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My Lai


The objective of the American military mission in March of 1968 was clear, search and destroy 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 the
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 already injured.


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.


Eighty 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 murder.


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.


A large 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).


Many of 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.


There are 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 psychologically.
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.