America’s Inhumanity Americas Inhumanity The greatest tragedy is war, but so long as there is mankind, there will be war. -Jomini The Art of War Military History 4/2/00 On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company of the Americal Division moved into the hamlet of My Lai and committed one of the most brutal atrocities in the Vietnam War and American history. However much their actions resulted from inherent stresses of the war, their brutal targeting of noncombatants was said to be an exceptional deviation from orders. Some 500 civilians were killed and it was not until a year later, with a letter from Ron Ridenhour, that the Criminal Investigation Division of the US Army checked the validity of the accusation. Then General Peers was asked to head a Commission to determine what happened and who was at fault. Since then, countless attempts have been made to explain how such an atrocity could have occurred. One of the strongest suggests that as an attempt to lift the demoralized spirit after the Tet offensive, the Charlie company platoon leader, Lt. Calley, led a mission to eliminate a Viet Cong stronghold in the vicinity of Son My village.
This mission succeeded only in the death of unarmed, innocent men, women, children and babies thus revealing the brutal nature of war. To understand why the My Lai incident happened, one must understand the events leading to it. In 1967 the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF) decided the time had come to launch an all out offensive aimed at the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and US forces. In December of 1967 the North Vietnamese attacked the US marine base at Khe Sanh. General Westmoreland, the commanding US military officer in Vietnam, wanted the outpost at Khe Sanh held at all costs.
As a result, 50,000 troops were called to the area thus weakening positions further south. The main thrust of Tet began on January 31, 1968 at the start of the Vietnamese lunar New Year celebration when a cease-fire had been agreed upon. It was the greatest celebration, it was Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one, was how it was explained to American GIs.4 Most of the ARVN troops had gone home on leave and the US troops were on stand down in most areas. Over 85,000 NLF soldiers simultaneously struck almost every major city and provincial capital across South Vietnam sending defenders reeling. Previously thought invulnerable, the US Embassy in Saigon was taken over by the NLF.
The imperial capital of Hue witnessed the bloodiest fighting of the entire war during this offensive. During the Tet offensive, Charlie Company was stationed at the American base LZ Dottie and put on alert. The flashes in the west and the rolling concussions of explosions brought to Charlie Company a numbing sense of their own vulnerability. The enemy were all around.5 From LZ Dottie, Charlie Company was moved south to block the enemys line of retreat. Between where Charlie Company was stationed and the sea lay the villages of My Lai. Having succumbed to American forces, the Viet Congs 48th Local Force Battalion had retreated towards Charlie Company.
Because Charlie Company was in ARVN territory, they were unable to open fire against the retreating 48th Battalion until they received permission from South Vietnamese authorities. I distinctly remember watching them suckers march out of there and we could not touch them, Fred Widmer remembered6 the enemy would never again be such an easy target. Charlie Company was frustrated, because after letting the Viet Cong retreat in the direction of My Lai, they were ordered to find them. They were chasing phantoms. There was nothing to show for the long, hot, exhausting days tramping through paddy fields and friendless villages.7 Clearly this must have been a frustrating endeavor for Charlie Company. Compounding this frustration of not finding the enemy was the notion that one couldnt tell the difference between civilian and enemy.
The goal had changed from the initial mission of keeping Vietnam free from communism to simply surviving to make it home again. We werent fighting for democracy or the country. I realized that the majority of the people in that country did not want us there . . .
. I bet I went through hundreds of hamlets and little villages over there, and I never had a Vietnamese come up to me and say, Theres VC over there. Wed go ask them, Where are the VC? But they were all VC. They fed them and clothed them, sheltered them . .
. And I thought it would be just the opposite when I got there. I thought the people in the South that werent carrying weapons would be on our side. It was apparent that wasnt the case.8 The enemy was thus reduced to an obstacle in the way of getting home safely. Such frustration and anger was compounded by a lack of understanding of Vietnamese language and customs.
In his testimony to the Peers Commission in 1970, company member Michael Bernhardt expands on this idea, now a person loses a certain aspect for being valued as a human being if you cannot understand them . . . What they (soldiers) thought were these people were a whole lot less than human. Morale was low with Charlie Company as feelings of isolation and abandonment set in. Weeks of K- rations, rising at dawn and digging in every night were taking its toll on the men.
Just two days before the My Lai massacre, Gregory Olsen witnessed a brutal attack on a female civilian by several members of Charlie Company. It happened after a booby trap killed one soldier and blew the legs off another. The men took out their frustrations by killing the first Vietnamese they saw . . .
Olsen wrote to his father. These are all seemingly normal guys; some were friends of mine. For a while they were wild animals.9 Because Charlie Company had lost some men, many soldiers adopted a new code of behavior, one that permitted the killing of prisoners, the torture of suspects, the cutting off of ears of the dead, and the rough treatment and rape of civilians.10 Because many of the US troops were being wounded and killed by booby traps and snipers (being wounded by a booby trap usually meant loss of limbs) and there were no Viet Cong visible to engage in ope …