objective of the American military mission in March of 1968 was clear, search
My Lai. Throughout human history, millions of people have been
exterminated at the hands of their fellow man. It would be great to imagine that
the perpetrators behind these crimes are crazy, sadistic, and terrible people,
but to the contrary these people are usually normal men and women. The question
we must then ask ourselves is, how can we, as a race, commit such vulgar crimes
against our own kind? The story of the My Lai incident portrays the insanity and
psychological effects that a given situation had on once normal men.
It wasn\'t clear what to do with any civilians who might be encountered at
My Lai, on March 16, 1968. On this day Captain Ernest Medina ordered Charlie
Company, a unit of the US Eleventh Light Infantry Brigade, into combat. After
Medina\'s orders 150 men led by Lt. William Calley raided the village and four
hours later over 500 civilians were dead. These civilians consisted of elderly
people, children, and women. Almost all of these people were unarmed, three
weapons were confiscated in all. In addition, no enemy soldiers were found in
the village. Only one U.S. soldier was a casualty in the incident, as a result
of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot. The scenes from this tragic event
were unimaginable. Limbs were amputated, men were crying, people not fully dead
were scattered all over, two little girls were shot in the face and Calley was
screaming \"kill nam, kill nam...\".
What could actually make men behave
this way? What kind of mentality were these men in? Not only did these men
murder women and children and babies, but it was also thought that some were
looking for women to rape. We can first look at the interesting and sometimes
appalling consequences of obedience. The men making up Charlie Company performed
the vile acts they did as a result of their duties and obligations to the
military. There are several identifiable explanations as to why individuals are
more often than not inclined to obey authority. First, when acts are authorized
it normally relieves the perpetrator from feeling guilty for his offensive
actions. By shoving the responsibility away and placing it on the authorizer of
the command, a person does not feel as compelled to reject the command, and can
therefor fulfill his or her orders. Second, the voice of command actually
lessens and usually negates the need for individuals to make choices being told
what to do takes much less effort than thinking of a plan independently. The men
in My Lai were given orders and they obviously carried them out even to the
point where they lost control of themselves.
Cases in which individuals
refuse to obey a command are very few and far between, but they certainly occur
on occasions. In such instances, individuals are able to differentiate between
right and wrong and understand what they should and shouldn\'t do. The
individual either steps down from his duties or acts against a superior
commander, using his conscience and morals as a guide. In the case in My Lai
this was no exception. People refused to fulfill the orders of their command
because what they were being asked to do was, in their opinion, unreasonable.
One extreme example of an audacious person is CWO Hugh Thompson. Up in the
skies, flying a helicopter Thompson was aware of the unnecessary carnage taking
place down below. In a ditch, many individuals lay dead, though some were still
moving in the pile of corpses. Thompson took initiative and landed his
helicopter on the ground to save those Vietnamese that were still alive. He then
commanded his soldiers to fire upon any Americans that were firing at the
Vietnamese. For his courageous efforts to save innocent victims, Thompson was
awarded \"the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism at My Lai\". So it is
possible to stop oneself from producing the same type of behavior as others in
the exact same position, but it is questionable how a person does this.
There are several explanations as of why humans can commit such violent acts
such as the ones committed in My Lai. Initially, one must delay looking at the
motives behind the violence and rather focus on \"the conditions under which the
usual moral inhibitions against violence become weakened\"*. One then discovers
three main processes that seem to enable and encourage the process of genocide.
These underlying \"social processes\" can be recognized as \"authorization,\"
\"routinization,\" and \"dehumanization\". When acts are authorized it seems to
carry automatic justification for them. Moreover, authorization processes create
a situation in which people become involved in an action without considering its
implications and without really making a decision and it therefore can become
internalized as a routine action.*
This domino effect of authorization
allowing for the routinization of killing that is made possible by dehumanizing
the enemy ultimately results in the death of innocent individuals.* \"Normal\"
people become victims to these \"social processes,\" which increase the
likelihood for them to obey authoritative commands, and then they are able to
commit violent acts against humanity.
Now we can revisit the situation of My
Lai and how the soldiers involved in it committed the acts they did under the
conditions they were in. The average age of soldiers in Charlie Company, the
company that was involved in the incident, was twenty, and they had been in
South Vietnam for three months. They were trained in Hawaii and the unit was
considered one of the best in the army. William Calley, aged 24, was not
particularly popular with the men he led. Small in stature, he was considered
nervous and excitable and too \"gung ho\" plus he was always trying to impress
his superiors. Captain Medina ridiculed Calley, calling him Lieutenant Shithead
even in front of the troops. When the soldiers in Charlie Company pushed into
the village, they were expected to be locked into fierce combat with a Viet Cong
battalion already believed to be at My Lai. For three months the American unit
had been in no major battles but had suffered a lot of casualties from snipers,
mines, and booby traps. The soldiers were ready to prove themselves and ready to
give some revenge to the enemy.
Charlie Company met no resistance, there
were no Viet Cong soldiers at My Lai. Calley then ordered the slaughter of the
civilians. People were rounded up into ditches and machine-gunned down. They lay
five feet deep in the ditches, and any survivors were trying to escape were shot
and killed instantly no matter who they were, what age they were or if they were
As if the actions of the soldiers weren\'t bad enough even
their lieutenant took part in the horror. Calley spotted a baby crawling away
from a ditch, he grabbed her, threw her back into the ditch, and opened fire.
The fact that the leader of the operation was even acting irrationally may have
had some influence on his troops, whether they see him as a leader or not. Some
of the dead were mutilated by having \"C Company\" carved into their chests;
some were disemboweled. One GI would later say, \"You didn\'t have to look for
people to kill, they were just there. I cut their throats, cut off their hands,
cut out their tongues, and scalped them. I did it. A lot of people were doing it
and I just followed. I just lost all sense of direction.\"*
Cover-up of the
massacre began immediately. Reports on the My Lai operation stated that it was a
stunning combat victory against a Viet Cong stronghold. Stars and Stripes, the
army newspaper, ran a feature story applauding the courage of the American
soldiers who had risked their lives. An initial investigation into My Lai was
swift and definitive: My Lai was a combat operation in which twenty civilians
had accidentally been killed.
Too many soldiers knew what had really
happened at My Lai. One of them was Ronald Ridenhour, a Vietnam veteran who was
not at My Lai but had heard about the operation from several of his friends who
had served in Charlie Company. A year after My Lai, Ridenhour wrote a letter
about the atrocity and sent it to his congressman, Morris Udall. He also sent a
copy of the letter to thirty other prominent officials, including President
Richard Nixon. Reaction to the letter was quick, and Westmoreland ordered an
immediate inquiry. Two separate investigations uncovered the horror of My Lai.
The soldiers of Charlie Company were extensively interviewed. An army
photographer, who had been at My Lai produced pictures of the carnage. In
addition, it was learned that other army units, at My Khe and Co Luy had also
killed hundreds of civilians. Details of the investigations were leaked to the
press and an interview with William Calley, by freelance reporter Seymour
Hersch, put My Lai on the front pages of American newspapers.
soldiers were initially under investigation for the My Lai massacre. Twenty-five
officers and enlisted men, including Lt. Calley and his superior officer Capt.
Medina, were eventually charged with crimes. Only six cases were ever tried. In
some cases, the evidence was overwhelming; some of the defendants admitted
killing the civilians. But only one soldier, William Calley, was found guilty of
The court martial of Lt. Calley began on November 17, 1970. For more
than four months, witness after witness came forward to testify before a
six-officer jury, all six officers had been in combat and five had served in
Vietnam. Calley\'s defense was straightforward, he had simply followed orders
given to him by Captain Medina. As he testified, \"I was ordered to go in there
and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the mission I was
given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children. They
were all classified the same.\"*
Did Captain Medina, at a briefing given the
day before My Lai, explicitly order Charlie Company to kill any civilians
encountered? Testimony at the court martial failed to answer the question. Some
soldiers said Medina made it clear that the villagers should be killed, but
other soldiers disagreed. Yet another group claimed that Medina didn\'t exactly
say that civilians should die, but he implied it.
