The mass murder by American soldiers of four hundred unarmed women, children and elderly in My Lai provided the war’s great moment of infamy. In spite of American slavery, genocide aimed at Native Americans, human rights abuses committed again Filipino guerillas in the late 19th and early twentieth century, and imperialism aimed at Mexico and much of Latin America in the previous two centuries, an enduring American self-image was that of the United States as uniquely moral, a people who fought selflessly against evil forces such as the Nazis and godless communists. The cruel, ruthless killing of a small Vietnamese village gave lie to that self-satisfying myth.
In many ways, My Lai simply represented the cold, horrible logical conclusion of the decision of the commander of American forces in South Vietnam, General Westmoreland, to fight a war of attrition, in which the communists supposedly would flinch as casualties mounted. As Philip Caputo, a Marine who later wrote extensively and critically about the American experience in Vietnam, observed:
"Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill Communists and kill as many of them as possible. Stack ‘em up like cordwood. Victory was a high body count, defeat a low kill ratio, war a matter of arithmetic. The pressure on unit commanders to produce enemy corpses was intense, and they in turn communicated it to their troops . . . It is not surprising, therefore, that some men acquired a contempt for human life and a predilection for taking it.”
Nevertheless, the men of Charlie Company, who carried out the four-hour massacre at the village the Americans called My Lai 4, went above and beyond that homicidal imperative. Writing about Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann, the scholar Hannah Arendt marveled at what she called the “banality of evil.” Charlie Company was extraordinary only in its ordinariness.
One of the most infamous murderers in the company, Lt. William Laws Calley, historians of the My Lai massacre Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim said, “His averageness had made him so invisible at one college he had attended that all anyone could remember about him was that he paid his rent regularly. In a similar vein, it was reported that he never drove too fast and would often mow the lawn and do jobs about the house.” A post-massacre study by the Army documented that Charlie Company had a 20 percent higher ratio of high school graduates than the Army as a whole, and that in other aspects – such as IQ test scores and amount of training – these men matched Army norms.
Most of the company’s soldiers were between 18 and 22 and almost half were African American. The Peers Report, commissioned by the Army, analyzed the causes of the My Lai Massacre and concluded that the perpetrators of the atrocity were “generally representative of the typical cross section of American youth assigned to combat units throughout the Army.” The unit performed so well during its training in Hawaii that it received the “company of the month” award. As Lt. Calley later testified, the only lesson that came through during their stateside training loud and clear was that every Vietnamese represented a potential enemy. “It was drummed into us, ‘Be sharp!’ On guard! As soon as you think these people won’t kill you, ZAP! In combat you haven’t friends! You have enemies!’” Calley later recalled.
Soon after it arrived “in country” Charlie Company found itself in Quang Ngai Province which, the men had been briefed, represented a hotbed of NLF resistance. Commanders sent the newest, greenest wave of American soldiers on “Search and Destroy” missions in the Quang Ngai countryside. Charlie Company felt overwhelmed by what they saw as the primitiveness of Vietnam. Many soldiers felt touched when the children in the province begged for food.
Lt. Calley, however, filled with stories about the North Vietnamese and Vietcong using children as soldiers, saw local youths as killers in waiting. “All the men loved them,” Calley later told investigators. “Gave the kids candy, cookies, chewing gum, everything. Not me. I hated them. I was afraid of Vietnamese kids.” One soldier later described Calley as a “glory hungry person . . . the kind of person who would have sacrificed all of us for his own personal advancement.” Calley grew so despised by the men of Charlie Company that a price was put on his head.
As Bilton and Sim point out, early in January 1968, a pattern was set where soldiers committed human rights abuses that were ignored or even praised by superior officers. Paranoia overcame the soldiers, particularly after the launch of the Tet Offensive. Told repeatedly that the civilians surrounding them wanted them dead, Charlie Company went on repeated patrols where they were unable to find an enemy that seemed simultaneously omnipresent and invisible. Nerves frayed badly. The group began to suffer casualties.
On February 11, one of Charlie Company’s radio operators, Ron Weber, died after a shot ripped a kidney from his body, the first death experienced by the unit. On February 13, nearby Bravo Company came under fire in a battle resulting in one soldier’s death and wounds for five others. Charlie Company had yet to find one Vietcong soldier, much less inflict one confirmed casualty. Any remaining restraints unraveled in one incident when Calley and a G.I. named Herbert Carter interrogated an old man, beat him, and threw him down a well before Calley shot him with an M-16. One soldier, Dennis Conti, became infamous for raping Vietnamese girls. After one assault, Conti cut braided hair off of one of his victims and used this “trophy” to decorate his helmet.
Bitterness among the Americans deepened with the explosion of a mine that killed three members of Charlie Company on February 25. The American soldiers blamed the locals for not warning them about the mines. On March 14, one of the most popular men in the unit, Sgt. George Cox, stepped on a booby trap, which exploded, ripping him to pieces, causing another soldier to lose two legs, and a third to lose an arm and a leg as well as his eyesight. By the end of March, Charlie Company had seen five soldiers die and 23 suffer injuries, some severe.
On March 15, Task Force Barker, which included Charlie Company, received the assignment to clear out local villages of suspected Vietcong fighters. The task force was named after Lt. Col. Frank A. Barker, the commander of the operation. The men of Charlie Company were primed for vengeance. Task force officers later claimed that Barker ordered the destruction of the “houses, dwellings, and livestock” in the My Lai area, though some say this was implied rather than clearly demanded. Many officers, including Capt. Ernest Medina, told their men that anyone they found in the village the morning of the operation was probably a Vietcong fighter. “He [Medina] stated that My Lai . . . was a suspected VC stronghold and that he had orders to kill everybody that was in the village,” Max D. Hudson, a weapons squad leader, told the Army Criminal Investigation Unit later.
