‘Our Boys’: 50 Years After the My Lai Massacre

Excerpted from American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity

Americans, including GIs, were losing their once reflexive faith that the U.S. military, with all its skill and firepower, would prevail in Vietnam as it had so often throughout history. Also shattered was the faith that America’s fighting forces were inherently more virtuous than their enemies. The unraveling of that conviction began in earnest in 1969 with the revelation that American soldiers had murdered hundreds of unarmed and unresisting women, children, babies, and old men in the village of My Lai.

For many people, the shocking news came first in the form of several horrifying photographs. One shows almost two dozen dead Vietnamese bodies on a dirt road. Many have fallen in a twisted pile; some are partially naked. Another photograph shows a woman lying in a field with her legs drawn up under her body. Her conical straw hat has flipped off her head. If you look closely you can notice that a large portion of her brain lies exposed beneath the hat.

A third photograph shows a group of six Vietnamese women and children huddled together. At the center an old woman stands, stooped over, with a look of unspeakable terror on her face. Behind her a young woman clutches her around the waist with her head buried in the older woman’s shoulder. A young girl stands wide-eyed and openmouthed, with disheveled bangs. She is pressing into a balding woman, barely visible, who is lifting an arm over the head of the young girl, perhaps to embrace her. On the other side of the photograph, a young woman holding a small boy in one arm uses her free hand to button the bottom of her blouse. In some magazines and newspapers a caption tells readers that American soldiers are about to kill the people in the photograph. We are looking at the final seconds of their lives.

Some of the My Lai photographs were published first in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. A few weeks later a larger selection was published in Life (December 5, 1969). Then they appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world. They were taken by Ronald Haeberle, an army draftee who was sent to Vietnam as a military combat photographer. He had taken the pictures some twenty months earlier on March 16, 1968, while accompanying an infantry company from the Americal Division.

The massacre remained hidden1 from the public for more than a year and a half because the military had lied to cover it up. Dozens of officers who had information about the killing of civilians participated in the cover-up, including the commander of the Americal Division, Major General Samuel Koster. The army’s fabricated cover story claimed that an actual battle had been fought in My Lai. According to the after-action report filed by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker Jr., the operation in My Lai "was well planned, well executed and successful…. The enemy suffered heavily." Details from the fake report were published the next day in the New York Times on page 1: "American troops caught a North Vietnamese force in a pincer movement on the central coastal plain yesterday, killing 128 enemy soldiers in day-long fighting."

The massacre might have remained a secret much longer had it not been for the moral courage and persistence of Vietnam veteran Ron Ridenhour. Though not present at My Lai, Ridenhour heard details of the slaughter from men he knew in Charlie Company. When he came home from Vietnam, he asked his father and other trusted older men what he should do with the information. They told him to "let sleeping dogs lie2"; it would only cause trouble. Ridenhour ignored the advice and sent a long, detailed letter to officials in the Pentagon, State Department, and Congress. The military finally felt compelled to initiate an investigation. On September 5, 1969, Lieutenant William Calley, a platoon leader at My Lai, was charged with the premeditated murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians.

The full story began to emerge later that fall, mostly from investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, writing for a small antiwar news syndicate called Dispatch News Service. It soon became apparent that dozens of men had joined Calley in the slaughter. While most press reports underestimated the number killed, the total death toll of Vietnamese civilians exceeded five hundred.

Once the truth began to emerge, one central fact was undisputed. There was no battle in My Lai. Charlie Company moved into the hamlet unopposed. There were no enemy fighters. There weren’t even any military-age men in the hamlet. It was full of women and children. There was no hostile fire, not even a single round of sniper fire. There was no "fog of war" causing panic or confusion. The only noise came from American weapons, the screams of terrified villagers, and the helicopters hovering over the hamlet with higher-ranking officers.

