Fifty-one years ago today, in one of the most heinous and grisly acts against civilians during wartime, as many as 500 unarmed men, women, children, and the elderly — nearly the entire population of the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai — were slaughtered, raped, and brutally tortured by United States troops.
As the U.S. military continues to deploy boots on the ground in additional nations — and as specters of totalitarianism and even greater militarism materialize as if pulled from a century ago — the lessons of My Lai should not be relegated to history’s ignominious dust bin.
History, after all, doesn’t repeat itself — ill-fated actions are carried out like déjà vu, by those who refuse to examine past mistakes as if they are sleepwalking through life.
“The My Lai hamlet, part of the village of Son My, was located in Quang Ngai province, which was believed to be a stronghold of the National Liberation Front (NLF) or Viet Cong (VC) and was a frequent target of U.S. and South Vietnamese bombing attacks,” History.com explains. “In March 1968, Charlie Company [or, C Company] of the Americal Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade received word that VC guerrillas had taken control of Son My. Led by Lieutenant William L. Calley, the unit was sent to the village on a search-and-destroy mission on March 16.”
Officials told C Company villagers had been informed they must evacuate by 7:00 a.m. on March 16, meaning soldiers would assume anyone they encountered should be considered enemy Viet Cong or sympathizers.
After an air assault was completed, Charlie Company — fully expecting to clash with VC fighters — burst into the village, spraying gunfire indiscriminately. But it quickly became apparent no militants were present, and women and children the soldiers found insisted no enemy forces remained in My Lai.
But that didn’t stop the dejected troops of C Company — who had only recently been reduced in number to around 100 men — from carrying out one of the most abominable wartime massacres of civilians in modern times.
At Calley’s command, the troops rounded up the unarmed residents and proceeded to burn the village. Soldiers dragged the innocent into ditches and shot whole groups with machine guns, while others raped, pillaged, and brutalized the community.
“The three death sites were about 200 yards apart,” one survivor of the massacre said of the scene that day for a November 17, 1969, New York Times report. “When the houses had been cleared, the troops dynamited those made of brick and set fire to the wooden structures. They did not speak to the villagers and were not accompanied by an interpreter who could have explained their actions. Then the Vietnamese were gunned down where they stood. About 20 soldiers performed the executions at each of the three places, using their individual weapons, presumably M-16 rifles.”
According to Ameriforce Media, “Lieutenant Calley gave explicit orders to kill and participated in the execution of unarmed villagers standing in groups and lying in ditches. There were also accounts of soldiers mutilating bodies and raping young women. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson watched the massacre from his helicopter. Realizing that civilians were being killed, he landed his helicopter near one of the ditches and rescued some survivors.”
Thompson later told a congressional panel he had only witnessed a single, armed, draft-age male — seen fleeing the village shortly after troops arrived — throughout the entire day, even though he flew repeated passes over the area once shooting began.
From his bird’s eye view, Thompson and his men began to realize the only bodies on the ground — and there were bodies everywhere — were infants, children, women, elderly villagers, and some men. But none of those men who had been slaughtered were of fighting age.
Hawaii Reporter recounted, “Around mid-morning Thompson and his crew watched in horror as an American Army officer walked up to an injured Vietnamese girl, flipped her over with his foot — and shot her dead.”
In a 1998 Associated Press interview, the pilot recalled seeing dead bodies piled in ditches, with soldiers approaching everywhere, and felt he could not sit idly by.
“These people were looking at me for help and there was no way I could turn my back on them,” he asserted.
After landing the helicopter amid the carnage, Thompson threatened to shoot any troops who continued attacking the retreating villagers — the heroic humanitarian move effectively ended the barbarous massacre at My Lai.
U.S. officials immediately moved to hide the disgraceful bloodbath from the public it knew would be appalled enough to demand an end to the war; and it wasn’t until a year later the gory details of the officially-sanctioned military assault began to trickle out — thanks, again, to the actions of a single man.
Ronald Ridenhour, a former soldier, caught wind of the gruesome events at My Lai from other soldiers and began writing letters to political leaders in Washington, D.C., demanding answers and more information. When Ridenhour failed to receive responses from President Richard Nixon, the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, several congressmen, and the State Department, he turned to award-winning journalist Seymour Hersh for an interview — and the story finally broke in November 1969.
A fierce backlash quickly — and rightly — ensued.
“Amid the international uproar that followed Ridenhour’s revelations,” History.com continues, “the U.S. Army ordered a special investigation into the My Lai massacre and subsequent efforts to cover it up. The inquiry, headed by Lieutenant General William Peers, released its report in March 1970 and recommended that no fewer than 28 officers be charged for their involvement in covering up the massacre. The Army would later charge only 14, including Calley, Captain Ernest Medina and Colonel Oran Henderson, with crimes related to the events at My Lai; all were acquitted except for Calley, who was found guilty of premeditated murder for ordering the shootings, despite his contention that he was only following orders from his commanding officer, Captain Medina. In March 1971, Calley was given a life sentence for his role in directing the killings at My Lai. Many saw Calley as a scapegoat, and his sentence was reduced upon appeal to 20 years and later to 10; he was paroled in 1974.”
The My Lai massacre constitutes one of the most egregious of many abhorrent actions undertaken in the name of the government of the United States — yet 49 years later, the American populace continues handing over more of the already-shortened reins of control and allowing the lines between military and civilian police to blur beyond recognition.
What took place on March 16, 1968, could as easily occur on a modern battlefield — or could be performed by proxy, thanks to the U.S.’ notorious drone bombing program.
Considering Calley’s defense he simply ‘followed orders,’ coupled with the burgeoning authoritarian climate in the U.S., a repeat of such odious actions is far from impossible — and as the heroic efforts of Thompson and Ridenour show, all it would take is for someone with knowledge to stand by and say nothing.