Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My Lai 1968 – A soldier’s duty to disobey!

My Lai 1968 – An American atrocity revisited


by James Travers-Murison - has a degree in American and Asian history minoring in psychology and a Law degree at Monash University and a diploma from the Australian College of Journalism and diploma of secondary education. He has travelled extensively around the world including writing on the War zones of Kashmir, Pakistan, Kurdish Turkey, Israel, Zimbabwe, Yugoslasvia and Iran. He worked at the BBC in accounts in London and as a journalist for Canberra Times, Darwin WIN, OPTUS cable TV and Channel 31 in Australia. He also has prepared an independent legal Human Rights Report on Lockhart River for the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and written article on President Clinton's failure to ban land mines. See Travers-Murison Magazine at for more of his work.
In the light of American military involvement in Iraq and atrocities committed there by US Forces this article questions how soldiers were led into committing the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. It looks at how My Lai happened and who was responsible. Whether there was a conspiracy to wipe out the village? It examines when a soldier has a duty to disobey an order to commit an atrocity. It looks to see how this kind of tragedy can be avoided by informing the military and general public of the reasons behind the worst case scenario of command failure. In this respect it indirectly looks at how this situation can be avoided by properly educating our soldiers on what is and is not an acceptable order given by a commander and briefly touches upon the possibility of a model to be developed by the army, which would democratise and empower individual soldiers within the command structure through involving more consensus decision-making. Finally it very briefly considers what standards should be applied to a War Crimes Tribunal in dealing with East Timor, Iraq and other world conflicts.

An old Vietnamese man and survivor toils in a rice paddy that is emerald green, thinking about what happened many, many years ago on that field to women and children by soldiers of the great wealthy democracy that was sent to protect them.
‘Remembering the horror of war and pointless killing, one should not forget the crimes of War committed by the side we were on.’ Bertrand Russell
The atrocities of war may be considered ill to dwell upon, and seem of little if any relevance in today’s New World Order of peace. Yet for all our veneer of civilisation there is “a world out there” that engages in barbaric behaviour as we have seen on our television screens showing Afghanistan, Iraq and many other developing countries. The killing of tourists in Cambodia and Kashmir, the massacres in Rwanda, Bosnia and Chechnya and even the terrorist attacks still in Israel and once so close to home in Northern Ireland, all remind us that we are never far from violence. On Australian soil, the Port Arthur, Hoddle Street and Queen Street, Lindt CafĂ© massacres demonstrate that even in a peaceful wealthy country such as ours we are not spared the extremes of seemingly pointless killings. Perhaps the greatest reminder is the horrific September 11 attack that brought us into a War on Terror. This the greatest terrorist attack in history combined with the collapse of ‘the Communist Bloc’ has led the portended instigators of the New World Order, the West and in particular America, sometimes through the United Nations, to reluctantly take it upon themselves to be the policeman of the global community. Where atrocities occur in Kosovo or Iraq, they are only too willing to use military force to persuade these countries to behave in a more civilised and humane fashion. Australia has been delegated this unenviable task of so called “peacekeeping” in many countries including Timor, Iraq and still in Afghanistan. With the International Criminal Court still rejected by the United States and a remote possibility of an East Timor War Crimes tribunal being set up for the atrocities the militia and possibly Indonesian troops committed (and even with our own troops now in the firing line), the rules of engaging non-combatants and the duty to disobey illegal orders will be under close examination.
Though Serbians are being put before this court there is no doubt an issue of double standards when atrocities are clearly being committed under international law standards by United States Forces in at least Iraq, if not in Guantanamo Bay and other secret detention centres and no-one is prepared to stand up and confront the United States for its breaches of at very least the Geneva Convention for which the Western Democracies defended against the tyranny of Nazism and Fascism at such a very great price. But this is not the first time that the United States in recent history has flaunted international law and conventions with devastating results to other countries and itself not least in Latin America, what is truly stunning is that Nation has learnt so little from its recent history. The World's current super power may in fact be its worst enemy and with it having a major gun problem and a crime rate 20 times worse than Japan and at the bottom of the Western nations, the indicators are that something very rotten and evil exists in the core of America's soul that needs redressing to restore confidence on this planet in decency and human dignity. And the answer to this may well explain the sense of inequality in the World that led to the attacks that instigated the 'War on Terror' and provide the answer to resolving the age old conflict between Islam and Christianity. It may well explain how Mullah's implicit commands and preaching to their faithful led disillusioned extremist groups to take action in their own hands out of proportion to the teachings of their leaders. Very much in the same fashion as US soldiers responded to their commanders when put in a basically immoral conflict at its core. Preventing atrocities by your own troops is essential to a moral civilisation. We detest the actions of ISIS in the Middle East and although atrocities by the US and Western forces pale into insignificance compared to more primitive nations, unless we can set the example to others of impeccable human decency and morality, we are in grave danger of reaping the gross barbarity of those on this planet that are of a more primal nature than us.



               It is in this light that I revisited a closed investigation into something that touched me with great fear when I was a child, ‘The Vietnam War’ and in particular, not that I was aware of it, the worst known massacre ever perpetrated by American troops overseas. Much later the ethics of guerrilla warfare and legitimised killing, of military command structures that control the actions of ordinary human beings, and how it can lead people ‘into tragic situations’, began to dominate my thoughts. This led me on to look at this the worst known official atrocity committed by English-speaking military forces in modern Western history.


