My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam war

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The My Lai Massacre


The Vietnam War is a very controversial subject for many Americans. This lesson discusses the events of the My Lai Massacre, arguably one of the worst atrocities committed during the Vietnam War.

Vietnam War

Beginning in 1954, Vietnam was a divided nation. After decades of French control, the country had secured its independence. As a new country, its leaders were torn over how to run it. People in the north favored communism, while people in the south were heavily influenced by the democratic West. Ultimately, the country was cut in half creating two states: North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Tensions between the two sides escalated over the years, leading to increased U.S. involvement during the 1960s. While only about 800 American soldiers had boots on the ground during the 1950s, by 1962 this number jumped to around 9,000.

The primary focus of U.S. troops was to push back the communist Viet Cong (also called the National Liberation Front). The Vietnam War was brutal for Americans. The Viet Cong used guerrilla tactics, and the swampy jungle only made things worse. By 1968, American morale was low, especially after the Tet Offensive, when the Viet Cong launched a large-scale attack that completely took American troops by surprise, during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration.

Charlie Company

The Charlie Company, part of the Americal Division, had suffered pretty heavy losses as a result of the Tet Offensive. Nearly 30 men were killed, leaving only about a 100 American troops. Charlie Company’s men were exhausted, angry, and intent on revenge.

In March of 1968, the Charlie Company was notified of a Viet Cong stronghold in a hamlet called My Lai (a hamlet is like a village, only smaller). American troops had already experienced several conflicts in the region, and many men were killed as a result of sniper fire and land mines. Before entering My Lai, the men were briefed by their commanding officer, Captain Ernest L. Medina. Charlie Company was instructed to destroy My Lai. Lieutenant William Calley was responsible for leading the search-and-destroy mission.

My Lai Massacre

The My Lai Massacre began on March 16, 1968. Surprisingly, Charlie Company did not encounter any Viet Cong. Instead, most of the people living in My Lai were women, children, and old men too old to fight. On Lieutenant Calley’s orders, Charlie Company proceeded to devastate the hamlet. They set homes on fire and ruthlessly murdered the villagers. According to witnesses, Lieutenant Calley ordered the Vietnamese people to lie in a ditch before he shot them at point blank range. Countless women were also the victims of sexual assault and rape during the massacre. The actual death toll of the My Lai Massacre is unknown, but historians estimate the numbers anywhere from 175 people up to 500.


Commanding officers of the Americal Division realized pretty quickly that what had happened in My Lai was an atrocity. Their troops had destroyed a village of non-combatants and had not come across enemy fire from the Viet Cong. The My Lai Massacre was kept secret for nearly a year; however, the men who were there that day shared stories with other members of the Americal Division. Soldier Ron Ridenhour sent multiple letters to the president and the secretary of defense about the incident. Ultimately, he shared the story with the press in 1969. Other individuals also spoke out against the My Lai Massacre, including Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot responsible for ending the bloodshed. Thompson saw what was happening from the air and landed his helicopter in My Lai. He even threatened to shoot at his own countrymen if they did not stop the carnage.

Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson

American troops landed in Vietnam in the spring of 1965; that was probably the biggest mistake the United States of America have made in its 200 plus years of existence. As a result, the country’s concern turned towards, next to the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, mostly in favor of it, but some against it. For the first time ever, America saw daily reports, footage, broadcasts on television of the “reality” of the war. The images presented at first, along with some carefully prepared lies that a tense government conjured up gave a frictional society the impression that American presence in Vietnam was appropriate, and that we would come out as heroes (Almond) The lies were the “truth” as the people saw it. Then eventually, reports and images began showing up that showed the inhumane actions, cruelty, violence, and the absolute truth of what was really going on in Vietnam. In reality, it was a blood bath (Almond).


When the truth of the extremity and the reality of the war broke ground and reached the public eye, society’s realization of the truth collided head-on into the government’s world of lies, and all hell broke loose. The people’s opinion began drifting non-stop against the war, as opposed to their previous pro-war attitude. There were anti-war demonstrations and peace movements (Almond) that shut down colleges, and sometimes towns across the country. Then one day, as the media was delivering their daily recurrences of the horror that was Vietnam, reports of a massacre in a village designated as My Lai 4 came up. Following these reports and some “thorough” investigation came the indictment of Lt. William Calley, the man slated responsible for the

The Mai Lai Massacre was most likely the best-known act of violence of the war against communists of Vietnam. The Objective of the American military mission was clear:search and destro the Mai Lai hamlet of Son Mai village in Quang Ngai Province of South Vietnam. What was not clear was what to do with all the civillians who might be encountered at Mai Lai. On March 16, 1968, Captian Ernest Medina ordered Cahlie Company into combat. The 150 soldiers, led by Lieutenant William Calley, stormed into the hamlet, and within four hours more than 500 civilians-unarmed woman, children, and old men-were dead. Charlie Company had not encountered a single enemy soldier, and only three weapons were confiscated.

