The American military is not a spotless organization. As we’ve discussed on this channel before, they once openly called for potentially killing American citizens to justify a war against Cuba, and we mentioned in passing about how they misled to the public about the war in Afghanistan; in fact, they did a very similar thing in Vietnam, with explosive consequences when that act became impossible to keep up.
On that note, the Vietnam War was one of the most brutal wars that the United States ever fought. Chemical weapons such as Agent Orange were dropped without a second thought, and when the North Vietnamese Viet Cong wasn’t hiding in the thick jungles of Southeast Asia, they were hiding amongst the general civilian population. A rather ominous statistic says that, in World War II, only around one-fifth of American soldiers actually fired their guns at the enemy; in Vietnam, that number was four-fifths.
With these two things in mind, it’s no surprise, then, that one of the most shameful and horrific episodes in American military history took place in Vietnam – near a quiet hamlet, called My Lai. This is the story of the My Lai Massacre, the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War.
Decades of War
Following the end of World War II, a man named Ho Chi Minh, the leader of anti-Japanese guerilla forces in Vietnam, established an independent Vietnamese state in the northern city of Hanoi. Well, actually he had to fight a war with France, but that’s a whole side thing we can’t get into right now. To summarize it in a sentence, Vietnam was sick of being a French colony, the French tried to keep Vietnam anyway, and the French lost.
During that war, a rather salient problem emerged – Ho Chi Minh was a communist, and he wanted Vietnam to be communist, and not every Vietnamese leader was into that. The French, in particular, were super not into that, and so a rival government was established in the southern city of Saigon. This rival government was initially intended to remain a part of France, as a protectorate, but then the French lost, so that plan fell through. The French recognized North Vietnam’s communist government and withdrew; their rival government in the south, however, remained.
This left Vietnam in an awkward, but familiar, situation. There were two governments, one controlled by hardline communists, supported by the Soviet Union and others, and one controlled by hardline anti-communists, supported by the United States and others. Since communists and anti-communists are not known for getting along, fighting soon broke out.
But this fight would not be like the Korean War, which had taken place some years earlier. Instead, a significant amount of the fighting in the early years would be performed by a group called the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, known informally as the Viet Cong. The Communist Party of Vietnam approved a “people’s war” in 1959, and began supporting the Viet Cong the following year with weapons, supplies, and bases. This drew the attention of the United States, which began sending “military advisors” to South Vietnam to help conduct their defense against the north.
To cut a long story to about a medium length, the war intensified, and the United States became more and more invested in South Vietnam’s success, which translated into deploying more soldiers to South Vietnam in an attempt to fight off the Viet Cong. But the American soldiers that were deployed to Vietnam found themselves in a war unlike any that America had fought before.
Relative to a “normal” war, a guerilla war makes everything vague. The objectives, the maps, even the enemy itself – all of it becomes blurry, and more difficult to narrow down. In terms of combat, there are no front lines; Americans began conducting so-called “search and destroy” missions, and instead of measuring combats by victories, they measured them by body counts – if the enemy’s losses were higher, then America was winning.
Territorial control was, more or less, non-existent. The Viet Cong could attack just about any part of South Vietnam with impunity, only emerging to strike after they’d moved into position through the jungle. Even urban areas like Saigon weren’t always safe, coming under attack from time to time. Barring that, the Viet Cong utilized land mines to a huge degree, ensuring that the war was felt in areas where they weren’t even present.
But the worst uncertainty of the war was this: who was the enemy? This question dogged American soldiers and generals throughout the war, and when the alternative to shooting is being shot, they erred on the side of shoot first and answer that question later. This resulted in a huge number of civilian casualties, and a stressful time for the soldiers themselves. It’s at this point that we begin our story.
A Village By the Sea
In January of 1968, the Tet Offensive took place, and Viet Cong forces attacked locations all over South Vietnam. The offensive was a tactical failure – a huge one, in fact, even though it would later become a significant factor in the American withdrawal. Another thing it did was send the American military command into a bit of a tizzy, as the saying goes. The months following the offensive saw many aggressive operations by American forces to try and regain the initiative, including in a province named Quang Ngai. There, the 48th Local Force Battalion, one of the most successful units of the Viet Cong, was believed to be hunkered down on the Batangan Peninsula, which had been converted into a fortified stronghold. In addition, the nearby villages were suspected of providing the Viet Cong fighters with food and shelter.
