Remembering the My Lai massacre

I have written many times before about one of the greatest atrocities of the Vietnam war, a war that was itself a monstrous atrocity at every level. The My Lai massacre was notable because the appalling facts eventually came out (although more than a year after the event) and were undeniable and yet president Nixon excused the actions of the murderous soldiers and the officers who ordered the attack in which the people in a hamlet were ordered into a ditch and then were ruthlessly gunned down.

On the 50th anniversary of that horrendous war crime, Robert Hodierne, who was a journalist covering that war, reminds us of what the soldiers did.

It is still an unsettled question about what, exactly, the troops of the Americal Division were ordered to do and who, exactly, issued the orders. What is settled is that for four hours that morning, American young men went on a rampage of killing and rape.

When they finally broke for lunch, the Americans had butchered 504 Vietnamese old men, women, children and babies. No military-aged men were killed. Only one weapon belonging to the Vietnamese was found.

Sometimes, the soldiers shot Vietnamese one at a time. Sometimes they herded them into ditches and machine-gunned them down in groups.

Sometimes it seemed as if the Americans were making a sport out of it.

One soldier threw a wounded elderly man down a well then dropped a grenade in after him. A soldier bayoneted an old man to death.

Another soldier was armed with an M-79 grenade launcher. Other soldiers testified at Army hearings that the man was frustrated that he hadn’t been able to use his weapon, so he herded some women and children together, backed off and fired several explosive rounds into them. Other soldiers with pistols killed those who were only wounded.

In a better-disciplined outfit, the officers in the field would have stopped such violence.

But in this outfit, officers took part in the killing.

According to testimony from his men, one company commander, Capt. Ernest Medina, shot and killed a wounded and helpless woman. Lt. William Calley grabbed one woman by the hair and blew her brains out with his .45-caliber pistol. Then he shot to death an infant she’d been carrying. In total, Calley is thought to have killed or ordered killed more than 100 civilians.

But in the end, only 14 officers were charged. And only Calley was convicted. President Richard Nixon, bowing to public pressure from those who believed Calley was a scapegoat, commuted his life sentence. He spent three and half years confined, most of that time under house arrest.

And these are not the only horrifying descriptions. You can read his full account about the rapes of women and children.


  1. Ketil Tveiten says

    The podcast History on Fire has a recent episode about this, a two-parter about the Sand Creek and My Lai massacres. Horrible stuff.

  2. says

    The Phoenix Program was much worse. My Lai was just a moment where the curtain blew back for a second and Americans saw a flickering glimpse of what they had been doing for years. Then, they went back to bombing civilian targets.

  3. file thirteen says

    Well, after reading this I just can’t find it in me to criticise North Korea any more

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