The My Lai Massacre


(Vietnamese: thảm sát Mỹ Lai [tʰɐ̃ːm ʂɐ̌ːt mǐˀ lɐːj], [mǐˀlɐːj] ( listen); /ˌmiːˈlaɪ/, /ˌmiːˈleɪ/, or /ˌmaɪˈlaɪ/)[1] was the Vietnam War mass murder of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. It was committed by U.S. Army soldiers from the Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.[2][3] Twenty six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was originally given a life sentence, but served only three and a half years under house arrest.

The massacre, which was later called "the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War",[4] took place in two hamlets of Son My village in Sơn Tịnh District of Quảng Ngãi Province on the South Central Coast of the South China Sea, 100 miles south of Da Nang and several miles north of Quảng Ngãi city east of Highway 1.[5] These hamlets were marked on the U.S. Army topographic maps as My Lai and My Khe.[6] The U.S. military codeword for the alleged Viet Cong stronghold in that area was Pinkville,[7] and the carnage became known as the Pinkville Massacre first.[8][9] Next, when the U.S. Army started its investigation, the media changed it to the Massacre at Songmy.[10] Currently, the event is referred to as the My Lai Massacre in America and called the Son My Massacre in Vietnam.

The incident prompted global outrage when it became public knowledge in November 1969. The My Lai massacre increased to some extent[11] domestic opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War when the scope of killing and cover-up attempts were exposed. Initially, three U.S. servicemen who had tried to halt the massacre and rescue the hiding civilians were shunned, and even denounced as traitors by several U.S. Congressmen, including Mendel Rivers, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Only thirty years later they were recognized and decorated, one posthumously, by the U.S. Army for shielding noncombatants from harm in a war zone

In 1971, Colonel Robert Heini reported that: "By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near-mutinous."

For sometime stories had been circulating about deteriorating behaviour amongst US soldiers. Efforts were made by the US army to suppress information about the raping and killing of Vietnamese civilians but eventually, after considerable pressure from certain newspapers, it was decided to put Lieutenant William Calley on trial for war-crimes, In March, 1971, Calley was found guilty of murdering 109 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but he only served three years before being released from prison.

During the war, twenty-five US soldiers were charged with war-crimes but William Calley was the only one found guilty Calley received considerable sympathy from the American public when he stated: "When my troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn't see, I couldn't feel, I couldn't touch... nobody in the military system ever described them anything other than Communists." Even Seymour Hersh, the reporter who had first published details of the My Lai killings, admitted that Calley was "as much a victim as the people he shot."

Critics of the war argued that as the US government totally disregarded the welfare of Vietnamese civilians when it ordered the use of weapons such as napalm and agent orange, it was hypocritical to charge individual soldiers with war-crimes. As the mother of one of the soldiers accused of killing civilians at My Lai asserted: "I sent them (the US army) a good boy, and they made him a murderer."

Philip Caputo, another US marine accused of killing innocent civilians, wrote later that it was the nature of the war that resulted in so many war-crimes being committed: "In a guerrilla war, the line between legitimate and illegitimate killing is blurred. The policies of free-fire zones, in which a soldier is permitted to shoot at any human target, armed or unarmed... further confuse the righting man's moral senses."

The publicity surrounding the My Lai massacre proved to be an important turning point in American public opinion. It illustrated the deterioration that was taking place in the behaviour of the US troops and undermined the moral argument about the need to save Vietnam from the "evils of communism". Vietnam was not only being destroyed in order to "save it" but it was becoming clear that those responsible for defeating communism were being severely damaged by their experiences. © John Simkin, September 1997 - April 2014



(1) Alistair Cooke, My Lai Massacre, Manchester Guardian (15th December, 1969)

"There has been nothing in the memory of living Americans like the massacre of My Lai. They cannot stay for ever in the pit of horror. They must climb out of it and find an indecent scape-goat or some bearable explanation that can restore their self-respect. For the nightly TV interviews with ordinary people show how pitifully the people feel that their youth is on trial.

