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My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre (1968).In South Vietnam on 16 March 1968, American soldiers of Company C (Charlie) of Task Force Barker, Americal Division, assaulted the hamlet of My Lai (4), part of the village of Son My in Quang Ngai province. The entire Son My area was a stronghold of the Viet Cong and American units there had taken repeated casualties from snipers, land mines, and booby traps, without making any significant contact with the enemy. During a briefing prior to the assault, the commander of Charlie Company, Capt. Ernest L. Medina, had ordered his men to burn and destroy the hamlet of My Lai (4), which was said to be fortified and held by the 48th Viet Cong Battalion.

Contrary to expectations, no enemy forces were encountered during the assault on My Lai (4), yet the men of Charlie Company swept through the hamlet and systematically killed all the inhabitants—almost exclusively old men, women, and children. There were several rape killings and at least one gang rape. The total number of Vietnamese civilians killed could not be determined: it was at least 175 and may have exceeded 400.

The massacre at My Lai was successfully concealed within all command levels of the Americal Division for more than a year. In 1969, a letter sent by a serviceman not connected with the division, who had heard stories of a massacre, brought the incident to the attention of the secretary of defense and other government officials. A commission of inquiry, appointed by the secretary of the army and headed by Lt. Gen. W. R. Peers, eventually listed thirty individuals as implicated in various “commissions and omissions” related to the Son My operation. Criminal charges were proferred against sixteen of these. Five were tried by court‐martial, but only one individual, 1st Lt. William L. Calley, was found guilty.

On 29, March 1971, after a court‐martial of over four months, Calley was convicted of three counts of premeditated murder of not less than twenty‐two Vietnamese; he was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. During several stages of review, Calley's life sentence was reduced to ten years' imprisonment; he was granted parole effective 19 November 1974. Captain Medina, Calley's company commander, was charged with involuntary manslaughter—failure to exercise proper control over his men engaged in unlawful homicide of at least 100 unidentified Vietnamese. He was acquitted because of the military judge's faulty instructions on the issue of command responsibility. Altogether, the legal consequences of the My Lai incident left much to be desired. General Peers on 2 December 1974 called it a “horrible thing, and we find we have only one man finally convicted and he's set free after doing a relatively small part of his sentence.”

Many Americans disagreed with this conclusion. President Nixon had been deluged with letters protesting Calley's conviction. The young lieutenant and his men, it was argued, had acted out of frustration and hatred of the Vietnamese who had killed and wounded their comrades. Calley's supporters on the right wing of the American political spectrum were sometimes joined by those in the Vietnam antiwar movement who regarded My Lai as merely a particularly horrible example of everyday American military tactics.

The environment of guerrilla warfare, a war without fronts, undoubtedly created a setting conducive to atrocities. Some apparent civilians were actually combatants who tossed grenades or planted booby traps. Yet these facts cannot provide legal exculpation for the cold‐blooded slaughter of old men, women, and children. Despite pressure for a high enemy casualty toll, most U.S. soldiers in Vietnam did not intentionally shoot unarmed villagers. Indeed, some U.S. soldiers tried to stop the slaughter at My Lai, notably the helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson. The My Lai massacre was not a typical occurrence. The openness of the fighting in Vietnam to journalistic coverage and the encouragement which the My Lai affair gave to other service people to come forward with reports of atrocities made it quite unlikely that any other massacre could escape attention. True, villagers were regularly killed in combat assaults on defended hamlets; but the rounding up and shooting of civilians was an unusual event, and the men involved in the massacre at My Lai knew it.

The final report of the Peers Commission listed perfunctory instruction in the laws of war in U.S. Army training as a contributory cause of the My Lai massacre. Since then, this aspect of training has been thoroughly revised. Service people are instructed that acting under superior orders is no defense to a charge of murder or other war crimes. New channels have been set up for the reporting of violations of the laws of war. It is to be hoped that these changes will prevent a recurrence of a dark chapter in the history of the U.S. Army.
[See also Army, U.S.: Since 1941; Leadership, Concepts of Military; Morale, Troop; Training and Indoctrination; Vietnam War: Military and Domestic Course; Vietnam War: Changing Interpretations.]

