My Lai-Massacre March 16, 1968

Posted on July 3, 2010


The events that took place on March 16, 1968 effected not only the villagers of My Lai , the soldiers involved but every soldier that served after that day.

I had begun to write about McNamara’s 100,000 but as I was doing my research I ran across a posting on the web that redirected my thoughts. Under the references for McNamara’s 100,000 I came across the following website: . I will pull excerpts from this site and then give my opinion. I won’t argue that every fact in the article is wrong. I do think that this lady did not do enough research and many of her facts are either totally wrong or at least misleading.

A Look at the My Lai Massacre

In Asia, Human rights abuses, Submissions, violence on October 18, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Written by Heather Wilhelm

Being a Global Studies and History major has allowed me an interesting perspective on the history of war.  One war that I have studied quite a bit was the Vietnam War and more specifically the My Lai massacre that occurred in March of 1968.  I had heard a few years ago that Oliver Stone was planning to bring the horrors of this historical event to the big screen in another one of his epic political films, but recently learned that the production of “Pinkville” (what the My Lai massacre is more commonly referred to) had been halted.  Now whether or not there is any political posturing behind this production delay, I felt that I would bring the story of My Lai to you in writing and allow you to understand not only what happened on that fateful March 16, but also how the American government and their treatment of soldiers led to this horrific event.

I am not sure that her credentials really give her any perspective on the war. I am not sure just what  her age is but I do not believe she was writing back in 1968. If she thought that Oliver Stone was going to make an accurate movie about Vietnam she has spent to many days writing fiction. When you write “an Epic Political Film”  you only present your opinion with a smattering of truth.

The My Lai massacre was one of the greatest war tragedies of all time. Hundreds of lives were lost in that small village in March of 1968, and along with them, the souls of countless soldiers went missing that day.  While the American public struggled to figure out why and how this could happen, the soldiers who were involved were asking themselves the same question.  It was a question that would never be answered.  There were many theories as to how such a catastrophic event could occur under American leadership.  Racism was a reoccurring speculation, as many of the soldiers had been trained since day one to hate the Vietnamese.  “The many hours the men spent during combat training listening to their instructors referring to the Vietnamese as ‘gooks’ and ‘slants’.[1] Another explanation explored was the language barrier.  The army felt that because their soldiers and the Vietnamese could not communicate, there had been a misunderstanding at My Lai.[2] This theory was quickly quashed by the testimony of the soldiers who had been present that day in the village.  Drugs and alcohol were another possible “reason” for the massacre.  The troops had been drinking the night before the massacre[3], but again the testimony of Charlie Company proved that theory wrong.  It is still hard to say exactly what caused all those soldiers to react the way they did in Vietnam that day, and throughout the rest of the war, but it is safe to say that there are some factors that contributed more than others.  Through conscription and a lack of training of soldiers, as well as jungle warfare involving an invisible enemy, and the need for revenge by the soldiers fighting the war, the My Lai massacre was able to occur, and it became a direct reflection of the Vietnam War in general.

It was one of the worst tragedies of all time unless you count Hitlers killing of over 6,000,000 Jews and countless 1000’s of gypsies and mental/physically challenged people. Either way it was a horrific event. The thought of saying it happened because of RACISM is in my opinion is totally wrong. Yes, I will admit we were taught to call the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army soldiers “Gooks” but “Slant Eyes” I believe that was more WWII with the Japanese soldiers. We weren’t taught to think of them as “animals” we were taught to think of them as the enemy. The guy who will shoot you if you don’t shoot him first. Now about the language barrier. There was no more a barrier for us in Vietnam then there were for our Brothers who served in the Pacific or Europe during WWII. There weren’t a lot of Americans that could speak Japanese, Philippino, German, French, Dutch and so on. Besides every unit had at least one interpreter with them in Vietnam. What cause that event to unfold the way it did was a Lack of Leadership by all officers and Non Commissioned Officers (NCO’s). Once the shooting started because the Officers and NCO’s didn’t stop it (They started it) it became a shooting frenzy. I am not saying these two things are the same because they are not. But it was like when at a music concert and someone yells (Fire). Even though no one sees the smoke they all start running not caring who they push down or trample on. In this case because 2 lt Calley told the men to start shooting as they approached the village when the soldiers saw people they just shot everyone without caring about the age, the sex or the fact that they were unarmed. I am sure that there were a few who just wanted to kill no matter what but those are the same guys who killed without hesitation when they got home. The last part of this section talks about the conscripts or draftees. It also talks about the training. I was a draftee at first. I scored in the upper 10 percentile on the Military tests. So did many others. Our training was designed to teach us how to kill the enemy first. I would rather have  it that way than to be taught how to die first. We brought our own morals with us. The Army, Navy, Marine Corps nor the Air Force could change that with any amount of training lasting only 8 weeks. Revenge was never a factor in anything that was done in my unit and I am sure it wasn’t in the mass majority of the other units in Vietnam.

They used conscription as a means to accomplish this feat, and were consequently left with thousands of men who were well below military standards.  “…what came to be called McNamara’s 100,000, the Project 100,000 men well below the Army average in terms of aptitude and intelligence and deemed unlikely to met peacetime entry qualifications.”[6] The standards for acceptable soldiers in Vietnam were so low, that it was not unimaginable that the My Lai massacre could happen.  Many of these men did not have the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong, and were therefore unable to protest what was ordered at My Lai.  Another problem with conscription was that many young men were forced into fighting the war.  “‘I was scared.  I didn’t want to go, but I had to,’ remembers Bergthold.  ‘Because if I didn’t I’d probably get court-martialed.’”[7] Unwilling young men across America were drafted into the army, and they could not protest without being put in jail.  When given these two bleak options, most men chose to fight the war, although they never truly accepted that they had to.  They felt trapped and in most cases, did not care about the war at all.[8] They wanted to go home, and this meant providing the government with high body counts.  “In a war that did not offer territory as a reward, body count became the index of success and failure in the whole war.  Officers who did not achieve satisfactory body counts were replaced; units who performed well were rewarded with leave.  The body count was the key statistic after each firefight and the pressure to produce high figures was enormous.”[9] These soldiers knew that if high body counts were provided they could go home, and they soon stopped caring about who they were killing. “

The use of conscripts (draftees) to fill the ranks of all the service did happen. Not all draftees went to Vietnam. Many went to Germany, Korea and stateside duty stations. A lot did go to Vietnam.

The Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, did start a project in 1966 which has become known as “McNamara’s 100,00.  It did allow many men who had previously been denied entry onto active duty the opportunity to now join. It did lower the mental and weight standards. These men mostly came from the inner cities or from the rural areas. The vast majority of these men were brave and totally trustworthy. These men were put into a special setting where they were taught to read and write as well as lose weight if needed. This lasted six weeks and if at the end of that six weeks he could not read or write he was sent home. Of course some made it in anyhow. I would rather have most of these men alongside of me in time of trouble than some of the Overly Educated people I have run into.

This lack of regard for non-combatant in Vietnam was a direct result of the lack of training that was provided to soldiers before deployment.[10] While rushing to deploy young soldiers, the armed forces relaxed their training methods with regard to the rules of engagement.  This meant that most soldiers received less than one hour of training on the proper treatment of non-combatant in foreign countries.  “On paper, all soldiers received at least one hour’s instruction on the Law of Land Warfare and the Geneva Conventions.  In practice, it made little, if any, impression on men who were spending hundreds of hours being trained to follow orders and learning how to kill.”[11] So few hours were spent teaching these men how to deal with the Vietnamese civilians that there is no wonder they showed them no regard in My Lai.  They were not taught to communicate with them, or to understand their culture, and as a result they saw them as less than human.[12] The soldiers did not have any remorse for killing non-combatant in My Lai, and throughout Vietnam because they were not taught how to treat them as human beings.  “Rules of engagement were designed to limit the risk of civilian casualties.  In theory, they were issued to every serviceman; in practice, they might as well have been written on water.”[13] Rules of engagement was a term that was rarely heard amongst these soldiers.  Such a miniscule amount of time was spent teaching these men how to behave in a war, that they invented their own rules.  In doing so, they forgot to see humans, and instead saw animals when dealing with the Vietnamese.  In My Lai, they did not see innocent civilians, they saw human scum, something to kill, something to desecrate[14].  This was the case all over Vietnam, where blameless peasants were being killed every day due, in part, to a growing frustration within the army companies.  This frustration stemmed from the massive number of American soldiers the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were killing[15].”

Before we were sent to Vietnam, each of us knew the difference between non-combatants and combatants. This lady talks as if we were just plain stupid. I know that there were many civilians that were killed either by accident of on purpose by GI’s. I guarantee you that it was only a minute amount of  soldiers who killed civilians on purpose.  We knew the difference. Our morals guided us. Yes, many times women were killed intentionally. When a women points a gun at you , you shoot first because if you don’t she will. And children. Most of the children that got killed in Vietnam died when the hand grenade that a VC gave exploded as he opened a shoe box or it exploded as soon as the child dropped it.

