12/9/08 Charlie Company of 1st battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division (the Americal Division), arrived in South Vietnam in December 1967. In March, the following year, they entered the village of My Lai, and massacred the entire village. Worse yet, it is reported that those killed in My Lai consisted fully of innocent civilians, of men, women and children. At this time, the killing of non-combatants had been outlawed by the Geneva Convention. However, the context in which many were killed raised many interesting questions regarding this rule. For example, should punishment be given to soldiers who killed wounded troops out of a seeming sense nobility? And how accountable are soldiers toward a specific code of ethics when their training never even included them? The questions raised by the general massacre of My Lai are vast, and plentiful. The event of My Lai opened American ethics to significant conditions, and complicated the concept of ethical warfare.
What, in three months, could have driven these men to massacre a village occupied only by hundreds of non-combatants? This could be the most apparent question raised by the events in My Lai. Given that killing another human can be extremely taxing on the conscience of a man, soldiers at war are forced to make psychological adjustments in order to retain peace of mind. In a testimony to the Peers commission, Michael Bernhardt pointed out the use of such racial terms as “gooks”, “dinks” and “slopes”. “The men,” he said, “since the Vietnamese were speaking something we could not understand, felt that they weren't communicating with anyone.” What Bernhardt is pointing out is the dehumanization taking place of the Vietnamese people. Killing fellow humans is not always an easy tasks, but killing that which is less than human could certainly be done. Unfortunately, this psychological tactic applied not only to soldiers, but to the civilians as well. In a testimony to the U.S. Army CID, Michael Terry discussed more of this hatred, saying “These men – I mean a lot of GI's, and these in particular in this case, they don't feel empathy with the Vietnamese when they are thrown together, so they don't feel any empathy toward them and they treat them as if they weren't human beings at times.”
` This dehumanization against the Vietnamese did not appear overnight. To troops in Vietnam, and especially to those in Charlie company, the Viet Cong was an enemy largely unseen. Not only were they sneaky and elusive in nature, but most of their kills came from sniper fire, land mines, and booby traps. “Lacking the strength and firepower to survive and extended major battle, they relied primarily on operations which permitted them to mass, attack, and withdraw before US or GVN/ARVN forces could react. Their operations at every level were characterized by methodical planning, detailed rehearsals, and violent execution,” it is described in the report of the Military Situation in Quang Ngai province. When asked to describe the events leading to the My Lai massacre, Michael Terry described the conditions as follows, “...A couple of days before this Pinkville incident we had had one guy killed and about three or four were wounded with legs blown off or something similar to that. Before this time we had had the same thing and the men hadn't had much action or anything, no way to fight back, which made the men unhappy probably. The last time was the last straw and the men, they had a meeting together and talked to the captain and some of them broke down and cried and things like that...” As described by Michael Terry, the troops seldom even made contact with any enemy, but were victimized just the same. Through these tactics, the troops were psychologically worn down, as their fellow soldiers were being killed and wounded all around them, and as far as they were concerned, they were helpless to do anything about it. Further on, Terry said “...they asked when they would be able to fight, to let go with their feelings or things like that; and in this meeting the captain said that, words to the effect that we were going down into Pinkville. ... He said he knew we would be able to fight then... A couple of times they asked if they could shoot anything they saw.” Described by Terry is the yearning for these men to fight back, for their own psychological wellbeing. This can be viewed as foreshadowing to the My Lai massacre, as the men expressed a seemingly urgent desire to to relieve themselves of the psychological distress they had been put through.
Another issue which could have led to the massacres is the inability on the part of U.S. Troops to distinguish their enemy. “In addition to the men in their combat units, children, women, and old men were used to construct homemade booby traps and mines which they normally emplace at night under the cover of darkness.” It was difficult for troops to know where loyalties stood, and confusion in this respect could be deadly. The enemy did not lie exclusively in the uniformed men with whom soldiers fought in the jungle. The enemy could be a woman residing in a village, who provides aid and weaponry to the Viet Cong. Or perhaps a young boy, spending his nights booby trapping the paths American soldiers would soon walk. In a testimony to the Peers Commission, Jay A. Roberts describes the situation as follows. “ ...any GI in Vietnam is in a frustrated situation. He doesn't know who to be friends with. Children coddle up to jeeps and drop hand grenades in them. You can't trust a child because anybody in Vietnam – because you don't know who your friends are. I think that these things were working on these people.” The natural human response would be to treat the Vietnamese with respect, at least those who were not involved with the war. Soldiers coming into the war did start off with these values in mind. As time went on, however, their trust had been betrayed so frequently by those who appeared to be non-threatening that soldiers did not know who to consider friend or enemy. Even those who were not involved in combat had proven that they can pose quite a threat to U.S. Soldiers, and for the sake of their own wellbeing, soldiers needed to neutralize these threats. In and around My Lai, sympathies swayed toward the communists. Combined with the heavier than average Viet Cong activity in the area, it is not too far-fetched to believe that many of those living in My Lai were in fact a threat to U.S. Soldiers. This does not justify the massacring of an entire village, but it does provide practical reasoning. It is difficult to judge the actions in My Lai from our own undisturbed perspectives. The elements of the Vietnam was were brutal, and clearly devastated the minds of many soldiers.
