Placing Blame for the My Lai Massacre

“As you can appreciate, our Army is faced with a tremendous challenge here in Vietnam. Initially our soldiers were committed strictly in an advisory role, and as such the number required was relatively small. But now it has become necessary to commit more and more US troops to actual combat. It is necessary therefore that our training programs in the United States be oriented toward the type of fighting we are involved in today in this country” (Westmoreland). From 1959-1975, America was involved in a prolonged conflict to prevent the spread of communism.
Opposing forces were attempting to unify Vietnam under a communist government. In 1954, at the Geneva conference, Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel, splitting the country into communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam. Communist sympathizers in South Vietnam formed the Viet Cong to use guerilla warfare against their fellow South Vietnamese. Fighting among the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese continued. When the North Vietnamese fired directly into two US ships in March of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the first US ground troops to Vietnam.
The original goal of US involvement in Vietnam was to aid the South’s defense until they could fight for themselves. As it turned out, this was not the outcome (Vietnam War). There are several questions surrounding the Vietnam War, many of which are still unanswered. For years, Americans have posed the following question: “Why did our soldiers attack hundreds of unarmed South Vietnamese in the My Lai village in March 1968? ” United States soldiers shot, beat, and burned innocent unarmed farmers, women, and children. Why was this allowed to happen?

Anytime a country goes into war, brutality is expected; casualties are expected. But when this brutality and these casualties come at the expense of 400 innocent Vietnamese, we must ask why. Although most do not condone what happened on March 16, 1968, those soldiers cannot be held responsible for several reasons: the Vietnamese were treating the US soldiers in the same manner, Americans had dehumanized the Vietnamese people, soldiers were unsure of who exactly the enemy was, and the orders they received were vague, soldiers were unaware that they could question authority.
The My Lai incident on March 16, 1968 was purely a “military crime of obedience” (Newman). American soldiers are accustomed to being treated poorly by the natives of an occupied country, but it still influenced the actions that occurred on March 16. Lieutenant William Calley testified about the violent, unnecessary assaults that South Vietnamese soldiers carried out. A radio operator was killed in the first Pinkville assault when “the bullet just took his entire kidney out,” Calley explained (Who is Responsible…). Six innocent Vietnamese women were gunned down on their way to the market by South Vietnamese police.
After an assault that killed six men and left another wounded, Calley says that “it instilled a deeper form of hatred toward the enemy” (Who is Responsible…). These brutal acts all occurred at the hand of the people our soldiers thought they were helping. How can these nineteen year old soldiers be expected to react to these violent actions with anything other than more violence? Possibly due to the poor treatment of soldiers, Americans began to dehumanize the Vietnamese people. There are two qualities that make someone “human”, identity and community.
The Vietnamese were simply not considered human beings anymore (Kelman and Hamilton). The American soldiers had come to believe that every man and every woman were Viet Cong and every child would grow up with Viet Cong ideals. Lieut. Calley wrote “I had no love for these people now. I did have a few weeks earlier, but it had been slowly driven out” (Sack 80). In the same work he says that a captain said to him: “I sit with my starlight scope, and I see VC at this village every night. I could go home if I could eliminate it” (Sack 84).
When all the South Vietnamese became Viet Cong instead of living, breathing, feeling people, soldiers no longer saw killing them as murder, but as a necessity. When veterans talk about Vietnam, they often talk about trying to find Charlie. Who is Charlie? Unfortunately, our soldiers did not know who this allusive Charlie was either. General W. C. Westmoreland, named by President Johnson to command all forces in Vietnam, knew his task was daunting. How could he root out and kill enemy forces when they could be any Vietnam citizen? Westmoreland says, in a letter to Lt. Col. Lewis L.
Millet, “Here we have an enemy who operates covertly. The battlefield is everywhere-no front to it nor rear. The enemy is here today and fine tomorrow. He moves at night, concentrates, attacks, and then he disappears into the wilderness of a jungle or into the landscape when reaction forces are brought to bear” (Westmoreland, par 3. ) Here we have the commander of all US troops in Vietnam and he admits that they do not know who the enemy is. Twenty-year-old Bob Leahy writes home to his family and explains that when one is in a combat situation, a chance cannot be taken on whether or not a citizen is VC or not.
If one waits to find out whether the civilian is armed or just an innocent bystander, it could be too late (Leahy, par 2. ) In addition to my last three points, the orders that the soldiers were issued were extremely vague. Kelman and Hamilton claim written orders were never issued (par 6). All orders were passed by word of mouth; by the time they had traveled through Barker, Medina, Calley and finally to the soldiers, the only message that was conveyed was this: the Son My area must be destroyed (Kelman and Hamilton, par 7). Soldiers were under the impression that only VC would be in that village.
The Peers Report, mentioned in Kelman and Hamilton’s composition “The My Lai Massacre: A Military Crime of Obedience,” said that it is “reasonable to conclude that LTC Barker’s minimal or nonexistent instructions concerning the handlings of noncombatants created the potential for grave misunderstandings” (par 7). These vague directions were destined to bring about poor results. Because of the ambiguity of the orders, our soldiers cannot be held responsible for the outcome of My Lai. In the time period of Vietnam, soldiers did not question their commander’s orders.
It did not matter how absurd the orders were: they were carried out. Lt Calley explains, “For refusing in order in the face of the enemy, you could be sent to death” (“Who is Responsible…”). He also states that if he had known My Lai would turn out this way, he would have run from the draft and gone to jail instead (His Own Story, 85). Bob Leahy, in his letter home, says that if someone disobeyed orders, and My Lai was not released to the public, he would serve 5-10 years in Leavenworth Federal Prison for “cowardice in the face of the enemy or some trash like that” (par 7).
As I have previously pointed out, the American forces were following orders when they went into the My Lai village of Son My and killed innocent civilians. Yes, the My Lai incident was a crime, but it was a military crime of obedience. Lieutenant Colonel Barker and his staff planned the Son My raid as a search and destroy mission. Captain Medina was briefed on vague orders and in turn told his men. Lieutenant Calley and other soldiers are not responsible for the events that transpired on March 16, 1968. But perhaps their leaders are.
Obeying orders from a lieutenant colonel is not an offense or a crime-it is a custom. Although the My Lai massacre was a horrific event that occurred at the hand of American soldiers, they are not to blame. It was merely a crime of obedience, even though the orders were vague and the soldiers did not know that they could or should question orders. Americans had dehumanized the Vietnamese people, and were very angry. Bob Leahy uses the following analogy: “If you enrage and tease a lion, and then an innocent person comes along and pets the lion, the innocent person will be mauled” (War Letters, par 4).
He says “This is war and I’ll give a news flash to everyone back in the states-they’re playing for keeps over here. You cannot ask a man to risk her own life and chance of going home in one piece for a Vietnamese civilian who might not have a weapon. Especially when, as in My Lai, they were told only enemy troops and their families lived in the village. It is asking too much” (par 5). Could there have been a different outcome that day? Maybe, maybe not. What was the one true cause of the My Lai massacre? Will we ever know?

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