Human history shows that warfighters require ethical guidelines. In The Republic, Plato implored that Greek soldiers:

[Should] not burn the houses, nor . . . maintain that all the inhabitants of each city are their foes, men, women and children, but only a few, those who caused the quarrel. [T]his is how our citizens must behave toward their enemies[.]

Our modern military is guided by similar aspirational statements, including having produced a manual for ethical warfare that is more than a thousand pages in length. But, perhaps a more powerful exercise is to actually remember times when we have failed to meet the standards of our own humanity.

To that end, on Wednesday, March 14, from 11:30 a.m. until 1:15 p.m., the George Washington University Law School will host a presentation to remember that, 50 years ago, U.S. Forces systematically murdered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians – men, women, children, and infants – in a hamlet of the greater Son My village known to those Americans as My Lai (4), or “Pinkville.” The speaker will be the Regimental Historian and Archivist of the United States Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, Mr. Fred L. Borch, Colonel (Retired). Those wishing to attend need to RSVP by March 11 by email to

Much has been written about the events at My Lai since the Cleveland Plain Dealer first published photographs of the killings leaked by war photographer and Army Sergeant, Ron Haeberle. The Army’s extensive 1970 official report of investigation into the matter was completed by Lieutenant General William Peers. This excerpt from Volume I, Chapter 2 of the Peers Inquiry summarizes the nature of the atrocity:

During the period 16-19 March 1968, a tactical operation was conducted into Son My Village, Son Tinh District, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam, by Task Force (TF) Barker, a battalion-size unit of the Americal Division.

TF Barker was an interim organization of the llth Brigade, created to fill a tactical void resulting from the withdrawal of a Republic of Korea Marine Brigade from the Quang Ngai area. The Task Force was composed of a rifle company from each of the llth Brigade’s three organic infantry battalions – A/3-1
Inf, B/4-3 Inf, C/1-20 Inf. The commander was Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Frank A. Barker (now deceased).

The plans for the operation were never reduced to writing but it was reportedly aimed at destroying the 48th [Viet Cong (VC)] Local Force (LF) Battalion, thought to be located in Son My Village, which also served as a VC staging and logistical support base. On two previous operations in the area, units of TF Barker had received casualties from enemy fire, mines, and boobytraps, and had not been able to close effectively with the enemy.

On 15 March 1968, the new llth Brigade commander, Colonel (COL) Oran K. Henderson, visited the TF Barker command post at Landing Zone (LZ) Dottie and talked to the assembled staff and commanders. He urged them to press forward aggressively and eliminate the 48th LF Battlion. Following these remarks, LTC Barker and his staff gave an intelligence briefing and issued an operations order. The company commanders were told that most of the population of Son My were “VC or VC sympathizers” and were advised that most of the civilian inhabitants would be away from Son My and on their way to market by 0700 hours. The operation was to commence at 0725 hours on 16 March 1968 with a short artillery preparation, following which C/1-20 Inf was to combat assault into an LZ immediately west of My Lai (4) and then sweep east through the subhamlet. Following C Company’s landing, B/4-3 Inf was to reinforce C/1-20 Inf, or to conduct a second combat assault to the east of My Lai (4) into an LZ south of the subhamlet of Ny Lai (1) or “Pinkville. ” A/3-1 Inf was to move from its field location to blocking positions north of Son My.

During or subsequent to the briefing, LTC Barker ordered the commanders of C/1-20 Inf, and possibly B/4-3 Inf, to -burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy foodstuffs and perhaps to close the wells. No instructions were issued as to the safeguarding of noncombatants found there.

During a subsequent briefing by Captain (CPT) Medina to his men, LTC Barker’s orders were embellished, a revenge element was added, and the men of C/1-20 Inf were given to understand that only the enemy would be present in My Lai (4) on 16 March and that the enemy was to be destroyed. In CPT Michles’ briefing to his platoon leaders, mention was also apparently made of the burning of dwellings.

On the morning of 16 March 1968, the operation began as planned. A/3-1 Inf- was reported in blocking positions at 0725 hours. At about that same time the artillery preparation and fires of the supporting helicopter gunship were placed on the C/1-20 Inf LZ and a part of My Lai (4). LTC Barker controlled the artillery preparation and combat assault from his helicopter. COL Henderson and his command group also arrived overhead at approximately this time.