The factors which could motivate U.S. Soldiers to perform such unspeakable acts could be traced back to the psychological abuse which they endured while fighting in Vietnam, as described above. Could this trauma alone be deemed the sole reason for the massacre? It could be argued that a good platoon will overcome any threat to its integrity, through high morale and good leadership. Which raises the next question: Where exactly was the leadership during the massacre? Given the different testimonies regarding the exact purpose of the mission, there appears to be little or no clarity concerning what the intentions of My Lai actually were.
The official mission in My Lai was to finish off a strong Viet Cong resistance who was believed to be residing in My Lai. The elusive Viet Cong were to be surrounded in My Lai, with no place to run. By finishing them off, and neutralizing the hostility of the villages, the unusually high resistance known in “Pinkville” would be no more. The testimonies of the soldiers involved, however, would suggest a case entirely different. The first level of discrepancies can be considered less upsetting, as much of the action in Vietnam was emphasized for the public. For example, it is clear and widely accepted that soldiers did enter My Lai with the intentions of destroying all that support life in the area, including livestock, water supply and all the hooches in which the villagers lived. When asked about orders concerning the destruction of the village, Eugene Kotouc replied “Yes, sir, there were. Colonel Barker said he wanted the area cleaned out, he wanted it neutralized, and he wanted the buildings knocked down. He wanted the hooches burned, and he wanted the tunnels filled in, and then he wanted the livestock and chickens run off, killed or destroyed.” While still considered misconduct, had My Lai concluded in only these actions, little would have been made of it. The actions described by Kotouc serve practical, military-specific purposes, and can in many cases be justified. This testimony, however, only begins the trail of what true intentions were. The next testimony by Max D. Hutson provides the idea that orders could have been given too vaguely. In his testimony, he stated “The night prior to the mission ... CPT Medina called the company together and explained the mission to us. He stated that My Lai #4 was a suspected VC strong hold and that he had orders to kill everybody that was in the village. We did not expect to find anyone in the village, and when we did, we did as ordered.” Information from Hutson's testimony was supported in that of Harry Stanley. “...Captain Medina told us that the intelligence had established that My Lai (4) was completely enemy controlled. He described the formations we were to use the following day and told us to carry extra ammunition. He ordered us to “kill everything in the village”. The men in my squad talked about this among ourselves that night because the order to “kill everything in the village” was so unusual. We all agreed that captain Medina meant for us to kill every man, woman, and child in the village.” At this level, the idea is that there was an error in intelligence, and the orders to “kill everything in the village” were intended for the Viet Cong, who were anticipated to be in heavy concentration at this time. Many of those interviewed later were said to be following orders, as they literally did kill everything in the village. In this case, who is at fault? Does the blame fall within the leadership for their lack of clarity, or does it fall onto those who denounced personal judgment for the sake of following an order?
The suspicions do not stop at miscommunication and miscalculation. There are numerous accounts which suggest that the massacre of My Lai was in fact premeditated It is difficult to say whether or not this premeditation was at the leadership level, but it is clear that many troops knew exactly what was ahead of them before entering My Lai. In a testimony by Nguyen Dinh Phu, Phu spoke of missing the briefing, but arriving for the festivities later that night. He described meeting a large group of drunken soldiers. One of which told him him that “tomorrow they would go on an operation and they would kill women, children, cattle and everything”. Ronald L. Haeberle, who had also missed the briefing, told a similar story. “It was general talk amongst the soldiers. I do not [know] if this order in fact was given. The soldiers were saying that all the inhabitants were Communist or sympathizers or Viet Cong.” Further yet, there are other allegations which offer a possibility of not only approval within leadership, but encouragement. For example, in a testimony of Herbert L Carter, Captain Medina is quoted to have said the following: “Well, boys – this is your change to get revenge on these people. When we go into My Lai (4), it's open season. When we leave, nothing will be living. Everything is going to go.” How much of an influence did the leadership of the operation actually have? By Carter's account, it would seem they had quite a bit.