When the soldiers in Charlie Company pushed into the hamlet, they expected to be locked into fierce combat with a Viet Cong battalion believed to be at Mai Lai. Charlie Company met no resistance-there were no Viet Cong soldiers at Mai Lai. Calley then ordered the slaughter of the civilians. People were rounded up into ditches and machine-gunned. They lay five feet deep in the ditches; any survivors trying to escape were immediately shot. When Calley saw a baby crawling away from a ditch, he grabbed it, threw it back into the ditch and opened fire. Some of the dead were mutilated by having “C Company” carved into their chests, adn some were disemboweled.


An army helicopter piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson arrived in the Mai Lai area, and noticed dead, dying civilians all over the village. He saw young boys and girls being shot repeatedly at point-blank range. Thompson immediately reported

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War is truly one of the most unique wars ever fought by the Unites States of by any country. It was never officially declared a war (Knowll, 3). It had no official beginning nor an official end. It was fought over 10,000 miles away in a virtually unknown country. The enemy and the allies looked exactly the alike, and may by day be a friend but by night become an enemy (Aaseng 113). It matched the tried and true tactics of World War Two against a hide, run, and shoot technique known as Guerrilla Warfare. It matched some of the best trained soldiers in the world against largely an untrained militia of untrained farmers. The United States’ soldiers had at least a meal to look forward to unlike the Communist Vietnamese soldiers who considered a fine cuisine to be cold rice and, if lucky, rat meat. The Vietnam War matched the most technically advanced country with one of the least advanced, and the lesser advanced not only beat but humiliated the strongest military in the world (Aaseng, 111). When the war was finally showing signs of end, the Vietnamese returned to a newly unified communist country while the United Stated soldiers returned to be called baby killers, and were often spat upon. With the complexities of war already long overdrawn because of the length of the war it is no wonder the returning solders often left home confused and returned home insane. Through an examination of the Vietnam War, in particular an event know as the My Lai Massacre, and the people involved

My Lai Massacre was an incident that promoted global annoyance when it can to the knowledge of the public in 1969.
My Lai Massacre was a Vietnam War, in which more than 347 unarmed civilians were brutally murdered by United States Army soldiers on 16th March, 1968. Most of the fatalities in this war were children, elderly people, women and infants. Women were supposedly raped before killings and there were many who were gang raped. The offensive and brutality of the My Lai Massacre proved as a setback of American exceptionalism and highlighted a brutal picture of American soldiers …A Tragic Event “My Lai Massacre” In the United States history, there have been many tragic events, like World War I, September 11, and what many people do not know is the My Lai Massacre. On March 16, 1968, “American soldiers murdered more than 500 unarmed women, children, and old men” (Cookman 154). Many experts  believe that the reason behind the My Lai incident is that people were only following orders. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist that works at Yale, studied human behavior and obedience. Milgram conducted an experiment to test the obedience of an individual. Therefore, in an experiment, Milgram had a teacher and another person known as the learner. Whenever the learner makes an error, the teacher would shock the learner. The conclusion of the experiment was that out of “forty subjects, twenty-five was obedient” (Behrens, Rosen 362). What is the fundamental lesson about ordinary people? Even ordinary people can  become agents in a dangerous incident that can change  people’s lives, like My Lai Massacre. Anger, was one of the many agents that induced the massacre. Days before the incident, the soldiers experienced the death of one of their sergeants and the wounding of several of their fellow soldiers. Only two days before the arrival at My Lai: Soldiers had revenge on their mind. The people of America have always had great respect for soldiers because they risk their life for America; however, this is a classic event that leads to negative views of soldiers and the downfall of soldier training during the time of Vietnam War. According to Truda Gray and Brain Martin in  My Lai: The Struggle over Outrage, many soldiers killed some villagers individually, others by herding them into ditches and shooting them. Apparently, My Lai was not the only incident that happened, there was other