There are two key units involved in this event – Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, and Company B, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. In 1968, these two units were brought together in the operation that would lead to My Lai, but they had already been in Vietnam for some time at that point. Company C had gone three months without directly fighting any Viet Cong forces, but that hadn’t stopped them from suffering 28 casualties to land mines or booby traps, including a well-liked sergeant.
Whatever the case, these two units were rolled together into an ad-hoc formation called Task Force Barker. This force was assigned to a search and destroy mission in Quang Ngai, near the village of Son My, which was erroneously marked on US Army maps as My Lai. As a side note, there are several names for the area and the villages in it; this video will use “My Lai” to refer to all of them for the sake of clarity.
An attempt was made to secure the area in February of 1968, with limited success. But the higher-ups were determined to try again, and so in mid-March another operation was commenced. Prior to launching the operation, officers were urged by their superiors to be as brutal as possible – burn houses, kill livestock, and destroy food and water supplies. They were also told, in no uncertain terms, that any civilians in the village would have left for the farmer’s markets by the time they arrived, and that any who remained were most likely Viet Cong fighters or sympathizers. There are differing accounts of the exact quoted words, but in general, the soldiers were told to give no quarter, even to women and children.
And so, on March 16th, 1968, the operation commenced. The timeline of the incident was put together through the testimony of witnesses at the trials over the event. At 7:30 AM, a short barrage of artillery and gunships was followed by around 100 soldiers from Company C landing near the villages in helicopters. Though they were not fired upon after landing, there was still a suspicion that Viet Cong fighters were hiding in the area. Following their landing, the gunships above them engaged and killed several armed fighters in the area, which appeared to confirm that suspicion.
At 8:00 AM, the men of Company C entered the nearest village. In an omen of things to come, they fired at people in the rice fields or in the brush, who fled. At around 8:15 to 8:30, Company B was landed in another village, just north of Company C. Inside the villages, the soldiers found women, children, and elderly people – not Viet Cong soldiers. At first, they didn’t panic or run, following the GI’s instructions, but then, according to one soldier’s testimony, those soldiers started killing them.
It was a brutal scene. People were killed with gunshots, bayonets, and more; one man was pushed into a well, and a grenade was thrown in after him. Dozens of people were lined up in front of ditches and shot, with one soldier testifying that he went through several magazines of his M16. People were grouped together and then shot at with grenade launchers.
There was no discrimination between gender or age – women as young as teenagers and as old as grandmothers were killed, and in some cases, sexually assaulted. Children, even infants, were also not spared, even after mothers threw themselves over them to try to protect them from the shooting.
This went on, intermittently, for three hours, until at 11:00 AM, a ceasefire was ordered, and soldiers from Company C proceeded to eat lunch. If that sounds particularly cold-blooded to you, you’re not the only one; General William C. Westmoreland wrote the same in his memoir, years after the incident. Don’t feel too bad for him just yet, though.
During the ordeal, a helicopter crew was flying over the village to provide close air support in case it was needed. The pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., watched more or less everything as it unfolded from the air; he radioed HQ several times, but nothing was done about it. He and his crew landed once to ask the soldiers if the civilians needed help, but they got no good answers, with one soldier telling a shocked Thompson that he was “helping them out of their misery”.
Thompson took off again, and after some time, decided he’d seen enough. He landed his helicopter to help a group of civilians who were trapped in a bunker; he then told his American crew to fire on the American soldiers if they shot at the people inside. Thompson managed to talk the civilians, mostly women and children, over to his helicopter. He then flew them out of the village in two groups, staying behind with the second group to protect them from his own colleagues. After that evacuation, Thompson landed his helicopter a third time to rescue a four year old girl who had crawled out of a ditch – bloodied, but apparently unharmed.
