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Why My Lai?- What Caused American Soldiers to Commit Atrocities in Vietnam?

When most Americans think of war atrocities, they usually think of Nazi concentration camps or “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia, Uganda, and other distant countries. Few Americans realize that our soldiers in Vietnam were guilty of many war crimes ranging from the torture of Vietcong prisoners to the slaughter of unarmed men, women, and children in villages such as Son My. Many factors contributed to these violent incidents, but most to blame was the leadership and training of the troops.

By far the most well-known and most well publicized of the incidents was the massacre at the village of My Lai 4. My Lai 4 was actually one of several hamlets, a part of a sector of the larger village of Son My. The area had been nicknamed “Pinkville” by Army intelligence. It was not known to be a Viet Cong stronghold or even to be in support of the enemy. Two separate units attacked two parts of My Lai. These units met with absolutely no resistance. The only Army casualty in either operation was a private who shot himself in the foot.

Past encounters with American G.I.s had taught the families of Son My the correct way to approach American soldiers. Instead of running, hiding, or resisting, they walked slowly towards the Americans, with raised hands and smiles (1). This time, however, they were rounded up – mostly old people, children, and women, many of them pregnant – and shot. Those who tried to take refuge in their homes were driven out with fire, and then killed. No prisoners were taken. Combat photographer Ronald Haceberle and Army correspondent Jay Roberts would report that some of the men seemed gripped by a kind of hysteria, shooting dead bodies again and again (2).

The platoon leaders did not stand in the way of the massacre. In fact, they openly participated and encouraged the men. Several witnesses insist that Medina, the man in charge of the entire operation, personally killed a Vietnamese woman and a three year-old child. Survivors and soldiers, both those who participated and those who did not, gave descriptions of men fitting officers’ descriptions committing atrocities alongside the other soldiers (3). Members of the unit also raped women and, in at least one case, young children. According to those present, many of the soldiers laughed and made jokes during the killings. From one account by a soldier who was at the village of My Lai that day:

​The massacre did not end until other units arrived on the scene. None of the soldiers or officers who took part in the slaughter were reprimanded at the time. It should be noted that not every soldier took part in the killings. Those who did not later said that they felt powerless to stop it, as the quote above indicates. It would be months and months, and in some cases over a year, until My Lai and other massacres caught the attention of the military hierarchy and efforts were made to identify those responsible and take disciplinary action.

Son My was not the only area to be devastated by Army search and destroy missions. The policy of Americans was to burn down a village, destroy all animals and crops, and rub salt into the ground, ruining it. These things were done in order to prevent Vietcong from using the area for food or shelter. This wanton destruction of private property was, in itself, against the rules of the Geneva Convention, but at least had a military purpose. If the people were lucky, they were rounded up and put into camps.

Soldiers who saw these camps call them “concentration camps.” According to Peter Norman Martinson, a veteran who was there:

Another veteran, Harry Plimpton, was on a search and destroy mission in which 500 civilians were killed. The platoon leader ordered that no prisoners were to be taken. Seventy-five civilians were murdered at Vu Doc. The civilians, like the ones at Son My, came running to surrender with hands raised. Beneath the huts in many Vietnamese villages ran a network of tunnels. Frightened families, often with small children, would sometimes hide in them when Americans came. Often, prisoners would tell the soldiers about members of their families down below. However, it was Army policy to fill in all these tunnels, blocking the exits and trapping the people inside to slowly suffocate. There were other massacres of villages. 400 were killed in the village of Bau Tri. In other operations, where prisoners were taken, Army hospitals did not treat the wounded Vietnamese.

Soldier Terry Whitmore talks about a massacre near Quang Tri, where 200 people were killed. The platoon rounded up a large group of children, and an officer ordered for them to be shot. Whitmore said “That was the only huge massacre I was in. But civilians got killed almost every day if we were around them… That’s common – knock off a civilian for the hell of it (6).”

Many civilians were killed out of hand in this way. Ed Traratola, a veteran, remembers shooting elderly men and women who did not have identification papers. When distributing rations, some soldiers in his unit would throw entire cases of C rations at civilians from off trucks. These cases could severely injure or kill those who were hit. Officers were aware of this behavior and did not stop it. They often instructed the men to do anything they wanted, since prisoners would only slow unit down. According to Traratola:

Torture of captured Vietcong was policy, but violence was perpetrated even on innocent bystanders.

Finally, the rape of women was a relatively common occurrence. Lieut. William Calley, one of the officers at the My Lai massacre, told of stopping soldiers from raping a woman holding a baby sometime before the My Lai incident. He later said, “I don’t know why I was so goddamned saintly about it. Rape, in Vietnam, is a very common thing (8).”

According to soldier Richard Dow:

Officers often made no attempt to punish those who committed rape. Perhaps not every platoon commander looked the other way, but there were many who did. Veterans have said that officers were fully aware of crimes taking place. Sometimes officers slyly condoned the behavior by warning the perpetrators not to get caught. But few of the rapists had cause to worry about being court-martialed. Lack of stern discipline and a complete lack of accountability were major factors in the high number of rapes and civilian killings that took place in the war.

The killing of civilians, whether on a small or large scale, has many possible causes. The average age of soldiers in Vietnam was 19 to 20, younger than in previous wars. The stress of war, the shock and anger of seeing friends and fellow soldiers killed, as well as the wide use of drugs and alcohol among troops may have contributed to many of the atrocities committed.

Many factors worked together in influencing the hearts and minds of those fighting in Vietnam. Most soldiers got to Vietnam with images and stereotypes of the Vietnamese people already planted in their minds. Military training, perhaps the most powerful factor behind war crimes in Vietnam, dehumanized the Vietnamese people. In order to turn them into efficient killers, recruits were trained to regard Vietnamese as if they were animals.

Mark Worrell, a former member of the Marines, remembers his training:

​Efforts were made to desensitize recruits to killing and violence. Making them constantly scream slogans about killing was one common brainwashing technique. At rollcall, before mess hall, and on command, men were drilled to yell and growl. Many things were taught “unofficially.” As one soldier put it:

According to Treratola:

"Everyone was looking forward to it [going to Vietnam] because it was like we would go out on the bayonet course and the instructor would say, “slash,” and we would all say, “kill the gook,” and we would jab it. After a while you really wanted to kill someone, because they made it seem like it’s really interesting and will be a lot of fun. After a while you don’t care anymore, you just give up (12)."

Bill Hatton, a corporal tactics instructor at Camp Pendleton, discussed his experiences in boot camp during the Vietnam period:

This training to view the Vietnamese as subhuman continued in Vietnam. It was not unheard of for officers to order men to mutilate the Vietcong bodies or to do it themselves (14).

An investigation which took place years after the massacre at My Lai showed that many of the soldiers taking part in the massacres had received insufficient training in the area of illegal orders. The soldiers had been trained and conditioned to obey orders without questioning them. Very little of their time in training was spent on the responsibility to report war crimes and the means of doing so. Rather, they were taught to obey all orders unless the order was beyond the authority of the person giving it. One unit responsible for massacres at Son My, American (23D) Division 3, had been found deficient by the United States Army Vietnam Inspector General. The inspection report of July 31, 1968 lists as a deficiency the lack of instructions on the Geneva Convention because of numerous replacements (1300 in the 11th brigade) of people who are found to be non-deployable.

Replacements often arrived right up until the day of deployment. With so many new men coming in, it was very difficult to ensure that each soldier had received adequate training. In fact, the 11th brigade shortened its training from eight weeks to four (15). Sometimes lack of good training and leadership made the difference between a platoon that remained (relatively) orderly and one in which the men, officers included, lost control and committed atrocities.

It must be kept in mind that the Vietcong committed their share of atrocities as well – in many cases, to a greater extent than the Americans. It is easy to imagine the Americans’ rage at the treatment of their own. In the case of Son My, many of the officers were inexperienced. One had arrived in country only three weeks before the massacre. The majority of the soldiers in the companies had not yet seen real combat, so they, too, had little experience. There were few contacts with the enemy before the Son My massacre. Thus, the men were often forced to operate in an unalleviated anxiety. As comrades in arms died in mines and booby traps at the hands of unseen enemies, frustration grew. Inexperienced soldiers were unable to deal with the intensity of their anger. Coupled with the almost complete lack of accountability due to poor leadership and lack of discipline, this inexperience led to feelings of confusion, fear and chaos. Asserting power over Vietnamese civilians, who in many ways represented “The Enemy,” was a means of gaining a sense of control.