Now, from Saigon, comes a brave bit of analysis from William F Buckley, the brilliant conservative columnist who for once does not feel obliged to snatch a rightwing argument and give it maximum plausibility.

He faces the progressively grim alternatives by asking how many people were guilty, because an aberration must have limits. "Jack the Ripper was not a corporation, so that we can think of him as aberrant," which we cannot do about "the Nazis under Hitler or the communists under Stalin". But if 10, 20, 50 men "concerted in the act of genocide", then we must ask why "a cross-section of young America found itself capable of utterly barbaric behaviour".

The "preferable" explanation is that "the guilty company relapsed into a kind of catatonic frenzy". The second, "the horrifying" alternative, is that "America in AD 1969 has bred young Americans who can insouciantly murder grandmothers and little children."

(2) After the Vietnam War was over some American soldiers admitted acts of atrocities against the Vietnamese people. In the book Prevent the Crime of Silence, a former American intelligence officer described what happened to people suspected of being members of the National Liberation Front.

I never knew an individual to be detained as a VC suspect who ever lived through an interrogation... and that included quite a number of individuals... They all died. There was never any reasonable establishment of the fact that any of those individuals was, in fact, cooperating with the Vietcong, but they all died and the majority were either tortured to death or things like thrown from helicopters.

(3) In villages where the population was suspected of helping the National Liberation Front, torture and executions of civilians sometimes took place. On 16 March, 1968, American troops killed more than 500 people from the village of My Lai. A young helicopter gunner, Ronald Ridenhour who saw the massacre wrote to President Nixon about the incident. Attempts by the army to cover-up what had taken place were undermined by the journalist, Seymour Hersh, who managed to persuade several soldiers involved in the massacre to talk about what taken place at My Lai.

Some of Calley's men thought it was breakfast time as they walked in; a few families were gathered in front of their homes cooking rice over a small fire. Without a direct order, the first platoon also began rounding up the villagers... Sledge remembered thinking that "if there were VC around, they had plenty of time to leave before we came in. We didn't tiptoe in there."

The killings began without warning... Stanley saw "some old women and some little children - fifteen or twenty of them - in a group around a temple where some incense was burning. They were kneeling and crying and praying, and various soldiers... walked by and executed these women and children by shooting them in the head with their rifles.

There were few physical protests from the people; about eighty of them were taken quietly from their homes and herded together in the plaza area. A few hollered out, "No VC, No VC,"... Women were huddled against children, vainly trying to save them. Some continued to chant, "No VC." Others simply said, "No. No. No."

Carter recalled that some GIs were shouting and yelling during the massacre: "The boys enjoyed it. When someone laughs and jokes about what they're doing, they have to be enjoying it." A GI said, "Hey, I got me another one." Another said, "Chalk up one for me." Even Captain Medina was having a good time. Carter thought: "You can tell when someone enjoys their work." Few members of Charlie Company protested that day. For the most part, those who didn't like what was going on kept their thoughts to themselves.

By nightfall the Viet Cong were back in My Lai, helping the survivors bury the dead. It took five days. Most of the funeral speeches were made by the Communist guerrillas. Nguyen Bat was not a communist at the time of the massacre, but the incident changed his mind. "After the shooting," he said, "all the villagers became Communists."

(4) Philip Caputo volunteered for the United States Marines after hearing a speech by President John F. Kennedy on the dangers of communism. After serving a year in Vietnam he was court-martialled for the murder of two Vietnamese civilians. He was found not guilty but received a reprimand for making false statements to his senior officers. In his book, A Rumour of War, Caputo attempts to explain how the Vietnam War turned some US soldiers into people who could commit atrocities.

The war was mostly a matter of enduring weeks of expectant waiting and, at random intervals, of conducting vicious manhunts through jungles and swamps where snipers harassed us constantly and booby traps cut us down one by one... At times, the comradeship that was the war's only redeeming quality caused some of the worst crimes - acts of retribution for friends who had been killed. Some men could not withstand the stress of guerrilla-fighting: the hair-trigger alertness constantly demanded of them, the feeling that the enemy was everywhere, the inability to distinguish civilians from combatants created emotional pressures which built to such a point that a trivial provocation could make these men explode and the blind destructiveness of a mortar shell... I felt sorry for those children (soldiers arriving in Vietnam for the first time) knowing that they would all grow old in the land of endless dying. I pitied them, knowing that out of every ten, one would die, two would be maimed for life, another two would be less seriously wounded and sent out to fight again, and all the rest would be wounded in other, more hidden ways.

(5) Jeff Needle, Please Read This (1970)

A very sad thing happened while we were there - to everyone. It happened slowly and gradually so no one noticed when it happened. We began slowly with each death and every casualty until there were so many deaths and so many wounded, we started to treat death and loss of limbs with callousness, and it happens because the human mind can't hold that much suffering and survive . . . And when they came out of My Lai, I heard the stories they came back with. I didn't know whether they were true because I wasn't there. If they were true, it meant my company had murdered people ... it meant because of lies I had been told I was sitting in the middle of a useless war, it meant if I died in Vietnam my life would have been used and wasted ... It meant if I decided not to do my job anymore I would be sent to jail and court-martialed. It meant a lot of people would think I was a traitor to my country because I didn't believe in the war anymore ... It meant a lot of bad things I didn't want to think about, based on stories I wasn't sure were true. So I decided to forget about it.

(6) John Kerry, a naval officer who was awarded several medals for his efforts in Vietnam became active in the 'Vietnam Veterans Against the War' organisation in the late 1960s. On 22nd April, 1971, Kerry gave evidence to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in South-East Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day to day basis with a full awareness of officers at all levels of command.

They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut-off ears, cutoff heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cutoff limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam...

I would like to talk to you a little bit about what the result is of the feelings these men carry with them after coming back from Vietnam. The country doesn't know it yet but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and trade in violence.



(7) We leave the last word with Gary G. Kohls, a family practitioner, who specializes in holistic and preventive mental health care. He has expertise in a number of areas, particularly traumatic stress disorders, and who writes on many issues of 

 "Forty-one years ago, on March 16,1968, a company of US Army combat soldiers from the Americal Division swept into the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, rounded up the 500+ unarmed residents, all women, children and old men, and executed them in cold blood, Nazi-style. No weapons were found in the village, and the whole operation took only 4 hours.

Although there was a serious attempt to cover-up this operation (which involved a young up-and-coming US Army Major named Colin Powell), those who orchestrated this “business-as-usual” war zone event did not deny the details of the slaughter when the case came to trial several years later. But the story did eventually filter back to the Western news media, thanks to a couple of courageous soldier eye-witnesses whose consciences were still intact. An Army court-marital trial eventually convened against a handful of the soldiers, including Lt. William Calley and Company C commanding officer, Ernest Medina.

According to many of the soldiers in Company C, Medina ordered the killing of “every living thing in My Lai,” all of them innocent noncombatants – men, women, children, babies and even farm animals. Lt. Calley was charged with the murder of 109 civilians. In his defense statement he stated that he had been taught to hate all Vietnamese, even children, who, he had been told, “were very good at planting mines.”

That a massacre had occurred was confirmed by all of Medina’s soldiers and it was recorded by Army photographers, but the Army still tried to cover it up. The cases were tried in military courts with juries of Army officers, which eventually dropped the charges against all of the defendants (except Calley) or acquitted them. Medina and the others who were among the killing soldiers that day went free, and only Calley was convicted of the murders of “at least 20 civilians.” Nobody was convicted of the murders of the other 400+ villagers. Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment for his crime, but, under pressure from patriotic pro-war Americans, President Nixon pardoned him within weeks of the verdict.