By 0750 hours all elements of C/1-20 Inf were on the ground. Before entering My Lai (4), they killed several Vietnamese fleeing the area in the rice paddies around the subhamlet and along Route 521 to the south of the subhamlet. No resistance was encountered at this time or later in the day.

The infantry assault on My Lai (4) began a few minutes before 0800 hours. During the 1st Platoon’s movement through the southern half of the subhamlet, its members were involved in widespread killing of Vietnamese inhabitants (comprised almost exclusively of old men, women, and children) and also in property destruction. Most of the inhabitants who were not killed immediately were rounded up into two groups. The first group, consisting of about 70-80 Vietnamese, was taken to a large ditch east of My Lai (4) and later shot. A second group, consisting of 20-50 Vietnamese, was taken south of the hamlet and shot there on a trail. Similar killings of smaller groups took place within the subhamlet.

Members of the 2d Platoon killed at least 60-70 Vietnamese men, women, and children, as they swept through the northern half of My Lai (4) and through Binh Tay, a small subhamlet about 400 meters north of My Lai (4). They also committed several rapes.

The 3d Platoon, having secured the LZ, followed behind the 1st and 2d and burned and destroyed what remained of the houses in My Lai (4) and killed most of the remaining livestock. Its members also rounded up and killed a group of 7-12 women and children.

There was considerable testimony that orders to stop the killing were issued two or three times during the morning. The 2d Platoon received such an order around 0920 hours and promptly complied. The 1st Platoon continued the killings until perhaps 1030 hours, when the order was repeated. By this time the 1st Platoon had completed its sweep through the subhamlet.

By the time C/1-20 Inf departed My Lai ( 4 ) in the early afternoon, moving to the northeast for link-up with B/4-3- Inf, its members had killed at least 175-200 Vietnamese men, women, and children. The evidence indicates that only 3 or 4 were confirmed as Viet Cong, although there were undoubtedly several unarmed VC (men, women, and children) among them and many more active supporters and sympathizers. One man from the company was reported as wounded from the accidental discharge of his weapon.

Since C Company had encountered no enemy opposition, B/4-3 Inf was air-landed in its LZ between 0815 and 0830 hours, following a short artillery preparation. Little if any resistance was encountered, although the 2d Platoon suffered 1 KIA and 7 WIA from mines and/or boobytraps. The 1st Platoon moved eastward separately from the rest of B Company to cross and secure a bridge over the Song My Khe (My Khe River). After crossing the bridge and approaching the outskirts of the subhamlet of My Khe (4), elements of the platoon opened fire on the subhamlet with an M-60 machinegun and M-16 rifles. The fire continued for approximately 5 minutes, during which time some inhabitants of My Khe (4) , mostly women and children, were killed. The lead elements of the platoon then entered the subhamlet, firing into the houses and throwing demolitions into shelters. Many noncombatants apparently were killed in the process.

It is believed that only ten men in B/4-3 Inf directly participated in the killings and destruction in My Khe (4); two of these are dead and the remaining eight have either refused to testify or claim no recollection of the event. As a result, it has not been possible to reconstruct the events with certainty. It appears, however, that the number of noncombatants killed by B/4-3 Inf on 16 March 1968 may have been as high as 90. The company reported a total of 38 VC KIA on 16 March, but it is likely that few if any were Viet Cong.

On the evening of 16 March 1968, after C/1-20 Inf and B/4-3 Inf had linked up in a night defensive position, a Viet Cong suspect was apparently tortured and maimed by a US officer. He was subsequently killed along with some additional suspects by Vietnamese National Police in the presence of US personnel.

During the period 17-19 March 1968 both C/1-20 Inf and B/4-3 Inf were involved in additional burning and destruction of dwellings, and in the mistreatment of Vietnamese detainees.

A survivor, Nguyen Hong Man, was 13 at the time of the massacre. He told Smithsonian Magazine that he watched soldiers kill his 5-year-old niece as they were hiding in an underground tunnel. Then:

I lay there, horrified. Blood from the nearby bodies splashed onto my body. People who were covered with a lot of blood and stayed still got the chance to survive, while kids did not. Many of them died as they cried for their parents in terror.