The My Lai story begins in 1968 as social revolution rocked Europe. The Beatles, the Doors, LSD, hash and flower power descended on humanities collective consciousness and in a small village in Vietnam called My Lai...
         On March 16th 1968 at exactly 7.30 am, nine US Army helicopters drifted lazily through clouds of thick white phosphorus smoke left by a preparatory artillery deployment and landed gently at the Western edge of a small hamlet in South Vietnam. Soldiers jumped out and took cover in the emerald rice paddy bordering the hamlet. The helicopters disappeared into the dusty jade horizon. The village was Xom Wang, although to the Americans it was named My Lai (4) or Pinkville. It had contained about 500 inhabitants, but there were less people since the communist militia, the Vietcong (VC), had established themselves in the area. They had recruited most of the people of military age, so those left were mostly old men, women and children.1 The American GIs had been told it was market day and that most of the civilians would be away. Some villagers were finishing breakfast.
My Lai area
Captain Medina of C Company reported the Landing Zone (LZ) as “cold”, but a helicopter pilot radioed that they were receiving fire, that it was “hot”. Medina immediately informed his three platoon leaders. Lieutenant Calley, 1st Platoon leader, moved his platoon about 150 yards to the east and set up a defensive position to secure the LZ. The 2nd Platoon rapidly moved to the northwest edge of the hamlet. Medina's command group remained at the LZ.2 During this time several Vietnamese who had left their hiding places were killed when heavy rifle fire was directed at suspected bunkers. At 7.47 the 3rd Platoon arrived by helicopter and at 7.50 the 1st and 2nd Platoons moved in towards the hamlet. Lt. Calley's platoon of 25 men was split into two squads.
The platoon encountered no resistance as it approached the southern half of the village. When some of his men heard a noise just before the first huts they turned and shot. They shot a buffalo. The large Asian beast fell, but the soldiers did not stop shooting. “From then on it was like nobody could stop. Everyone was just shooting at everything and anything, like the ammo wouldn't ever give out”.3 These were one private soldier's words that came out at General Peer's Inquiry.
A U.S. operations map detailing My Lai
           As they moved into Xom Lang they shot many fleeing Vietnamese and bayoneted others. They burned crops and houses, destroyed livestock, and threw hand grenades into bunkers. Then they rounded up women, children and old men. Some were shot in the groups they formed, the rest were moved along trails to the south and southeastern edge of the village. Calley ordered one group of 20 to 50 peasants “to be taken care of”.4 They were led to a place 20 yards south of the village and put under guard. He charged up and yelled, “Why haven't you taken care of these people... I mean kill them”.5 He and Sergeant Meadlo opened fire on them. About 8.30 he reported to Medina over the radio 69 VC dead and 30 civilians. Medina only marked down the VC dead.6
             Another platoon, the 2nd, had moved into the north of the village. Some women were raped and they also began to torch huts and houses. At 8.30 Medina ordered this platoon to a northern village, Binh Tay. The killings and rapes continued. In one instance 20 to 30 women and children were forced to squat in a circle, and round after round from an M79 grenade launcher was fired into their midst. The soldier firing was reported as having a half-crazed snarl that distorted his face. He was covered in blood.6A The 3rd Platoon moved from the My Lai LZ at about 8.45 and destroyed the remaining livestock and crops. They killed the remaining Vietnamese, who were mostly wounded.
             Most of the remaining villagers at My Lai were gradually herded to the edge of a canal about 100 yards east of the hamlet by 1st Platoon. Official US Army figures admitted 75 to 150 were forced there although it was probably in excess of 200.7
            In this time Calley shot one child and rifle butted a priest in the face. He fired point blank into his head. Calley walked to the canal reaching it at about 9. About this time Medina left the LZ and walked the short distance to the edge of the village where he interrogated an old man. Roughly at 9.15 at the canal, Calley and several others opened fire. He had to change his magazine over ten times.7A Ron Haeberle, an army photographer, secretly took shots of the massacre with his own camera. The bodies piled up. Back in the village the rest of the platoon were burning houses and several rapes had occurred.

Some of the dead Vietnamese civilians
At 9.15 Medina ordered 2nd Platoon to ‘cease fire’ and immediately their atrocities stopped.8 But no such order was given to Calley’s and 3rd platoon. At 9.30 Medina claims to have received a message that a wounded VC was 100 yards south of the village. He went to investigate. A pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, on a screening and reconnaissance mission with two other helicopter gunships in the area said “I noticed something terribly amiss; there were large piles of bodies everywhere”.9 At about 9.30 to 9.45 he landed his helicopter near the canal and saw it filled with dead and dying. Thompson decided to evacuate some of the wounded. Thompson’s scout helicopter was already filled with his own crew, so he radioed for more helicopters to help lift the civilians to safety, mainly children. He managed to save only one little boy. Thompson claimed to have seen Medina walk up to a badly wounded woman, kick her over and shoot her.10
The pilot returned later, perhaps 9.45 to 10.00 and spotted from his ‘chopper’ more children caught in a bunker with American soldiers running towards them. Thompson radioed again for help. He landed his helicopter between the bunker and the soldiers. He got out to rescue the children. One of the Americans on the ground was Lt. Calley. He rushed forward and tried to stop Thompson. After a heated argument Thompson told his waistgunner, Lawrence Colburn, to aim his machine gun “at that officer and if the officer intervenes to shoot him”.11 Shortly after this Medina got a message from Calley radioing that a helicopter pilot had landed and criticised his actions. Meanwhile Medina did nothing and the killing continued.
          At about 10.00 Medina admitted to coming across a pile of executed bodies south of the village. At 10.30 after a call from HQ asking, “what the hell is going on there”,12 he claims to have called a cease-fire, but even this is doubtful. He walked north through the village where extraordinarily he claims to have seen no bodies and ordered a lunch break.13 During that time the company had made no reports of enemy fire, none of American casualties, no requests for fire support and one report of three weapons captured.
Despite this incredible anomaly, given the large enemy kills being reported, the company commander, Medina, made only a cursory investigation to find out what was happening. In effect he allowed the killings to place over three hours before he ordered a cease-fire. Pham Thi Trinh said, “I saw my house had burned completely… my loved ones were burned to death. My mother and little brother still in my mother’s arms, my seven month old brother whose body was half burned. I didn’t know anything anymore. I stood by my mother’s body and cried.”
           As is often the case in bloodshed there were moments of humanity. Several soldiers refused to fire a shot, and one GI even directed villagers to safety. But the only US casualty was a GI who shot himself in the foot.14 Even amongst those soldiers that decided to kill the horror became too much. Some threw down their weapons, others cried openly and later nightmares were to haunt their sleep.

