My Lai: war is an ugly thing, plenty of guilt to go around…

March 25, 2015

I just read a long piece by Seymour Hersh about the My Lai Massacre some 47 years ago this month. Several hundred unarmed civilians were killed.

Though lengthy I can boil it down by saying that U.S. soldiers murdered civilians in cold blood, men women and children, including babies. And it was not an isolated incident. It helped turn the American public against the war.

Not stressed but mentioned in the article, the enemy (and that is a question, who was the enemy? but that is a different story) committed atrocities just as savage (but of course that does not make immoral behavior right — nothing we could ever comprehend should make our own boys baby killers).

I found it interesting that the article describes My Lai of the time as a peaceful village and indicates that our intelligence mistakenly identified it as a Viet Cong base (the Viet Cong being part of the enemy). But later the article reveals that some of the men there belonged to the Viet Cong. Of course that is the problem, the United States unwisely interjected itself into a civil war, a war of insurgency, albeit one supported by the Soviet Union (to a lesser extent Red China) and its satellite then known as North Vietnam. It was not the good guys coming to the rescue of an innocent country from invading Nazis.

(Those of us who were not there were constantly informed throughout the war by journalists that it was not a war of territory and that there were no front lines actually. Many areas supposedly held by the South Vietnamese government (our ally) were controlled by the Viet Cong (some of them local villagers) by night. It was a civil war, with outside assistance, with the two world superpowers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, backing opposites sides in a proxy war, that was really an extension of the Cold War — and I give this background for the benefit for those younger than I or for those who just never paid attention, but then the latter probably would not bother to read this anyway.)

The article told of how our military covered the massacre up as long as it could and that once uncovered no one ever went to jail over it, although one lieutenant, guilty as he no doubt was, served as the fall guy for his superiors who surely knew what took place and in fact no doubt ordered it. (Okay some of this I am saying, in addition to what I read in the article.)

Some of those soldiers who took part claim they were directly ordered by their superior or superiors to kill everyone. And it may well be that not everyone there took part in the massacre.

I recall hearing the story of an American army  helicopter pilot who happened upon the scene and rescued civilians.

The incident occurred in March of 1968. I was in Army basic training at the time, and as luck would have it I was sent to Germany. My only connection if you can call it that was that when I was promoted to Specialist 5 or E-5 My Lai was the current events question.

And there was actually another massacre at a nearby village the same day and apparently many more, although smaller in scale, during the course of the war.

And it quotes North Vietnamese officials of that time saying that the massacre helped them eventually win the war by both supporting their own recruitment efforts within Vietnam and by turning the American people against what turned out to be a most immoral project for America.

We all know now that our leaders throughout that long war knew it was all hopeless and wrong but supported its continuance so they would not be blamed for losing. If you can make that kind of decision it seems to me you’re missing a moral compass.

Our current wars in the Middle East are by no means a carbon copy of Vietnam. But there have been atrocities committed by our soldiers and private mercenaries our government hires. And no doubt attempted cover-ups too.

Atrocities occur in all wars.

War is an ugly thing.

Why do some people love it so much?


When I was growing up and playing army I always thought only the bad guys committed outrageous acts, certainly not our side. I was naïve.

P.s. P.s.

And this was not meant as a comment on our current foreign policy which must include what to do about ISIS (and Al Qaeda), except we can’t become ISIS or terrorists or wanton murderers in the process.

p.s. p.s. p.s.

And when I write something like this I always feel obligated to say with all sincerity I have nothing but total respect for military personnel who carry out lawful duties and orders. When I was in basic we had a class in which an officer told us we must follow lawful orders. He said we were not obligated to follow unlawful orders. But if we disobeyed something because we at the time thought it to be unlawful we could be punished if the authorities found otherwise after the fact. What would you do? The answer is you don’t really know until it is too late.

(Of course the atrocity at My Lai was unlawful on its face, but you had the fog of war, youth, incompetent leadership or higher-ups in the war zone who stayed far enough away, either in helicopters or back in air-conditioned headquarters, that they could collect their combat badges for future promotion to further their careers, while claiming ignorance of what was going on at the actual scene.)

A fellow platoon member over in Germany did a tour in Vietnam as a door gunner on a helicopter. When sober he would brag about killing everything that moved, and supposedly quite legally in what were called “free fire zones”. But when he had too much to drink he would cry about the same thing.

As bad as war is it may be a necessary evil at times, I suppose.

The Seymour Hersh article from the New Yorker magazine is worth reading: