My Lai Does Not Define the Soldier

When a man who doesn’t usually drink gets tipsy on three beers on St. Patrick’s Day, that does not qualify him for the designation “alcoholic.” Likewise, a girl who finds herself in an awkward social situation where she takes a toke on a joint doesn’t make her a junkie. Too many of us are too quick to name call and assign quilt by association to folks who clearly do not deserve such self-righteous generalizations.

Such is also the case with veterans, in particular Vietnam veterans. From Korea on back, when men fought in our nation’s wars it was for an undetermined amount of time. All that changed with Vietnam where a normal tour was one year. Until now, in 2016, that was America’s longest war. Thus, guys rotated in and out literally for ten years. Folk singers of the ’60s had it right: When will we ever learn?

I fear that folks who notice “Vietnam Veteran” on our proudly worn baseball caps think that we had a shared experience. In one way of course we did: we were all “there.” But the generalization ends there. The circumstances on the ground in 1965 were not the same as those in 1975. On any given day, in fact, fighting in the Mekong Delta had no resemblance to what was going on in the highlands. Cooks and truck drivers did not have the same experiences as grunts, and so on.

It took America a long time to view its Vietnam vets with honor. But that circumstance has changed. (It is not uncommon for a total stranger to come to me and say, “Thank you for your service”; or a fellow vet says, “Welcome home.”) We appreciate that. No one asks,” what did you do in the war?”

But the dark side of perception of Vietnam vets lingers in some, maybe many, depending on generation. I know that people to whom I claim never to have smoked pot in Vietnam don’t believe me. I can live with that ignorance. The unspoken perception that hurts, really hurts, is that we were indiscriminate killers. I served in a combat light infantry brigade and no such action ever occurred during my tour in my outfit. Never.

Unfortunately, there was an act of genocide perpetrated by U.S. soldiers in March 1968. It came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. There is no defense for this detestable crime which, however, even with the outrage that exposure of it generated, did nothing to spur American withdrawal from that unwinnable war. We were there for seven more years.

The selections below, with my own commentary, come from What strikes me most, even today, is the willingness of U.S. troops to “follow orders,” knowing those orders were immoral. The horror for me is that people are willing to dismiss all combat soldiers as “just following orders” androids.

Headline, 1968:

My Lai massacre takes place in Vietnam

On this day (March 16) in 1968, a platoon of American soldiers brutally kill(ed) between 200 and 500 unarmed civilians at My Lai … near the northern coast of South Vietnam.

I served in that area from a base camp in Chu Lai. It, I Corps, was indeed a dangerous place.

… In March 1968, a platoon of soldiers called Charlie Company received word that Viet Cong guerrillas had taken cover in the Quang Ngai village of Son My. Led by Lieutenant William L. Calley, the platoon entered one of the village’s four hamlets, My Lai 4, on a search-and-destroy mission on the morning of March 16.

When we went on a search-and-destroy mission, we knew that heavy combat was likely. This because we could do nothing but trust the military intelligence that concluded somehow that active enemy forces were operating in the area.

Instead of guerrilla fighters, they found unarmed villagers, most of them women, children and old men.

That was not unheard of. Military intelligence can be wrong; the enemy may have moved out; and even though those that remained who were warned that they were at least suspected enemy sympathizers, where were they supposed to go? This was their home. In large part, these were the people we were purportedly in-country to defend. What becomes of a subsistence rice farmer who is thrown off his land?

The soldiers had been advised before the attack by army command that all who were found in My Lai could be considered VC or active VC sympathizers, and told … to destroy the village.

And yet, no firefights, not even a single bullet was fired at them …

Still, they acted with extraordinary brutality …

The events at My Lai were covered up by high-ranking army officers … In March 1970, an official U.S. Army inquiry board charged 14 officers, including Calley and his company commander, Captain Ernest Medina, of crimes relating to My Lai. Of that number, only Calley was convicted. Found guilty of personally killing 22 people, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Upon appeal, his sentence was reduced to 20 years, and eventually to 10. Seen by many as a scapegoat, Calley was paroled in 1974 after serving just one-third of his sentence.

Note the year. Calley was released before the war ended in 1975.

There is so much wrong with My Lai. Did the troops know they were doing wrong? They must have. Did they ever stop to think about disobeying obviously immoral orders? They should have. Why was Lt. Calley the only person convicted in this atrocity? He was tried in a military, not civilian, court.

Social drinkers loosen up. Occasional pot smokers mellow out. When a soldier fires his weapon, it is for real and the consequences are forever.

3 thoughts on “My Lai Does Not Define the Soldier”

  1. Hi Paul. My belief “was” that the massacre was unbelievable that Americans would do that. However having said that, the worse part of it is that only one man was left to take the full blame for what had happened and he was a young man. Our vets at that time were kids, scared kids, who for the most part didn’t even want to be there. The fact that this didn’t happen more, was only because of our kids, Americans who knew right from wrong. The crime was that Calley had to take the blame, not the ones above who sent down the orders. Orders meant to be followed.

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