The trial stimulated a lot of interest because it occurred during the rising outcry of millions of Americans against the war, acknowledged widely as an “overwhelming atrocity.” Many thoughtful Americans, including many military conscripts and veterans, were sick of the killing. However, 79% of those that were polled strenuously objected to Calley’s conviction, some veteran’s groups even voicing the opinion that instead of condemnation, he should have received medals of honor for killing “Commie Gooks.”

Just like the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, the realities of My Lai deserve to be revisited again and again so that it will happen “never again.” The Vietnam War, (as is the current quagmire in Iraq) was an excruciating time for conscientious Americans because of the numerous moral issues surrounding the mass slaughter in a war that uselessly killed 58,000 American soldiers, caused the spiritual deaths of millions of others, killed 3 million Vietnamese (mostly innocent civilians) and psychologically, physically and spiritually traumatized countless others on both sides of the conflict.

Of course the Vietnam War was a thousand times worse for the innocent people of that doomed land than it was for the soldiers. The Vietnamese people were victims of an army of heavily-armed, ruthless, adolescent males from a foreign land who were taught that the “little yellow people” were pitiful sub-humans and deserved to be killed – with some GIs preferring to inflict torture first. “Kill-or-be-killed” is a reality that is standard operating procedure for military combat units of every nation of every era and of every ideology.

Vietnam veterans tell me that there were scores, maybe hundreds, of “My Lai-type massacres”. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon refuses to acknowledge that truth. Execution-style killings of “potential” Viet Cong sympathizers (i.e., anybody that wasn’t an American at the time) were common. Many combat units “took no prisoners” (a euphemism for murdering captives, rather than having to follow the nuisance Geneva Conventions which requires humane, but time-consuming treatment for prisoners of war). The only unusual thing about My Lai was that it was found out, and the Pentagon’s routine attempt at a cover-up failed.

Very few soldiers or their commanding officers have ever been punished for the many war crimes that occurred during that war because those in charge thought that killing (or torturing) of innocent civilians during war-time is simply the norm, usually labeled “collateral damage.” After all, as US Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld infamously proclaimed, “stuff happens” during wars

The torture and shooting was enjoyable for some – for awhile (witness Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay realities). And wars are profitable for many – and still are (witness Halliburton, Blackwater, et al. today).

Those who plan wars and/or participate in them, yet also profess to be Christians, are explicitly rejecting the ethical teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6 and 7) and Matthew 25:31-46. Those Christians are either ignorant of or simply reject what Jesus repeatedly said about the issue of homicidal violence (in so many words, he says: “Violence is forbidden for those who wish to follow me”). And what is most hypocritical of all is the fact that pro-war or neutral Christians, by their actions, are rejecting Jesus’ Golden Rule command: “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The rejection of the Way of Jesus also includes the rejection of his clear teachings on how his followers are to treat the neighbor, the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the captive, the enemy and all others in need of mercy and understanding. In order to participate in the legal homicide that takes place in all wars, the followers of Jesus have to reject gospel ethics and adopt the un-Christ-like, non-gospel Just War Theory of Augustine (which first appeared 3 centuries after Jesus’ death). There seems to be no ethical way for the follower of the nonviolent Jesus to participate in or support the mass slaughter of war. The Christian has to choose between two irreconcilable realities: the Way of the God of Love or the way of the god of war.

The whole issue of the justification of war, with its inherent atrocities, never seems to be thoroughly examined in an atmosphere of openness and historical honesty. Full understanding of the realities of war and its spiritual, psychological and economic consequences for the victims – or for the victimizers, for that matter – is rarely attempted, even for people of faith. If we who are non-soldiers ever truly experienced the horrors of combat, the effort to abolish war would suddenly be a top priority (perhaps even for the current crop of unelected “Chicken Hawk” warmongers in the Bush and Obama Administrations.

If we actually knew the gruesome realities of war (or even understood the immorality of spending trillions of dollars on war preparation while hundreds of millions of people are homeless and starving) we would refuse to cooperate with the things that make for war. But that wouldn’t be good for the various war profiteers and their shareholders who profit from war. So those “merchants of death” must hide the gruesome truths and try instead to make war look like something glorious, benign, character-building or patriotic, with, for example, sloganeering like “Be All That You Can Be.” Or they might try to convince the soon-to-be-childless mothers of doomed, dead or dying soldiers that their child had died honorably fighting for God and Country instead of for domination of the Middle East’s oil reserves.

Let’s face it. The US military’s standing army system has been gradually bankrupting America at $500+ billion annually year after year after year – even in times of so-called “peace.” The warmongering legacy of the Pentagon is still with us, particularly among those who wanted to “nuke the gooks” in Vietnam. Un-elected policy-makers of their ilk are still in charge of US war-planning and war-making today, no matter who is president, and they have been solidifying their power to flush more and more money down the Pentagon toilet with the huge profits made off the deaths, screams, blood, guts and permanent disabilities of those hood-winked soldiers who were told that they were ”saving the world for democracy” when in fact they were making the world safe for exploitive capitalism with obscene profits for the few. And even the politicians who are paid lapdogs for the corporate war profiteers don’t want the gravy train to be derailed.

Things haven’t changed much even from the World War II mentality that conveniently and guiltlessly overlooked the monstrous evil that was perpetrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945, war crimes so heinous that the psychological consequences, immune deficiency disorders and cancers from that nuclear holocaust are still being experienced in unimaginable suffering 6 decades later.

Things haven’t really changed much when one witnesses the political mentality that ignores the 500,000 deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians in the aftermath of the first Gulf War or the 600,000 plus civilian deaths in the current fiasco in Iraq.

It is apparent that our military and political leaders haven’t learned anything about the real costs of war since WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, not to mention what has happened to every army that ever tried to conquer Afghanistan. And sadly, it appears that the churches haven’t learned much either. The person sitting next to you in the comfortable church pew is, like most unaware or apathetic Americans, blissfully unaware of the hellish realities of the war-zone, so he is likely to be blindly patriotic and therefore indifferent to the plight of “the other” who suffers so much in war. He may think, contrary to Jesus’ clear teachings, that some people are “less than” us white Americans, and, therefore, if necessary, can be justifiably killed for “Volk, Fuhrer und Vaterland.”

As long as most American citizens continue to glorify war and militarism and denigrate its peacemakers; and as long as the American public endorses the current spirit of nationalism and ruthless global capitalism; and as long as the American church leadership remains prudently silent (and therefore consenting to the homicidal violence of war) we will not be able to effect a change away from the influence of conscienceless war-mongers. The prophets, the peacemakers and the conscientious objectors to war and killing are never valued in militarized nations, especially in times of war; indeed, they are virtually always marginalized, demeaned, imprisoned and sometimes even executed as traitors. And one of the reasons is that there are no profits to be made in peacemaking, whereas there are trillions to be made in the biggest business going: the preparation for, and execution of, war and the “inconvenient” but inevitable collateral damage to the creation and its innocent creatures. The current “Blow it Up Then Build it Up” reality makes money first for the killing machine and then also for the Halliburtons of the world.

As long as we continue to be led by unapologetic and merciless war-makers (and their various partners in crime – the wealthy corporate elite); and as long as there are under-employed young men and women who don’t know they are being lied to at the military recruiting stations; and as long as the nuclear giants (but ethical infants) in Washington, DC continue to be corrupted by the big money bribes and bonuses for their short-term profiteering, there is no chance America will ever obtain a meaningful peace.

And as long as America’s Christian religious leaders and their followers continue to be silent about what Jesus surely would have had them vociferously resist, namely the mass slaughter that is modern war, suffering humanity will be condemned to future wars, poverty, pestilence and starvation.

And unless America stops their military’s carnage, fully repents of its crimes against humanity and offers compensation and pays for the damage done, its turn as a recipient of retaliatory violence, like that suffered by all previous collapsed and collapsing empires, will surely come, and it will come from those, foreign and domestic victims that our nation has treated so shamefully over the past half-century.

Gary G. Kohls, MD, Duluth, MN – for Every Church A Peace Church (