My Lai Revisited

March 16 marked the 35th anniversary of one of most gruesome acts committed by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War–the My Lai massacre. That day in 1968, the Army’s Charlie Company murdered 347 unarmed men, women and children in the Vietnamese village of My Lai.

The event was later described by a member of Charlie Company as “a Nazi-like thing.” For many people in the U.S. and around the world, My Lai “ripped the mask off the war,” in the words of Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.).

Yet today, My Lai has been virtually forgotten–even though its lessons are more relevant than ever as the U.S. carries out its slaughter in Iraq.

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TO UNDERSTAND what happened at My Lai, it’s important to look at the background of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the war strategy pursued there.

Vietnam was a French colony beginning in the 1870s. While there had always been resistance to French rule, during the Second World War, a powerful movement for national liberation emerged. The leading organization was the League for the Independence of Vietnam–better known as the Viet Minh–led by the Communist Party, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh.

At the end of the Second World War, the Viet Minh declared independence, but the French refused to recognize this, and a bloody nine-year war ensued. The U.S. supported the French in their attempt to re-conquer their rebellious colony.

The French were defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. At the Geneva Conference that year, a series of accords that officially ended the war called for the temporary division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel–and for national elections to reunify the country in two years’ time.

U.S. intelligence agencies recognized that if a fair election were allowed, the Viet Minh would win 90 percent of the vote. The U.S. was determined to make sure this didn’t happen. So it set out to create an anti-Communist government in South Vietnam, and it installed a right-wing Catholic living in exile in the U.S., Ngo Dinh Diem, as the head of the regime.

But by 1963, Diem’s totalitarian police state was so unpopular that a new revolutionary movement, called the National Liberation Front (NLF)–known as the Viet Cong to Americans–posed a serious challenge to the regime.

To prevent a triumph of the NLF, the U.S. decided that Diem had to go. So the Kennedy administration ordered the CIA to topple Diem’s government in November 1963. But Diem’s removal only worsened the Saigon government’s crisis.

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IN ORDER to prevent the triumph of the NLF, President Lyndon Johnson–using powers granted to him in the Gulf of Tonkin resolution–invaded South Vietnam in 1965 with a huge military force. The second Vietnam War was on.

The war strategy pursued by the U.S. was a “war of attrition.” The object–in the words of Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam–was to decimate the North Vietnamese population “to the point of national disaster for generations to come,” and to kill off Viet Cong fighters faster than they could be replaced. The Pentagon called this strategy the “meat-grinder.”

The war was directed at the base of popular support for the NLF: the villages in the countryside. A crucial ideological component of the “meat-grinder” was racism against Vietnamese–which was encouraged by the military’s very top brass. Westmoreland, for example, claimed that the “Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.”

In 1968, Col. George S. Patton sent out Christmas cards of dismembered Viet Cong soldiers stacked neatly in a pile, inscribed with the words “From Colonel and Mrs. George S. Patton–Peace on Earth.”

Charlie Company had been assigned to Quang Ngai in South Vietnam, a province that was a base of support for the Viet Minh and, later, the Viet Cong. By the end of the 1967, the U.S. Army had already destroyed 70 percent of Quang Ngai’s villages.

In the weeks before the massacre, several members of the U.S. company had been killed in ambushes and booby traps. According to Sgt. Kenneth Hodges, Capt. Ernest Medina conveyed a straightforward message the night before the assault on My Lai: “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,” Hodges said. “It was clearly explained that there were to be no prisoners…The order that was given was to kill everyone in the village.”

On the morning of March 16, 1968, Charlie Company began their four-hour assault on My Lai. Not a single shot was fired at U.S. troops, and all that they found were women, children and the elderly. But Charlie Company went on a rape and murder spree.

The worst of killers was Lt. William “Rusty” Calley, who herded some 100 unarmed people into a ditch and had them machine-gunned to death. Calley personally shot and killed a baby that day.

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NOT EVERY American soldier participated in the murder, and some tried to stop it. Lt. Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot, saw the savagery from the air and landed between American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. He ordered his gunner to train his machine gun on the soldiers until they backed off.

Not only did Thompson witness the events, but many soldiers had heard the radio communication between Medina, Calley and their superior officer, Lt. Col. Frank Barker, and concluded that something had gone terribly wrong. In addition, army photographer Ron Haeberle had accompanied Charlie Company that day and photographed everything.

Even so, the cover-up began immediately. Barker and Americal Division Commander Major Gen. Samuel Koster did all the necessary paper work and conducted an “investigation” that exonerated Medina and Charlie Company.

At the time, then-Major Colin Powell responded to similar allegations of abuses by U.S. armed forces in Vietnam by claiming, “Relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”

A year-and-a-half later, though, army veteran Ronald Ridenhour wrote a letter to his congressman, Mo Udall–an antiwar Democrat–telling what he knew. The story blew wide open.

The initial response was disbelief–until Haeberle’s photos were published in Life magazine and interviews with Charlie Company soldiers began to appear on TV. A shocked mother captured the mood, saying, “I gave them a good boy, and they turned him into a murderer.”

The story of My Lai further strengthened the stance of antiwar activists who argued that U.S. actions in Vietnam bordered on genocide. The army was forced to set up a commission to investigate My Lai, which led to charges against 30 officers in the initial cover-up. Medina was also charged with murdering 100 people.

But none were convicted–except for Calley, who was found guilty of the premeditated murder of 22 people in 1971 and was sentenced to life in prison. Army psychiatrist reported that Calley “did not feel as if he were killing humans, but rather that they were animals with whom one could not speak or reason.”

President Richard Nixon came to Calley’s rescue–and had him released from prison, pending appeal. He was paroled in 1974. Calley would later become a well-paid speaker on the right-wing lecture circuit, earning $2,000 a speech.

As the U.S. occupies Iraq, it should be remembered that it is there not as a liberator, but a conqueror–just as it did in Vietnam. In his memoirs, now-Secretary of State Powell referred to My Lai as one of the “darker chapters in American military history.” He and his new boss are in the process of writing another.

JOE ALLEN writes for the Socialist Worker.


JOE ALLEN is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service.