Good leaders were hard to come by. Some officers felt it psychologically necessary for soldiers to occasionally be allowed to rape, torture, or kill civilians and captives. As has already been mentioned, many officers went on vendettas, advocating or participating in war crimes in response to casualties of the unit. A truly capable leader should have attempted to curb such tendencies in his men rather than encouraging and fostering them.

One possible reason previously mentioned for officers’ lack of control was the often extremely barbaric treatment of American G.I.s at the hands of the Vietcong, but it should be noted that treatment of Vietcong war prisoners by Americans was no less barbaric. Extremely cruel methods of torture, such as electrocution and garroting, were used by American soldiers. Shortly before the My Lai massacre, Lieut. Calley and his men discovered the body of an Ameri to G.I.s, the body had been hung, disemboweled, and partially decapitated. Lieut. Calley later said, in his book, “That boy, I say, is as innocent as any baby in My Lai 4 (16).”

We can only imagine the effect such incidents had on the men of the unit. Even these shocking losses, however, did not justify the murder of women and children.

Many of the soldiers heard nothing that contradicted their impression of the Vietnamese people, which had been molded in training to suit the Army’s needs. In Vietnam, it was hard to tell who the enemy was. Many G.I.s died in booby traps, which could, of course, be set by anyone. Children were sometimes used by the Vietcong to throw grenades. Sometimes the enemy struck when it was least expected (17). Soldiers could walk into villages where everyone seemed friendly, until, just as they began to relax, a mortar would shell came down out of nowhere, and the survivors would see other men of their unit blown apart. Often platoons left a village and walked straight into booby traps and land mines that the people did not warn them about. Vietcong could blend in with the locals, and G.I.s would be unable to tell the civilians from the soldiers. These experiences were more than enough to reinforce the stereotype that all Vietnamese were “the enemy.” Still, anyone of reasonable intelligence (and the platoons that operated in Son My had a high percentage of high school graduates) knows that babies and toddlers are not Vietcong, and did not set mines or arm booby-traps.

Years after the Vietnam War, the subject of war atrocities has never been put to rest. Movies such as Platoon, which won an Academy award, dealt with the motivations behind war crimes and the clash of ideologies faced on the fields of war. People are still studying the events of My Lai and other war atrocities around the world in an attempt to understand the darker side of human nature, and the U.S. military has been forced to come to terms with its policies and training’s role in the atrocities. If not for the dehumanizing tactics that soldiers were subjected to in training, the constant reinforcement of certain ideas, and poor examples given by the leadership, the massacres and atrocities in Vietnam might not have occurred with such frequency.

Sarah Terzo is a pro-life author and creator of the website. She is a member of Secular Pro-Life and Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians.


1. Hammer, Richard. One Morning in the War: the Tragedy at Son My (New York: Coward – McCann Inc., 1976), 124.

2. Hersh, Seymour M. “An Atrocity is Uncovered: November 1969,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, 1969, 122.

3. Hammer, 135.

4. Ibid., 129.

5. Lane, Mark. Conversations with Americans (New York: the Viking Press, 1970), 165.

6. Hammer, 216.

7. Lane, 91.

8. Sack, John. Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story (New York: the Viking press, 1970), 81.

9. Lane, 61.

10. Hook??? (sic)

11. Goldstein, Joseph et al. The My Lai Massacre and Its Cover Up: Beyond the Reach of Law (New York: the Free Press, 1976), 88.

12. Hammer, 40.

13. Ibid., 138.

14. Ibid, 97.

15. Peers, Lieut. Gen. WR The My Lai Inquiry (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1979), 210.

16. Sack, 71.

17. Hammer, 108.

Photo by Claudia Schillinger, some rights reserved.

Photo by Claudia Schillinger, some rights reserved.

Photo by Claudia Schillinger, some rights reserved.


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