My Lai Massacre
On March 16, 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offensive, American soldiers committed perhaps the most brutal—and certainly the most infamous—atrocity of the Vietnam War. The tragedy occurred in My Lai, one of several hamlets located in Song My village in Quang Ngai Province, a historic stronghold of the National Liberation Front.
In the weeks preceding the event, a number of members of Charlie Company had been killed or maimed by the North Vietnamese, and there was a lot of built-up anger among the men who entered My Lai on March 16. During an uneventful search-and-destroy mission, members of Charlie Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley Jr., massacred from 300 to 500 unarmed, unresisting Vietnamese women, children, and elderly men. They raped, sodomized, and mutilated many of their victims. Once the full story of My Lai became public, it reshaped how Americans viewed the war and, in no small way, how they understood their own hallowed history. My Lai seared America's collective memory with seemingly indisputable proof that the nation's behavior often failed to live up to its self-righteous rhetoric.
UNCOVERING THE TRUTH
Remarkably, initial press reports presented the “battle” of My Lai in a positive light. Misled by the military publicity apparatus, one news agency even spoke of an “impressive victory” by American soldiers. The military's misinformation represented only part of a systematic cover-up. The entire chain of command related to the massacre—from Captain Ernest Medina of Charlie Company through the division commander, Major General Samuel Koster—imposed neither corrective nor punitive measures despite their awareness of the events at My Lai. There was a feeling in the military that inequities in the draft were responsible for a college dropout such as Calley even being in charge of Charlie Company. Not until a year after the massacre, in the spring of 1969, when former GI Ronald Ridenhour requested the House Armed Services Committee to explore rumors of mass killings, did the army initiate an investigation. Even then, the army conspired to play down the massacre.
If not for Seymour Hersh, a freelance investigative reporter, the army's indictment of a single soldier would have been the last that Americans ever heard about My Lai. Pursuing the army's low-key announcement of Calley's indictment, Hersh uncovered the full story of the massacre, which the New York Times published on November 13, 1969. For weeks thereafter, My Lai dominated news reports across the nation. CBS and other networks aired confessions by soldiers who had participated. Life magazine, calling My Lai “a story of indisputable horror,” published ten pages of gut-wrenching photographs of the massacre.
Although it had taken over a year and a half, the massacre of My Lai, in all its graphic detail, was a household topic of conversation. Never before had ordinary Americans directly confronted the brutality of their own soldiers. For some, My Lai confirmed their worst fears about America's war in Vietnam. For others, My Lai contradicted not just their vision of the war but also a long-standing American tradition of depicting the enemy—whether it be Indians, Nazis, Japanese, or Vietnamese—as the perpetrators of heinous atrocities.
Hersh's story set off a maelstrom of controversy, as Americans responded with both denial and outrage. Despite the evidence, many people refused to accept that American soldiers—and by extension, America itself—could commit such barbarous crimes. A December 1969 poll, for instance, found that 49 percent of Minnesotans felt the story was false. Congressman John R. Rarick,
a Democrat from Louisiana, dubbed My Lai a “massacre hoax.” Even President Richard Nixon referred to My Lai as an “isolated incident.” Others, however, charged that My Lai typified a brutal war of muddled tactics and flawed strategy. Many veterans of the war, welcoming the opportunity that My Lai presented, came forward with similar stories, suggesting that civilian killings typified the fighting. Spurred by this controversy, the army appointed Lieutenant General William R. Peers to head a full-scale investigation of My Lai. The Peers Commission indicted twenty-five Americans: thirteen, including Calley, for war crimes and twelve for the cover-up. Sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, Calley was the only one convicted. Legal appeals on his behalf lasted for years afterward.
Much of the cultural response to My Lai cut across ideological lines, focusing more on how the war had corrupted typical American “boys” than on the massacre's real victims. A Time poll showed that events such as My Lai concerned only 35 percent of Americans. Calley insisted that he had acted under orders from Medina. Thus, Calley's plight became a cause célèbre, especially among those who saw him as a scapegoat for the army and U.S. government. Veterans groups called for leniency; state legislatures passed resolutions of support; “Free Calley” bumper stickers appeared; and a pro-Calley song, “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” sold 200,000 copies in three days. Sensing the political winds, President Nixon intervened on Calley's behalf.
THE CULTURAL IMPACT
The public sympathy for Calley, who was released on parole in 1974, epitomized Americans' obsession with what the war had done to them, as well as their general disregard for the pain the United States had inflicted upon Vietnam. The theme of the exploited or psychologically scarred Vietnam veteran became a narrative fixture in later cinematic treatments of the war, common both to antiwar films such as The Deer Hunter (1978) and Coming Home (1978) and conservative offerings such as First Blood (1982) and its sequels.
My Lai and American war tragedies in Vietnam also found their way into popular culture, but at first only through analogy. Films such as Little Big Man (1970) and Soldier Blue (1970) recreate U.S. Army massacres of Native Americans during the nineteenth century. While such movies clearly emerged in response to the war in Vietnam, they seemed to open up all of American history to reinterpretation. Eventually, more direct treatment of American atrocities became a common, if often secondary, feature of Vietnam films. Not until Brian De Palma's Casualties of War (1989) did a My Lai–type atrocity become the driving story of a movie. The film, which refueled the debate on the legacy of the war, recounts the story of an American platoon that kidnaps, gang-rapes, and murders a Vietnamese woman during a search-and-destroy mission. The movie is perhaps best understood as a rebuke to the conservative revisionism of the Ronald Reagan era, calling into question the president's claim that the war should be considered a “noble crusade.” After My Lai, Americans had to work harder to convince themselves that they were indeed the same shining “City upon a Hill” that John Winthrop had spoken of in 1630 as he led anxious Puritans toward life in the new world.
The Peers Commission, which interviewed 398 witnesses and produced 20,000 pages of testimony, concluded that a lack of leadership was the chief reason for the My Lai massacre. Contributing factors were a lack of training, racist attitudes toward the Vietnamese, a failure to enforce rules and regulations, psychological and organizational problems, and the position taken by local officials that every resident within My Lai was either a Viet Cong or a sympathizer. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the American military became actively involved in the war on terror, waging military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and taking on assignments at prisoner-of-war camps. Military experts such as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Rielly contend that understanding the mistakes that set the stage for the My Lai massacre may help to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
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