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Was the My Lai Massacre a failure in the Rules of Engagement or a tragedy of War? Essay

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The origins of the Vietnam War started with the partition of Vietnam. The partitioning of Vietnam began when Ho Chi Minh who was a Moscow trained communist created the Indochinese Communist Party in Vietnam. At the end of World War II, France took Vietnam from the Japanese who had occupied it during the war. Ho Chi Minh had created his own guerrilla forces during the Japanese occupation to start a revolution at the end of WWII. As Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945, the Viet Minh forces rose throughout the country (August Revolution), and declared the establishment of an independent republic with its capital Hanoi. During the French occupation, France established a rival Vietnamese government with Bao-Dai as leader (he was the last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty). In August 1945 Bao Dai abdicated the throne in favor of Ho Chi Minh’s republic.

Negotiations to come up with a solution for France and the Viet Minh government in 1946 failed. War broke out in December when Viet Minh forces attacked French positions in Hanoi. Peace Talks started in July of 1954, the French agreed to a compromise agreement (Geneva Accords). This agreement caused the withdrawal of French troops and a temporary division of the Vietnam into two parts. The Communists took North Vietnam, and the non-Communists took South Vietnam. The United States, who have always fought against Communism, wanted to stop the communist threat in Asia, and so decided to support the South Vietnamese people with Medication, Weapons, and Ammunition. The United States got involved even more by teaching South Vietnamese troops western warfare. The US started introducing their own ground troops into Vietnam and Cambodia. These were organized into Platoons of about 12-15 Men.

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On March 16th, 1968, in the Quang Ngai Province, the Charlie Company Platoon in their Search and Destroy Mission butchered a Hamlet called My Lai 4. Charlie Company’s commanding officer was Ernest Medina, a 30-year-old Mexican-American who was well liked by his soldiers, and his platoon leader was the 24-year-old Lt. William Calley. They had massacred up to 400-500 Civilians, and the man who carries most of the blame was Lieutenant Calley Jr. The incident remained unknown to the American Public until the autumn of 1969, when a former soldier wrote a series of letters to government officials, which forced the army to take action. The choice of the US Government to get involved into an South-East Asian political crisis has caused the initial stages of the murderous Vietnam War, which had taken many young and innocent lives. My Lai was a reinterpretation of the Rules of Engagement by US Platoon leaders in an under supervised war.

Vietnam Engagements had begun to violate the Rules of Engagement much earlier, and My Lai was the first to be recognized. The Rules of Engagement are supposed to save the innocent lives in Warfare, and give soldiers a base to stand and build upon. It gives them a certainty and a law that they have to follow in war to insure safety to civilians and themselves. The definition of Rules of Engagement is ‘Directives issued by competent authority which delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States Forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.’0 The rules of behavior are:

If possible the enemy will be warned first, then asked to surrender.

Deadly force is the last resort.

When possible try to arrange for the evacuation of civilians prior to any US attack.1

The Massacre that started with one soldier acted as a psychological catalyst on the other members of the Charlie Company, transforming the search and destroy mission into a killing spree. On March 16th, 1968, at about 8:00 Am, three platoons called the Charlie Company moved into the Quang Ngai Province, close to the Hamlets of My Lai 4. They were carrying out their Search and Destroy mission meaning they had to search for Vietcong, arrest them and destroy their weapons, ammunition, food, and shelter. First two of the platoons moved into the area of My Lai. The Platoon leader Cpt. Medina and his 2nd Man in Power Lt. Calley, both watched as they stayed behind with their platoons.

The first Platoon of Lt. Grzesik moved into the village and started the usual interrogation of people on their search for VCs (Vietcong). The residents of My Lai didn’t run away because they knew that if they ran, the US Soldiers would mistake them for VCs and kill them. As some people had been interrogated Lt. Grzesik ordered Sergeant Meadlo a member of his unit, to take them to Lt. Calley for further interrogation. Grzesik didn’t see Meadlo again for about an hour, and so went on to look for him. The killings began without any sort of warning, as a young soldier of Lt. Calley’s Platoon stabbed a man in the back with his bayonet, picked up another, and threw him in a well, with a M26 Grenade.2

