Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre

The Legacy

American soldiers during massacre (TIMEPIX)
American soldiers during massacre

To many people at that time, the verdict against Calley was excessive and even unreasonable. There was a firestorm of controversy that seems somehow out of place when we view it from today's perspective. But rarely has the My Lai incident been examined outside the realm of political considerations. Passions were high concerning Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Anti-war advocates saw My Lai as a typical event by American soldiers and proof the war was immoral. Supporters of the war saw the massacre as something that happens in all wars and visualized Calley as a scapegoat for others higher up on the command ladder.

The court denied Calley's claim of "obeying orders", the defense of soldiers throughout history accused of similar crimes. Calley was convicted by combat veterans who appreciated full well the pressures and dangers of modern warfare. They knew that massacres of unarmed civilians by American troops were not a common occurrence and whenever it happened in the past, military courts prosecuted those involved.

Even if Calley had received orders to slaughter every old man, woman and baby in the village of My Lai, "any reasonable person would have realized that such orders were illegal and should have refused to carry them out." In fact, many soldiers in Charlie Company did refuse a direct order to kill unarmed, defenseless civilians. Most soldiers knew that My Lai was not a battleground; there was no enemy contact and no incoming fire. In any case, Calley and his men were never ordered to rape and execute little girls.

The remains of My Lai village (TIMEPIX)
The remains of My Lai village

Massacres in wars are part of the ugly truth about human conflict. They become possible when the ties that bind people together as fellow human beings are devalued or broken down. Those ties are so strong that a systematic procedure of dehumanization must take place before the killing can begin. That process includes a deprivation of the victim's traditions, culture and existence that usually begins with labels such as "gooks", "dinks", "nips" and other derogatory terms that help define the victim as subhuman.

The mass murder of the Jews by Hitler's Nazis began with a propaganda campaign during the 1930s designed to portray the Jewish people as something less than human and therefore deserving of extermination. It's a lot easier to kill people when they are not thought of as people. One of the most disturbing aspects of My Lai was the men of Charlie Company itself. All the soldiers at My Lai were ordinary young men who represented a sort of cross section of America. They were not monsters. They were cooks, cab drivers, bus drivers, students, clerks. How could they do such a horrible thing?

Fields in Quang Ngai area (CORBIS)
Fields in Quang Ngai area

In Vietnam, still a land of mystery and confusion to most Americans, near the hamlet of Son My, a monument stands in memory of those who perished on March 16, 1968. It will stand as a reminder of the awful crimes committed against a defenseless people who today, display surprisingly little bitterness. The monsoon season, which brings torrential rain in Vietnam every year, feeds the rice fields, nourishes the rivers and streams but has never washed away the searing memory of My Lai.

Very little ever changes in this timeless country. The Diem River, upon whose banks the dead once rested, twists its way out of Son My until it makes a turn to the west a few miles from the coast. Beyond the city of Tam Ky, gateway to the interior, it flows into the remote, vast wilderness of ancient valleys and forests where maps are useless and the graves of forgotten men are many; past the village of Son Ha and the hills of Dak To, where the blood of the VC and America's young once flowed. The river winds its way deep into the bush, into the living jungle, until it disappears at last from view, descending into some distant, forbidden place whose caves and shadows conceal things that are better left undisturbed. It continues on, unseen, far into the unknown, into the dark, where few have ever gone and no one has ever returned.

Pham Thi Trinh, survivor, monument (TIMEPIX)
Pham Thi Trinh, survivor,
monument (TIMEPIX)


We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'