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The My Lai Massacre: Fifty Years Later

Photo by -JvL- | CC BY 2.0

Nineteen sixty-eight was an earth-shattering year! Revolution was in the air all across the globe from nations in Europe to Mexico, the U.S., and beyond. Living in revolutionary times was exhilarating, especially when seen against the backdrop of the fascistic systems of government and politics that have grown across the world today.

There were the assassinations of King and Kennedy. There was the bloody Democratic convention in Chicago with its police riot and the nomination of the staid Hubert Humphrey who could not get out of his own way in terms of criticizing Lyndon Johnson about the quagmire that was Vietnam. There were the peace candidates who went down to defeat. And then there was Nixon who kept the Vietnam War going for his entire presidency with its attendant unending barbarism.

And there was the massacre at My Lai and its coverup that made its way into the national consciousness by eyewitness testimony. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story at the national level in a cable published by the Dispatch News Service on November 12, 1969.  The pervasive grotesque nature of the Vietnam War had become a mainstay on the nightly news and in the consciousness of those willing to listen.

For those who may need a quick primer in the history of the area near the central coast of South Vietnam, the villages that made up My Lai were referred to as “pinkville” because of the color of the rice paddies in the area near the sea. The villages were attacked by a unit of the U.S. Army’s Americal Division in a company lead by Lt. William Calley. Over 500 unarmed men, women, and children were ruthlessly murdered as a purported get back for an earlier attack that killed members of that U.S. Army unit.

Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim present the history of My Lai in the book Four Hours in My Lai.

What is remarkable about the massacre of My Lai was that it was not a solitary event, but rather it reflected the ongoing vicious and murderous violations of international law and U.S. law that was and is encoded in the Geneva Conventions. Specifically, it is against the rules of war to murder civilian noncombatants. My Lai made a travesty of those laws in the testimony of witnesses and the photographic record of the masses of unarmed civilians laying dead in ditches and along the road. Many on the domestic front did not see the murder of mothers with babies in their arms as having anything to do with the battle against communism, even if that was the reasoning of such brutal carnage. Very few babies read Marx. The labels of “gook” and “Charlie” were the racist names given to the Vietnamese people to dehumanize them. The theft of national treasure from human needs to war was highlighted when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic March 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech in New York City.

Often those who wished to report atrocities in Vietnam were threatened by fellow soldiers or officers. Some soldiers refused to take part in mass murder. Others intervened to stop it.

I had returned from basic and advanced training in the military only six months before the killings at My Lai were reported. Having seen the grotesqueness of military training during the Vietnam War, I was well on my way to becoming a war resister. Tens of thousands of others would take the same route. Only the massacres at Kent State and Jackson State in May 1970 awaited to cement the loathing of all things having to do with war.

Many wanted to believe that the massacre at My Lai was the aberrant act of a few… a few bad apples.  But in “Civilian Killings Went Unpunished,” (Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2006) Nick Turse and Deborah Nelson document beyond any level of doubt that the military and the government’s own records show that a cohort of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam perpetrated massacres that included the involvement of every single division of the military. This lethal bloodletting was carried out by a minority in the military, but these incidents of mass murder in varying degrees went on during the course of the war. The enemy body counts demanded by commanders were not enough to explain away mass murder and neither was the bogeyman of anticommunism.

The files that the Times’ reporters unearthed were “part of a once-secret archive” that showed 320 alleged incidents, excluding My Lai, that “were substantiated by Army investigators.” Indeed, the Winter Soldier Investigation testimony given in 1971 in Detroit, organized by the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, can be viewed as corroborating these official charges. And these attacks against unarmed civilians “were not confined to a few rogue units.”

By the time of the U.S. campus massacres, the Vietnam War was viewed unfavorably by most in the U.S. who were polled, but so was the antiwar movement. The vast majority of protest, however, was peaceful.

As the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre approaches on March 16, 2018, it might be sobering to recall that lethal mayhem against the innocent always accompanies war. September 2001 proved the latter. Does it matter that thousands were killed because by sanctions against Iraq in decades past, or that the World Health Organization reported in 2017 that 500,000 people were suffering from cholera in the U.S. backed, Saudi led, war in Yemen?  The Independent reported that by 2017, more than five million people had fled the civil war in Syria. That’s just one war and the reception of those fleeing refugees is the subject of an international scandal with a pittance of those fleeing reaching the U.S., a nation that had called for regime change in Syria and maintains a troop presence there now.

Ronald Reagan sought to cast the Vietnam War in a positive light when he labelled it a “noble cause” speaking before a veterans’ group during the 1980 presidential campaign. Those who care about the claims of history and want to maintain a sense of humanity know that Reagan was nothing more than an actor that day. He wanted to get the people ready for new wars!

Because the adage that the personal is political is something of value learned from the decade of the 1960s and early 1970s, many have remained involved politically and also involved in protest. I know four veterans from the Vietnam era in the area where I live. Three are Vietnam veterans and the fourth was a war resister. One veteran has told me that while he had come to see the war as wrong, he wished he could have stood at the Canadian border and shot at war resisters. That veteran had suffered the ravages of exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange. The second veteran repaired helicopters in Vietnam and is active in veterans affairs. The third veteran is a successful attorney whom I overheard at a political meeting tell people that he had killed children while in combat in Vietnam. The last veteran I know was in the National Guard and went AWOL from a special forces training unit when others in the unit threatened to kill him. He traded his Ford Mustang for his life and was discharged honorably after he returned to the military. His story rings true since an army buddy and other Guardsmen and Reservists were viciously attacked and their military clothing and boots were destroyed while in advanced training at a base in Georgia where I had trained during the Vietnam War era.

Fifty years after My Lai the bloodletting continues and lessons learned from the atrocities there were soon lost in the fog of war. The paramount importance of the laws of war were also jettisoned in that fog.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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