Bibliography

Joseph Goldstein, et al., eds., The My Lai Massacre and Its Cover‐up: The Peers Commission Report with a Supplement and Introductory Essay on the Limits of Law, 1976.
Guenter Lewy , America in Vietnam, 1978.

Guenter Lewy

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"My Lai Massacre." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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My Lai Massacre

MY LAI MASSACRE

The event known as the "My Lai Massacre" was one of the darkest moments of the vietnam war, and further fueled the already growing anti-war movement in the United States. On March 16, 1968, U.S. Army troops murdered more than 300 unarmed Vietnamese women, children, and elderly persons. When the facts of the massacre became known, war crime charges were brought against 30 soldiers, and there was a marked increase in both domestic and foreign pressure to end the war.

The Vietnam War began in the 1940s as a war of liberation between Vietnamese nationalists called the Viet Minh and the French who controlled Vietnam. The Viet Minh sought help from Communist China in the mid-1950s, bringing the conflict to the attention of the United States. In 1954 the French were decisively defeated, and the country was temporarily divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Most of the Viet Minh and their supporters relocated to North Vietnam. When the provisional head of South Vietnam refused to hold reunification elections, hostilities resumed.

Fearing a communist takeover if the North Vietnamese won, the United States provided economic and military aid, and by 1967 the United States had almost 400,000 troops in the country. Viet Cong, Vietnamese soldiers who had trained in the North and moved back to the South to conduct guerilla warfare, were especially feared. Dressed to blend in with the peasants who populated South Vietnamese villages, the Viet Cong carried on a stealthy campaign of sabotage and murder. American soldiers, who did not speak Vietnamese and were unable to distinguish between Viet Cong combatants and the general population, were anxious and wary whenever they traveled into the rural countryside. Knowing that many villagers were sympathetic to the Viet Cong added to their stress.

My Lai was part of the Song My village located in South Vietnam's Quang Ngai Province. The area had been heavily mined by the Viet Cong, and in the weeks preceding the massacre, numerous members of "Charlie Company," a unit of the U.S. Army's American Division, had been injured or killed by the mines. Under the direction of Captain Ernest Medina, a group of about 120 anxious and angry soldiers from Charlie Company entered My Lai on a mission to "search [out] and destroy" enemy soldiers.

According to later eyewitness reports, the soldiers, under orders from their platoon leader Lieutenant William L. Calley, used rifles, machine guns, bayonets, and grenades to kill the villagers. Old men, women who begged and prayed for mercy, children, and babies were murdered by the soldiers. Several young girls were raped and killed. Estimates of the number of villagers massacred at My Lai ranged from 300 to 500; the final army estimate was 347. Of the 100 soldiers who entered My Lai about 30 participated in the killing. Most of the other soldiers did not participate, but they did not try to stop the killing. Some testified later that they thought their lives would be in danger if they tried to stop their fellow soldiers.

Informed of the incident by Captain Hugh C. Thompson, an army helicopter pilot who had managed to save a few of the villagers, the U.S. Army did nothing. Ron Ridenhour, an army helicopter gunner, was told about the massacre shortly after it took place. After leaving the service, Ridenhour wrote detailed letters to the Pentagon, Congress, and the White House asking for an investigation. In November 1969 the army appointed General William R. Peers to look into Ridenhour's charges.

After a four-month army investigation that included listening to 398 witnesses and collecting thousands of pages of testimony, charges were initially brought against 30 of the participants; that number was subsequently reduced to 13. Nine enlisted men and four officers faced charges ranging from murder to dereliction of duty for covering up the incident.

In November 1969 Seymour Hersh's newspaper story about the events of My Lai and subsequent follow-up reports shocked and horrified people around the world. The stories ignited waves of controversy over U.S. presence in Vietnam and increased pressure to bring an end to the war.