Afterwards Private Stanley saw about twenty little children and an elderly woman praying and crying at a small temple. He went to them and killed them with headshots. About eighty people where brought to the center of the hamlet. They shouted: “No VC, No VC!” hoping that the Americans would stop.3 At around 8:15 Am, Lt. Calley told Sergeant Meadlo that he wants them all dead, and ordered Meadlo to kill them. Meadlo did so and shot them with his M16. Do Chuc, a 48-year old Vietnamese Peasant, had two daughters and one aunt who were brutally murdered by GI’s in My Lai 4 that day.4 The GI’s set up a machine gun, as more people where taken to the center of the hamlet. A monk showed the GI’s some ID’s from people, but a GI said: “Sorry”, and the shooting started.5 The GI’s opened fire on the people with their machine guns. Do Chuc was hit in the leg, and survived because he was covered by dead bodies. He had waited for an hour, until he escaped the village.

Dennis I., a former soldier, said “They shot at everything in sight” he continued “We were all psyched up, and as a result, when we got there the shooting started, almost as a chain reaction. The majority of us had expected to meet VC combat troops, but this did not turn out to be so. First we saw a few men reasoning with the Locals about their identity, and the next thing I knew we were shooting at everything. Everybody was just firing. After they got in the village, I guess you could say that the men were out of control.”6 Sergeant Brooks and his man of the second Platoon started to systematically loot the Hamlet.

They slaughtered the people, killed the livestock, and destroyed the crops. They shot up the huts without caring what inside of them. Private Roywood one of Calley’s men used a M79 Grenade Launcher to destroy huts. The residents where chopped to pieces by soldiers and helicopter gun-ships. About fifteen GI’s shot a cow full of bullets, and as they saw a woman’s head behind a bush they turned and shot the woman. During all this time not one single questions was asked as the platoons where supposed to, in their interrogation, though they only shot and killed people. The village looked like a bomb hit it. Dead animals, people, and fire everywhere. The soldiers cut up children and shot others, not even hesitant about babies. Some soldiers wondered why this was going on, but Captain Medina lied to them, saying that they had killed eighty VC’s and captured twenty suspects.

At about 9:00 Am all of the Charlie Company’s men were in My Lai 4 and most of the families living in My Lai where shot in their homes. People where moved into bunkers, and when full, they threw grenades into the bunkers. GI Carter said that during the massacre many soldiers were joking, shouting, laughing, and enjoying themselves.7 During the massacre Grzesik saw Meadlo crying, who said that Lt. Calley made him shoot civilians.8 At about 9:20 Am, Hugh C. Thompson, who was a helicopter pilot saw all the dead people but no VC and painted the wounded civilians with smoke bombs from his helicopter. As Thompson watched, Captain Medina came up to them and shot them. After doing so Thompson said that Medina gave him a “dumb shit-eating grin”.9 Thompson kept marking the wounded but GI’s just came up and kill each wounded. Lt. Calley, who saw a little kid running, ran after it and threw it in a ditch shooting it.

At about 10:30, Thompson had enough, and landed with his helicopter, stepped in front of some civilians, and told the soldiers, that if they would kill any more civilians he and his Helicopter Crew will open fire on the GI’s. Lt. Calley got mad and ordered Private Mitchell and Grzesik to kill all the people who were in the ditches. Thompson rescued the civilians that he had shielded. The GI’s didn’t only kill people and burned huts but also raped little girls and women.10 Lt. Carter, who had a mental breakdown from the illegal killings, shot himself in the foot so that he could stop. Some of the GI’s started having a bad conscience and helped some wounded residents. The GI’s joked that “anything that’s dead and isn’t white is a VC”.11

At 12:00 Pm, My Lai was history. In 1998 Thompson, Colburn, and Androetta were awarded the Soldiers Medal for saving some ten civilians. At the ceremony a military official said: “Helicopter Pilot Hugh C. Thompson, door gunner Colburn, and Chopper crew chief Androetta saved ten civilians during the massacre of non-combatants by American forces, placing themselves between the American Soldiers and the fleeing villagers. They are now being awarded and honored because they embodied the best of army values and for setting the standard on a day that was one of the most shameful chapters in the Army’s History.” 12

