“I sent them a good boy, and they made him a murderer”

As promised in my review of Seymour Hersh’s excellent memoir Reporter, here is an excerpt that describes how he found out about Paul Meadlo, one of the people in the platoon that committed the My Lai massacre. Hersh had seen a small news item about a young journalist named Ron Ridenhour who had heard about the massacre and sent reports to the army top brass about what he had heard and been frustrated by the lack of action and feared a cover-up. After talking with Ridenhour, Hersh got the name of Michael Terry, a soldier in that same platoon, and went to see him.

The Terry home was extremely modest, made of wood and warmed, as I would learn, by an indoor oil heater. It was close to midnight when I began knocking. A young boy answered. I asked for his big brother, the one who fought in the war, and was ushered inside, no questions asked. A moment later out came Terry, in pajamas. It was as if late-night visitors were the rule in Orem. I told him who I was and about my visit with Calley and the talk with Ridenhour and asked him to tell me what he remembered. “Do you want me to tell you what I told the colonel?” he asked. Yes. Ridenhour had told me that he had been contacted after writing his letters by an army criminal investigator, a Colonel Wilson, who repeatedly him urged not to do what he had done with me – talk. Terry’s next line produced headlines all over the world. “It was a Nazi-type thing,” he said, in describing a ditch in which scores of women and children had been slaughtered. (p. 129)

I knew there was yet another story that, so I thought, would end any resistance to the obvious truth of My Lai. Terry, Bernhardt, and other platoon members I had talked with told me about a soldier named Paul Meadlo, a farm kid from somewhere in Indiana, who had mechanically fired clip after clip of rifle bullets, at Calley’s orders, into groups of women and children who had been rounded up amid the massacre. (p. 130)

Hersh tracked Meadlo down to a clapboard shack, a run-down mess, and described his visit with him.

We turned to the day of the massacre. Paul told his story to me without overt emotion; it was as if he’d clicked from on to off. He’d been asked to stand watch over a large group of women and children, all terrified survivors of the carnage, who had been gathered in a ditch. Calley, upon arriving at the ditch, ordered Meadlo and others to kill all. Meadlo did the bulk of the killing, firing seventeen-bullet clips – four or five in all, he told me – into the ditch, until it grew silent. I would be told later by other soldiers that a moment or two after the firing stopped, and the ditch grew quiet, the GIs heard the sound of a child crying, and Calley’s men watched as a three- or four-year-old boy, who had been protected by his mother, crawled to the top of the ditch, full of others’ blood, and began running toward a nearby rice paddy. Calley asked Meadlo to “plug him.” Meadlo, flooded with tears and confronted with a single victim, refused and so Calley ran up behind the child, with his carbine extended, and blew off the back of his head. (p. 131)

The harrowing Meadlo account ended the debate, if there was a serious one, about what had happened at My Lai, and it also spawned a wave of Sunday feature stories by journalists about American massacres and atrocities they had witnessed in Vietnam. (p. 134)

Hersh also described what happened in the immediate aftermath of the massacre.

Calley’s company moved on in the late afternoon toward the South China Sea a few miles to the east. Early the next morning Meadlo stepped on a land mine and blew off his right foot. As he was waiting to be evacuated, he chanted, again and again, “God had punished me and God will punish you, Lieutenant Calley, for what you made me do.” Calley was shaken and began screaming for the helicopter. (p.130)

Hersh says that Meadlo’s long-suffering mother said it all about what the military had done to her son: “I sent them a good boy, and they made him a murderer.” (p. 131)


  1. Quirky says

    Political Authority, the belief in political authority which is religious by its nature, is always what turns good people into unconciencious order followers willing to commit every atrocious violation of human rights, even murder.
    Nothing here to blame but the belief in political authority and the resulting evil heirarchy.it produces. This is the perfect proof as to why peace requires the absence of rulers, i.e. anarchy, not to be confused with the absence of rules, if it is to ever florish.

  2. says

    ā€œI sent them a good boy, and they made him a murderer.ā€

    That’s what the military is for and nobody can plead ignorance, any more.