Fort Benning where General Peers investigated My Lai massacre
Why did American soldiers commit such atrocities and how was it that no commander stopped them? General Peer's investigation ended by giving nine reasons for the massacre. One of the major reasons he gave was the lack of proper training within C Company. They had been in Vietnam only three months. The soldiers were from 11th Brigade, Americal Division, and were part of McNamara’s 100,000 draftees thrown into Vietnam as part of the numbers game being played in the Pentagon. Called up at short notice, they were given rapid and inadequate training, especially in guerrilla warfare. Their average age was twenty.
However contrary to much of the evidence C Company performed well in training in Hawaii advancing so swiftly in an amphibious assault the exercise was stopped. It is doubtful that they had any proper training in UN or the Geneva Conventions on ‘The Laws of War’ nor when an order is illegal according to U.S. Army Field Manual 27-10.15 This alone does not explain the butchering of 400 people. Other companies went through the same training and experiences yet did not do this. Common sense would tell any objective bystander that what they were doing was wrong, however this was overridden possibly as a result of orders given that day.

Water buffalo play with Vietnamese children
In Calley’s defence, he stated that the G.I.s considered the Vietnamese peasants to be basically sub-human. ‘Gook’, ‘dink’, or ‘slope’ was a general term used for all Vietnamese, not just the VC. Furthermore this was a VC sympathetic area. Most of the mines and booby traps had been set by local villagers including women and children. Often villagers would watch or even direct U.S. troops into mine fields and C Company had suffered 95% of its casualties by this unseen enemy. On the 25th February three men had been killed and twelve badly injured at Loc Son in a mine field.16 On patrol on 14th March one of C Company's best men, Sergeant Cox, had been killed by a mine and on their way back the squad kicked a woman to death in a field.16A The day before the atrocity an emotional service was held for him.17 Private Michael Bernhardt said, “cruelty and brutality was sometimes seen as heroic… that is what it turned into”.17AA C Company had been chasing the 48th VC battalion in this area since the end of the Tet Offensive in February. Several operations had made contact, but failed to trap the VC.
At Loc Son on the 24th February Task Force Barker had lost another man and had fifteen injured. Col. Henderson complained bitterly about the unit’s failure to close with the enemy and lack of aggression.17A Medina's commander, Lt. Col. Barker had told him ‘to get the troops aggressive’ so they could close rapidly with the enemy. The Vietcong’s Tet Offensive had only just collapsed with significant damage caused to U.S. bases. Medina built this to a crescendo in a pep talk to the troops the night before. Revenge and destruction were stressed. This was to be the company’s first direct action against a major enemy concentration. The fear and frustration at the lack of contact with an enemy against whom they wished to revenge their losses was about to end. They were told the renowned 48th VC battalion was fortified in My Lai (4).
         The 48th VC was one of the best VC battalions in South Vietnam. Formed from the local population, the communists hold was so strong that all males of military age had to join and all civilians had to co-operate or suffer reprisal such as re-education or worse brutal execution.18 The area had been communist since 1945. With no uniform, underground tunnels and unable to distinguish VC from the local community, C Company was in a difficult position.19
          The commanders in Task Force Barker played upon the fear the soldier’s felt. There was no attempt to enforce Division policies, either before or after My Lai, on treatment of prisoners, civilians or respect of their property. C Company had a record of rapes, mistreatment and killing of civilians.20 South Vietnamese government officials not only knew this was going on, but encouraged it. Medina despised the Vietnamese and did not hide the fact.21 The U.S. Army’s ruthlessly competitive attitude to attaining a high VC “body count” added to this indiscriminate treatment of civilians. However many other American units suffered these difficulties yet could still distinguish babies, old men and women from VC.
          Lt. Col. Barker, Task Force Commander, gave orders to his Company commanders that contributed to the tragedy. His instructions were to burn and destroy the village, close in and kill “all the enemy”. He called for the use of artillery and gunships on the western edge of the village without proper authorisation. He gave no instructions as to the handling of civilians; in fact he stated they would be out of the village as it was market day.23 He told the commanders to expect heavy casualties as they were ‘going in’ against one of the most dangerous VC units in the area with three or perhaps four hundred VC under its command.24 By the time this had been channelled down to Medina he told his troops that there were only enemy in My Lai (4) and according to the testimony of many of his soldiers, “all were to be killed”.25