The Army Court-Martial doesn’t always prove to be as effective as it is supposed to be. Several soldiers and veterans were charged with murder, and a number of officials were accused of dereliction of duty for covering up the incident. Special investigations by the Army and the House of Representatives concluded that a massacre had taken place. An interviewed photographer said he focused his camera on a child, but the kid was blown to pieces before he could take the picture. After the shooting in My Lai, all the surviving villagers became communists, showing their doubt in Americas Capitalism. On March 29th, 1971, Lt. Calley was found guilty of the premeditated murder of at least twenty-two Vietnamese Civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He hired as his attorney George Latimer, a lawyer with military experience from Salt Lake City, who served on the Military Court of Appeals. Latimer felt impressed with Calley: “You couldn’t find a nicer boy,” he said, adding that if Calley was guilty of anything it was only following orders.”13 For four months the Peers Panel interviewed 398 witnesses, ranging from General Koster to soldiers of the Charlie Company. More then 20,000 pages of testimony where recorded by the Army and House of Representatives. The report asked for action to be taken against dozens of soldiers who had committed rape, murder, or participated in the cover-up. They decided to prosecute twenty-five people, from officers to enlisted men, including General Koster, Colonel Oran Henderson, and Captain Medina.

Medina who had to take a polygraph test told the truth when he said that he didn’t tell his soldiers to kill the innocent people of My Lai. Medina himself was charged with murder of 102 civilians. His wrongdoing was that he knew that civilians were being murdered but didn’t stop it. He was released, and months later when a perjury prosecution was no longer possible, he admitted that he had covered up evidence and lied to his commander about the body count. Calley was charged with machine-gunning people, striking an old man with his rifle bud, and shooting a child in a ditch. Meadlo chose not to answer questions since he didn’t want to incriminate himself.

George Latimer, Calley’s Lawyer argued that Medina was lying. He said that Medina did give the order to kill civilians, and knew the whole time was going on in My Lai, and as a result the army was using Calley as a scapegoat. Col. Clifford Ford pronounced Calley’s Sentence: “To be confined at hard labor for the length of your natural life, to be dismissed from the service; to forfeit all pay and allowances”.14 His sentence was later reduced to ten years, and in September 1974 he was released from prison. The long trial of the Charlie Company by the US Army and the US government gave the people of My Lai accountability, though people who wanted retaliation or justice where disappointed.

The sourcing of this Essay was an uneasy task, since the sources for this essay were from one country, the US. Sources from a Vietnamese point of view, where basically impossible to get, due to lack of variety in material and persons to be interviewed. As some of the sources could have been biased in the point of view of an American Historian, many are also true documents taken from the Court-Martial Documents, and live documented interviews. The paragraph about the actual incident in My Lai is mostly unbiased because of its many primary source quotes and documentations. It is told from an American Perspective, but a basic and detailed retelling of the actual event at My Lai.

The smaller paragraph on the Rules of Engagement had sources from a war movie and a military page on the actual Rules of Engagement. The Rules of Engagement are not further discussed in that paragraph since they are interlinked with the incident paragraph and court-martial of the essay. The paragraph on the court-martial is includes facts and recorded material of the actual documents of the My Lai court-martial and a pull out from a letter that was written to President Nixon. The conclusion includes actual statistics on polls taken by the American Public, which were pulled out of the Internet. As said above sourcing for this essay was very difficult, due to the lack of informative material from a Vietnamese perspective.

In November 1969, the American Public found out about the background at My Lai. The Massacre was the cover story of both TIMES and NEWSWEEK, and LIFE Magazine published Haeberle’s photographs of the massacre. As Press released the story it had a deep impact on the American people and created important international repercussions. To the world this was a disappointment because the American military had the reputation for admirable civilized conduct. Many Americans didn’t even believe that the My Lai Massacre actually took place. A public opinion poll showed that 49% of the 600 people questioned didn’t believe that the massacre occurred.

