Fifty years ago, on March 16, 1968, in the South Vietnamese village of Son My, two American Army combat infantry companies systematically slaughtered more than 500 unarmed Vietnamese – old men, women, children, babes in arms.
Nearly 300 soldiers, civilian advisors, military and CIA intelligence operatives, ARVN troops and South Vietnamese Special Police participated.
They killed livestock, blew up bunkers, burned hootches and destroyed wells. Women and girls were raped at gunpoint. Military-age males taken prisoner were interrogated, tortured and executed.
The soldiers carried out the direct orders of superiors — to kill “everything and everyone” in the village, to make it “uninhabitable.” The result was the “My Lai Massacre.”
The only person convicted for the atrocities of that day was 25-year-old, 5-foot-3, 109 pound, 2d. Lt. William L. Calley, Jr.
Calley was convicted on 22 counts of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison. I was appointed to serve as his military appellate defense counsel. I served in that role from September of 1971 through April of 1974.
After leaving the Army, I continued as his civilian lawyer in subsequent habeas corpus proceedings. If I had not had this front row seat to history, I would have found it inconceivable that Calley alone would be held accountable for the massacre.
Calley’s sentence was reduced to 20 years. Howard “Bo” Calloway, the secretary of the Army, reduced it to 10, then granted our request for immediate parole. Calloway’s actions took place after the District Court reversed Calley’s conviction and ordered his release-the Army was feeling the heat at that point.
The wrong war
For four decades, I have researched, studied and pondered the causes of the massacre. I have reached two conclusions:
First, America’s war in Vietnam was fought for the wrong reason, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy and in the wrong way.
The aspirations of America’s WWII friends, Ho Chi Minh and his revolutionaries, who fought side-by-side with us against the Japanese, were ignored. Reports from American officers who personally knew and fought with them were buried by superiors.
When America’s political and military leaders committed our nation’s treasure and the lives of her children to the war in Vietnam, they knew nothing about Vietnamese history, language, culture, society, religions or leaders. Worse, they refused to learn.
Their deliberate ignorance, coupled with hubris, fear, insecurity, self-promotion, deceit, and continuing lies set the stage for the 12-year debacle that followed. Like lemmings led to the sea, we were caught up in and betrayed by their arrogance and continuing deception.
The avoidable war of choice in Vietnam tore our nation’s social fabric apart. The war divided us. American innocence died. Our citizens’ trust in their leaders was sadly misplaced. We naively assumed they would tell us the truth.
Knowing that 85 percent of the Vietnamese people supported Ho Chi Minh, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, nevertheless, deceptively sold the war as one to protect a “democratically elected government” in South Vietnam.
There never was a “democratically elected government in South Vietnam”, only a dictatorship propped up by American power. Its corrupt officials forcibly removed millions of South Vietnamese peasants from their lands into fenced-in “refugee camps.”
Other My Lais
My second conclusion: The massacre in My Lai was no aberration. Rather, it went off as planned — the result of false “intelligence,” misguided policies, and intentionally nihilistic combat strategies and tactics.
In 1964, General William Westmoreland, MACV/AFVN Commander, adopted a war of attrition strategy; emphasizing body counts, psychological warfare and technological weapons superiority.
In 1966, President Johnson, not seeing Westmoreland’s promised progress in the war, issued National Security Memorandum 192, appointing Robert Komer as his man to be in charge of the “other war,” the so-called “pacification” effort in Vietnam led by America’s “shadow warriors” to whom the laws of war did not apply.
Their operations were quickly merged with those of the regular combat troops, where the laws of war did apply. By March of 1968, the coordination of Komer’s CORDS/ICEX/Phoenix covert operatives with MACV’s combat and psywar forces was “fully operational.”
Upon the consummation of this unholy marriage, new, classified MACV directives were issued. South Vietnamese peasants supporting the Viet Cong were redesignated as “Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI).” “Elimination of the VCI,” killing all “Viet Cong sympathizers,” “leveling of villages,” expanding “free fire zones,” and a “sterile depersonalized murder program” became the modus operandi for American combat units and their ICEX/Phoenix/CORDS adjuncts.
Planned eradication, annihilation, indiscriminate bombing, napalming, destruction of villages, making large areas of South Vietnam uninhabitable, and mass slaughter of South Vietnamese civilians all became commonplace. My Lai was inevitable.
After all these years, my reaction to the My Lai incident is the same as when I first learned of it. I am still emotional. Depending on the moment, a pervasive mishmash of emotions impacts my judgment and my view of life around me. I am torn.
The urge returns to kneel and weep, to pray for the Vietnamese slaughtered, the dead children, families decimated, grandparents whose daughters and granddaughters were raped and blown apart — to mourn the total lack of human empathy. What America did that day was despicable and diabolically evil. Sadly, other similar atrocities occurred on other days that were kept hidden.
I also feel compassion for the soldiers involved. I want to reach out to them, those ordinary, middle-class American boys, to say, “I want to understand; but how could you possibly do that?”
Although their acts were diabolically evil, they were and are not diabolically evil. They were ordered to fight a guerilla war in a strange land, among a strange people, against an enemy they often could not find, and when they did, could not recognize.
Their units were decimated by ambushes, mine fields, booby traps, and snipers. They were ordered to fight and kill under rules of engagement so confusing and contradictory that no one could understand them. Worst of all, they were fighting a war which their political and military leaders had long recognized could not be won. They became “cannon fodder.”
Ignoring the lessons
Almost half a century later, I am still angry — at them, at us, but most of all at the ignorance, arrogance, and deception of the so-called “wise men” of our government and military who ignored the entreaties of the Vietnamese revolutionaries, supported French recolonization, and thwarted Vietnamese aspirations for independence.
Those government and military leaders who, after WWII, created and then propped up the serial, corrupt governments in South Vietnam, sent young men to fight and die in a limited war of choice that they could not win, and attempted to justify doing so by telling more lies.
Their deception and arrogant actions created the policies, strategies, directives, and atmosphere that made atrocities the norm, not only in My Lai, but in Ben Suc, Tan Phuoe, Trong, Trieu Ai, Elephant Bar and dozens of other places in South Vietnam.
Even more disheartening is that we, as a people, continue to ignore the lessons of the Vietnam War.
In this period of blatant political lies and false narratives by our highest political leader, the intentional fostering of division, and endemic refusal to listen to anyone who might honestly question governmental actions or propaganda, we, more than ever, need to learn from America’s Vietnam experience.
If we do, perhaps America can avoid sending young men and women to fight and die in other limited wars of choice, in places of which our leaders and we are ignorant. Perhaps, by demanding the truth and holding them accountable, we can avoid making our children walking targets and turning them into murderous automatons.
J. Houston Gordon, a trial attorney in Covington, is writing a book on the My Lai Massacre and the Vietnam War.