"I had prayed to God that this thing was fiction," Colonel William Wilson remarked in 1969 upon completing his investigation of a massacre in the My Lai village in South Vietnam. For ten weeks, Wilson examined the inconceivable claims of an ex-serviceman named Ron Ridenhour, who wrote of masses of Vietnamese civilians—including women, young children, and infants—slaughtered in cold blood by U.S. infantrymen and their lieutenant. The Colonel prayed that the author's grim assertions were false, that Ridenhour himself was insane, a deranged lunatic, or a bitter veteran seeking to discredit the United States Army. "I hoped to God it was false," Wilson said, "but if it wasn't, I wanted the bastards exposed for what they'd done."
In a letter dated 29 March 1969, and addressed to dozens of top American officials, including 23 members of Congress, the Secretary of Defense, General William Westmoreland, and President Richard Nixon, Ron Ridenhour described in detail a series of grisly stories he had heard from fellow soldiers. Many of the men he spoke with were members of the "C" Company, of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Light Infantry Brigade—better known as the "Charlie" Company. As soldiers often do, they spoke about the warfront to pass the time, but reports of an incident at a place they called "Pinkville"—the My Lai hamlet—deeply disturbed him.
Ridenhour learned that in one of many "search and destroy" operations conducted in the South Vietnamese countryside, the Charlie Company was ordered to eliminate a hamlet said to be infested with enemy Viet Cong soldiers and sympathizers. If his sources could be believed, "then not only had 'Charlie Company' received orders to slaughter all the inhabitants of the village," Ridenhour wrote, "but those orders had come from the commanding officer...or possibly even higher in the chain of command."53 The soldiers explained that under the direction of Lieutenant "Kally" they proceeded to round up men, women, and children of all ages to be shot down with machine-guns. When anyone refused to follow orders, "Kally didn't bother to order anyone to take the machine-gun...He simply manned it himself."54 The My Lai hamlet, the men reported, held anywhere from 200 to 400 villagers, and few—if any—escaped. According to Ridenhour, one man explained, "I guess we sort of finished them off."
Had this horrific massacre really happened? Had Ridenhour fabricated the story? If Ridenhour was telling the truth, then had his sources—the soldiers—lied, or at least exaggerated? If they hadn't, then why had these murders occurred, or was it even possible to explain such terrible war crimes? It was up to Colonel William Wilson to find out.
During his disturbing detective work, Colonel Wilson learned that not only had the horrors in My Lai happened just as Ridenhour had described, but another company—B Company—had conducted an equally vicious attack that very same day on the inhabitants of Son My village. Among the crimes committed at Son My, Wilson reported, were acts of murder, rape, sodomy, maiming, assault on noncombatants, and the mistreatment and killing of detainees. The two incidents, so similar in their extreme nature, pointed to the troubling possibility that such crimes were far more common during the war than anyone imagined.
Plus, it appeared that military news organizations and top army officials participated in a cover-up of the events in My Lai and Son My. In an official report issued by Sergeant Jay Roberts of the U.S. Army's Public Information Department, the Charlie Company "raided a Viet Cong stronghold...killing 128 enemy in a running battle." Roberts's report included no mention of civilians. Another official report issued by Colonel Frank Barker twelve days after the attack noted only that the Company's mission, to "destroy enemy forces and fortifications in a VC base camp and to capture enemy personnel, weapons and supplies," had been thoroughly "successful." Barker's report mentioned neither civilians nor the killing of noncombatants. If Ridenhour hadn't crafted his letter, risking his job, his reputation, and his livelihood, it was unclear whether the American public ever would have learned of the crimes.
But Ridenhour did craft his letter, and the American public ultimately learned about the killings. Colonel Wilson's investigation led to the prosecution of fourteen men charged by the U.S. Army with direct involvement in the massacre in My Lai and its cover-up.
In 1971, during a nationally-publicized, ten-month-long trial, prosecuting attorney Aubrey Daniel brought forth two dozen witnesses to the killings, many of whom were hesitant to testify for fear of retribution. But in testimony after testimony, military officers revealed the incomprehensible details of that day's events. Herbert Carter, a soldier from the Charlie Company who suffered the only casualty during the attack (he shot himself in the foot in order to avoid participating in the killings) recalled that when one Vietnamese woman emerged from a hut, weeping and holding her child who had been wounded by a gunshot, a fellow soldier "shot her with an M16 and she fell. When she fell, she dropped the baby and then [he] opened up on the baby with his M16 and killed the baby, too."55 Carter concluded his statement by telling the courts-martial, "There was no reason for this killing. These were mainly women and children and a few old men. They weren't trying to escape or attack or anything. It was murder."56
The lieutenant, "Kally," identified by Ron Ridenhour as the superior officer on the scene, took the stand in his own defense. When asked to explain his decision to gun down whole groups of non-combatants—young, old, male, and female—Lieutenant William Calley simply stated, "I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy...That was my job on that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children."57 He spoke not of civilians, and admitted to no errors of judgment; he said only that he had been following orders from his superiors. The prosecution's final witness, Captain Ernest Medina—Calley's superior—denied giving such orders.
On 10 September 1971, Lieutenant Calley—and only Calley—was convicted. For the pre-meditated murder of twenty-two people, and for ordering the killings of many more, the court sentenced Calley to life in prison. Many Americans objected to the verdict. Some anti-war activists argued that many others were to blame for the crimes committed in Vietnam; too many had escaped unpunished. Many conservative groups also argued that the verdict was unjust and that Calley had been the Army's scapegoat for many military blunders.
Many Americans were further dismayed when President Richard Nixon announced he would ease Calley's punishment by allowing him to serve his term under house arrest, a much more comfortable form of imprisonment whereby the prisoner is allowed unrestricted visits from friends and family. After several appeals, the lieutenant's sentence was reduced significantly. By September 1975, just three and a half years after his conviction, Calley was released. (Today he resides in Columbus, Georgia, where he runs his father-in-law's jewelry store.)58
Captain Medina later admitted that he had authorized the destruction of the My Lai hamlet. But even if Medina hadn't lied under oath, Lieutenant Calley—and all the soldiers from the "Charlie" Company and the B Company who participated in the assault, torture, and murder of noncombatants and captured prisoners of war—violated the laws of war established by the Geneva Conventions that followed World War II.
In the Nuremberg trials, which were held to prosecute those responsible for the Holocaust, Nazi defendants claimed that they had committed crimes of genocide because they had been ordered by their military superiors to do so. In response, world leaders in Geneva decided to establish a set of international laws to ensure the fair and humane treatment of civilians and prisoners of war; under no circumstances would any of the following be permitted in war: deliberate mutilation, torture, rape, the refusal of medical attention to the sick and wounded, and any form of execution or sentencing outside of a court of law.
The United States military informed each of its inductees of these rules of warfare. Typed on pocket-sized cards issued to each soldier were sets of codes for conduct. In bold text, one card read, "ALWAYS TREAT YOUR PRISONER HUMANELY." A captive, the cards read, "must not be tortured, killed, mutilated, or degraded, even if he refused to talk. If the captive is a woman, treat her with all respect due her sex."59 Another card encouraged troops to befriend the local people because, "The Viet Cong will attempt to turn the Vietnamese people against you. You can defeat them at every turn by the strength, understanding, and generosity you display with the people."60
If such rules had been made clear to servicemen and their commanding officers, then why would these men kill in cold blood? It's not always clear why anyone behaves as they do when under the stress of battle; and in the jungles of Vietnam, fighting the sort of exhausting, terrifying, and utterly confusing war that these soldiers fought, anything could have—and unfortunately did—happen. Varnado Simpson, a soldier in Charlie Company, explained the anxiety he and his fellow soldiers experienced every day in Vietnam: "Who is the enemy? How can you distinguish between the civilians and the noncivilians? The same people who come and work in the bases at daytime, they just want to shoot and kill you at nighttime. So how can you distinguish between the two? The good or the bad? All of them look the same." As Sergeant Michael Bernhardt revealed, American soldiers learned both from experience and from their commanders that "everything that walked and didn't wear a uniform was [Viet Cong]."61
Most Americans fighting in Vietnam did not fully understand what they were supposed to accomplish. They were told they were to serve as "guardians of freedom," but they were also sent to Vietnam to kill the enemy, and as many or them as possible. Often young soldiers, as well as seasoned commanders, did not know enough about the land, its people, the culture, and the language to distinguish between those they were to protect and those they were to fear. What's more, most were young and inexperienced and spent their tour of duty exhausted, wet, dirty, paranoid, terrified, angry, bored, hungry, homesick, and resentful—of the enemy, of the people they were risking their lives to "protect," and of their government that failed to explain to them why they had been sent into the jungles of Vietnam to kill or be killed. As one retired colonel said many years later, "It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted."62
It was that kind of war.