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 NSLA@law.gwu.edu.
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?
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 report. See 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.