The 48th Local Defence battalion was not in My Lai (4). It was probably not even in nearby Son My, but instead 15 kms to the west of Quang Ngai in the mountains. Further, the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) Provincial HQ were aware of this as did three separate American sources including the Americal Division, yet the CIA Phoenix operative in Quang Ngai, Robert Ramsdall, who backed the mission, mysteriously claimed no knowledge of this.25A The 48th had in fact been depleted by ARVN troops in its Tet Offensive on Quang Ngai. C Company had watched the remains of the 48th escape at Nui Dang De, unable to attack because the area the VC were moving through was under ARVN control.25B This was in the Tra Khuc Valley which approached My Lai.
It remains a mystery why US Intel recorded it at full strength and in My Lai, unless someone gave false information to US Intel. Ramsdall had black listed most of the village as VC sympathisers. Ramsdell was fat, 45, wore a beret and carried a Swedish submachine gun. His interrogation centre gained a notoriety that caused Dr Margaret Nelson to complain to a congressional hearing of the dozens of cases of torture.25C “He exuded confidence to the point of arrogance”, such that he boasted he knew through his informers when a GI truck had driven too fast through a village.25D After the operation his blacklist was reduced considerably.26 Captain Krotouc, the intelligence officer of the Task Force, also mysteriously got his information wrong. It was not market day when they attacked.
Stew Harris, who now lives in L.A., was based in the area immediately after the incident. I asked him about his relationship with the 48th.
“We were essentially co-located with it. There was a stretch of land that ran from Cape Batangan south about twenty miles and inland about eight miles to Highway l that -- as John Tegtmeier told you -- ARVN never went and US forces entered only on special occasions (with South Vietnamese consent under Operation Muscatine). For a year, on most nights the only organised 'friendly' base in this entire area was Coastal Group 16: four U.S. Navy types with about 80 Vietnamese Navy (VN) sailors. The 48th AKA (84) moved through this area for resupply, recruitment, and general hellraising.”
I asked him if he had come across Task Force Barker, or any men in it?
“I met Medina very briefly in the bar at the Officers Club in Quang Ngai. He was not a particularly friendly fellow and I don't think we exchanged ten words. I saw Lt. Col. Barker die. His UH1 climbed into the belly of an O-2, slicing it in half. Both helicopter and plane fell to the ground, killing all aboard. Would guess the date to be June 13 '68. The incident happened about two miles SW of My Lai… I had the opportunity to visit My Lai after Calley (had committed the atrocity) and before the story became known. With one other American sailor and about ten VN sailors, we crossed the river roughly two kilometers inland, walked north through the various villages and returned the coast where one of our boats picked us up. It took about three hours. We didn't fire on anyone and no one fired on us. No booby traps. We didn't burn anything, although we did search a lot of bunkers, concluding they were for ‘domestic’ use. On more than one occasion, I asked for and was given water by the locals. No incidents. As with most of the area, it was a respectable agricultural area denuded of draft age men. In truth, not much should be made of that fact. Whichever side controlled an area took all the draft age men. Only Saigon seemed to have some left over.”
“I was working in Silicon Valley when the story broke. I did not believe it. I even wrote my congressman, offering to testify. He declined, although he did hear from another Navy lieutenant, a certain John Kerry. But as more of the facts came out, I came to conclude that the incident in all its dirty detail did occur as alleged. My opinion in the end was that Calley should have been shot and Medina at least put away for the rest of his life. It was simple murder.”
“I am quite doubtful, however, of the conspiracy theory you develop. I must tell you that intelligence officers and their reports had very little impact on the field. The 'intel' was so bad that its purveyors had very little credibility. Quang Ngai (sector) issued a weekly Intel report that listed our base as 'VC controlled'. When I
complained, they upgraded the base to 'contested'. They also reported in almost every weekly update, that this would be the week the 48th over ran our "Junk Base". In his concluding report, the rotating sector S-2 added, "If they don't do it this week, I'll do it myself!" ”
Stew concluded by writing to me,
“Ramsdell is an unknown to me. I was not aware of any Phoenix ops at that time, although we did mount one later. But don't get your hopes up. We arrested seven and killed no one. In conclusion, I think it is very difficult to make the incident worse than it was… They had very bad Intel, but that was the norm.”
Nonetheless the Task Force Commanders ordered the attack by one understrength unit of 105 troops which had been in-country only three months, C Company, against a VC battalion estimated at least 280 men. B Company was held in reserve. A Company was being used as a blocking force to the north. The usual ratio for assault on a fortified position was three to one, however they were attacking irregulars, with considerable air and artillery support, and the fortifications were at the most tunnels, so these odds were not unusual in Vietnam. Still it is questionable whether the commanders were really convinced that the 48th VC was there.

