U.S. Atrocities in Vietnam War

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As he opened the file Weinstein had given him, Apsey’s eyes were again drawn to the words on the typewritten sheet. “The baby’s throat had been cut, and there was a lot of blood on its throat and front.” He had investigated atrocities in Vietnam — rapes, murders, assaults. He was well aware of the frustrations of soldiers fighting a war with civilians caught in the middle. But the act of cutting off the head of a baby went beyond anything he had ever encountered. He knew then he was not just looking for a soldier who had used poor judgment or panicked under fire. He was looking for someone completely different.

                                 – Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War (Sallah Weiss 220)

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In an isolated incident of atrocity in 1966, a young Vietnamese girl was staked to the ground by members of an off-duty support team. It is well-known fact that GIs occasionally used poor farmers for target practice. Vietcong suspects, which was a category that could have comprised a great number of innocent citizens, were routinely tortured in diverse ways and often killed. For instance, there was a practice of forcibly ejecting some of these suspected individuals from helicopters in mid-air. The task of executing the suspects usually fell into the hands of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) police who moved together with the U.S. units.

From 1967, Phoenix teams started weakening and crippling the Vietcong infrastructure facilities. These U.S. soldiers were known for their gory decapitations. From time to time, during the Vietnam War, the character of routine operations degraded into brutal massacres. For example, after suffering heavy causalities in a three-day engagement, Marines entered a village called Thuy Bo and shot everyone in sight, in a fit of blind fury (Tucker 29).

The March 1968 massacre at My Lai, however, is the worst of all. It could be regarded as emblematic of the worst atrocities committed by U.S soldiers during the Vietnam War. It underscored the brutality and the complete disregard to human life that the American GIs were at times capable of.  On March 16, 1968, army commanders sent Task Force Barker, which comprised of three companies of infantry, backed by an artillery battery, nine transport helicopters, and gunships, on a search-and-destroy mission against the Vietcong’s 48th Battalion. It was learnt by the army that the Viet Cong were deeply entrenched in the South Vietnamese district of Son My, which was a heavily mined area. A number of soldiers belonging to Charlie Company had been severely injured or killed in this area just a few weeks before, under the onslaught of mines, snipers and booby traps.

The U.S. Army term for this area was Pinkville, and originally My Lai massacre was known as the Pinkville Massacre. During the Tet Offensive earlier that year, Vietcong’s 48th Battalion carried out many attacks in Quang Ngai province which was close to Pinkville. The whole area was known to be sympathetic to Vietcong. US military intelligence was now given the impression that the 48th Battalion was taking refuge in the Pinkville/Son My region. The U.S. Military then launched a desperate offensive to extirpate communism from one of the very fertile Viet Cong territories. The army intelligence genuinely believed that this area could in fact be the headquarters for a Vietcong battalion, and a fierce battle was expected.

My Lai was one of the Son My’s hamlets. The Barker task force as a whole was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker. Captain Ernest Medina commanded Charlie Company, with First Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., leading its First Platoon. The leaders of the task force believed that more than two hundred Viet Cong guerillas were in and around Son My district. There was a rapid incursion of U.S troops into the Son My area.  The troops of First Platoon entered My Lai under a state of severe emotional distress, and with the hope of finally encountering and engaging the elusive enemy. The best-know atrocity of the protracted Vietnam War was about to commence, a brutal act of terror which would leave a whole nation shaken to its roots, and heavily influence the subsequent course of Vietnam War.

After Calley had been convicted, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr suggested that the episode had caused a rupture in modern American Consciousness: ‘This is a moment of truth when realize that we are not a virtuous nation.’ Time magazine agreed, asserting that ‘the crisis of confidence caused by the Calley affair is a graver phenomenon than the horror following the assassination of President Kennedy. Historically it is far more crucial.’…[T]he massacre at My Lai is a pivotal event not just in the history of the Vietnam War, but also in the history of the American nation as a whole (Oliver 172).

