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My Lai Massacre: The Shame That Survives (March 11, 1998)

On March 16, 1968, US soldiers killed 504 Vietnamese villagers on March 16, 1968. The 30th anniversary in 1998 was an opportunity to to give Americans a warm glow. The warmth came of course from the Soldier’s Medals awarded to Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta (the latter posthumously) for landing their combat helicopter that morning and intervening to save Vietnamese lives. 

The ceremony by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on March 6, 1998 exhibited everything — honor, courage -— that is the reverse of the soldiers’ conduct that shameful day in 1968. Even the Army looked good, although the campaign launched by Professor David Egan to get the three their medals took a decade to come to fruition.

Watching the moving ceremony of television, I thought of the man who had first brought My Lai into public view, Ron Ridenhour who was himself flying a helicopter a few miles south of My Lai that March morning in 1968.

It was Ridenhour who heard accounts of My Lai from men who had been in Charlie Company at “Pinkville,” which is what My Lai was called by the US military. He secretly compiled accounts, looked at official reports filed at 23rd Division office and in December of 1968, by then out of the Army, wrote a report of the massacre which he mailed to 200 people including Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona, thus setting in motion the exposure of what had happened. Without Ridenhour there would have been no Army investigation, no Seymour Hersh, nothing except perhaps the memorial in Vietnam, put up by the Vietnamese, listing the 504 victims by name.

In 1998 Ridenhour worked in New Orleans and I called him up to ask him how he felt about the awards and about this particular anniversary. 

“It’s an eerie feeling.” Ridenhour answered. “During the two years that the story of the massacre first unfolded, polls showed that Americans were following it much more closely than most news stories. Yet at the end of it, when you asked people what happened at My Lai, they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s where that lieutenant went crazy and killed a lot of Vietnamese civilians.’

“And the news stories today, surrounding Thompson and the other two deservedly getting their medals, say the same thing. Calley was the lone madman, and it took one good man, Hugh Thompson, to intercede and stop it. But my answer is, No, that’s not what happened. Calley was one of several officers on the ground, there were a hundred men in the village and a couple of hundred outside, and the massacre took four hours, 7.30 to 11.30. This was an operation, not an aberration.

“If it was an aberration, then Lieutenant Calley was tried, and justice was done. If it was an operation, then it raised — still raises — enormous questions of culpability for the rest of the chain of command, questions about the Nuremberg principles concerning war crimes.”

And indeed, as Ridenhour compellingly outlines, My Lai was a military operation. At 9.30 am, about the time Thompson landed his helicopters and the killing in My Lai still had two hours to go, one of the other companies in Task Force Barker marched three miles to the east, towards the sea, and commenced another massacre at My Khe 5, killing at least 90 people. Though this was unearthed by the Peers Commission reviewing My Lai, no one was ever brought to book, and an account of it was not included in the first public report. “Task Force Barker,” Ridenhour says, “was created specifically by the division commander to annihilate the 88th VC battalion. They thought My Lai was the home base of this battalion. Above My Lai were helicopters filled with the entire command staff of that brigade, division and task force. All three tiers in the chain of command were literally flying overhead all morning, while it was going on. My Lai didn’t happen because Calley went berserk.”

But Calley was the man the Army made carry the can. Captain Ernest Medina and Colonel Oren Henderson were both acquitted even though there were eyewitnesses, including Thompson, who saw Medina shoot civilians that morning. And with only one guilty party you don’t have the chain of command, of orders given from on top, that constitutes the profile of a premeditated war crime, which some historians of the war have concluded was part of the CIA’s Phoenix Program, aimed at exterminating the infrastructure of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, aka Viet Cong.

One lone madman, one good man… Thompson conducted himself bravely that morning, and saved some lives. But not “untold lives,” as the citations for the medals suggest. Two hours after he radioed his first report, at 9.30, the massacre at My Lai finally ended, because there was no one left to kill.

I asked Ridenhour how he’d feel if someone offered him the Soldier’s Medal. “I didn’t save any lives,” he answered. It’s true and, as I pointed out to him, his expose taught the Pentagon how to do it better the next time. Twenty years later the US Army was training the Atlacatl Battalion in El Salvador, which killed twice the number of civilians at El Mozote and not even a lowly American lieutenant was put on trial for complicity. The Army had learned how to do it right. 

2 Comments

  1. Douglas Coulter June 15, 2021

    Wounded Knee, The Devils Punch Bowl are two that stand out.
    20 Medal of Honor awards to soldiers who murdered Sioux covering up a “friendly fire” fiasco from three Hotchkiss guns that killed 30 US soldiers.
    Up to 20,000 former slaves murdered by starvation and disease at Devils Punchbowl by Union Army. I never read about that in school.
    In Beirut the Israeli army guarded as Christians murdered refugees in retaliation for assassination. That got world attention.

  2. Ernie Branscomb June 17, 2021

    It took incredible courage for Thompson to face down his own troops. He had put aside the esprit-de-corps that runs deep with military people, knowing full well that the consequences might be getting himself killed in the hail of bullets and being shunned by his follow soldiers. Still… he landed his helicopter, changed history, and established the difference between right and wrong.

    He was hated by some for his courageous act.

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