Anniversary Post: My Lai Massacre Story

My Lai MassacreOn this day in 1969, Seymour Hersh broke the story about the My Lai Massacre, which happened 16 March 1968. Most people I talk to don’t know much about it. They know that it was something really bad. But it isn’t exactly something that we Americans like to dwell on. By the military’s accounting, 347 men, women, and children were murdered. Other estimates are higher. Some of the women were gang raped. It actually took place in two hamlets: My Lai and My Khe. Twenty-six soldiers were involved in this vile act.

There were three service members who tried to stop the massacre and rescue those Vietnamese who were hiding. Not surprisingly, these three were publicly smeared. They were shunned inside the military. It took the US government 30 years to recognize and decorate those three soldiers for their acts of heroism. One of them had died — less than a month after the massacre.

Of the 26 soldiers who were charged criminally, only one was found guilty. It’s amazing how “just following orders” works wonderful when it is your own army that is conducting the trial. The only one held accountable was Lieutenant William Calley. He was sentenced to life in prison. But within one day, President Nixon had his sentence changed to “house arrest.” He ended up serving only three and a half years. Ultimately, his defense to this day is that was just following orders.

The truth is that I’m somewhat sympathetic to that defense — just as I am to many of the Nazis who used that defense. When you are talking about the military, there is no sense of morality. The right thing to do is always whatever it is you are told. It is ridiculous to think that soldiers can be taught to always follow orders but that they shouldn’t under certain circumstances that imply future knowledge. The problem is the military and war itself. I hate hearing the outrage over things like the My Lai Massacre from people who are totally pro-war. Regardless of how bad the behavior, it is outrageous to think that wars are going to be fought without this kind of stuff. Wars are about dehumanizing people. And the My Lai Massacre is an obvious outcome of that.

Seymour Hersh is a great journalist. But my understanding is that the My Lai Massacre wasn’t exactly a secret. Hersh’s greatest attribute has always been his bravery. Journalism is probably worse today than it was then. But it has always been bad. Journalists don’t want to lose their access to powerful people. We would have a far greater press if our journalists simply changed their attitudes toward their jobs. It is to seek out the truth — not to collect powerful sources so as to make future banal stories easier to write.

6 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: My Lai Massacre Story

  1. I really don’t understand why people think that someone in the military would just simply stop doing what they were told to do-the military has it down to a science to train people to follow orders since often that is what is needed in the heat of battle. The opening scene from Rome where Titus Pullo breaks rank is to show how important it is for soldiers to maintain formation.

    Yet, somehow, a person is supposed to throw that off when they are given a horrific order. The people who are in charge are the ones who are not supposed to give the orders and yes, they are suppose to pay for it when the time comes and it is realised that what was ordered was wrong. But such is the world I suppose.

  2. According to Nick Turse’s brutal “Kill Anything That Moves” (from recently declassified Pentagon documents) it was the rare unit which didn’t commit war crimes. And that’s probably the case in most wars.

    • Yeah. It’s only recently that we’ve started to commonly hear stories of US war crimes during World War II. It’s the nature of war. And I think the atomic bombs were war crimes. Not that 5% of Americans know a thing about it.

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