Lt. Calley awaiting court martial
General Peers decided the principal cause of the massacre was ‘leadership failure’. Failure to follow and enforce established policy. He blames this on the command hierarchy’s reliance on reports of subordinates, poor co-ordination of communication and commander’s in helicopters who never once landed to check on the operation.27 Where were the troops’ overall commanders? Hovering a few thousand feet above covering several operations were General Koster, Colonel Henderson and Lt. Col. Barker. The houses looked like matchboxes and the people like small dots. Therefore the main commanders did not have proper control of the situation on the ground, and they made no investigation after indications a massacre had occurred. Peers blamed Medina for failure to do this as well, despite being on the ground.
He said Medina created a fear in his unit such that his authority or judgement was never questioned. His platoon leaders were young and inexperienced, and in Calley’s case showed almost no initiative following Medina’s orders blindly and to the letter.28 Peers came up with a finding for the US Army could tolerate, as he rested responsibility on the poor leadership and control in this task force, rather than on the military policy in Vietnam, or more importantly a faulty military system. Nonetheless Peers showed considerable bravery in declaring faults in the training necessary to handle civilians by the Army. US Army Public Relations had pressed him not to even call the atrocity ‘a massacre’ in the news conference revealing the Inquiries findings, which Peers had objected to. They compromised calling it a tragedy.
          What Peers did not mention in his report, though he may have suspected it, was how ‘absolutely convenient’ it was that the commanders did not check the ground situation. That they may have actually chosen not to do so knowing the VC were not there. That they wilfully decided to exterminate a known VC sympathetic village with the help of the Phoenix operative. That they led their troops in to My Lai in such a way that the extermination would occur and distanced themselves from it such that they could not be blamed. Is this perhaps the crucial difference that explains why this unit committed such an atrocity while no other American units did?29
             Calley’s actions were systematic and organised. The grouping together of villagers and the herding of between two and three hundred people to the edge of the canal. The fact the massacre continued for over three hours alone suggests this. Circumstantial evidence of premeditated intent on Medina’s part also exists. Other platoons under his command did the same thing to a lesser extent in the northern half of the village and in neighbouring Binh Tay. The fact of a commander known as ‘mad dog’ staying so conveniently outside the ‘battle area’ for the first three and a half hours knowing his platoon commanders, particularly Calley, were inexperienced suggests he may have deliberately stayed outside the area because he knew what was going on. He said he believed the reports of high VC casualties, yet he knew from radio reports only American arms were firing, that very few weapons had been captured, and no U.S. casualties.
Knowing this was an extremely resilient VC unit it seems hard to accept that he could have believed the reports of the VC casualties and no U.S. casualties. Something must have seemed amiss to him, or else he knew it was not VC who were the casualties. Ignoring reports that unnecessary civilian deaths had occurred and telling 2nd Platoon to stop the killing at 9.15, yet making no inquiry to 1st and 3rd Platoons who continued killing well after 10, again points to complicity.
         Either Medina was blindly negligent in not following up the battle reports, or he was not sure whether the VC were there or not and when he realised they were not there he simply decided not to intervene. The other possibility is he knew the 48th VC was not there and he intended exactly what happened. Either way it is most likely Medina knew what was happening in the village given the inconsistent reports.
        Premeditated intent can also be implied from the nature of Medina's pep talk the night before in which many of Calley’s soldiers testified that he told them to kill everything and which he had boosted up by a conveniently emotive service to their dead sergeant. Whether it was expressed further to his platoon leaders, as Calley testified or not, the consciousness of what was expected of them was conveyed as much as a direct order according to many of the troops that participated in the massacre. Medina’s leadership was powerful.30 According to one of the company interpreters, immediately after the massacre Medina had said to another group of locals in the area that “if you're not careful you'll be killed too.” 31 In this attack on a village he had, against policy, made no provisions for civilians, no medical evacuation for them and he had told his troops to destroy everything.32 During the atrocity he was constantly in contact with Calley by radio and according to Calley told him, “keep moving and get rid of anyone in your way”.33
       Yet this testimony of many of the soldiers that Medina had ordered the killings is directly contradicted by Greg Olsen and Michael Bernhardt, both members of the Platoon who refused to participate in the killings. Olsen said, “There clearly and absolutely wasn’t an order to go in and slaughter everybody in that village and anybody that says so is a liar.”33A
               The Motive: On the 24th of previous month B Company had visited My Lai and walked out with one man dead and five injured. They had let civilians pass through their lines only to be shot to pieces from all directions; unable to retreat because of heavy sniper fire at their rear.34 Ramsdall, the Phoenix intelligence operative, probably was not as sure as he made out that the VC unit was there, which other U.S. and South Vietnamese army units suspected was not. He had blacklisted most of the villagers. He possibly was assisted by South Vietnamese intelligence, who may have wanted the village wiped out. ARVN gave permission to destroy the village according to Barker.34A
Phoenix became notorious for adopting methods, equally brutal as the communists, to eliminate the VC and they were very successful. Army policy was that any people who gave aid and comfort to the VC could expect retribution, including destroying the homes of entire villages. Calley testified that he believed that he had to close rapidly with the enemy in an aggressive fashion. That he was not meant to let them slip through his lines. That any villager could be a VC. Had Ramsdall, Barker and Medina conspired to cowardly revenge B Company by exterminating the people belonging to the VC unit's village?
            General Peer's did not believe that this United States Army unit's command hierarchy formed, or even considered such intent to commit mass murder. However he later said, “The full and true story of the My Lai incident has not yet been told” and that “there were numerous gaps and inconsistencies in the testimony before the Inquiry”.34B If in Task Force Baker the impossible occurred, then this was beyond a failure of leadership. The fragile balance of control the military system relies on would be under threat. The whole military command structure exists through the strict procedural following of the systems rules.
That a whole chain of command could have decided to put itself above those rules, ‘take the laws of war into their own hands’, to go against the principles in the Geneva Convention, then if this could happen once it could happen again. If this was the reason this occurred, then there was a flaw in the command structure of the Army. The flaw possibly occurring even up to the rank of Colonel was a lack of understanding of the moral legitimacy of a soldier’s actions in respect of killing civilians. During General Peer's Inquiry in 1970, troops were still fighting in Vietnam. Peers admitted the military command structure was flawed in controlling its commanders in dealing with civilians, however it would have been disastrous for the Army’s if it was found the atrocity had been planned. The Americans were in Vietnam supposedly to be rescuing these civilians from communist tyranny.

Private Meadle during the Inquiry. He was one of Calley’s troops.
Psychological tests have proven there is no better pressure cooker than the army to bring out this sort of Pavlov dogs behaviour.35 Psychiatrist, William Gault concluded in his analysis of C Company that there is a tendency for natural dominance by the psychopath in human beings which Calley proved. The military system rests on control through leaders. It does not allow individuals to question, to think, or to judge whether an order is reasonable. In fact it does the opposite especially among lower ranks. Calley was not respected by Medina or his troops. Medina would openly insult him in front of them. They considered him to be weak and he had trouble getting them to obey his orders.
In his last operation against the VC, the colonel had complained about his failure to press the attack and instead always calling in air or fire support. To Calley these were the evil communists. These people, men, women and children were here to stop what was right and they were the enemy. 36 And more than this he had something to prove, that he was not a weak coward. Calley was probably terrified when he flew in knowing that he was under pressure by his superiors to make close and pursuing contact with the enemy. His credibility was on the line. So if Medina only intimated that all in the village were to die, in Calley's mind this was an acceptable order.
The military system, combined with the lax mentality in Task Force Barker, allowed him to accept this order as reasonable and so he carried it out not realising it was wrong. Even at his trial he still insisted that he had not thought his acts wrong at the time.37 In 1991 the TV documentary ‘4 hours in My Lai’ Varnado Simpson said that he had executed 25 people there at the age of 19, confessed that what he had done was wrong though at the time it had seemed acceptable behaviour in the group. He said he had killed some by scalping, cutting their throat, cutting out tongues and cutting off hands. By 1991 he had attempted three suicides and was on strong anti-depressants.37A
Calley’s conviction that what he was doing was right may explain why almost all the soldiers did participate, yet often detesting to Calley and even crying as they pulled their triggers.38 Twenty years later in that TV documentary sergeant Kenneth Hodges said, “if one of my men had refused to shoot… he could have been shot on the spot for refusing an order in the face of the enemy… I feel we carried out our orders in a moral fashion, orders to destroy the village and killing the people in the village… and I feel we did not violate any moral standards”. Peers accepted that soldiers can behave like this when they are without good leadership, but he acknowledged that they have an ability to act morally, or at least should be expected to have such.
Some soldiers did refuse to participate such as Harry Stanley, a simple Afro-American, now working in a timber yard. “Calley told me I would be court-martialled, but I said this is wrong.” These people did disobey orders, which went against their moral conscience even despite threats to obey using military law. To this extent the evidence clearly points to orders being given to kill the civilians, but whether in such a spontaneous, uncontrollable occurrence as Peers suggests is not entirely clear from the evidence.39
On examining the evidence it seems unlikely that there was any conspiracy beforehand to exterminate the village on the part of anyone other than Calley and Medina. It appears that the Task Force genuinely believed the 48th was in the area, even if they were not necessarily sure it would be in My Lai. They had encountered many VC already in the area and had directed operations against what they believed was the 48th several times in the previous month. Barker was notorious for not detailing operations and not following up – he would draw operations with a stick into the dusty earth at LZ Dottie.
Ramsdell appears simply to have been overconfident and inexperienced in his Intel assessment. He had not even met Barker. The infamous investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh spoke to Ramsdell and was convinced he was all bravado, cruel and incompetent, but had not planned the massacre. The evidence of Greg Olsen is so strong in support of Medina’s innocence. He said no order was given to kill civilians by Medina the night before, that there was no intent given to kill women, children or old men. So superficially it appears unlikely Medina ordered the massacre, even if he was content for it to occur. Though Olsen was a Mormon and disliked what the other troops had done and he had resisted doing. He may not have been aware of the effect of Medina’s pep talk on these soldiers. Whether Calley thought, in his mind the night before, that the best way to protect his skin, from civilian disguised VC infiltrating his lines, would be to eliminate the village, is mere conjecture.
         Richard Hammer, the anti-war journalist, blamed mass hysteria rather than premeditated orders. The idea was too repugnant that American officers could order such a mass slaughter.40 He blamed government and military policy in Vietnam instead. Only Mary McCarthy addressed the possibility that Medina knew what was going on and did not stop it.41
            The military machine was embarrassed by this massacre when the cover-up blew in late 1969 (due to the efforts of a soldier who wanted to become a journalist and was appalled by what he was hearing in the area, Ron Ridenhour). It did not want to consider a premeditated mass killing of civilians by its officers, the war was unpopular at home, morale was low and Nixon was attempting to leave Vietnam with honour. Court-martials were only brought against Col. Henderson, Capt. Medina, Capt. Katouc, Lt. Calley and Sgt. Mitchell.42 Lt. Col. Barker had been killed in a helicopter accident. The lowest of the low, Lt. Calley was seen as the instigator of the killings and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The command structure of the Army was held guilty of no more than incompetence. The military conscience was appeased.
         Calley had his case specially reviewed by President Nixon and his sentence was reduced to 10 years. He was released on parole after five years house arrest.43 Politically the left was satisfied as they had seen Calley as a scapegoat for the military machine, and the right was appeased as they claimed he was only shooting at the ‘unseen’ enemy. The commanders of Task Force Barker walked free. The system was more than lenient to those responsible at My Lai and even General Peer’s admitted in 1979 “in effect two standards were created - one for the enemy and one for ourselves”. 44
              Vietnam has finally been forgiven, tourism and trade is opening up once more. America lost the war, but has in time won the peace. Communism is being abandoned in Vietnam. But no formal admission and apology to Vietnam has been made by the US government of this probable failure of military command and countless other atrocities committed there by US Forces - use of napalm, etc. The one million deaths in that war, the use of more military ordinance than in all of WWII in that conflict, the corruption of the South Vietnamese government that the US propped up, the blocking of United Nations required democratic elections in Vietnam in 1956 by the US that led to this war as the communists were so popular. The policy failure due to the US being more concerned about its own strategic military and economic interests, rather than considering the people of the nation they were involving themselves with. Little it seems has changed as we stare at the ultimate policy failure in the Middle East that has led to near chaos there after similar invasion and abandonment.
           Have we learnt the lessons of My Lai?

