"I felt then--and I still do-- that I acted as directed, I carried out my orders, and I did not feel wrong in doing so"
- William Calley's testimony
My Lai was a hamlet in the village of My Son in South Vietnam. Known to the G.I.'s as 'Pinksville', it had a reputation as a somewhat sinister place. When they walked through it, it seemed deserted - but smouldering fires and other signs of occupation showed that people definitely lived there. The village, as with the entire province of Quang Ngai in which it was situated, were considered to be a high-density Viet Cong stronghold (specifically, My Lai was thought to be the home of the 48th Viet Cong Local Forces Battalion).
The Americans involved were Charlie Company, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division, led on the ground by Lieutenant William L. Calley (figures vary as to how many American soldiers went in, it seems likely there were 75-100). While the question of why C Company acted as it did on that fateful day is a complex one, two causes can be isolated immediately, and both involve the chain of command of the American forces during the Vietnam War. Calley (whose autobiographical account of the massacre was entitled Body Count) was not considered officer material under normal circumstances - he was generally seen as being of extremely low intelligence, and the men serving under him hence held him in little esteem, as journalist Seymour Hersh confirmed in his investigation My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and its Aftermath:
"If there was any concurrence among former members of Calley's platoon in Vietnam, it is the amazement that the army considered Calley officer material."
The other factor was the incessent demand of those higher up the command chain for a 'body count' - and, as G.I.s often joked, "anything not white and dead is a VC". Units frequently exagerated their body counts, or counted any dead Vietnamese as a combatant. C Company had recently been chided - mocked, in fact - by the Colonel further up the chain of command for its low kill count. Both of the factors mentioned thus far are related to the fact that America was fighting a war without the support of its public - they were forced to commission men of little ability, and the need to show the public they were winning the war meant the chain of command put pressure on soldiers to come up with results, whatever the cost.
In a guerilla war, men were the farthest they could ever be from the traditional, pleasurable combat narrative. Like many units in Vietnam, C Company had lost men to sniping, booby traps and bombardment. They had had little chance to close with and heroically destroy the enemy, which is what a young, inexperienced soldier yearned to do most. This was their chance - and keen for success and a 'body count', their officers didn't put them off. Anyone they encountered in the village was an enemy, they were told - the women and children would have left the hamlet by the time the Hueys airlifted them in. Their mission was to kill the enemy within and then destroy the village. The orders about what to do with noncombatants seemed to be left intentionally vague by the command structure, and we shall return to attitudes towards noncombatants below.
By noon, some 500 inhabitants of My Lai were dead and the hamlet was destroyed, and the men of C Company bathed in the South China Sea. Private First Class Michael Bernhardt recalls "no brooding over rights and wrongs." The army reported a resounding success with over a 100 enemy combatants killed.
Eventually, charges against sixteen officers and nine enlisted men were brought to bear. All were dropped for various reasons, apart from those against Calley. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour, but was effectively pardoned by President Richard Nixon. In total he served under three years of house arrest in his apartment at Fort Benning.
How did civilians respond to the My Lai massacre, and how do they respond to atrocities in war in general? Calley's conviction was met by massive demonstrations by both civilians and military personnel. Flags were flown at half-mast throughout state capitals, draft boards resigned in protest and Veterans' associations collected money to appeal against the conviction. There was a general feeling Calley had been used as a scapegoat for his superiors and that he had just been following orders. One book written about Calley was entitled The Making of a Hero.
It was wrong, people reasoned, to send a man to war and then arrest him for doing his duty. If a war was being fought atrociously, people preferred to ascribe blame to the higher echelons of military and civilian command - not the "people like us" doing the fighting on the ground. Civilians had no problem with the theory that a combatant who carried out immoral or even unlawful orders was himself free from culpability - yet this was not the way the military functioned, as it in fact held men responsible for their actions when a moral choice existed and was actionable.
Captain Medina, the officer above Calley in the chain of command, was however acquitted from all charges (he faced 102 charges of murdering civilians. The prosecution reasoned that -
"It has long been a custom of the service that, in general, a commander is responsible for the actions of his subordinates in the performance of their duties."