  3. says

    the belief in political authority which is religious by its nature

    Similar to religious belief, but not the same in origin. You might want to check out Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians -- I’m not a big fan of social sciences research but he makes a good argument that authoritarianism is what’s behind militarism, nationalism, and religion -- not the other way around.

  4. Quirky says

    @ #1 Marcus,

    In defining the thesis of his book, Altemeyer states “What is Authoritarianism? Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves.”
    This admission is very telling. This “cook[ing] up between themselves” or imagining authority or authoritarianism into conceptual existence is the basis of so many imaginary religions who “cook up” the existence of their favorite god, or authority.
    So rather than his argument proving that Authoritarianism is “what’s behind” or foundational to religion, he actually proves by admission that Authoritarianism is just another ‘cooked up” imaginary religion.
    That political authority is imaginary is of course the anarchist position.

  5. says

    ā€œIt was a Nazi-type thing,ā€

    It was, and there is not wonder why the Vietnamese to this day view USA as war criminal.

    When I have seen the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. I have thought “this is not right, this is a memorial to people who fought unjust war”.

    The USA had no business whatsoever to meddle in Vietnam.

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 Quirky
    So rather than his argument proving that Authoritarianism is ā€œwhatā€™s behindā€ or foundational to religion, he actually proves by admission that Authoritarianism is just another ā€˜cooked upā€ imaginary religion.

    I think that you are misreading Altemeyer. He is not saying that ‘authoritarianism’ is something like a religion.

    Roughly speaking he is suggesting Right-wing authoritarianism seems to be at least partly a learned behaviour. No RWA (Right Wing Authoritarian) goes around going “I’m saved! I am now a RWA”.

    The attitudes evolve that make one an RWA as one grows up, and it seems to depend on one’s environment. Such things as being raised in a strict fundamentalist religion can have a strong effect, Baptist or Shia Muslim, it makes no difference. It is the behavioural framework not the fact that it is a religion. The Boy Scouts might have as strong an effect.

    You could think of authoritarianism as as learned personality dimension. I have never figured out if Bob sees an underlying stable set of personalty dimensions as well or not. He does clearly states that one’s level of RWA can change through experience and education.

    The thing is one does not do this deliberately. It is a spin-off of one’s on-going experiences. For example, a high RWA student from a very religious family in a small town attending a large liberal university is likely to leave much less authoritarian.

    What Bob will say is that high RWAs will tend to support existing “establishment” organizations relatively unquestioningly. A high RWA in the USA, would be likely to support the president or their church as they are the target authority figures.

    In the Soviet Union, high RWAs would likely have been blind supporters of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Red Army.

    In Iran, a Shia RWA is likely to support the Supreme Ruler and the ayatollahs fairly unquestioningly.

    The high RWA wants certainty and firm rules. Uncertainty and unorthodox behaviour distresses the RWA. The high RWA is likely to embrace a strict religion to get that sense of certainty. The French Foreign Legion or the Jugaloos might be just as good.

    It gets much more complicated quickly, especially as RWAs seem to able to believe several contradictory things at the same time. Something along the famous “Princess Diana was killed by MI5 and Princess Diana is alive” and are relatively immune to logic.

    “Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves”

    I am guessing here, I may be misunderstanding the context of the quote, but I think that this has to do with the idea that there exists a “personality” type that is the antithesis of the RWA . Cynical, manipulative and ruthless. RWAs are natural prey. I’d have to go back and reread a couple of chapters of the book to get the names correct.

  7. Quirky says

    @ jrkrideau who writes,
    “I think that you are misreading Altemeyer. He is not saying that ā€˜authoritarianismā€™ is something like a religion.”
    I fully realize that Altemeyer is not saying outright that “authoritarianismā€™ is something like a religion.”
    The whole of his book betrays his initial admission of what ‘authoritarianismā€™ actually is.
    He is candid enough to admit it is something that humans have imagined into existence, i.e. “cooked up”, and then throughout his book attempts to legitimize it.
    I am saying that without even fully realizing it Altemeyer admits the imaginary nature of ‘authoritarianismā€™ as a dogma that operates in the same way that religion does, without any evidence to support it.
    This is why I submit that the belief in authority is a religious belief without any factual foundation.

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