In 1969, CPT Medina was interviewed by Journalist Mike Wallace regarding his role in the massacre. He said he took part because:

We had lost a lot of good people that had served their country in Vietnam in a mine field, due to sniper fire, due to mines and booby traps. The entire area was heavily infested with mines and booby traps. When infantrymen approach an area, the women and children will place these things out.

Also in 1969, Private Paul Meadlo was interviewed by Mike Wallace. He explained his killing of civilians as follows:

Meadlo: Well, I might have killed about 10, 15 of them.

Wallace: You’re married?

Meadlo: Right.

Wallace: Children?

Meadlo: Two.

Wallace: How can a father of two young children shoot babies?

Meadlo: I don’t know. It was just one of them things.

Wallace: Why did you do it?

Meadlo: Why did I do it? Because I felt like I was ordered to do it.

On the same day that the Peers Inquiry was launched, November 26, 1969, the Special Investigations subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee initiated its own investigation, and eventually published this reportSee Davidson, Michael J., Congressional Investigations and their Effect on Subsequent Military Prosecutions, 14 J.L. & Pol’y 281, 300 (2005).

The subcommittee’s investigation was not a public proceeding. The subcommittee rebuffed the Army’s requests that it not interview key witnesses until General Peers’ team had been able to interview them. Id. at 301. Further, the committee refused to release transcripts from its interviews of witnesses, including those accused of having committed offenses, until after the conclusion of those mens’ courts-martial. Id. at 302.

One author opined that ‘[Subcommittee chairman F. Edward] Hebert’s subcommittee seemed more interested in discrediting those who had exposed the war crimes committed at My Lai than ensuring that those responsible for them were punished.”

Id. at 302. Peers described the subcommittee’s work as “more of an inquisition than an investigation” and said that attitude was based on the Committee Chairman’s belief that “our boys would never do anything like that.” Id. at 303.

The subcommittee’s refusal to release the transcript of testimony taken from men involved in the killing at My Lai had devastating effects on the ability of the Army to prosecute the offenders.

Hebert’s refusal to release the transcripts affected at least three courts-martial, and in the court-martial of Staff Sergeant David Mitchell, the refusal proved fatal for the prosecution. Mitchell had been a squad leader in Calley’s first platoon during the My Lai incident. On October 6, 1970, the court-martial of Sergeant Mitchell began. Shortly thereafter, the military judge ruled in favor of the defense to suppress testimony based on a violation of the Jencks Act. The military judge determined that because of the Hebert subcommittee’s refusal to release testimony transcripts, no one who testified before that subcommittee would be permitted to testify at Mitchell’s court-martial. With his case now severely hamstrung, the military trial counsel (prosecutor) could call only three of the numerous witnesses that he originally contemplated. In contrast, Mitchell’s lawyer put on a robust defense, calling over twenty witnesses including the accused. Not surprisingly, the military panel returned a verdict of not guilty.

Id. at 304.

Only one man was convicted of any offense for his role in the murders at My Lai – Second Lieutenant Calley. He was sentenced to life in prison, but, after a public outpouring of protest, the President ordered that he instead be held in house arrest. He remained in that status for just over 3 years before being released altogether.

In 2009, at a meeting at his local Kiwani’s Club, Calley finally expressed remorse for having committed mass murder:

There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry. If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them — foolishly, I guess.

At the end of his statement, and after answering questions, Calley received a standing ovation.

11 Responses to “Scholarship Saturday: Remembering the massacre at My Lai (4)”

  1. Charlie Dunlap says:

    I agree with the writer that it’s important remember the iniquities of the perpetrators of My Lai, but I also believe it’s a serious omission to fail to remember the heroism of individuals such as Hugh Thompson and his crew who brought it to an end (See: 
    We need to do more work as to how it is that some people become war criminals, and some become heroes in these situations.  The great military historian Stephen Ambrose observed “When you put young people, eighteen, nineteen, or twenty years old, in a foreign country with weapons in their hands, sometimes terrible things happen… This is a reality that stretches across time and continents. It is a universal aspect of war…”  The question for today is: how can we create more Hugh Thompson’s and fewer Calleys?
    I very highly recommend to CAAFlog readers Gary Solis’ book Son Thang: An American War Crime, much because it provides a detailed look at the individuals and the situation involved.  It could almost have been written today with as many lessons it contains.

