1943):
There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai …
I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families.
I am very sorry.
(Kiwanis Club, Columbus, Georgia, 19 August 2009)

Three US servicemen who had tried to halt the massacre and protect the wounded were initially denounced by several US Congressmen as traitors.
They received hate mail and death threats and found mutilated animals on their doorsteps.

The three were later widely praised and decorated by the Army for their heroic actions. …

[Calley eventually served] three and one-half years under house arrest at Fort Benning.

… Captain Medina denied giving the orders that led to the massacre, and was acquitted of all charges …
Several months [later he] admitted that he had suppressed evidence and had lied … about the number of civilian deaths.
(16 February 2013)

Would you like to know more?


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. The nature of war can change a clear minded soldier into a murderer or even worse. Excellent perspectives were stated in this article. I wish there was more perspectives and comments from Lt Calley.

    Helped a me alot. Thank you