My opposition to the slaughter grew more intense as I read reports that revealed baseless reasons we became involved and the atrocities our men in uniform had been encouraged to perpetrate. Emphasizing the "virtue" of achieving a high body count seemed to these "leaders" a way to demonstrate to the American people and the world we were winning. To verify kills, soldiers cut off ears of the Vietnamese dead. Some wore a necklace of ears. Only the soldier knew whether they came from combatants or villagers of any age or sex, caught up in the war. The "enemy," was amorphous but included insurgent Viet Cong, North Vietnamese regulars, and anyone who supported them. The authorities abused the term "insurgent." They characterized the VC as an armed force of communists supplied by North Vietnam, opposed to the South Vietnamese regime. However, our troops repeatedly attacked villages with, or without verification of their affiliation with the VC. The madness of this theory maintains that as long as fish swim in the sea of insurgency, you must kill as many of them as you can. That the soldiers counted so many children's ears, speaks to the insanity of this theory.
On March 16, 1968, helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, door gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta landed their helicopter between American troops rampaging through My Lai village and the local people. The My Lai massacre was a watershed in the moral history of modern American combat, and a turning point in the public perception of the Vietnam War.
Charlie Company was down to one hundred and five men by mid-March of that year. It had suffered twenty eight casualties, including five dead. Some of its soldiers had already begun to drift towards brutal tactics for which they appeared to enjoy impunity. The brief for its March sixteenth mission was to flush out the Viet Cong, whose elusive troops supposedly hid in My Lai — a hamlet of Son My village. Two platoons moved in shortly after 8:00am, while a third held back for "mopping up" duties. Both platoons splintered and once the shooting started, it seemed to spark a chain reaction.
Soldiers went berserk, gunning down unarmed men, women, children, and babies. They showed no mercy to families that huddled together for safety in huts or bunkers. They even murdered those who emerged with hands held high. Some lucky villagers, including a few children, survived the massacre. Some of the soldiers did not join in the killing spree, but that did not include troop commander Lt. William Calley. In one incident, Lt. Calley ordered two of his men to fire on a group of sixty civilians they had rounded up. When one refused, Calley took over and, standing ten feet from the crowd, emptied his gun into them. Elsewhere in the village, other atrocities progressed. Soldiers gang raped many women, and beat and tortured hundreds of Vietnamese. They had merely bowed to greet the Americans who clubbed them with rifle butts and stabbed them with bayonets. Army members of one company mutilated some victims by carving into their chest the signature "C Company." By late morning, word had got back to higher authorities who ordered a cease-fire. By then My Lai was carnage with dead bodies strewn through the village. The death toll totaled five hundred and four. One American soldier suffered an injury when he shot himself in the foot clearing his pistol.
Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson approached the apparently peaceful My Lai hamlet from the air in his scout helicopter but did not realize what was going on until he saw a US Army captain nudge a wounded Vietnamese girl with his boot, then kill her. He, door gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta were witnesses. The copter landed between American troops rampaging through My Lai village and the local people in the line of fire to prevent further murders. Colburn and Andreotta provided cover for their pilot as he went to confront American forces and coax civilians out of a bunker to enable their evacuation. He ordered his men to shoot any US soldiers if they shot at civilians, confronted the senior US officer present, and persuaded terrified civilians to leave their shelter. Thompson radioed for another helicopter to evacuate the survivors and rescued a boy from a ditch. As his helo was lifting, they spotted movement in a ditch filled with bodies south of My Lai. They landed again and retrieved a single wounded child from the hellish scene. They flew him to a hospital.
The military authorities concealed the My Lai massacre for one year before a participant talked about it leading to the court martial of platoon leader Lieutenant William Calley. A court martial convicted him of three counts of premeditated murder of not less than twenty two Vietnamese, and sentenced him to life in jail. Three years later President Richard Nixon intervened, releasing him. Many participants resigned to avoid prosecution. The Peers report told a comprehensive story of what had happened on March 16, 1968. The crimes had included murders by individuals and groups and assault, rape, torture, sodomy, and maiming of civilians. The report concluded that both Col. Henderson, the brigade commander, and Lt. Col. Frank Barker, the commanding officer of the task force, had knowledge of the war crime, but did nothing about it. The Peers inquiry recommended charges against twenty eight officers and two non-commissioned officers involved in the concealment of the massacre, but the prospect of successful prosecution crumbled. Army lawyers decided to charge only fourteen officers, and those cases ended in acquittal. A similar pattern emerged in the prosecution of the ground troops who had done the killing. The CID report said there was evidence to charge thirty soldiers with major crimes. Sixteen had criminal charges brought against them. A court-martial convened against five. The authorities quietly dropped charges against seventeen who left the army. Elsewhere prosecutors dropped all charges, or not guilty verdicts resulted.
(This article appears in the October 2012 Vietnam Veterans Against the War magazine and can be viewed with many other articles written by Vietnam Veterans to spread the word in the hopes that this tragedy never again be repeated anywhere):
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(My Lai 2010)
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
Dalai Lama: My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.