  2. Vulture says:

    While in attendance remember the adage that “History is written by the victors.”  The Army’s position at the time of Callie’s trial was that he was a throwback and washout that just happened to mill his way into combat.  Look for absolving statements such as lawyer “X” was sent by General “Y” to ensure that “Subject Z” did his job right.  The people of My Lai aren’t writing the history, but certainly the Corps’ boys “wouldn’t do anything like that.”  So tune into words like progress, advancement, and re-alignment and gauge what material connection they have to malady they are couple to.
    Fred Borch was they guy that came to a HBCU to say that the executions for the Houston Riots trials were legal for the time.  That is, a bunch of black men hanging in San Antonio without chance of redress.  Now its a bunch of yellow men and women in a hole in SE Asia.  
    We haven’t evolved for the purpose of how righteous we can make the legalities.

  3. Isaac Kennen says:

    My first draft of this piece prominently featured Hugh Thompson, who was decorated a hero for saving lives at My Lai. I have no doubt that he did so, and that his heroism is laudable. The problem in writing this was that I wasn’t sure exactly what to attribute to him. In his testimony before Representative Hebert’s subcommittee, Thompson offered a muted account of his observations and actions that day. 
    The subcommittee’s report contains the following:

    Lt. Hugh C.Thompson (who was a, Warrant Officer in March 1968), the pilot of the observation helicopter, testified that he saw approximately 50 bodies in a ditch east of My Lai 4. Lt. Thomson stated that the only person he actually saw killed by a U.S. soldier was a woman who was shot by an American captain.  Capt. Medina, both in testimony before this subcommittee and in public statements, has admitted that he was the officer who shot the woman in the scene observed by Lt. Thompson. His explanation of the circumstances surrounding that shooting suggests that it was not a wanton act, but rather a reflexive, self-defensive action by a soldier under the pressures of a combat situation.

    Report at 14.

    At some time about 1030 hours, WO Thompson landed his helicopter east of My Lai 4 in the vicinity of U.S. troops. His stated purpose in landing at that place was to induce some Vietnamese women and children to leave a bunker in which he had seen them hiding.
    The first soldier who met WO Thompson testified that he was unable to understand him due to the noise of the helicopter. Thompson then approached the lieutenant in charge of the ground troops and asked him if there was any way he could get the people out of the bunker. According to Thompson, his reply “was to the effect ‘ the only way I could get them out is with a hand grenade’, or something of that order.” He testified that he couldn’t specifically recall his conversation with the lieutenant. He further testified that nobody attempted to prevent him from getting the Vietnamese to come out of the bunker, nor did they attempt to interfere with the helicopter evacuation of those people. The Vietnamese were induced by Thompson to leave the place in which they had been hiding. One of the gunships accompanying him landed, and in two trips evacuated the Vietnamese to a location a few miles away. 
    Since there have been newspaper stories that Mr. Thompson had ordered his gunner and crew chief to fire on the American troops if they should attempt to interfere with him, he was examined in some detail on that question. He stated that his crew trained the helicopter guns so “they were just covering us on the ground. I didn’t want to get caught in a crossfire. I didn’t want Charlie to sneak up behind our people and shoot.”
    Because of several substantial inconsistencies in Thompson’s story, and because of his apparent inability to be responsive to certain questions, which sought to elicit clarifying information, the subcommittee found his testimony difficult to evaluate. 

    Report at 15-16.