Research Books


STOLEN VALOR author B.G. Burkett/Glenna Whitley


NO SURE VICTORY author Gregory A Daddis

WESTMORELAND’S WAR author Gregory A Daddis

THE VIETNAM WAR (An Intimate Story) author Geoffrey C. Ward/Ken Burns


The Massacre at My Lai


The reprehensible attack on the civilians of My Lai was not a result of a single catalyst, but rather occurred as a result of several compounded variables: miscommunication through the command lines, an incompetent officer, soldiers who followed orders blindly, and soldiers who were groping for some sort of control.

At the higher levels of command, the Son My operation seemed strategically reasonable and the orders were less aggressive than what actually took place.  The Vietcong’s 48th Local Force Battalion had caused considerable difficulties to the U.S. forces.  It was believed that the remains of this troublesome battalion were regrouping near My Lai following their losses at the Tet Offensive.  An opportunity to annihilate the Vietcong’s 48th Local Force Battalion could have made a significant contribution to success in the war effort.  Captain Eugene M. Kotouc and other intelligence officers agreed that initiating an early morning attack on My Lai would be best since they assumed neutral villagers would be at the markets and soldiers would be free to fight the Vietcong.[i]  Unfortunately, the message from the commanding officers to the subordinates evolved as it moved down the ranks.  “By the time Captain Medina gathered together the company in the dying light of March 15, 1968, to go over plans for the next day’s operation, he had heard and bought into the official line: The enemy…was outside of My Lai 4…and civilians remaining in the village would probably be Vietcong or Vietcong sympathizers.”  The message from commanding officers had lost some of its subtleties.  Medina, acting on what he thought was completely accurate information, not just assumptions, gave an overzealous pep talk to his men to prep them for “a hell of a good fight.” [ii]  There was no need for a contingency plan to deal with civilians, because it was assumed the soldiers would only come in contact with enemy forces.

Leading the ground “battle” was Lieutenant Calley, an incompetent officer in a dangerous position.  “Judging from the events at My Lai, being an officer in the United States Army exceeded Lieutenant Calley’s abilities,” said General William C. Westmoreland.[iii]  Calley’s incompetence, combined with an almost childlike need to please his superior, resulted in poor judgment and insecurity-fueled flaunting of power.  For, “though [Calley] continually tried to impress Medina, the veteran officer held him in low regard.”[iv]  For Calley, My Lai was just one more occasion for proving himself to Captain Medina.  When Medina radioed for progress reports and voiced displeasure at the pace of the operation, Calley removed obstacles by ordering and participating in the slaughter of civilians. His men referred to him as a “glory-hungry person…the kind of person who would have sacrificed all of us for his own personal advancement.”[v]  In the end, Calley’s incompetence led him to sacrifice the civilians of My Lai instead, as well as the morality of his own men.

Some soldiers participated in the slaughter at My Lai because they believed they were ordered to do so.  Although soldiers like Dennis Conti chose a moral path and refused direct orders to participate in the massacre, others operated completely against their own wills, at the behest of their superior officers.[vi]  Varnado Simpson, for example, initially refused orders to kill civilians, but later acquiesced.[vii]  Paul Meadlo unwillingly fired a clip into a group of people upon Calley’s orders.  In the midst of Meadlo’s actions, both Dennis Conti and Robert Maples witnessed him start to cry.[viii]  In Paul Meadlo’s mind, refusal of a direct order was not an option.  “From the first day we go in the service…we are learned to take orders and not to refuse any kind of order,” Meadlo said.  “You hear rumors that in World War II there was people that picked up and ran, and there was officers that would shoot their men in the head to stop their people from running too.” [ix]

Soldiers who were so apt to follow orders without question were obviously lacking necessary training in the rules of engagement.  The official rules of modern warfare, specifically the “Nuremberg principle,” dictate that “the fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” [x]  Although training in the Geneva and Hague Conventions was required of all soldiers in basic training, “evidence indicates that training deficiencies in this area…played a significant part in the Son My operation.”[xi]  Soldiers “were much more likely to remember being told to obey – absolutely and without reservation – the orders of military superiors.”[xii]  The fact that soldiers were inadequately trained in their responsibilities to decline illegal orders led directly to the tragedy that took place at My Lai.