We did not go to Vietnam to learn about their culture. We had interpreters with us and it was part of their job to instruct us on this matter. As far as learning their language, a man’s two year committment would be over before he knew enough to communicate with the Vietnamese. We did not look upon these people as scum or animals. They were human beings. My Lai happened because Officers and NCOs did not do their job.

“Revenge was a key factor throughout the entire Vietnam War; it was not exclusive to the My Lai massacre.  The rape of numerous women in villages throughout Vietnam quickly became a silent problem for the American military.[27] Michael Berhardt was a soldier in C Company and he noticed that the soldiers in his troop had adopted a new code of conduct that permitted the brutal rape of civilians.  When he was questioned about whether rape was a prevalent problem by investigators he stated, “I thought it was, sir.  It was predictable.  In other words, if I saw a woman, I’d say, ‘Well, it won’t be too long.’  That’s how widespread it was.”[28] The soldiers had taken on a new attitude about war.  Instead of protecting the weak and powerless they were exploiting them on a daily basis.  Lieutenant William L. Calley recalled witnessing one of his soldiers raping a civilian and telling him “to get his pants back up and get over to where he was supposed to be.”[29] Instead of reprimanding his subordinate for committing a crime of war, the Lieutenant casually tells him to stop and does not instill any type of punishment.  The soldiers in Vietnam were not being punished for their crimes, and as a result started to believe that their behavior was acceptable.  These blasé attitudes towards civilians were another contributing factor in the massacre.  When the soldiers stopped behaving like civilized humans, the people who paid the ultimate price were the women, children, and elders of My Lai village.”

Revenge never really came into play with the majority of US Servicemen. I’m sure it did for a few. Rape. Who the hell had the time to rape? Maybe a handful but most missions did not allow the time. You hit you completed your mission and you moved on. Yes, this does seem to be a problem in Lt Calley’s unit but to make a blanket statement that this was standard is pure garbage.

You can read all of Heather Wilhelm’s article at the above website. Take the time to view it and read it very carefully. The My Lai Massacre was the reason we Vietnam Veterans are called “Baby Killers”. I served from 1968 to 1969. I will swear on a bible, my mother’s grave whatever you want that at no time did I ever see a child killed nor did I see a woman killed who did not point a gun at us first.  My platoon leader, LT Peter G. Guthrie, would have had us court martialed if we had done any of these things. It was through his leadership,other officers like him, our NCOs  and our morals that we did not commit atrocities. I am proud of my time in Vietnam. I am proud of every soldier that I served with in Charlie Troop 1st of the 9th. It is my opinion that this lady only looked at one side of the story and then only looked at one story and decided she could say all soldiers were the same. I would say that all journalist are the same but then there are journalists such as Joe Galloway and those that came to Vietnam, went to the field with combat units and then wrote their stories.

No where in Wilhelm’s story did she mention WO Hugh Thompson, Specialists Laurence Colburn and Glen Andreotta. If she would have, it would have made her theory all wrong. When WO Thompson looked down and saw what was happening he set his helicopter down between the American soldiers and the Vietnamese villagers. He went to get out of his helicopter but before he did he told his soldiers to train their M60 machine guns at the soldiers and if they looked threatening towards the villagers or him then open fire. He then proceeded to go to the soldier and talk to Calley telling him to stop what he was doing. It did not work. He and his crew put several Vietnamese on his helicopter and then he called his higher headquarters. WO Thompson continued his tour after this incident. He was shot down or had mechanical problems and crashed 8 times. The last time he was brought down by enemy machine gun fire  and broke his back. WO Thompson received the distinguished Flying Cross for his actions on March 16, 1968. In 1969, he was called before a Closed Door Congressional Hearing where once again he retold his story of that day. Democratic Senator Mendel Rivers of South Carolina said the only person who should be punished for that day was WO Thompson for having his machine guns pointed at the American Soldiers. He even tried to have Thompson Court Martialed. Later WO Thompson, Specialist Colburn and Specialist Andreotta were awarded the Soldiers Medal which is the highest medal one can receive for Valor without enemy contact. Specialist Andreotta’s award was posthumously as he was Killed in Action just weeks after March 16th.  Thompson and Colburn returned to My Lai in 1998 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the massacre. They were greeted as heroes by the population. Hugh Thompson died January 6, 2006.

Let Oliver Stone write his fantasy stories and then Heather can go watch them but don’t look for me at the movies.

All of the footnote references can be seen at the above website.