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: