Study Guide

The My Lai Massacre Courts-Martial

The My Lai Massacre Courts-Martial

  • 1968 massacre at My Lai, Vietnam, led to controversial courts-martial of US soldiers
  • What laws apply to warfare? How can they be enforced?

A nation's rules of warfare—what are they? How are they determined? How do they apply to soldiers and their commanders? What are these rules with respect to enemy combatants and enemy civilians? What sorts of penalties should be meted out to those who violate such rules? And who should decide how to answer these questions?

These were the issues facing the US military court that charged First Lieutenant William Calley with the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians, including infants, children, women, and elderly men. Calley was also charged with assault with the intent to kill a toddler. All this carnage had occurred in the tiny village of My Lai during an American military search-and-destroy mission in the Republic of South Vietnam in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. The case against Calley (and, eventually, fourteen other military officers) emerged from the investigations conducted by Colonel William Wilson. To his horror, Wilson learned that the inconceivable rumors about the ruthless slaughter of My Lai villagers by US infantrymen under Calley's command were true. What's more, he found that such crimes during the Vietnam War were not only common but had become somewhat routine; because these assaults occurred under the watch and, as Wilson discovered, even under the orders of commanding officers, they went unpunished. "I wanted the bastards exposed for what they'd done," the Army colonel later remembered.blank">war crimes? How should these offenses be prosecuted, and what are the appropriate consequences? Should national security factor into conviction or sentencing? What role should the president, in his role as Commander in Chief, play in wartime courts-martial? As we see from the case against Lt. Calley, the answers to these questions are not clear-cut. In fact, each of the My Lai cases proves that wartime circumstances, public opinion, and politics can influence—or even determine—the scope of the codes of war and the severity of punishments for offenses.