As the Americans approached the village, some of the men murdered people working in the rice fields or walking along the roads. Once the soldiers entered the village, the killing became systematic. They exercised every imaginable form of barbarism. GIs threw hand grenades into homes and underground shelters. They herded large groups of people together and forced them to lie on roads or in drainage ditches, where they were executed en masse with automatic rifles. Other civilians were shot individually. Some Vietnamese were killed only after being clubbed, tortured, stabbed, and raped. Some GIs mutilated their victims after killing them. It was not a spontaneous spasm of violence. The Americans took their time. The massacre was almost leisurely, methodically carried out over a four-hour period. In the midst of the carnage, soldiers took breaks to eat and smoke.

Some men killed with an almost ecstatic enthusiasm; some because others were doing it; some because their officers ordered them to do it. A few refused to participate. A small group of Vietnamese were rescued when a U.S. observation helicopter piloted by Hugh Thompson saw the slaughter from above and landed to inspect. Thompson and his two crewmen ferried a dozen or so Vietnamese to safety. Three decades later, the military finally recognized the courage and honor of Thompson and his crew. In 1998 they received the Soldier’s Medal3 for "heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy."

The night before the massacre Charlie Company’s commander, Captain Ernest Medina, gave his men an impassioned pep talk. Intelligence reports, he said, indicated a large enemy presence in My Lai. This would not be just another fruitless and exhausting patrol, he promised. Finally they would have an opportunity for "payback," a chance to avenge their buddies recently killed by booby traps and sniper fire. "When we go into My Lai, it’s open season," one man recalled Medina saying. "When we leave, nothing will be living4." Another man recalled these words: "Nothing [will] be walking, growing, or crawling…. They’re all VCs, now go in and get them."

The My Lai massacre confronted the American public with the war’s most troubling questions. How could our boys do such a thing? Were they just following orders? If so, how does that make them any different from those who carried out Hitler’s genocide? And what about the responsibility of the men who sent our boys to Vietnam? Don’t the military policies they put in place – with an obsessive focus on the body counts – make the killing of unarmed civilians inevitable? And if our troops are capable of a crime like My Lai, how can we continue to regard our country as morally superior to any other nation?

On March 29, 1971, a military court found Lieutenant William "Rusty" Calley guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Dozens of men were implicated in the massacre, and dozens more in the cover-up, but Calley was the only American convicted. Everyone else who was charged with a crime, including Captain Medina, was acquitted. During and after Calley’s trial, many Americans rallied to his defense. Some viewed him as a scapegoat who was bearing the brunt of a much larger crime; others found him admirable, a patriot who was unfairly persecuted for serving his country. "Calley Rallies" and "Free Calley" bumper stickers began to proliferate. In Georgia, where Calley was imprisoned at Fort Benning, Governor Jimmy Carter proclaimed an American Fighting Men’s Day, and asked Georgians to drive with their headlights on to "honor the flag as ‘Rusty’ had done.5"

As Calley’s trial concluded, a newly released song called "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley6" sold 200,000 copies in three days (two million were eventually sold). It is set to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic":

My name is William Calley
I’m a soldier of this land
I’ve tried to do my duty
And to gain the upper hand
But they’ve made me out a villain
They have stamped me with a brand
As we go marching on.

While Calley and his buddies are forgotten on distant battlefields where "their youthful bodies are riddled by the bullets of the night," at home people are "marching in the street" and "helping our defeat." Near the end, the singer shifts to spoken word to imagine Calley facing God – the "Great Commander."

Sir, I followed all my orders and I did the best I could…. We took the jungle village exactly like they said / We responded to their rifle fire / With everything we had / And when the smoke had cleared away a Hundred souls lay dead.

In the end, a soaring chorus from the original "Battle Hymn": "Glory, glory Hallelujah / Glory, glory Hallelujah / His truth goes marching on."

This "battle hymn" casts Calley and all American soldiers as the victims of a treasonous antiwar movement. As for My Lai, the basic facts are falsified to make it seem as if the victims were accidentally gunned down in a smoke-filled crossfire rather than deliberately murdered.

When Calley was convicted, the White House was inundated with thousands of telegrams calling on the president to offer clemency. Nixon responded by having Calley removed from prison and put under house arrest7 in his bachelor officers’ quarters. After three and a half years, the secretary of the army, with Nixon’s tacit approval, reduced Calley’s sentence, making him eligible for parole.