The search-and-destroy mission degenerated into a massacre of over 300 unarmed civilians offering no resistance whatsoever. The victims included women, children, and the elderly. As the members of Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division entered My Lai, they received express orders from their superiors giving them free license to kill people indiscriminately, and destroy the village. “This is what you have been waiting for,” urged the officers, “and you’ve got it.” The day before the planned attack, Charlie Company was informed by the concerned military authorities that normal citizens dwelling in the village would as a matter of custom leave their homes and go to market by 7. A.M., and therefore it can be safely assumed that whoever was left behind was not a regular citizen and could be in some way or other affiliated to Vietcong. At the briefing, according to some reports, when Captain Ernest Medina was asked about the fate of women and children caught in the line of fire, he expressed no reservations.

During the meetings leading up to the attack, the brigade commander, Colonel Oran Henderson, demanded more aggression from his soldiers, after expressing his dissatisfaction at the past failed attempts to capture the enemy. It was Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker who drew up detailed plans for Charlie Company to spearhead the main attack, under the command of Captain Ernest Medina. But even though, most of these senior officials were implicated directly or indirectly in the catastrophe about to happen, all of them, except for William Calley, would deny any responsibility for what happened in My Lai. My Lai massacre would come to be known as the Calley Affair.

Brigadier General Al Haig warned [of Calley] to white House staff concerning the case: “There is no individual under investigation, charged or convicted in any case [resulting from the Vietnam War] whose crime can even remotely be said to equal to that of Calley.” It was Calley who, weeks before My Lai, threw a defenseless old man down a well and shot him. It was Calley who, seeing a baby at My Lai crawling away from a ditch already filled with dead and dying villagers, seized the child by the leg, threw it back in the pit, and shot it…. Calley was by no means the only one responsible for the massacre at My Lai — but he was the only man ever found guilty of any offense committed there. (Bilton, Sim, 1-2)

As the leader of the First Platoon, Calley did not leave much doubt for the soldiers of the Company as to what they were expected to do. These very young men, most of whom were barely out of their teen years and completely new to combat; they were headed to a premeditated carnage in which no Vietnamese was to be spared.

The men of Charlie Company landed in Vietnam barely three months earlier, towards the ending of 1967. They were inexperienced, but had a good record in training and were considered to be one of the best companies in their battalion. These youngsters, averaging the age of 20, represented a large cross section of American youth. They were all normal Americans, mostly hailing from middle-class families. There was nothing suspicious or irregular about them. The Company was a unit of about 120 men, among whom 38 were already wounded out of action and four lay dead. However, due to the expert covert tactics of the Vietcong, it was very difficult for these soldiers to find a concrete enemy whom they could capture or shoot back at.  It seemed to very difficult to distinguish the enemy. The good and the bad, the North and the South all looked alike. The Vietnam War was different from most other wars in this way, since it was primarily based not on the clash of two armies, but on the Vietcong’s nasty and cunning guerilla tactics. As the soldiers’ casualties kept mounting steadily, so was their frustration. To them, soon the lines of distinction between Vietnamese fighters and civilians got blurred.

At the zero hour, William Calley ordered these men explicitly to enter the village firing, though for no apparent reasons, and in the absence of any signs of gun fire from the opposite side. The soldiers clearly found no insurgents or any trace of insurgent activity. Yet the deaths of their comrades recently maimed and killed in and around this region were fresh in the memories of most of these soldiers. They had to take out their rage on someone, and could not find anyone better than poor innocent villagers, most of whom were elderly men, women and children.

It is possible that the soldiers first asked the villagers about the whereabouts of Vietcong, and could not glean any useful information from the villagers, who either did not know or refused to divulge it. The soldiers must have been naturally infuriated at the obstreperous attitude of the villagers, and there were also suspicions that members of VC could be hiding underground, right under their feet. The frenzied soldiers were obviously not in a state of mind to even give heed to the consequences of their actions that day, when these atrocities would be known to the media and public.