In 1971 five members of Charlie Company including Captain Medina and Lt. Calley were subjected to courts-martial. Captain Medina was represented by prominent defense attorney f. lee bailey and was acquitted of all charges. Lt. Calley was the only soldier convicted. He was found guilty of the premeditated murder of more than 20 Vietnamese civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. His sentence was later reduced to 10 years and he was paroled in September 1975.

In May 1998 three former U.S. soldiers who had placed themselves at risk to save some of the civilians at My Lai were awarded (one posthumously) the army's prestigious Soldier's Medal.

further readings

Bilton, Michael, and Kevin Sim. 1993. Four Hours in My Lai. New York: Penguin Books.

Karnow, Stanley. 1984. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin Books.

Sheehan, Neil. 1989. A Bright and Shining Lie. New York: Vintage Books.

cross-references

Vietnam War.

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My Lai incident

My Lai incident (mē lī), in the Vietnam War, a massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers. On Mar. 16, 1968, a unit of the U.S. army Americal division, led by Lt. William L. Calley, invaded the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai (more correctly, Son My), an alleged Viet Cong stronghold. In the course of combat operations, unarmed civilians, including women and children, were shot to death (the final army estimate for the number killed was 347). The incident remained unknown to the American public until the autumn of 1969, when a series of letters by a former soldier to government officials forced the army to take action. Several soldiers and veterans were charged with murder, and a number of officers were accused of dereliction of duty for covering up the incident. Special investigations by the U.S. army and the House of Representatives concluded that a massacre had in fact taken place. Of the many soldiers originally charged, only five were court-martialed, and one, Lt. Calley, convicted. On Mar. 29, 1971, he was found guilty of the premeditated murder of at least twenty-two Vietnamese civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. His sentence was later reduced to 10 years, and in Sept., 1974, a federal district court overturned the conviction and Calley was released. The My Lai incident aroused widespread controversy and contributed to growing disillusionment in the United States with the Vietnam War. The U.S. army formally released a report on its investigation of the incident in Nov., 1974. In 1998 three U.S. soldiers saved Vietnamese civilians during the massacre were honored with the Soldier's Medal.

See R. Hammer, The Court-Martial of Lt. Calley (1971); S. M. Hersh, Mylai 4 (1970) and Cover-up (1972); W. T. Allison, My Lai (2012).

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My Lai Incident

MY LAI INCIDENT

MY LAI INCIDENT. On 16 March 1968, U.S. Army soldiers of Company C, First Battalion, Twentieth Infantry of the Eleventh Infantry Brigade, Twenty-third (Americal) Infantry Division, while searching for a Viet-cong force at My Lai hamlet in Son My Village, Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, massacred two hundred to five hundred South Vietnamese civilians. Following revelations of the atrocity a year later, an army investigation headed by Lieutenant General William R. Peers implicated thirty soldiers in the commission and cover-up of the incident. Fourteen soldiers were charged with war crimes. All had their charges dismissed or were acquitted by courts-martial except First Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr., a Company C platoon leader, who was convicted of murdering twenty-two civilians and sentenced in March 1971 to life imprisonment. The public viewed Calley as a scapegoat, and his sentence was eventually reduced to ten years. After serving forty months of his sentence, all but three months confined to quarters, Calley was paroled by President Richard M. Nixon in November 1974. The My Lai incident increased disillusionment with the army's conduct of the Vietnam War, fueled growing antiwar sentiment, and underscored concerns within the army itself regarding the professionalism and ethics of its officer corps.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hersh, Seymour M. Cover-up: The Army's Secret Investigation of the Massacre at My Lai. New York: Random House, 1972.

Peers, William R. The My Lai Inquiry. New York: Norton, 1979.

Vincent H.Demma

See alsoAtrocities in War ; Vietnam War ; andpicture (overleaf).


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Son My

Son My: see My Lai incident.

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