Fifty years on from the worst US atrocity of the Vietnam War, Sean Ledwith explains what happened that day
Earlier this year Trump announced he was instructing the Pentagon to prepare a Bastille Day-style military parade through Washington to mark the traditional 4th of July celebration (estimated cost $30 million). We can be sure that if this bombastic display of imperial hubris goes ahead there will be little if any reference to America's greatest military defeat of the twentieth century in Vietnam - and sure there will be no mention of the worst atrocity committed by US forces 50 years ago during that conflict - the My Lai massacre. On 7:30 am on the 16th March 1968, a company of US soldiers entered this village; four hours later, they departed, leaving behind the bodies of over 500 Vietnamese men, women, children and babies.
Almost as appalling as the actual atrocity were the nefarious cover-up attempted by senior commanders in the US army in the aftermath, and the conspicuous lack of appropriate punishments for those who perpetrated the massacre. Most Americans today are probably oblivious to the horrific truth of My Lai thanks to the political amnesia that sustains the ideology of the world's biggest military spender. Among many who do know, a narrative has developed that My Lai was an aberration and that US forces in Vietnam overall conducted themselves in an honourable manner. Future US Secretary of State Colin Powell (who went on to assure us of the existence of Iraq's WMD in 2003) claimed in the year of the massacre relations between America soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.
The reality was that My Lai typified the warped mentality prevalent among the American military of the time that was encapsulated by an infamous statement by a US major concerning an operation a few weeks beforehand: It became necessary to destroy the village to save it
The massacre was committed in the aftermath of the Tet offensive launched jointly by the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong at the end of January 1968. The former were the regular troops of the pro-Russian and pro-Chinese north of the country, which had earned political independence after defeating and expelling the French colonialists in the 1950s. The VC were the guerrilla force, which operated in the south, seeking to unify the country, which had been divided along the 17th Parallel in the wake of the French departure. The US had taken over the role of the French as imperial protectors of the corrupt military dictatorship, which operated from Saigon, the capital of the South.
Starting with JFK 's 400 'military advisers' in 1960 mission creep incrementally expanded over the rest of the decade until by the year of Tet, there were 500,000 US soldiers deployed to prop up the ailing regime in the South. Despite this massive commitment of boots on the ground, the heart of the American strategy to beat the VC was indiscriminate aerial bombardment. Incredibly, US bombers were unloading eight bombs a minute on the country for the duration of the conflict, three times as many as all the armies of WW2 used.
Bomb them back to the Stone Age
US General Curtis Le May notoriously suggested the only way to deal with the pro-independence forces was to bomb them back into the Stone Age...until we have destroyed every work of man in North Vietnam. Apart from being barbaric and slaughtering an estimated one million (mainly civilian) Vietnamese, the strategy was militarily futile as the NVA and VC had developed an elaborate and extensive series of tunnels in the South which concealed them from the worst impact of the bombing.
By early 1968, US public opinion was starting to turn against the war as the body count of young American conscripts was tallied by television news on a daily basis for the first time. General Westmoreland, US commander-in-chief, was forced to issue one of the most delusional predictions in military history: “I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing. Shortly after this statement, on 31st January the combined forces of the NVA and the VC initiated the Tet offensive that involved operations for the first time against all the major urban areas of South Vietnam, especially Saigon.
Westmoreland’s words were exposed as hot air as American television viewers looked on with incredulity at scenes of Vietcong forces penetrating the compound of the US Embassy itself. Iconic footage of a South Vietnamese police officer putting a bullet through the head of a suspect in broad daylight also made many Americans question for the first time what sort of a regime they were supporting. The soldiers who would perpetrate the My Lai massacre experienced their first real taste of combat in the period after Tet when US forces came under relentless attack throughout the whole country.
Charlie Company had sustained heavy losses in the post-Tet period, with up to 40 soldiers killed on patrols in Quang Nai province near the 17th parallel. Under its senior officer, Captain Medina, the company had acquired a reputation as the ‘death-dealers’, because of their practice of dropping the Ace of Spades on the corpses of Vietnamese (later re-enacted by the fictional Colonel Kilgore in the film Apocalypse Now). Striving to survive in the hostile conditions of hidden booby traps, minefields and snipers, Charlie Company had increasingly resorted to sadistic violence as an outlet for their frustration about being unable to locate the enemy. One of the members of the company expressed their mood on the eve of the massacre: This was a time for us to get even. A time for us to settle the score. A time for revenge--when we can get even for our fallen comrades. The order we were given was to kill and destroy everything that was in the village. It was clearly explained that there were to be no prisoners…The order that was given was to kill everyone in the village.
My Lai had been identified as a village near the border that was a stronghold of VC forces. That intelligence was completely inaccurate - the village was largely made up of elderly, women and children. In fact, there were no males of military age at all in the village. As Charlie Company attacked on the 16th March most of those they encountered attempted to surrender and were either cut down with machine gun fire or herded into huts for execution. Lieutenant William Calley who was estimated to be personally responsible for up to 100 civilian deaths committed the worst violence. Some of the eyewitness accounts later provided by the soldiers present are almost unreadable:
After being told by Calley to “take care of this group,” one Charlie Company soldier recounted, Meadlo and a fellow-soldier “were actually playing with the kids, telling the people where to sit down and giving the kids candy.” When Calley returned and said that he wanted them dead, the soldier said, “Meadlo just looked at him like he couldn’t believe it. He says, ‘Waste them?’ ” When Calley said yes, another soldier testified, Meadlo and Calley “opened up and started firing.
Then came a high-pitched whining, which grew louder as a two- or three-year-old boy, covered with mud and blood, crawled his way among the bodies and scrambled toward the rice paddy. His mother had likely protected him with her body. Calley saw what was happening and, according to the witnesses, ran after the child, dragged him back to the ditch, threw him in, and shot him.
Remarkably, some US soldiers did in fact try to stop the carnage as Calley and most of his men slaughtered everything that moved. Major Hugh Thompson landed his helicopter right in front of Calley and confronted him at gunpoint. Thompson demanded that he be allowed to escort to safety a group of Vietnamese about to be executed. Unfortunately, this was an isolated example of humanity amid a hideous spasm of bloodshed. It cannot be verified precisely how many were slaughtered on the day but the memorial in the village today list 507 names.
It was apparent to senior officers within hours that a horrendous atrocity had been committed. However, the decision was made at the highest level that with anti-war sentiment rising at home, the events at My Lai should be kept out of the public domain. Charlie Company was subsequently dispatched by the high command to excessively long patrols in the most dangerous parts of the province; according to one of its members, in the hope they would all be killed and the episode suppressed forever. It was over twelve months later that a chance conversation between one of the soldiers and a reporter led to the horrible revelation to the world about what had happened.
The army was reluctantly forced to conduct an inquiry that had no choice but to conclude that an appalling breakdown of discipline had occurred. However, no senior officers were held to account and Lieutenant Galley (the only individual convicted) was, unbelievably, released after a mere four and a half months following a campaign by right-wing sympathisers. My Lai was not an aberration but the inevitable outcome of individual soldiers absorbing the barbaric aggression and rhetoric they witnessed around them as the world’s most powerful military machine sought to pound an agrarian society into oblivion.