At bottom, the efforts to excuse, or explain away, the My Lai massacre reflected a powerful need to evade the most troubling realities of the Vietnam War and maintain pride in the nation and its military. Yet the most common excuse for My Lai – that atrocities happen in all wars – was an unintentional rejection of a core tenet of American exceptionalism. For if all wars, and all armies, produce atrocities, how could the United States continue to regard itself as exceptionally virtuous? It is to concede that all the people and all nations are capable of evil. As Jon Sebba from Houghton, Michigan, put it in a letter to Time magazine "In war the average man will commit atrocities whether he be American, Asian, German, British, Israeli or Arab. War – not the morality of an individual man – should be the subject of all this misplaced soul-searching." Or, as Bernice Balfour from Anaheim, California, wrote: "Perhaps the horror-filled memory of My Lai will awaken more of us to the belated knowledge that no nation has a monopoly on goodness8, truth, honor and mercy – all virtues habitually ascribed to Americans, and particularly the American soldier."

One of the American soldiers at My Lai was Private Paul Meadlo. While guarding a group of about sixty Vietnamese who had been rounded up and made to squat down, Lieutenant Calley approached and ordered Meadlo to "take care of them.9" At first, Meadlo did not understand. "Come on," Calley barked, "we’ll kill them. Fire when I say ‘Fire.’" Meadlo obeyed. The villagers were about ten feet away when the two men began firing their M-16 rifles on automatic. After killing many of the Vietnamese, Meadlo stopped. With tears streaming down his face, he turned to a buddy, shoved the M-16 toward him, and said, "You shoot them."

Two days after the massacre, Calley ordered his platoon to walk through a known minefield that had recently caused American casualties. Most of the men ignored the ordered, so Calley took only a small squad. Paul Meadlo was ordered to walk point carrying a mine detector. Calley grew impatient with Meadlo’s careful movements and ordered him to stop sweeping and pick up the pace. A few seconds later, Meadlo stepped on a mine. His left foot was blown off. When an evacuation helicopter arrived, he seemed to be thinking more about My Lai than his missing foot. He screamed at Calley: "Why did you do it? Why did you do it? This is God’s punishment10 to me, Calley, but you’ll get yours! God will punish you, Calley!"

Twenty months later, journalists tracked down Meadlo in his hometown of Goshen, Indiana. They found that most townspeople supported the young veteran and what he had done at My Lai. "He had to do what his officer told him," said the owner of a pool hall. "Things like that happen in war. They always have and they always will," said a veteran of World War II and Korea.

Meadlo’s parents, however, did not agree. His father, a retired coal miner, said: "If it had been me out there I would have swung my rifle around and shot Calley instead – right between his God-damned eyes." Meadlo’s mother said this: "I raised him up to be a good boy11 and did everything I could. They come along and took him to the service. He fought for his country and look what they done to him – made him a murderer."

  1. Seymour M. Hersh, Cover-up (New York: Random House, 1972); New York Times, May 17, 1968; Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, Four Hours in My Lai (New York; Viking, 1992), pp. 163-213.
  2. Ron Ridehour, "My Lai and Why It Matters," lecture given at Tulane University on the thirtieth anniversary of the My Lai massacre. A VHS videotape of the lecture was produced by Fergel Communications, New Orleans, LA. The Fertel Foundation and the Nation Institute award four annual Ridenhour Prizes to "recognize acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society."
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/07/national/07thompson.html?_r=0.
  4. Seymour Hersh, My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath (New York: Random House: 1970), pp. 39-41.
  5. Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai, p. 340.
  6. John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A biography of the Song That Marches On (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 279-80, 300-301.
  7. Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai, pp. 341, 355.
  8. Time, December 19, 1969
  9. Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai, p. 120.
  10. Ibid., p. 165.
  11. James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, My Lai: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998), pp. 181087; Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai, p. 263.

Reprinted from American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity
Copyright © 2015 Christian Appy
Used by permission of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved