My Lai Revisited

By Carter, Stephen L. | Newsweek, April 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

My Lai Revisited


Carter, Stephen L., Newsweek


Byline: Stephen L. Carter

On March 16, 1968, two platoons of American soldiers arrived at the hamlet of My Lai, in the district known as Son My in what was then South Vietnam. The men were from Charlie Company of the First Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division, and they were on a search-and-destroy mission. They entered the village around 8 in the morning. Several hours later, between 300 and 500 villagers lay dead.

Just how the massacre started has never been precisely determined, but the details were horrific. Eyewitnesses described bayonetings, clubbings, and close-range shootings, all without a single shot being fired at the Americans. Many of the dead were women, children, and the elderly. Some were killed while kneeling in prayer. Some were found with "C Company" carved into their flesh. The men of Charlie Company had been in Vietnam all of three months.

The My Lai massacre is commonly called a turning point in American support for the war. It wasn't. By the time journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story in the fall of 1969, the military investigation was well underway. The only individual actually convicted was Lt. William Calley, who commanded the men of Charlie Company. At home his conviction was unpopular. Private White House polling discovered that four out of five Americans wanted him released.

Support for the war, as John E. Mueller points out in his 1973 book, "War, Presidents and Public Opinion," had already begun to drop a bit, especially among the less educated. After the massacre became known, public support actually increased. At the time of the massacre, American ground forces had been in Vietnam for three years. The Tet Offensive and the killings at Kent State, which would galvanize antiwar forces, were still to come.

Echoes of Atrocity: Fast-forward 40-odd years. The recent shooting rampage by an American soldier in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province, which left 16 dead, has drawn inevitable comparisons to My Lai. But this recent crime, horrible though it may be, was different. For one thing, it was allegedly the act of an individual, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. At My Lai, two platoons participated in the killing. The men of Charlie Company said later that they were doing what Calley had ordered, ridding the hamlet of Viet Cong. (Even children, Calley said at his trial, had been throwing hand grenades. …

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