Forty years ago this March 16, American soldiers conducted a helicopter assault against a string of tiny villages alongside the South China Sea. The target area was a haven and staging ground for Viet Cong guerillas who’d been killing Americans with booby traps and mines. The soldiers were told by their officers that the only Vietnamese they’d encounter were VC, combatants who might pose as civilians. After an early breakfast the GI’s boarded the helicopters and flew toward the hamlet they called Pinkville. In time, Americans would come to know Pinkville by its other name, My Lai.
Over the next few hours some of the GI’s engaged in an orgy of violence, herding unarmed villagers-women, babies, old men-into clearings and ditches where they were machine-gunned. “It was a Nazi kind of thing,” one of the men would later admit.
About an hour after landing, Private First Class Paul Meadlo found himself guarding a group of women and children just south of the village. His lieutenant, William Calley, a baby-faced college dropout originally trained as an Army clerk, told Meadlo, “You know what to do with them.”
Calley returned a few minutes later and demanded, “How come they’re not dead?” Meadlo said he didn’t know he was supposed to kill them. Calley said, “I want them dead,” then backed off twenty or thirty feet and, with his weapon on automatic, began shooting the cornered captives. Calley ordered Meadlo to fire, and the private-by this time crying hysterically-joined in. “I helped shoot ’em,” he would later testify.
Private First Class Vernado Simpson, nineteen years old on that day, told investigators that he personally killed at least eight villagers, including a mother and baby he shot at close range, and that he watched five members of his platoon rape a teenage Vietnamese girl. The rapists then shot her to death.
A picture taken by Army photographer Ronald Haeberle shows a terrified cluster of villagers: a middle-aged woman cries and wrings her hands, a young mother holds a child of about three on her hip. Another girl, five or six years old, tries to hide behind an adult; her tiny face is twisted, hysterical. “Guys were about to shoot these people,” Haeberle later testified. “I yelled, ‘hold it’, and shot my picture. As I walked away, I heard M-16s open up. From the corner of my eye I saw bodies falling, but I didn’t turn to look.”
As many as five hundred civilians were murdered in a few hours at My Lai. When some soldiers complained, commanders conducted a window-dressing investigation and let the matter drop. A year later a former soldier with a tortured conscience began writing letters. When news of the investigation broke, the public was shocked, and soon the outrage focused on Calley, the pudgy, harmless looking lieutenant. Many thought him a scapegoat and said the outcry was just the anti-war movement’s latest plot to destroy America.
Calley’s response to the charges was simple: I was following orders. Older Americans recognized the defense as the same one used by the Nazis just two decades earlier.
William Calley’s immediate superior, Captain Ernest Medina, was charged with murder for failing to prevent the killings; he was acquitted. The government had a much stronger case against Calley, and in 1971 a military court found him guilty of twenty-two counts of premeditated murder and sentenced him to life in prison. He served three and a half years, most of that under house arrest.
What are we to make of this dark anniversary?
One often hears the old saw about those who don’t remember history being condemned to relive it. But, collectively at least, we don’t forget history, not in the way we forget the capital of South Dakota or the chemical symbol for chromium. Instead, we simplify, turning our most complex problems-such as today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-into a stark, binary choice. One is either a patriot or a scoundrel, a supporter of the troops or a danger to the republic.
Yet a full accounting of what happened at Pinkville is riddled with contradictions. Some GI’s committed murder, while others refused to follow what were clearly illegal orders. Hugh Thompson, a Georgia-born helicopter pilot who set his chopper down amid the carnage that day, confronted Calley and, along with his crew chief Larry Colburn and door gunner, Glenn Andreotta, snatched a handful of civilians from certain death. Then, in another of this story’s switchbacks, it took the Army nearly thirty years to acknowledge Thompson’s bravery. As late as 1998 Pentagon bureaucrats, still afraid of publicity, tried to get Thompson to accept his award in a private meeting in Washington, with no media present. Thompson, displaying the same moral courage he showed in 1968, demanded a public ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial.
This March we should remember that we can still “lose” these wars: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. We lose them by forgetting that the cast of characters includes villains as well as heroes. We lose them if we forget that we aren’t always the good guys. We lose them when we can’t muster the courage to confront our own worst selves. We lose them when we stick our veterans into simple categories: well-adjusted, crazy. We lose wars when we sanitize them, when we create myths that lack the obscenity and evil of the real thing.
And when we “lose” a war this way, it makes it easier to start the next one.
(Note: The United States has never officially apologized to the people of My Lai.)
ED RUGGERO, a former soldier, is a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, as well as military historian. He can be reached through his website: www.edruggero.com