In warfare, there are rules which are expected to be upheld. Rules which allow for maximal civility, even in wartime. The rules are designed to retain the fundamental goals of war, which are to overtake the military resistance, and nothing more. The rules include the treatment of the enemy once overtaken, as well as a general code of conduct, keeping in mind that U.S. Soldiers were in fact guests in South Vietnam. There were specific guidelines in handling captives, treating them humanely. The rules mandated that prisoners be protected from violence, given medical treatment if necessary, and taken to security as quickly as possible. Given the events at My Lai, it is clear that these rules were either ill regarded, or just plain untaught to U.S. Soldiers. Given that most villagers who resided in My Lai were shot during the attack, one can rule out protection from violence, as well as any productive transportation of the captives. Records show that not only were civilians rounded up and shot, but there were 20 known cases of rape, the victims aging as young as 10 years old. How can rape ever be justified in any situation? These cases of rape are indicators of just how mad, and out of control these men had become. The attack on My Lai truly was a psychological means of venting for many people.
In defense of potential charges, those involved in My Lai had two arguments, both of which remain controversial even to this day. The first being that education was not provided during training. In principle, ignorance is no excuse. However, it seemed pretty consistent throughout training that rules of conduct were not only ignored, but laughed at by instructors. In a testimony of Herbert L. Carter, Carter explains the nature by which the material was treated during training. “They told us that if we get a prisoner to hold them until someone, intelligence, was actually supposed to interrogate them. The instructor sort of laughed about this. ... It was just the way they said it, like you do what you want to do with them actually.” Peer investigators concluded that there was a lack in emphasis of these ethics in training. Should soldiers have been expected to know these rules, or is this an acceptable exception? In any case, the ethics involving what took place in My Lai far preceded any laws, and bordered into common sense. In this case, one must really consider the circumstances, given the emotional and psychological distress to which none can relate.
To those who faced charges for the killing, their defense was that they were merely following orders. As pointed out above, Medina's instructions to “kill everything in the village” taken literally were applied to the noncombatants. This alone could be considered a deliberate technicality, but there are other cases to support these claims further. There were many alleged cases in which soldiers were ordered to fire on the noncombatants of My Lai. On of which was demonstrated in a testimony of Herbert L. Carter, in which Medina had said “Kill everybody, leave nobody standing.” The following of orders was very thoroughly emphasized throughout the training of these soldiers. The idea was that as a platoon, soldiers were to function as one unit, not a group of individual thinkers. Not only did each individual have time to consider each action in a mission, but they were advised that doing so could be deadly. In this situation, when these men are literally reprogrammed to think this way, should they be held accountable for their actions, when in fact following orders?
Another issue which was not defined in any rules of conduct was that of “mercy killing”. In a testimony of Michael Terry, Terry admits to firing on several injured noncombatants in order to “put them out of their misery”. He had shown no other signs of aggression, and appeared to be sickened by the brutal slaughter partaken by so many others around him. “Our intent in doing this was - I mean there was no way that they could live and so we just tried to make it faster for them,” he explained. “When half their head is missing or their brains sticking out, and for one thing, we didn't judge them in any way, but no helicopters were called in there to evacuate the wounded or anything and they just left them laying there and they would just move on ahead.” The rules simply stated that noncombatants were not to be killed. In the event of inevitable death in the midst of constant pain, does Terry's case pose a worthy exception to this rule?
After the events of My Lai were said and done, it was not a member of Charlie company, but a helicopter pilot who reported the incident. It wasn't until the investigation was already underway that members of Charlie company became forthcoming. Even into the investigation, even those high up in the ranks were reluctant to carry on such an investigation. There are many reasons for this, one being the simple consequences to come of it. An event like this would have a devastating impact on the Army's credibility, as well as their image. Army officials knew that the public release of this information would greatly deter what remaining support Americans had for the Vietnam war. When an army as focused on ideals and ethics as the U.S. Army gets caught up in events such as these, there is little hope left for the idea of clean and civil warfare. Not to mention the sheer devastation of the simple fact that Americans are capable of such evil. It seemed a mutual decision to let these events slide under the radar if at all possible.
The events of My Lai clearly brought forth an overwhelming number of questions. Tough questions in need of answers. Who was to blame? Should each individual soldier have been responsible for their own actions, or was it the job of the commanders to keep them in line? How much of this can be attributed to the Viet Cong style of warfare, and how much of that is relevant? When noncombatants are used militarily time and time again, should the soldiers be expected to treat them as if they are not potential enemies? One can not shed the existence and demonstration of pure hatred in these attacks, as shown by the mutilation and rape of the civilians, as well as all the killing. Should Americans be excused for that hatred too? What of the mercy killings? Given the circumstances, is killing of noncombatants ever acceptable? The events of My Lai, the unveiling of such hatred, opened up our eyes to a great deal of issues which were then forced to be addressed. To be acknowledged. Ready we, or the world was ready or not.