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Why My Lai?

An Examination of a Massacre

The My Lai Massacre made major headlines in America because of the shocking nature of the horrific act, and it played a major role in the Vietnam War protests.

In March 16, 1968, American army units, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, and the Americal Division killed between 347 to 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians of all ages and genders. Additionally, there were 20 rapes during the massacre. Mothers, elderly, and children alike were slaughtered by the US military in a massacre that shocked the American people, who were already questioning the Vietnam War. Why did this happen? 

The My Lai Massacre was an event that should never have happened, a tragedy of great proportions, but also a product of the situations of the war. The Vietnam War created the sort of environment where the soldiers could commit such a massacre, through a combination of bad leadership, a culture of fear and racism in the military, and bad conditions on the ground. The leadership had issues communicating with soldiers, sometimes leading to a fragging (low ranking soldiers killing officers, typically by a hand grenade thrown into the officer's quarters) being committed. Fighting an enemy of a foreign race in a bitter guerrilla war for many years led to soldiers developing a fear of the enemy and by extension their race. All of this led to the situation on the ground decaying to a point where killing the women and children seemed like the best course of action for Charlie Company and the others, although this is by no means an excuse for their crimes.

The leadership in Vietnam had many issues at this point in the war. The top brass couldn’t properly control their soldiers in many ways, and orders often had a certain level of miscommunication. Commanders who soldiers felt were bad for their chances of survival were often fragged or threatened with fragging through the use of smoke or tear gas grenades. In the case of My Lai specifically, many issues existed in the chain of command. Lieutenant Calley was a particularly bad example, being nicknamed “Lieutenant Shithead” by Captain Medina, and his soldiers having a bounty on his head. Calley was viewed as a glory seeker who couldn’t read a map and reacted poorly under fire. Medina was no great leader either. He ordered the attack on the village, and either botched the communication of the orders to the point where this horror could be construed, or explicitly ordered the massacre itself. While Calley receives the most criticism for this tragedy, Medina deserves a fair amount of the blame as well. Medina and Calley together ruthlessly murdered and ordered the murders of the Vietnamese. Medina even seemed to enjoy the experience judging by Herbert Carter’s account of Medina killing a teenager and his water buffalo. Thus, basically the entire local command structure of Charlie Company was a liability and completely unfit for duty, but because of the United States' shortage of men, and talent especially, they were deployed anyway.

Over the course of the war, a bitter racism towards and fear of the Vietnamese developed among the soldiers. The people they called “gooks,” “slopes,” “slant-eyes,” and “dinks” represented the vicious enemy that had killed so many of their comrades, but encompassed all Vietnamese, be they enemy, ally, or noncombatant. Additionally, thanks to the tactics of the Viet Cong, it was often the case that noncombatants, and even allies, could turn out to have been enemies all along, creating a justification for the racism as a means of self-preservation. This building racism would inspire violence in many areas. 

In My Lai there was no shortage of racism. Calley in particular did not distinguish between the Vietnamese. Medina  considered anyone not in uniform to be Viet Cong, an enemy to be shot. This is the impression Michael Bernhardt got under their command, something that he attributes to the “dink complex,” a dehumanizing of the enemy which causes a soldier to be unable to empathize with the entirety of the Vietnamese. This is the only possible explanation for the rapes. There was no military goal in raping 20 women, no command to rape them, and raping them didn’t stop the Viet Cong, in fact, it only served to strengthen their cause. There had to be some dehumanization that led these soldiers to think that this was what they should be doing. 

The “Summary of Rapes” report is unable to determine how many Americans were involved, since Vietnamese reports aren’t able to give names, and the soldiers don’t talk much about it, but there had to be multiple soldiers who engaged in these acts, for there were too many women and young girls raped for them to have been committed by only one man. A culture of racism from top to bottom instilled in these soldiers that dehumanizing justification they needed to commit such horrors and then to kill what they could of the rest of the village.

The Vietnam War was a horrible war. While there were not the casualty levels of many other wars, there were many deaths for little gain, many of them the result of random surprise attacks and booby traps left around villages. In My Lai this was particularly true. 

While Charlie Company did not experience as much of this, plenty of troops who were formerly stationed in Pinkville had, and stories of this sort traveled easily through the military. The Tet Offensive, which had just transpired, also made many soldiers nervous, although again, Charlie Company did not experience many issues during the offensive first-hand. A lack of personal experience does not mean the men of Charlie Company were any less fearful though, and adding these fears to those already inhabiting their minds due to racism, they were in a mindset to kill anyone who seemed even remotely a threat, such as the villagers who the soldiers continued to see instead of the Viet Cong unit intelligence had told them they would find. Worse yet, Medina told blatant lies to protect his own skin, saying that a woman he killed was armed, even though all other accounts say this victim was unarmed. Calley, in a similar stunt, blamed nearly all of his actions relating to the massacre on orders given by Medina.

The Vietnam war was a grueling experience for soldiers, and led to tens of thousands of dead Americans, and paranoia and PTSD for its survivors. It created a stigma against a race of people that, while encompassing the enemy, also encompassed allies and noncombatants. Leadership, which should have alleviated some of these issues, exacerbated them instead, leading to a situation where something like My Lai could happen. Calley and Medina, racism, and fear all came together to bring about a massacre of innocents so horrible it couldn’t stay covered up. Although this does not exonerate those men for their war crimes or justify their atrocities, it does help to explain how the My Lai Massacre happened and how we can prevent others from happening.

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