Later on, several chilling eyewitness accounts emerged describing how several old men were bayoneted, and how praying women and children were shot in the back of their heads. Young girls were raped, or gang raped, and killed. Calley, who was in charge of the operation, started personally getting involved in the murder and mayhem with zeal. For example, he rounded up a group of villagers into a ditch and opened fire on them indiscriminately. He also seemed to have expressed his intention to throw hand-grenades into trenches that were not filled with helpless villagers.

Most of the soldiers present participated in these macabre rituals quite heartily. They simply seemed to have gone berserk, shooting at everyone in sight, and for pure fun. Families who sought shelter in their huts were ruthlessly put down. Those who walked out with hands held high were as quickly done away with.

That day in My Lai, I was personally responsible for killing about 25 people. Personally. Men, women. From shooting them, to cutting their throats, scalping them, to… cutting off their hands and cutting out their tongue. I did it… I just went. My mind just went. And I wasn’t the only one that did it. A lot of other people did it. I just killed. Once I started, the … the training, the whole programming part of killing, it just came out…. I just lost all sense of direction, of purpose. I just started killing any kinda way I could kill. It just came. I didn’t know I had it in me.

–          Varnardo Simpson, a soldier of the Charlie Company

                                   (Bilton, Sim 7)

Up to 400 people could have been killed on this ignominious day. A memorial at the site of the massacre lists 504 names of people of all ages, from infants to the octogenarians. In a matter of four hours, from around 400 to 500 innocent people were purposefully butchered in cold blood at the hands of US troops. The village of My Lai ceased to exist. The story of My Lai would, however, lie unexposed for over one and a half year. When it came out in headlines, it heavily tarnished the name of the US army. These were the kind of atrocities people associate with Nazis and Americans did not readily believe that their noble and heroic GI Joe could be responsible for rabid violence and wanton murders. It became a turning point in the public perception of the Vietnam War, and turned out to be a watershed moment in the history of modern warfare that America partook of.

The most disturbing thing I saw was one boy — and this was something that, you know, this what haunts me from the whole, the whole ordeal down there. And there was a boy with his arm shot off, shot up half, half hanging on and he just had this bewildered look in his face and like, What did I do, what’s wrong? He was just, you know, it’s, it’s hard to describe, couldn’t comprehend. I, I shot the boy, killed him and it’s — I’d like to think of it more or less as a mercy killing because somebody else would have killed him in the end, but it wasn’t right.

                    – Fred Wilder, another soldier (Pbs.org)

Though 26 men were initially charged, finally only William Calley was convicted of murdering twenty-two villagers at My Lai, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1971. Three years later, however, he was released. From the time of initial shocking revelations to the time of Calley’s conviction and after — the scale of this atrocity was generally apparent to everyone.  Writers and commentators realized its full historical significance. The New York Times declared that these atrocities may turn out to have been one of this nation’s most ignoble hours.” “Our spirit is scarred,” concluded an anchorperson of ABC news. To everyone this massacre offered a compelling reason for America to pull back from Vietnam, “not only because what of what the war is doing to the Vietnamese or to our reputation abroad, but because of what it is doing to us” (Oliver 172).

One of the most intriguing aspects of My Lai is the fact that it took over one full year for the facts to hit headlines, although the whole stage of Vietnam War was under the intensely glaring light of media. There were obviously massive cover-up operations, which could have very well succeeded. There was a high likelihood for My Lai to have been suppressed for ever, in spite of the magnitude of the massacre and the number of people involved. This raises a very perplexing possibility: Could it be possible for other atrocities of My Lai proportions to have taken place during the Vietnam War of which we know nothing? It is a possibility we cannot easily dismiss. In August of this year, LA Times broke a story about declassified military files which document 320 separate atrocities perpetrated by the military during the Vietnam War, not including My Lai. LA Times reports that the files are part of a secret archive assembled by a Pentagon task force, detailing hundreds of confirmed atrocities by U.S. forces in Vietnam, all of which makes the scope of Vietnam War atrocities go beyond anything we have previously imagined. LA Times, however, goes on to say that the 9000-page recently declassified document is by no means an exhaustive list of all U.S. war crimes of Vietnam War, but only the largest of such collection to surface so far.