Perhaps the most significant factor in the occurrences at My Lai was the mental frustration experienced by many of the soldiers in Charlie Company.  They were exhausted, frustrated and completely lacking in control or security.  In the month prior to the Song My operation, Charlie Company was undergoing their most taxing commission.  “Charlie Company spent long stretches away from base camp, rising at dawn, patrolling through rice paddies and villages, eating K-rations, fending off insects, and digging in at night.  Life became one long, hot, dirty, uncomfortable grind, marked by numbing stretches of boredom and brief but intense moments of jagged fear.  As the month dragged on, Charlie Company began to take casualties.  Several men stepped on booby traps, others were caught in short brushfires.  They seldom saw any Vietcong, but they knew their enemy was out there – watching, waiting for just the right moment to attack.”[xiii]

One journalist noted, “You could be in the most protected space in Vietnam and still know that your safety was provisional…The roads were mined, the trails booby-trapped, satchel charges and grenades blew up jeeps and movie theaters, the VC got work inside all the camps as shoeshine boys and laundresses and honey-dippers, they’d starch your fatigues…and then go home and mortar your area.  Saigon and Cholon and Danang held such hostile vibes that you felt you were being dry-sniped every time someone looked at you.”[xiv]

Indeed, soldiers were fighting a war without boundaries: one where it was impossible to distinguish enemy from friend.  “More often the only indication that [the soldiers] were on hostile soil came when one of them was shot by an invisible sniper or stepped on a booby trap.  It was an atmosphere in which frustration bred anger, and anger hatched hate – hate for the Vietcong, hate for Vietnam, hate for the Vietnamese.”[xv]

It was impossible for soldiers to completely trust the local civilians they were supposed to be protecting.  Their commanding officers instructed them that any Vietnamese person, seemingly harmless in the daytime, could actually be one of the enemies at night.  The soldiers mentally distanced themselves from the Vietnamese and ceased to sympathize with them. One soldier said, “The trouble is, no one sees the Vietnamese as people.  They’re not people.  Therefore, it doesn’t matter what you do to them.”[xvi]

The world of criminal psychology is unanimous in its profiling of rapists.  Rape, they say, is not committed out of lust or desire, but out of disgust and a need for control.  At least 22 rapes were documented to have occurred during the encounter at My Lai.[xvii]  If anything proves that soldiers in Charlie Company were frustrated with their lack of control, it’s the fact that at least 22 rapes were committed within four hours time and that most, if not all of those rapes ended in brutal murder.  These soldiers had dehumanized the Vietnamese, which allowed them to use the people to satisfy their own need for control in an insecure environment.

It was an unfortunate combination of factors that happened to align around the My Lai Massacre: a misinterpreted communication from the upper brass, an incompetent officer, soldiers uneducated in the rules of engagement, maddening battle conditions with an elusive enemy, soldiers’ need for security and control.  Any one cause might not have led to such a horrific bloodbath; combined, however, the effect was disastrous.

[i] Olson and Roberts, My Lai, 18. [ii] Olson and Roberts, My Lai, 19. [iii] William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 375-80. [iv] Olson and Roberts, My Lai, 13. [v] Bilton and Sim, Four Hours, 70-95. [vi] Peers, Report, vol. 2, bk. 24, pp. 31-33. [vii] CID Deposition Files, My Lai Investigation, CID Statement, file no. 69-CID011-00069, U.S. Army Crimes Records Center, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, pp. 1-3 [viii] Peers, Report, vol. 2, bk. 24, pp. 31-33; CID Deposition Files, My Lai Investigation, CID Statement, file no. 69-CED011-00073, U.S. Army Crimes Records Center, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, pp. 13-14. [ix] Peers, Report, vol. 2, pp. 11-12 [x] Olson and Roberts, My Lai, 34. [xi] Peers, Report, vol.1, pp. 8-13. [xii] Olson and Roberts, My Lai, 41. [xiii] Olson and Roberts, My Lai, 16. [xiv] Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Avon, 1977), 13-14. [xv] Olson and Roberts, My Lai, 8. [xvi] Schell, Real War, 191, 230. [xvii] Peers, Report, vol.2, bk. 32, pp. 1-6; CID Deposition Files, My Lai Investigation, Vietnamese Statements, Rape Victims, U.S. Army Crimes Records Center, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, pp. 221-22.

Last Updated on March 26, 2019 by EssayPro