Amid the ever-increasing list of war time atrocities, the My Lai, Vietnam massacre of March 16, 1968 has to count among the most significant. For South Africans, remembering My Lai takes on special significance as we approach commemorations of the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1962. The My Lai massacres must be called out for what they were — a war crime.
This effort is a brief yet critical reflection on portions of history which tend to raise the same set of fundamental and universal questions that will test our willingness in the future to either engage in armed conflict or choose the alternative — to work towards a negotiated, principled and just peace.
Democracy doesn’t work well when people don’t know what’s going on or what went on. Amnesia disarms every good effort to hold power to account in a democracy.
In Vietnam, following the initial direct deployment of 100 troops in 1961 by US President John F Kennedy, the surge under his successor President Lyndon Johnson reached into the 200,000 mark  and peaked at 530,000 troops in 1968. That year marked a significant turning point for the war, mainly through the TET Offensive launched on January 30, 1968 by the Viet Cong [VC — South Vietnamese Resistance] and the North Vietnamese Forces, and the My Lai incident.
Amid the surge in American forces in 1968, Charlie Company was deployed to Vietnam’s Qu?ng Ngãi Province, in which My Lai was a hamlet. The unit was headed by Captain Ernest Medina and his Lieutenant Wiliam Calley, aged 24. The average age of the American combat soldier in Charlie Company in 1968 was 20.
On the evening of March 15, Charlie Company was briefed on the next day’s mission into “Pinkville”, the American term for Qu?ng Ngãi Province. The directive to Charlie Company, as has now become clear, was to kill anything and anybody they came into contact with; without any distinction being made between an enemy combatant and a civilian.
At 07:30 on Saturday March 16, 1968, the mayhem started as Charlie Company entered My Lai. Huts were burnt and as people came out of their homes they were rounded up and killed. Many cases of rape and the mutilation of young girls by American troops were later reported by the troops themselves.
Without a single recorded encounter of enemy fire, villagers, mostly women, children and babies, were rounded up and shot. There are reports of mothers who protected their babies under their bodies during the killings. When the shooting stopped the children would crawl out from under the pile of bodies only to be shot dead by the American troops. There are specific reports of Lieutenant William Calley and Captain Ernest Medina having killed children in such circumstances. Although the exact number of Vietnamese killed at My Lai remains unconfirmed, the dead numbered up to 504 people.
Amid this horror, clear judgement and a sense of the difference between right and wrong showed itself in the form of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot offering air support to ground troops. Recognising from his chopper that this was wanton murder, he convinced his two crew members that they should intervene. Officer Thompson and his two colleagues went on to save a number of lives by flying out Vietnamese survivors and the wounded from what would have been certain death.
The cover–up of the My Lai massacre by the American military authorities was, itself, a crime continued. Officer Hugh Thompson was vilified and called a traitor for his actions and revelations. Before the end of March 1968, a letter of commendation was issued to Captain Medina. The military’s suppression of the story for much of 1968 and 1969 was very effective.
Enter Mr Seymour Hersh, 1969, who was a reporter with the New Yorker at the time. After picking up fragments of stories about mass killings of Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers, Hersh decided to follow his hunch that the story was bigger than that being disclosed. Until Hersh understood the magnitude of this story, the official spin was in full swing, without anything representing full disclosure or a respectable inquiry into the incident.
He travelled across America to interview people associated with the My Lai incident. His break came with tracking down Lieutenant Calley and interviewing him. Seymour Hersh broke the full story on November 12, 1969 and forever changed the American conscience on the Vietnam War. He went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for this story.
The furthest point that the My Lai massacre reached in America was the four–month court martial which charged 14 soldiers linked to the incident. In the end, only Lieutenant Calley was convicted of murdering at least 20 Vietnamese civilians. On March 29, 1971 he was sentenced to life imprisonment, which was later, in August, reduced to 20 years. He effectively served three–and–a–half years under house arrest and was released on parole in September 1974.
With regard to the question as to why an incident such as My Lai occurred in the first place, the fog starts to lift almost immediately when one realises that the atrocities committed cannot be uncoupled from the two dominant uncertainties suffered by American marines serving in Vietnam. First, as to who the enemy really was and, second, as to what were they fighting for in the first place.
For those who were reading on the bus last night about how a Cold War plays itself out, it will be plain to see that such uncertainties and ambiguities are central to Cold War geopolitics. In the theatre of war, the enlightenment of operatives in the trenches usually gets in the way of the military industrial complex and, in this case, the effective execution of a successful atrocity.
To connect the dots, perhaps a reflection on one of South Africa’s long list of pre-1994 massacres: Sharpeville, 21 March 1960. In the case of the Vietnam War, with an undefined enemy and without a set of clear military and political objectives, the war soon came back home to the streets of America and to its university campuses, leading to the tipping point with its very own homegrown massacre of innocent, unarmed students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. America was at war with itself.
The South African government in the 1960s-1980s spared no lie in invoking the same “red threat” as the Americans did, to justify our very own homegrown and cross-border massacres in the name of the fight against the communist threat, when South Africa was actually at war with itself.
The road to Sharpeville or the road to Pinkville is always through the human spirit. History has a wicked way of repeating itself — only when we let it. DM
Patrick Pillay has enjoyed a diverse career which journeyed through being a Laboratory Technician in a Chemical Factory, to a long and rewarding career within the Finance and Banking Sector, to private Business Development Consulting and now to being a full-time student [PhD] at University of KwaZulu-Natal.