Son Thang: An American War Crime

By Levie, Howard S. | Naval War College Review, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Son Thang: An American War Crime


Levie, Howard S., Naval War College Review


Solis, Gary D. Son Thang: An American War Crime. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1997. 340pp. $29.95

As stern as the United States government has been with regard to the punishment of both enemy civilians and military personnel charged with the commission of war crimes (after World War II the United States conducted over five hundred trials of over 1,600 accused in Europe alone), the American public has generally taken quite a different view when the crimes were committed by its own military. They apparently regarded the events at My Lai as a war crime, but a war crime that should go unpunished! The only person convicted for that offense, Lieutenant William Calley, was found guilty for the murder of twenty-- two Vietnamese civilians. He received a life sentence of imprisonment at hard labor. He was released after only three and one-half years of house arrest. One can only hope that the enactment by Congress of the War Crimes Act of 1996 indicates a change in the public attitude regarding this matter; otherwise the United States cannot count on receiving the respect of the people of the world. The events so clearly and precisely chronicled in this book are certainly not such as to qualify the United States as the dispenser of equal justice for all.

On 19 February 1970 a U.S. Marine Corps "killer team" of five men, led and incited by one Private Randy Herrod (who had never previously served on such a team), shot and killed at close range sixteen Vietnamese women and children, ranging in age from three to fifty, in three different areas of a hamlet known collectively to the Marines as "Son Thang-4." The team had been briefed to "kill any gooks in the area," apparently on the theory that the Vietcong themselves believed there was no such thing as a noncombatant.

The author provides details of each of the four trials conducted by the U.S. Marine Corps, all of his quotations being taken from the trial records. (One member of the "killer team," who claimed to have fired over the heads of the victims, testified for the prosecution and was not prosecuted.) Unlike the Calley case, these trials were conducted in a combat zone, where only rarely was a reporter present, and seldom was there mention of this episode in an American newspaper. Perhaps this is why, once again, American public opinion favored the accused. …

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