           Over thirty years later and ten years after I first started investigating this atrocity, war crimes still persist in the world yet as East Timor demonstrates international authorities remain mostly powerless still. Attempts to have Indonesian officers and soldiers  testify before the War Crimes Tribunal were abandoned due to political interference. They don't have to answer why they obeyed orders to kill East Timor civilians just like the US Army soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who committed documented war crimes don't. Any judgement by such a Tribunal should bare in mind the standards applied by the United States in prosecuting the My Lai atrocity. They should also bare in mind the confusion surrounding military operations where an uncontrolled civilian militia operates. For at My Lai this maelstrom of fear, misinformation, poor Intel and ultimately barbarity occurred in one of the most technically sophisticated armies in the world.
Thompson, the chopper pilot and now a veterans counsellor has finally been recognised as a hero and was awarded the Soldiers Medal exactly thirty years later. The Pentagon wanted a private ceremony, but Thompson insisted that it be held on the anniversary and at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. He also refused to accept the medal unless his two buddies who were there were also given the medal. Some military academies are using him as an example to soldiers of how to deal with illegal acts in war. So perhaps reluctantly the lesson of My Lai is beginning to be learned. But not it seems by the US government as "Ambassador to Vietnam and former Florida Congressman Douglas "Pete" Peterson declined the opportunity for the U.S. Embassy to participate in a ceremony at My Lai on March 16, 1998 (the 30th anniversary of the massacre) honoring two American citizens, Captain Hugh Thompson and Lawrence Colburn, for their actions in attempting to stop the massacre. In a letter dated October 14, 1997, Peterson stated that "neither the policy objectives of the United States nor the current relations between the U.S. and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam would be served by Embassy participation.", " said Mike Boehm. He felt America was not sufficiently integrating the lesson of My Lai into its institutional memory.

         Lieutenant Christopher Biow who was in the U.S. Navy, when I interviewed him over the Internet wrote, “while there may have been some evolution within US military approach to command in this direction, I suspect it is mostly unrelated to the essential lessons of My Lai. Yes, in my opinion there definitely should be more direct addressing of My Lai, not only in military training, but also in secondary schooling of children. Every child should do a thorough case study of what went on, along with the legal background of "duty to refuse." I believe that My Lai could happen again, due to our failure to address it in military and civilian education.” However he was not convinced of a conspiracy theory, nor were any U.S. military personnel I contacted.


       In 1993 Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia tortured and murdered local civilians. And 3rd Royal Australian Regiment was accused in early 2000s of covering up use of brutality in disciplining its troops due to what has been considered a failure in the military system of justice. This brutality was a result of rough justice condoned by commanders within the unit. Abu Grabi prison in Iraq, and many examples in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate the lessons have not been learned properly. Nothing as extreme as My Lai has occurred and soldiers are being severely prosecuted for misconduct, however the preventative measures are not good enough in training the soldiers and in the operational command structure. In Afghanistan one US Army unit's Sargent was off his own bat secretly ordering his platoon to commit atrocities with threats of death if soldiers revealed this. Soldiers effectively forced to commit these crimes were still severely punished by the US Army when it was exposed. The point is that the command structure failed these men who were put in an horrendous situation by a few psychopaths. Even if processes were in place to complain the attitude in the company was far from conducive to accept the complaint due to an entrenched mentality of brutality, rather than seeking to avert violence and help the people they were sent to protect.

       Until the developed nations such as Australian and United States Armed Forces introduce, with great pain, a radically new command system with democratic training by conferral and mediation in decision making and therefore “in the making of orders” there is no guarantee that another My Lai will not occur - in fact Iraq and the atrocities committed there by US Forces indicate the complete failure of learning the lessons of My Lai in the United States Army. Properly educating soldiers on the moral limits of their commander’s authority should be of prime importance. Critics who would complain of its cumbersome consensus approach and anti-authoritarian nature would be answered in time with very positive results in morale and efficiency, as many corporations who have adopted such management strategies in work practices are finding out in civilian life. Many including my father argued against such changes as they said it was hard enough to get soldiers to obey any orders properly and strict discipline is necessary where lives are at stake and urgent action is required without question in order for a commander to function efficiently. Those are valid points, but because something is difficult doesn't mean it should not be done. Research needs to be made into finding a system that will allow a commander's orders to be obeyed especially in combat situations, yet also allows troops to give feedback and the ability to question or refuse in extreme circumstances without repercussions, an order. And also to report safely an order that is a war crime. Educating the troops in how to deal with these situations and also allow the smooth flow of a unit is essential. That starts with educating and maintaining an attitude within all units of a strong ethical morality and duty to act decently with humanity and to understand that the prime role of the unit is to protect civilians, avoid violence except to dedicated targets and to help the nation they have been sent to. Much of this is already in place and many units act with great decency and high morality, but often it is simply ignored by some. This means that there needs to be some process to monitor units to assess if they are abiding by these guidelines and rules, take them very seriously and there is a process of accountability with repercussions. If the Army has been sent to another nation in a way that is not working to help that nation, is not fully justified, is not based upon having that nation protect itself, is not based on a regional solution involving all parties, with the nations in the region involved in the peace keeping process, then this also is a very strong factor in undermining the morale of units and leading to war crimes.