Many believed that this was left wing propaganda designed to embarrass the US, and another poll showed that 65% of 1600 people asked foresaw that an incident like My Lai was going to happen since such tragedies were part of war.15 “The US not the Vietcong are the real enemy of South Vietnam.”16 Rather than demanding the punishment of the men who murdered at My Lai, the American People were irritated when Lt. Calley was court-martialed. President Nixon removed Calley from the stockade and placed him under house arrest. In response to that Judge Aubrey Daniel wrote in a letter to Nixon: “The Greatest tragedy of all will be if political expediency dictates the compromise of such a fundamental moral principle as the inherent unlawfulness of the murder of innocent persons, making the action and the courage of six honorable men who served their country so well meaningless.”18

Anti-war protesters (new left radicals), said: “Instead of protecting the Vietnamese people against Communist aggression, we slaughter them to force a military dictatorship on them.”17 The Press wrote that the US is an embarrassment to other governments and the massacre of civilians at My Lai gave the North Vietnamese communists a major propaganda victory. US General Sherman said to this: “War is Hell. There has never been a “clean” one. Innocent people have been the principal victims of every war, a sad fact that will never change.”19 The US Army officially released a report on the My Lai investigation in November 1974. Sadly the three soldiers who saved ten civilians during the massacre where rewarded the Soldiers Medal twenty-four years after the release of that report.

Colburn, one of the rewarded men, quoted General Douglas McArthur: “The Army’s enduring values…loyalty, duty, respect, honor, integrity, and personal courage…inspire a sense of purpose necessary to sustain soldiers in different times.” He added: “The soldier, be he a friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weal and the unarmed. It’s his very existence for being.”20 The US President characterized My Lai as “an isolated incident”. Some politicians, such as House Armed Services Subcommittee Chairman L. Mendel Rivers maintained that there was no massacre and that this lie was told to merely attempt to build opposition to the Vietnam War. Due to the views on both parts of the story it can be concluded and proven that the My Lai Massacre was both a failure in the Rules of Engagement and a tragedy of war.

0 Rules of Engagement, INTERNET, http://www.rulesofengagement.com/case/case01.html, 14/3/2001.

1 Jackson, Samuel L. Rules Of Engagement. Movie. Paramount Pictures. 2000.

2 Hersh, Seymour M. “My Lai 4: a report on the massacre and its aftermath,” Random Press, New York. 1970

3 Hersh, Seymour M. “My Lai 4: a report on the massacre and its aftermath,” Random Press, New York. 1970

4 Hersh, Seymour M. “My Lai 4: a report on the massacre and its aftermath,” Random Press, New York. 1970

5 Hersh, Seymour M. “My Lai 4: a report on the massacre and its aftermath,” Random Press, New York. 1970

6 Hersh, Seymour M. “My Lai 4: a report on the massacre and its aftermath,” Random Press, New York. 1970

7 Hersh, Seymour M. “My Lai 4: a report on the massacre and its aftermath,” Random Press, New York. 1970

8 Hersh, Seymour M. “My Lai 4: a report on the massacre and its aftermath,” Random Press, New York. 1970

9 Hersh, Seymour M. “My Lai 4: a report on the massacre and its aftermath,” Random Press, New York. 1970

10 The My Lai Cases. INTERNET, http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/mylai.htm, 18/3/2001

11 Anderson, David L. “Facing My Lai”, University Press of Kansas, 1998.

12 Army Awards veteran who stopped My Lai massacre. INTERNET, http://www.dtic.mil/armylink/news/Mar1998/a19980311mylai.html, 27/3/2001.

13 The My Lai Cases. INTERNET, http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/mylai.htm, 18/3/2001

14 The My Lai Cases. INTERNET, http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/mylai.htm, 18/3/2001

15 The My Lai Cases. INTERNET, http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/SurveyResults.html, 18/3/2001

16 Hersh, Seymour M. “My Lai 4: a report on the massacre and its aftermath,” Random Press, New York. 1970

18 Anderson, David L. “Facing My Lai”, University Press of Kansas, 1998.

19 Hersh, Seymour M. “My Lai 4: a report on the massacre and its aftermath,” Random Press, New York. 1970

20 Army Awards veteran who stopped My Lai massacre. INTERNET, http://www.dtic.mil/armylink/news/Mar1998/a19980311mylai.html, 27/3/2001.

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