Among the confirmed cases in the archive are:

•  Seven massacres from 1967 through 1971 in which at least 137 civilians died.

•  Seventy-eight other attacks on noncombatants in which at least 57 were killed, 56 wounded and 15 sexually assaulted.

•  One hundred forty-one instances in which U.S. soldiers tortured civilian detainees or prisoners of war with fists, sticks, bats, water or electric shock. (Turse, Nelson)

The newly released government records describe killings of ordinary Vietnamese citizens and their families going about their daily activities. They present interviews of hundreds of soldiers clearly testifying to the brutal acts of an evil and insane minority who murdered, raped and tortured to their heart’s content, and most of them with no repercussions to themselves and their careers. Such crimes tainted all the battalions and were not limited to any few.

In all, only 203 soldiers were convicted of war crimes during the Vietnam War, of whom only 57 were court-martialed and 23 convicted with minor sentences. Only one military intelligence interrogator was convicted for a period of 20 years and served his sentence in full. This punishment, though, was for a relatively minor crime of committing indecent acts on a minor girl in 1967. Most other soldiers and officers guilty of far greater crimes against humanity came off with impunity, receiving a formal reprimand at the most.

The Vietnam War was especially “dirty.” Nobody can deny that. But what most experts on Vietnam War unanimously condemn is the public perception of Vietnam War as atrocity-ridden. This is a myth, they say, and one of several myths surrounding the war. The origins of such myths are attributed to various sociopolitical circumstances. While some of the writers do concede that the U.S. military may have conducted their ground operations with less concern for the civilian population than it was demanded of them, the popular perception of illegal military action is seen as blown out all proportions.

Individual acts of murder, rape and looting have been committed by U.S. troops in every American war. The claim that the infamous massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians on March 16. 1968, at My Lai indicated that American soldiers and units were more likely to engage in atrocities in Vietnam than American soldiers in previous wars was an illusion, produced by relative absence of censorship during the Vietnam War (Lind 246).

Brutality and atrocities are inherent to warfare, these experts observe. The differences between the Second World War or the Korean War and the Vietnam War are essentially a result of media coverage. Michael Lind, in his book Vietnam: The Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict, goes on to say that crimes committed during the Vietnam War simply received more coverage than in any previous military engagement that the U.S was involved in.

In the Vietnam War, by contrast, such atrocities were widely reported (but only after the public and elite had already turned against the war because of its cost).Even so, a Time magazine poll in May 1970 showed that a majority of Americans correctly believed that incidents such as My Lai took place in all wars. Even Peter Arnett, the antiwar journalist who in 1998 falsely reported on CNN that U.S. soldiers had used nerve gas in Vietnam, admitted that during his time as a reporter during the war he never saw any U.S. soldier murder civilians. “They didn’t even think of it. Every unit I was with, [the GIs] went out of their way to be kind and decent with the people.” (Lind 246)

The horrific conclusion of this line of argument seems to be that that not only My Lai was not an exception in the Vietnam War, and many other My Lai or mini My Lai’s might have happened, but also that My Lai’s happen in all wars on the right side as well as, though obviously not as much as, on the wrong side. Whatever atrocities the U.S. army may have committed against the Vietnamese citizens they are all sure to pale before the atrocities committed by the Vietcong:

The United States sought to minimize and prevent attacks on civilians while North Vietnam made attacks on civilians a centerpiece of its strategy. Americans who deliberately killed civilians received prison sentences while Communists who did so received commendations. From 1957 to 1973, the National Liberation Front assassinated 36,725 South Vietnamese and abducted another 58,499. The death squads focused on leaders at the village level and on anyone who improved the lives of the peasants such as medical personnel, social workers, and schoolteachers. (Harrington).