Peasant women of My Lai show the canal where U.S. troops, under Calley and perhaps covertly, Captain Medina, butchered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians.

              And what of My Lai? Truong Thi Le lost nine members of her family – father, mother, brothers and daughter – while she hid in a paddy field. She said, “I won’t forgive. I hate them very much. I won’t forgive them as long as I live.” Michael Boehm, a veteran, has helped start the My Lai Peace Park complete with a twenty room school. An art-pen-pal program between My Lai and the U.S. Marquette elementary school children is healing the wounds.
My Lai Peace Park donations to: Madison Friends Meeting, 1704 Roberts Court, Madison, W1 55711-2029.

Anderson, David, Facing My Lai; Univ. Press Kansas; 1998.
Bilton, Michael and Sim, Kevin, Four Hours in My Lai, London; Viking, 1992 and Yorkshire Television documentary 1989.
Calley, William Laws, Body Count, London; Hutchinson, 1971
Di Mona, Joseph, Great Court-Martial Cases New York; Grosset & Dunlop, 1972.
Hammer, Richard, One Morning in the War, London; Rupert Hart Davis, 1970.
Hersh, Seymour M., Cover Up New York; Random House, 1972.
Lewy, Guenter, America in Vietnam, New York; oxford University Press, 1978.
McCarthy, Mary Therese, The Seventeenth Degree, New York; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.
Peers, Lt.Gen. W.A., The My Lai Inquiry, New York; W.W.Norton & Co., 1979.
Thanks also to John Tegtmeier Co B, 3/21, 196th LIB and Aeroscout Company, 123rd Aviation Battalion, Americal Division 1967/1968, who is now Director of the Vietnam War Internet Project and Stew Harris, who was Senior Advisor, Coastal Group 16, Quang Ngai province in 1968.

1 R.Hammer, One Morning in the War (1970) pp.43-56
2 W.R. Peers, The My Lai Enquiry (1979) p.172
3 Hammer, op cit. p.121 evidence of soldier 1st Platoon
4 Ibid. pp.134-137
5 S.Di Mona, Great Court Martial Cases (1972) p.251
6 M.McCarthy, The 17th Degree (1974) p.387
6A Hammer, op.cit. p.128
7 Di Mona, op.cit. p.261
7A Di Mona, op.cit. p.261
8 Peers, op.cit. p.176
9 Hammer, op.cit. pp.138-149
10 McCarthy, op.cit. p.392
11 Hammer, op.cit. pp.138-149
12 McCarthy, op.cit. p.386; S.Hersh, Cover Up (1972) p.113
13 Peers, op.cit. p.178
14 Ibid. p.178
15 Ibid. p.230; G.Lewy, America in Vietnam (1978) p.331
16 Peers, op.cit. p.231; Lewy op.cit. p.329; Di Mona, op.cit. p.264; Bilton, 4 hours in My Lai (1992) p.84
16A Bilton, op.cit. p.92
17 Peers, op.cit. p.234
17AA Bilton and Sim,‘4 hours in My Lai’ TV documentary 1992
17A Bilton, op.cit. pp.85-87
18 W.Calley, Body Count (1971) pp.105-6
19 Peers, op.cit. p.236
20 Hammer, op.cit. pp.95-115
21 Ibid. pp.99-100
23 Hersh, op.cit. pp.70,92
24 Ibid. p.71; Peers, op.cit. p.236
25 McCarthy op.cit. pp.345-6
26 Hersh, op.cit. pp.94-99
25A Bilton, op.cit. p.91
25B Ibid. p.70
25C Ibid. p.89
25D Ibid. p.89
27 Peers, op.cit. p.232
28 Ibid. p.233
29 B Company committed a similar but smaller scale massacre on the same day at My Khe 4, which suggests possible complicity at a higher command level – Ibid. Ch.16
30 Hammer, op.cit. pp.74,98
31 Hersh, op.cit. p.177
32 McCarthy, op.cit. pp.348-350; DiMona, op.cit. pp.267-268
33 Di Mona, op.cit. pp.268-9; Calley, op.cit. pp.88-91
33A Bilton, op.cit. p.100
34 Di Mona, op.cit. p.258
34A Bilton, op.cit. p.98
34B Peers, op.cit. p.253-6
35 Psychology Today pp.614-16
36 Calley, op.cit. pp.101-6
37 Di Mona, op.cit. pp.265,272,274
37A Bilton and Sim (TV), op. cit.
38 Ibid. pp.252-6
39 McCarthy, op.cit. p.403; Peers, op.cit. p.230
40 Hammer, op.cit. Part IV
41 McCarthy, op.cit. pp.379-80
42 Hersh, op.cit. ch.18
43 McCarthy, op.cit pp.282-86
44 Peers, op.cit. p.251; Lewy, op.cit. pp.356-57