Many Americans thought the
Calley verdict was unjust. Some believed he was a scapegoat used to mask
enormous blunders made by the US Army. Others felt he was a hero, fighting a
battle against Communism. Protests were waged on his behalf. Thousands of
telegrams in support of Calley poured into the White House. The legislatures of
several states passed resolutions asking for clemency for Calley.
problem as a result of the massacre at My Lai, was the occurrence of
posttraumatic stress disorders among the soldiers involved in My Lai. In short
we can call this disease PTSD. PTSD actually gained prominence in the United
States in the 1970\'s due to the difficulties of readjustment of Vietnam
Veterans. Stressful life-changes, that could cause this disease, could cause a
variety of harmful effects, including psychological disturbances and physical
illness. A victim of PTSD may experience numbness, irritability, depression,
guilt for having survived, and a difficulty in relating emotionally to others.
They may also have nightmares, flashbacks to the traumatic scene, overreactions
to sudden noises, and outbursts of violence may occur.
There are generally
four signs that one could make a possible diagnosis for PTSD. The fist one is
evidence of recent stresses such as natural disaster, murder, rape, combat,
accidents or terrorism. The second is recurring dreams, intrusive thoughts, and
feelings of the event occurring again. The third is numbing responsiveness,
decreased interest in activities, detachment from others, and flattened
emotions. The fourth and final is possible startling responses, sleep
disturbance, survival guilt, or cognitive impairment (knowledge).
the soldiers from My Lai appear to have this disease to some degree. One man
tells, \"The flies...I can\'t stop dreaming about them. You think I\'m crazy?\"
Another man recalls the incident \"the way chemical nightmares are
remembered...\" John Wade would sometimes see a hoe spinning in the sunlight, a
recollection of his murdering of the innocent farmer who\'s hoe looked to him
like a rifle at the time. Judith Herman agrees that the risk of getting PTSD is
highest among the actual participants in the trauma, not just the witnesses of
the events, however they could also be greatly affected to that extent as well.
Of the three million men and women who served in the Vietnam War, an
estimated one-third of the men (over 960,000 men) and one-fourth of the women
(over 1,900 women) developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in response
to their war experiences. About 15 percent of these men and 8.5 percent of these
women still continue to suffer from this disorder. Treatment approaches for PTSD
that have been suggested in literature include systematic desensitization,
implosive therapy, cognitive therapy, and group therapy. Current research is
being conducted to establish not only the efficacy of each of these approaches
but also to determine if one approach is more effective than the others are. The
results of research on treatment for PTSD cannot come too soon because thousands
of Vietnam veterans are still experiencing this disorder twenty-five years after
the end of the Vietnam War.
Another question we must ask ourselves when
trying to decipher this situation is, why were these people put in this
particular situation. Why do humans involve themselves in war? There are several
definitions on what war is but the main thought is that, when a group feels that
its vital interests are at stake and they try to impose their beliefs or control
by the use of excessive force this is war. There are many reasons for war to
occur, some of these include natural human aggression, difference of government,
special interests groups, difference of religion and economics.
also different types of war. Total War is war without restrictions, it is a war
that is directed against and involves not only rival military combatants but
also resources including the noncombatant population of the people involved.
Limited War is the daily life of most of the populations that are a part of the
warring societies. It is generally unaffected by the condition of violence that
exists between the combatants. Grolier Encyclopedia states: \"For the United
States, the Vietnam War was a limited war, for the Vietnamese it was a total
war.\" But some believe the American population was greatly affected, as we see
As a whole, the American nation lost a great deal of
confidence as a result of the Vietnam War. It was a total shock to America. We
had lost a major war. Our use of draftees enraged most Americans for they had
never consisted more that 40 percent of troop strength.
Then the My Lai and
incursions into Cambodia were heard about in America, Kent State and Jackson
State had protests and rallies. Six students were killed in the protests.
Definitely, the Vietnam War was psychologically affecting the population at home
as well. Drug and alcohol abuse among servicemen rose as moral lowered, black
soldiers due to Civil Rights Movement at home wanted to get out of fighting the
\"White Man\'s War\", and anti-war organizations were formed by Vietnam
veterans. The low morale and lack of motivation was led many veterans and they
persuaded people to give up all together.