Dunnington and Nofi too, in their book, Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War: Military Information You’re Not Supposed to Know, are motivated to strongly defend America’s position:

Although war is inherently an atrocity, for some reason the notion that wars can be fought “humanely” persist, so soldiers are supposed to refrain from all sorts of activities. In general American troops do, with a few glaring exceptions. In fact, since the nineteenth century the United States has had a record of prosecuting its own personnel in instances where atrocities may have been perpetrated. Few other countries bother. (235)

As ghastly as the myriad atrocities of the Vietnam War may seem to us, we ought not to take things out of context. It is true that a small percentage of soldiers went berserk and committed inhuman crimes, but it is also true that a majority of American GI’s honorably fought for a worthy cause, and many of them sacrificed their lives in the name of their country. While studying U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, it is first and foremost essential not to lose the perspective.

Showing atrocities as routine, or carelessly assuming that murdering peasants was “what they were sent to do,” was not only a terrible injustice to all those Americans who served in Vietnam and were not murderers. It also obscured the real issue of American responsibility for civilian deaths and suffering in Vietnam, caused, in the overwhelming majority of cases, not by the moral confusion or deadly impulses of scared young soldiers in the field, but by basic U.S. tactics, doctrines, and military technology (Issacs 22).

But Issacs goes on to assert that U.S. military went to great lengths to minimize collateral damage. By no means did it perpetrate random acts of war. Thus, as we have seen above, scholar after scholar in this area of study has expressed consternation at the way U.S atrocities in the Vietnam War tend to sensationalized while the truly heroic efforts of countless brave soldiers tend to be forgotten. There are any number of authors who have passionately downplayed the extent and scope of atrocities in Vietnam War, though whether they would continue to do so in the light of the most recent revelations is doubtful. In the end, war itself is an atrocity, a brutality, and a consummate evil, where human beings are dehumanized, degraded and destroyed as if they were insects, and it has always been so throughout human history. In such circumstances, even a power for the good of mankind, such as America has been, may not be exempt from getting embroiled in evil in one way or other.


Bilton, Michael; Sim, Kevin. “Four Hours in My Lai.” 1992. New York : Penguin Books

Dunnigan, James F., Nofi, Albert A. “Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War: Military Information You’re Not Supposed to Know” (Dirty Little Secrets). 1999. New York : Thomas Dunne Books

Harrington, Gary. “Statistics and Myths about the Vietnam War.” 15th Field Artillery Regiment. 28 Nov 2006. http://www.landscaper.net/timelin.htm

Isaacs, Arnold R. “Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy” (The American Moment). 1997. Baltimore, Maryland : The Johns Hopkins University Press

Lind, Michael. “Vietnam: The Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict.” 1999. New York : Touchstone

Oliver, Kendrick. “‘Not much of a place anymore’: the reception and memory of the massacre at My Lai.” In, The Memory of Catastrophe. Ed. Peter Gray. pp. 171-189. 2004. Manchester : Manchester University Press

Pbs.org. “Remember My Lai.” Pacific Broadcasting Service. 1989. 28 Nov 2006.


Sallah, Michael. Weiss, Mitch. “Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War.” New York : Little, Brown and Company. 2006.

Tucker, Spencer C. “Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History.” 1998. Oxford : Oxford University Press

Turse, Nick; Deborah Nelson. “Civilian Killings Went Unpunished: Declassified papers show U.S. atrocities went far beyond My Lai.” Los Angeles Times. August 6, 2006.  28 Nov 2006 ;http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/asection/la-na-vietnam6aug06,1,2479259.story?ctrack=1;cset=true;

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