    Mr. Reddan. Very well. I will ask you specifically. Did you tell your crew, your gunner and your crew chief, to fire on American soldiers if they fired at you.Lt. Thompson. To the best of my memory, I did not tell them that, sir.
    * * *
    Mr. Reddan. Did you expect American troops to fire at you?
    Lt. Thompson. From where the Americans were and where the enemy was, if there was enemy there, I had been right in the middle of a crossfire, sir.
    Mr. Hebert. That is not replying to the question Mr. Thompson. Mr. Reddan asked you, did you expect American troops to fire on you. 
    Lt. Thompson. I didn’t.
    Mr. Hebert. You did not expect American troops to fire on you?
    Lt. Thompson. That’s right.
    Mr. Gubser. Did you consider it a possibility?
    Mr. Hebert. Why whoudl they want to fire on you? You wore their uniform.
    Lt. Thompson. That is why I don’t think an American would shoot another American, sir, in war.
    * * *
    Mr. Reddan. As I understand your testimony, and if I am wrong, please correct me, your testimony is that you had no intention to convey to your gunner and crew chief that you were in fear of harm from American troops, or that in covering you, if necessary, they should shoot Americans?
    Lt. Thompson. Wait a minute. I didn’t follow all of that, sir. I am sorry.
    Mr. Reddan. What I am saying is, as I understand your testimony, you are saying that you did not tell your crew chief and your gunner that they should cover you, and if any American shot at you, they should shoot the Americans?
    Lt. Thompson. No, sir. I am not saying that I said that.
    Mr. Reddan. And you didn’t suggest that?
    Lt. Thompson. I don’t remember what was said sir.

    Report at 17 – 18.

    Mr. Gubser. I concede that there could be a big difference between a statement which might have been misinterpreted and an order, but I asked you did you give an order, and I think you ought to remember whether you did or not?
    Lt. Thompson. I did not give an order to shoot Americans, no sir.
    * * *
    Mr. Gubser. Did you specifically give an order to cover you against Americans?
    Lt. Thompson. To the best of my knowledge I did not, sir.

    Report at 18.
    Mr. Colburn, Thompson’s door gunner, also testified before the subcommittee:

    Mr. Colburn. He said that if any of the Americal soldiers opened up on the civilians while he was getting them out of the bunker, that we should shoot them.
    Mr. Reddan. Shoot the Americans?
    Mr. Colburn. Yes, that we should.
    Mr. Reddan. There is no question in your mind now, this is what he told you? He told you to shoot American soldiers?
    Mr. Colburn. He didn’t tell us to shoot them. He said we should shoot them. It was understood that what he said, he knew we wouldn’t. It wasn’t an order.
    Mr. Reddan. What was it?
    Mr. Colburn. He was just expressing that – he was awfully upset, and – he knew that we wouldn’t shoot the American soldiers.
    Mr. Herbert. How do you know he knew that?
    Mr. Colburn. I know Mr. Thompson pretty well, and the crew chief knew him pretty well.
    Mr. Gubser. Is it your impression that he gave you instructions – let’s not call it an order.
    Mr. Colburn. No, not even instructions. It was, he was just showing us how he felt about what he thought they had been doing to the civilians.
    * * *
    Mr. Gubser. Well, in your own mind, what was your impression of what he wanted you to do?
    Mr. Colburn. Cover him.
    Mr. Gubser. Cover him against what?
    Mr. Colburn. Enemy fire.
    Mr. Gubser. Enemy fire. VC fire?
    Mr. Colburn. Yes.
    Mr. Gubser. It was not your impression, then, that he was asking you to protect him from American soldiers?
    Mr. Colburn. No.
    Mr. Hebert. And any statement made by anybody that Mr. Thompson gave orders to shoot American soldiers would be false?
    Mr. Colburn. Yes.
    * * *
    Mr. Hebert. And you got out, you and your crew chief got out to cover Mr. Thompson, not against American soldiers, not pointing your guns at the American soldiers on the ground?
    Mr. Colburn. No.
    Mr. Hebert. You got out to cover him from Viet Cong fire, and not from American fire?
    Mr. Colburn. Yes.
    Mr. Hebert. Yes, what?
    Mr. Colburn. Yes, we covered him from enemy fire.
    Mr. Hebert. From enemy fire and not from American fire?
    Mr. Colburn. Not from American fire.
    Mr. Hebert. And that was never your intention. However he did say to you in a general conversation if an American shoots while I’m getting those people out, shoot him?
    Mr. Colburn. They should be shot.
    Mr. Hebert. They should be shot.
    Mr. Colburn. Yes. Just for what they were trying –
    Mr. Hebert. We are just trying to find out what he said. They should be shot.
    Mr. Colburn. Yes, for what he thought they were doing.
    Mr. Gubser. You are presenting that as a paraphrase?
    Mr. Colburn. Yes.
    Mr. Reddan. What you are saying is like someone says he should be hung for doing that?
    Mr. Colburn. Yes.
    Mr. Reddan. And he said to you, “If they shoot these fellas while I’m getting them out, they should be shot?”
    Mr. Colburn. Yes.
    Mr. Reddan. Is that what you mean?
    Mr. Colburn. Yes.
    Mr. Reddan. And he wasn’t directing you or your crew chief to shoot at them?
    Mr. Colburn. No. And both the crew chief and myself understood that.
    Mr. Reddan. Yes. Did you have any reason to fear that you might be shot by American troops?
    Mr. Colburn. No.

    Report at 19 – 20.
    With that level of ambiguity, it was difficult to precisely characterize Mr. Thompson’s actions that day.
    One thing is clear, however – Hugh Thompson did not receive the praise he deserved until 1998. As the New York Times reported:

    When Mr. Thompson returned home, it seemed to him that he was viewed as the guilty party.
    “I’d received death threats over the phone,” he told the CBS News program “60 Minutes” in 2004. “Dead animals on your porch, mutilated animals on your porch some mornings when you get up. So I was not a good guy.”

  4. Charles J. Dunlap says:

    I disagree that Thompson’s actions that day were “ambiguous.”  sure, with the benefit of hindsight one might be able to parse the words of a then-young warrant officer in the glare of Hebert’s subcommittee in a way to diminish his actions, but I think an objective view would reveal his real heroism.  Real heroes may often described their own actions in a “muted” way. I would invite attention to the citation from his Soldier’s Medal if anyone is uncertain about what he did:
    The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 2, 1926, takes pleasure in presenting the Soldier’s Medal to Warrant Officer One (WO-1) Hugh C. Thompson, Jr., United States Army, for heroism above and beyond the call of duty as Pilot of an OH-23 Raven Observation Helicopter of the 123d Aviation Battalion, Americal Division, on 16 March 1968, while saving the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of noncombatants by American forces at My Lai, Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam. Warrant Officer Thompson landed his helicopter in the line of fire between fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pursuing American ground troops to prevent their murder. He then personally confronted the leader of the American ground troops and was prepared to open fire on those American troops should they fire upon the civilians. Warrant Officer Thompson, at the risk of his own personal safety, went forward of the American lines and coaxed the Vietnamese civilians out of the bunker to enable their evacuation. Leaving the area after requesting and overseeing the civilians’ air evacuation, his crew spotted movement in a ditch filled with bodies south of My Lai Four. Warrant Officer Thompson again landed his helicopter and covered his crew as they retrieved a wounded child from the pile of bodies. He then flew the child to the safety of a hospital at Quang Ngai. Warrant Officer Thompson’s relayed radio reports of the massacre and subsequent report to his section leader and commander resulted in an order for the cease fire at My Lai and an end to the killing of innocent civilians. Warrant Officer Thompson’s heroism exemplifies the highest standards of personal courage and ethical conduct, reflecting distinct credit on him, and the United States Army.

  5. Charlie Gittins says:

    General:  We all know that you cannot depend on awards citations to establish accurate facts.  Exemplar:  The Silver Star Medal awarded to Pat Tillman.  He was no doubt a good soldier and indeed a heroic soldier.  His award was a fabrication that was approved by General McCrystal, who could not explain the inconsistencies.

  6. Kevin Reinholz says:

    I think your article was perfect, and while Gen Dunlap’s point about recognizing the heroism of Lt Thompson is well taken, ultimately the narrative should not be about the heroism of one American soldier, but about the villainy of many others. As Vulture so eloquently pointed out, “history is written by the victors.” This tragic event belongs to the victims, and to highlight the heroism of one or three soldiers in doing what any decent human being with half a heart would do, even if it took great courage to defy their murderous comrades, minimizes what happened and takes the narrative away from those to whom it rightfully belongs. It would be like giving an account of the Trail of Tears but saying “one US cavalryman refrained from X atrocity.” Bravo.I am not intending to impugn Lt Thompson’s memory or minimize what he did, but that narrative has already been told, many times over. Probably because we’re more comfortable with focusing on a “heroic” few not raping and murdering unarmed civilians, and saving a handful of survivors, than on facing the difficult reality that our own soldiers, not too long ago, committed unspeakable atrocities during war. I believe you rightly placed the emphasis on the war crimes themselves. The My Lai Massacre should not be forever retold in American circles *only* with the inclusion of the story of a few heroic Americans who were not OK with what their murderous comrades did and tried to stop it. Yes, it is true, and it is commendable, but it places the focus on the “heroes” rather than the victims or the villains. Good job telling the story as a cautionary tale, without adding a “feel good” moment that takes away from the tragic nature of this event.

  7. stewie says:

    so I think about this and I wonder. Malmedy. What if there had been a NAZI officer who had helped a few Americans to escape the massacre? Would we be saying we needed to make sure we also focused on that NAZI officer, or would we primarily focus on the 84 American POWs shot to death?
    I think the answer to that question, answers our question on how we should view My Lai and where our emphasis should lie.

  8. Vulture says:

    I think that we can praise heroism where we find it, even if it comes from a Nazi, e.g. Oskar Schiendler.   Take it for what it’s worth, but if you can’t appreciate an antihero, you probably already serve too many masters.
    But in the sense of the military justice apparatus; to properly address atrocity, the Abu Gharib incident still resonates.  The 2005 report Isaac references above mentions it but only briefly.  Maybe it was Lone Bear that mentioned in post a while back about D. Rumsfield saying in congressional testimony “Maybe some smart defense attorney is taking notes.”  But as it turned out, “We tortured some folks.” Pres Obama.  That was with the approval of senior leadership and the military justice system did fail.
    Completely on board with Reinholz on this isn’t a feel good story and, regarding this presentation the day after tomorrow, I’d hold suspect any attempt to sway the discussion in that direction.  A posture of having revamped the system to the demise of its inequities isn’t well founded. 

  9. David Bargatze says:

    With his question, stewie holds up a mirror in which we can see ourselves. Well played. Within the context of Malmedy, I would say that a Nazi officer acting to either stop the massacre or save those he could would be an essential part of the narrative. Is it an essential part of the narrative of the Battle of the Bulge? Probably not. I do not believe that the actions of Oskar Schindler are essential to the overall narrative of the Holocaust. If however, one were discussing the treatment of Jews in Krakow during the war, then it might be.
    If we’re talking about atrocities in Vietnam generally, then maybe Mr. Thompson’s actions are not sufficiently significant to merit inclusion. I do not believe, however, that a discussion focused on My Lai is complete without acknowledging what he did. I believe this not just because we should look at the totality of the event, but because actions such as his can help win the peace. If we focus solely on atrocities, we repeat a story that focuses on enemies as an irredeemable “other” fit only for slaughter. Mr. Thompson’s recognition of the “other” as fellow humans deserving of humanity even in time of war can help future reconciliation.
    In addition, our profession demands that some of us will kill or be killed. As we make decisions in the face of such an existential threat, holding to a symbol of doing what’s right in the face of adversity can be a more powerful motivator than being aware of the historically hollow threat of punishment. A focus solely on the atrocity of My Lai would be a sad story indeed, given the lack of accountability and justice for the dead.

  10. Tom Booker says:

    Charlie and MajGen Dunlap both make good points.  I remember being in a graduate course a quarter century ago and positing whether Chief Thompson (his designation at the time) and his crew actually might have had a duty to use force against American soldiers who were murdering noncombatants.  Certainly a criminal prosecution against Chief Thompson or others would have brought into play a justification defense.
    It also bears reminding that the Geneva Conventions impose a duty on the contracting parties to stop these kinds of offenses and to investigate them and prosecute when they occur.  That is one reason we have a UCMJ, and that is one reason why we distinguish between “privileged” and “nonprivileged” combatants.
    Respectfully, LTB

  11. Vulture says:

     D. Bargatze says “I do not believe that the actions of Oskar Schindler are essential to the overall narrative of the Holocaust.”
    Oskar Schindler’s actions where of great risk to himself.  An observation helicopter with a gunship in tow could target W. Callie’s SSN on his dog-tag from a mile out and have no risk to anyone on the crew.  I think that you need to apply the same focus in your optics before making such a statement as above.
    Point here being, My Lai is the mirror being held up for the Corps to view itself.  A lack of context can’t be cured by calling it “history.”