The operation started at sunup on March 16. The four-hour reign of terror began with indiscriminate artillery barrages. There was no return enemy fire. One soldier, Michael Bernhardt, reported later that when soldiers stepped off helicopters they began firing the minute any Vietnamese was spotted, and the victims were left on the ground wounded or dying.
An old Vietnamese man stood in a field next to a water buffalo and put his hands in the air to indicate he was a non-combatant. Lt. Calley passively watched as several men in the unit shot the elderly man to death. A platoon medic began wildly shooting cows, buffalo and other animals. Conti forced a woman about 20 years old to have oral sex with him, coercing her by putting a gun to the head of her four-year-old child. Two hours into the operation, not a weapon had been found, not a shot fired at the Americans, nor a single NVA soldier located, much less killed.
A group of soldiers assigned to the First Platoon gathered about 60 Vietnamese villagers. The group included children ranging in age from infancy to around 12 and 13, as many as 15 old men, and 10 younger women, along with a group of very elderly women. Calley yelled at a group of soldiers, “I want them killed.” Calley and another soldier fired into the civilians from ten feet away. “The Vietnamese screamed, yelled and tried to get up,” Bilton and Sim wrote.
It was pure carnage as heads were shot off along with limbs; the fleshier body parts were ripped to shreds . . . Mothers had thrown themselves on top of the young ones in a last desperate bid to protect them from the bullets raining down on them. The children were trying to stand up. Calley opened fire again, killing them one by one.
Calley moved on. The lieutenant stood near a ditch filled with children. A two-year-old climbed away from his mother and got to the top of the ditch. Calley spotted the toddler, yanked up the child, flung him back into the ditch and shot him. Elsewhere, soldiers sodomized women with their rifles, sometimes before shooting them in the genitals, while others joined Conti in rape.
Individual soldiers tried to save villagers by getting them to hide in their huts, but such men sadly formed a minority at My Lai. Heroism proved to be in short supply, but helicopter pilot Hugh Clowers Thompson of Georgia, attached to the 123rd Aviation Battalion, emerged as one of the few brave men in a scene of mass murder. “Thompson was a character,” Bilton and Sim later wrote. “He was known to everyone in his unit for being cocky and aggressive. He was also an exceptional pilot who took danger in his stride. If there was an enemy to find he would seek them out and kill them . . . Ruthless in winking out the VC, Thompson was also a very moral man. He was absolutely strict about opening fire only on clearly defined targets . . . He wanted to kill them cleanly and made it absolutely clear to his gunners that he wanted to see a weapon first before they opened fire.”
Thompson and his crew flew near My Lai 4 to provide assistance if the infantry came under attack, and would also drop smoke sticks marking where he had spotted wounded soldiers and civilians. Thompson dropped a stick near a wounded Vietnamese civilian woman lying in a rice paddy. Thompson watched as a group of soldiers approached the woman. He lowered the chopper near the wounded woman and announced her presence to the soldier. A man wearing captain’s bars approached the unarmed woman, prodded her with his foot and then shot her.
Shaken, Thompson and his men flew to another site where they saw dozens of civilians lying dead and dying in a ditch while a cluster of GIs sat nearby taking a cigarette break. Unable to accept the implication of the scene and convinced that survivors remained, Thompson ordered his men to land the helicopter and, approaching a sergeant, asked if there was any way his men could help the wounded. The soldier told him the only way to help the Vietnamese was to put them out of their misery. Calley approached Thompson and told the pilot that the situation was none of his business.
Aware that he was witnessing a war crime, Thompson ordered his men to take off and he spotted a group of 10 civilians, including children, fleeing towards a crudely made bomb shelter. Soldiers from the 2nd Platoon chased them. Thompson ordered his men to land the helicopter between the civilians and the chasing soldiers. He ordered his gunner, Larry Colburn, to fire upon the American soldiers if they began to fire upon the villagers. “Open up on ‘em – blow ‘em away,” he screamed to his gunner.
Thompson began to personally evacuate terrified civilians from the bunker. Meanwhile, he had been screaming over the radio to gunship commanders about the unfolding massacre and pleaded for help with the evacuations. Thompson and his men continued to look for survivors and he spotted a ditch that contained at least 100 victims.
Thompson could see something moving. While the rest of Thompson’s men trained their machine guns on the soldiers of Task Force Barker, Colburn spotted what the helicopter crew was looking for: “[a] child, about age 3, covered in blood and slime, but not seriously injured.” A soldier handed the child, “limp and . . . like a rag doll” to Colburn. “Thompson, who had a son about the same age, was crestfallen and decided to fly immediately to the ARVN hospital in Quang Ngai. The child, in a clear state of shock, lay across [another soldier’s] . . . lap. Colburn noticed the blank look on its face and saw, too, for the second time that day, that tears were streaming down Thompson’s cheeks,” wrote Bilton and Sim.
When Thompson got the helicopter back to base, he emerged from the craft, throwing his helmet on the ground. He informed his section leader about the massacre, and the information crawled its way up the serpentine military command structure. By this time, Task Force Barker was ordered to cease fire. As many as 500 villagers in My Lai 4 and the immediate surrounding area had been butchered.
The Army’s newspaper, "Stars and Stripes," initially reported that Charlie Company and other units involved in the massacre had encountered enemy resistance. Written by Sgt. Jay Roberts, who had been present at My Lai and had witnessed the murder of civilians, the story made no mention of the atrocities and made the patently false claim that 128 enemy fighters had been killed by Task Force Barker. This fabrication was undercut only paragraphs later when Roberts admitted that only three weapons had been found in the villages. Roberts quoted Lt. Barker as saying, “The combat assault went like clockwork.” The story of My Lai would remain hidden from the American public for more than a year.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.