The My Lai Massacre — Mistakes Were Made

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It was called the “most shocking episode of the Vietnam War.” Given how the Vietnam Wat turned out for the United States, that is saying a lot. This week we will discuss the My Lai Mai Massacre, one of the most significant documented war crimes in history.
During the Tet offensive attack in 1968, attacks were carried out in Quang Ngai by the Viet Cong (VC) 48th Local Force Battalion. U.S. Military Intelligence assumed that the 48th Battalion, which retreated and dispersed, was taking refuge in the village of Son My, which is in the Quang Ngai Provence. Several specific communities within that village were called My Lai, and they were particularly suspected of harboring the 48th.

Task Force Barker was assigned to engage and destroy the remnants of the 48th Battalion, allegedly hiding in the Son My village area. On the eve of the attack, Captain Ernest Medina told his men that nearly all the civilian residents of the communities in Son My village would have left for the market by 07:00. And that any who remained would be VC or VC sympathizers. There are conflicting reports on whether those orders included the killing of women and children. Some including Platoon leaders testified that the orders, as they understood them, were to kill all VC and North Vietnamese combatants and “suspects” (suspects included women and children as well as all animals), to burn the village and pollute the wells.

On March 16, 1968, at 07:30 am, around 100 soldiers led by Medina, landed in helicopters at Son My. The Villagers who were getting ready for a market day, at first, did not panic or run away as they were herded into the communities’ common area. The killings started without warning. A soldier struck a Vietnamese man with a bayonet; then, the same trooper pushed another villager into a well than threw a grenade into the well. Soon after 15 or 20 people, mainly women and children, were kneeling around a temple; they were praying and crying. Sadly they were all killed by shots to the head. A large group of between 70–80 villagers was rounded up and led into an irrigation ditch. All detainees were pushed into the ditch, then shot to death. All livestock was shot and killed, as well. Some 15 South Vietnamese were walking on a dirt road right outside the community. The group included women and children. All of a sudden, U.S. soldiers started firing on the group with M16 and M79 grenade launchers. By mid-morning, members of the platoon had killed hundreds of civilians and raped or assaulted countless women and young girls. They encountered no enemy fire and found no weapons.

Hugh Thompson Jr., a helicopter pilot, saw dead and wounded civilians as he was flying over the village of Son My. He was providing close air support for ground troops. Thompson landed his helicopter between the soldiers and the retreating villagers and threatened to open fire on the soldiers if they continued their attacks. Thompson and his crew flew dozens of survivors to receive medical care. Thompson went on to describe the chaos he witnessed on the ground;

“We kept flying back and forth, …and it didn’t take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-, year old’s, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever.” Owing to the chaotic state of the war and the U.S. Army’s decision not to take a definitive body count of non-combatants in Vietnam, the number of civilians killed at My Lai cannot be stated with certainty. Estimates vary from 347 to 504 deaths. Among the victims were 182 women- 17 of them pregnant and 173 children, including 56 infants.

Initial reports of the massacre came up with different figures. It was claimed that 128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians had been killed in the village during a “fierce firefight”. The coverup continued until Ron Ridenhour, a soldier in the brigade who had heard reports of the massacre but had not participated, began a campaign to bring the events to light.

After writing letters to President Nixon, the Pentagon, State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several Congressman with no response. Ridenhour finally gave an interview to the investigative journalist Seymour Hirsch, who broke the story in November of 1969.
Amid the international uproar that followed Ridenhour’s revelations, the U.S. Army ordered a special investigation into the My Lai Massacre and subsequent efforts to cover it up. The inquiry released its report in March 1970. The report recommended that no fewer than 28 officers be charged for their involvement in covering up the massacre.
The Army would later charge 14 men with crimes related to the My Lai incident. All were acquitted except for Lieutenant William Calley. Calley was found guilty of premeditated murder for ordering the shootings despite his pleas that he was only following orders from Medina. Calley was given a life sentence. His sentence was later reduced to 10 years, and he was paroled in 1974.

Later investigations have revealed that My Lai was not an isolated incident. Other massacres like My Khe are less known but just as impactful. Another military operation called Speedy Express killed thousands of Vietnamese civilians.

Mistakes Were Made:

The coverup is worse than the lie! War crimes have been going since the beginning of time. We never hear about most of them because they are usually taken on the losers. The victors don’t want that type of news being known, especially since the Geneva Convention was adopted. So unless a brave soul blows the whistle on its own country, most incidents go unknown by the public at large.

The U.S. was involved in a losing PR battle involving the Vietnam War. Something had to be done to change the tide. The U.S. was so desperate for any positive news that it flat out made up an imaginary story about My Lai. There was no VC or any weapons in the whole community. Higher-ups gave orders to kill everything on sight, and soldiers just followed it without any pushback or conscience. Their recognition of other human beings and spirits just disappeared, and they started murdering innocent children, women, and older men. .It took a physical interaction from Thompson for human decency to come back into play. It was like the scene from Game of Thrones where daeny riding the dragon at Kings Landing and just snapping and killing all the innocent town folks.

War by nature is a situation where, though the other side is of the same species (human) that knowledge disappears and the objective is to kill everything in sight, even if its civilians or animals. We wonder why soldiers come back with PTSD, how do you integrate yourself back into a healthy society after participating in something like My Lai?

News of the My Lai incident and subsequent coverup just killed the on-ground morale of the troops still left in Vietnam. Soldiers wondered what else was their government keeping hidden from them and why were they even over there.

The Geneva Convention is/was supposed to keep incidents like My Lai from occurring. It didn’t help at My Lai, and subsequent events like the Abu Ghraib torture incidents show that war crimes will keep happening. War crimes go hand in hand with war, and as long as there is war, there will always be war crimes against innocent civilians. You can’t have one without the other. No signed treaty will stop war crimes. Unfortunately, since there is no end to wars insight, we will keep hearing stories like the horrific My Lai massacre.

Originally published at on November 11, 2019.

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recovering Lawyer, History buff who wants to share my knowledge with the world . To teach them lessons from our past. see all of the stories on

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