Upon returning to the base, he told his superiors that American infantry in My Lai were no better than Nazis. “It’s mass murder out there. They’re rounding them up and herding them in ditches and then just shooting them.” In response, the ceasefire at 11:00 AM was ordered. With Thompson’s intervention, the massacre was over, and a final count of anywhere from 347 to 504 civilians had been, to put it plainly, murdered. On the American side, there was a single casualty: a soldier who had shot himself in the foot to avoid taking part in the massacre. But now would come the next shameful chapter in this story – the aftermath.
See No Evil
At first, not much was made of the operation in My Lai. The combat report stated that 22 civilians and 128 “Viet Cong combatants” had been killed, and the operation was dubbed a success. Several higher-ups, including General Westmoreland, congratulated the unit on a job well done.
But there were rumors. Some soldiers spoke of a “routine brutality” against Vietnamese civilians, and one Ronald L. Ridenhour, who had flown over My Lai several days after the massacre, sent a letter to some members of Congress urging an investigation into the “Pinkville” incident – Pinkville being the soldier slang for the My Lai area. Despite the official reports, it was clear that something bad had happened at My Lai.
Information came in dribs and drabs, until November in 1969, fully a year and a half after the massacre, when the full extent of what happened came to light. Journalist Seymour Hersh published a story on the massacre through the Dispatch News Service, and it caused an uproar. The Nixon administration immediately created a “My Lai task force” – not to investigate the massacre, but to contain the scandal in the press, which in hindsight isn’t that surprising with regards to the Nixon administration.
The attempt to control the scandal wasn’t successful; all the major networks picked up on it, soldiers from the two companies responsible for the massacre were interviewed, and harrowing photographs were published for all to see. The army was forced to conduct a review of the incident and issue statements, and a final report was issued in March of 1970 by Lieutenant General William R. Peers.
Even Peers’ report was a rather washed-out version of events, citing that American soldiers had killed at least 200 civilians with a few confirmed as Viet Cong although “there were undoubtedly several unarmed VC (men, women, and children) among them”. Nevertheless, Peers’ report led to a court martial, in which 14 officers were charged with suppressing information about the incident.
Separately, 26 officers and enlisted men were charged with perpetrating the massacre, including a Lieutenant William L. Calley, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of “not fewer than” 20 people.
That, as it turned out, was as far as justice would go. Calley was the only person convicted over the incident, and only served three years before being released; Captain Ernest Medina, commander of Company C, was charged with giving the orders that led to the massacre. He denied giving those orders, leading to his acquittal, but then several months later admitted to suppressing evidence and lying about the number of civilians killed. In the end, with Calley’s brief conviction, nothing else came of My Lai; public opinion in America had long soured on the Vietnam War, and the revelations of what happened only served to harden those feelings. Following this trend, America withdrew from Vietnam in 1972, and the war ended in 1975 when the North conquered the South. The pain of that day has long remained, however, and the survivors most certainly haven’t forgotten.
My Lai was a shocking, but not altogether surprising, event. Many soldiers who were deployed to Vietnam spoke of a very carefree attitude towards the lives and safety of civilians, and a few spoke of potentially many more killings that went unreported. One wrote a confidential later describing, “a My Lai each month for over a year” during 1968 and 1969. Said another, “Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go… There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.” Nor was the brutality limited to American soldiers – Viet Cong fighters massacred thousands of people in the city of Hue during the Tet Offensive.
This has been a deep dive into a heavy subject, and you may feel depressed or angry after hearing it. With that in mind, we’d like to leave you on a somewhat lighter note.
Following his actions at My Lai, Hugh Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, crediting him with rescuing a young girl in My Lai from “intense crossfire”. In response, Thompson threw his medal away. He and his crew were called traitors by several Congressmen, but three decades later, they would be decorated for their actions, receiving the Soldier’s Medal for “saving the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the unlawful massacre of non-combatants by American forces at My Lai”. The US Army wanted to award the medal quietly, but clearly Thompson hadn’t changed a bit, demanding that the award be done publicly, and that his crew receive the same commendation. He got his wish.
Today, My Lai stands as a microcosm of the wider horror of the Vietnam War, and how it stripped away the humanity of those who took part. Even so, there are still those who managed to show their integrity and stand for it, protecting innocent people in the face of danger. There’s a word for people like that – hero.