There was also some debate about whether Medina had been aware of the killings in time to stop them. He later admitted after a perjury hearing became possible that he had been, but the jury decided there was insufficient evidence to convict him.
The attitude of officers and enlisted men
Soldiers in Vietnam (especially those mobilized as rapidly as the ones sent into My Lai) often didn't receieve a lot of training on the Geneva Convention. What they did receieve training on was what a serious crime it was not to follow an order. You could be shot for not following an order, and an officer kicking up a fuss about "war crimes" or disagreeing with his superiors couldn't expect an exactly speedy promotion up the ranks.
I quote from defence attorney George Latimer's questioning of Calley, referring to groups of Vietnamese in a ditch -
Q: Now, why did you give Meadlo a message or order that if he couldn't get rid of them to waste them?
A: Because that was my order, sir. That was the order of the day, sir.
Q: Who gave you that order?
A: My commanding officer, sir.
Q: He was?
A: Captain Medina, sir.
Also, in general -
Q: Well, let me ask you this: what I am talking and asking is whether or not you were given any instructions on the necessity for -- or whether you were required in any way, shape or form to make a determination of the legality or illegality of an order?
A: No, sir. I was never told that I had the choice, sir.
To the combatants fighting a brutal war on the ground, issues of right or wrong seemed far away. They had only received a few hours training on the Geneva Convention, but they had received hundreds of hours of training on how to kill effectively. Atrocities have always occured in wars, and Vietnam was no different. The difference was that, unlike the two World Wars, this war wasn't "holy" or necessary. Men killed without passion in both of those conflicts, but we excused them because they were fighting total war. It must be admitted that there was a twisted morality to our sordid little war in South-East Asia: the air force routinely bombed villages out of existance, slaughtering whole populations of civilians. There was something 'unclean', however, about the infantry doing the same job on the ground, with bullets.
Some men just felt they were doing their duty. Others commited atrocities out of fear - fear they would be branded cowards, "pussies", unpatriotic. If you refused to take part in what everyone else was doing - even if that was a war crime - you endangered the sense of group togetherness which is often all soldiers have to cling to in war. Few soldiers were willing to risk ostracization by performing in this way, and they certainly weren't going to take on the higher command structure - they simply felt they couldn't win. So they went on being complicit in atrocities, or turning a blind eye and hoping no-one would notice they weren't taking part. What happened at My Lai was not exceptional for the Vietnam War, it was just highly publicized.
What happened at My Lai says a lot about what was wrong with our war in Vietnam. It speaks volumes about why the military did not cope with the challenge presented to it by guerilla war, and about the horrors of war. Men in dark times are capable of horrendous things, and in the surreality of a foreign war for which you have had little training and virtually no moral instruction, barbarism shines through. While we should never forget or belittle what happened to those 500 Vietnamese, or indeed the entire nation, blame is much wider than the American combatants directly involved, definitely than one man. Vietnam was the first war fought in people's living rooms as well as on the battlefield, and the banality of evil perhaps became obvious to people for the first time. Many citizens rejected the very idea that "their boys" could be out there doing that, many blamed the military for brutalizing their children. Talking to The New York Times in 1969, the mother of C Company member David Paul Meadlo said -
"I sent them a good boy, and they made him a murderer."
As an institution that sought to bring the aggressive spirit out of people, the military could not be expected to cage the animal at will. The meandering pace of the Vietnam War, with no real end in sight, no objectives really obtainable, meant frustration was bound to be common among the soldiers who fought there. In the psychological chaos of war against an enemy that was rarely seen, it is hardly surprising that those men struck out when they were given the sanction to do so. They thought they had won a great victory - General William Westmoreland told them so himself. If My Lai has taught us anything, it is that the horror of war is perhaps the greatest horror that can be known, and to the men within it there are no rules, no morals, no codes of conduct. I shall end with a quote that shows the attitude of many soldiers in Vietnam towards war crimes, and whether it was worth kicking up a fuss about them. Australian rifleman Barry Kavanagh said -
"Look I'm no hero. I wasn't prepared to take on the whole army. I didn't want to be court-martialled and be stuck in some gaol up there. I used to say 'what a shit war' and wait for home-time and the housing grant."