An American Tragedy

  • North Viet Nam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that. — Presidential address, Nov. 3

    In a terrible way that he did not mean or likely imagine, those words of Richard Nixon's came true last week as the nation grappled with the enormity of the massacre at My Lai. A Young Army first lieutenant, William Laws Calley Jr., stood accused of slaying at least 109 Vietnamese civilians in the rural village in South Viet Nam, and at least 25 of his comrades in arms on that day in March 1968 are also being investigated. It will be for the courts-martial judges to determine whether Calley or anyone else is individually guilty. But that America and Americans must stand in the larger dock of guilt and conscience for what happened at My Lai seems inescapable.

    Only a shadow of a doubt now remains that the massacre at My Lai was an atrocity, barbaric in execution. Yet almost as chilling to the American mind is the character of the alleged perpetrators. The deed was not performed by patently demented men. Instead, according to the ample testimony of their friends and relatives, the men of C Company who swept through My Lai were for the most part almost depressingly normal. They were Everymen, decent in their daily lives, who at home in Ohio or Vermont would regard it as unthinkable to maliciously strike a child, much less kill one. Yet men in American uniforms slaughtered the civilians of My Lai, and in so doing humiliated the U.S. and called in question the U.S. mission in Viet Nam in a way that all the anti-war protesters could never have done.

    As more and more facts about that dark day came to light last week, even staunch defenders of U.S. policy in Viet Nam and longtime Supporters Of the armed forces expressed their dismay. A White House statement called such a massacre "abhorrent to the conscience of all the American people." Defense Secretary Melvin Laird said he was "horrified." Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor termed the story "appalling." Mississippi Senator John Stennis, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was "shocked."

    Killing at Close Range
    After Secretary Resor showed color photographs of massacre victims to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, none doubted that an atrocity had been committed. Pennsylvania's Richard Schweiker described the affair as "a simplistic, deliberate act of inhumanity-one of the darkest days in American history." Near tears, Ohio's Stephen Young said he had seen a Young woman begging not to be shot while a child clung to her neck and scenes of "Youngsters who had been killed at close range, with their insides hanging out." He called it "an abominable atrocity."

    Inevitably, there were those who, while not denying the deed, felt it would be better left untold. After a G.I. witness described on television what he had seen at My Lai, Colorado Senator Peter Dominick asked: "What kind of country do we have when that kind of garbage gets put on the air?" A more pertinent question was raised by William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "This incident can cause grave concern all over the world," be said, "as to what kind of country we are." Countless U.S. citizens, whether foes or critics of the Administration's Viet Nam policy, were simply shocked and bewildered at the unfolding story, so alien did it seem to the America they thought they knew.

    The Cradle of Revolution
    The strangeness of Viet Nam to freshly arrived U.S. troops and the frustrations of guerrilla warfare do not adequately explain My Lai. In March of 1968, most members of C Company of the Americal Division's 11th Infantry Brigade had ever been tested in direct combat with any large numbers of the enemy. Trained together in Hawaii, they had been in Viet Nam only one month. Yet as part of Task Force Barker, their assignment in March was a fearsome one: to clear the Viet Cong out of Quang Ngai province — an area long known as "the cradle of revolution" in Viet Nam. The province had produced and harbored some of the Viet Minh's most effective fighters against the French. It had even been the target of the very first U.S. assault in the war. That was Operation Starlight, in which Marines claimed to have killed 700 Communist soldiers, leading General William Westmoreland to boast that the Marines "could meet and defeat any force they might encounter." But despite repeated similar sweeps, in which more than 3,000 Communist deaths were reported, the province remained a stronghold of the Viet Cong's 48th Local Force Battalion — an outfit with an unnerving ability to disperse, then reappear to strike again.

    The inexperienced Charlie Company, commanded by Captain Ernest Medina, 33, thus had ample cause for fear as it prepared to assault My Lai, a village with bricked-up huts and extensive hidden tunnels in an area called Pinkville (because its cluster of nine hamlets was populous enough to be tinted pink on war maps). The infantrymen were also angry. Repeatedly lashed by booby traps and sniper fire from unseen Viet Cong, the company's strength had already been cut from 190 to about 105. Of those, about 80 men were helicoptered into a grassy spot on the outskirts of My Lai on the warm, sunny morning of March 16, 1968. Precisely what happened next will be the subject of multiple investigations by the U.S. Army, committees of Congress and the South Vietnamese Senate. It will presumably be microscopically examined — and argued — in more than one U.S. court-martial. But enough participants have spoken up to make the general outline painfully clear.

    The Slaughter Begins
    The edgy company, expecting a firefight and anxious to at last even the score for their comrades picked off by an invisible enemy, split into three platoons. Two were assigned to take flank positions and block the escape of anyone from the village. The central platoon (apparently about 30 men), commanded by Lieut. Calley, headed into the village. It met no resistance on the outskirts. But despite the lack of enemy fire, Calley's men in less than 20 minutes ignited "hootches" and chased all the villagers — whether fleeing, standing or begging for mercy — into groups, and shot everyone. All were either elderly men, women or children. Estimates of the dead ranged from 109 to 567.

    Each man in such an action sees only a fraction of what happens. Yet many such personal recollections were chilling ones. "Everyone was scared going in — we thought there'd be heavy enemy troops there," recalls Charles A. West, 23, a Charlie Company sergeant. "I was frustrated, same as the rest of the guys." On the way in, he said, "some individuals jumped out of a hedge 15 to 20 yards ahead of us. They had what we thought were guns. It was a surprise and we opened fire. When something like this happens, you don't stop to ask questions." West learned that his group had slain four women and two old men. Their "guns" turned out to be the traditional sticks that peasants use to carry belongings.

    A Close Group
    West, a squad leader in a platoon commanded by Lieut. Jeffrey La Cross, followed Calley's platoon into My Lai. "Everyone was shooting," he says. "Sonic of the huts were torched. Some of the yanigans [his term for young soldiers] were shooting kids." In the confusion, he claims, it was hard to tell "mama-sans from papa-sans," since both wear black pajamas and conical hats. He and his squad helped round up the women and children. When one of his men protested that "I can't shoot these people," West told him to turn the group over to Captain Medina. On the way out of the village, West recalls seeing a ditch filled with dead and dying civilians. His platoon also passed a crying Vietnamese boy, wounded in both a leg and an arm. West heard a G.I. ask: "What about him?" Then be heard a shot and the boy fell. "The kid didn't do anything," says West. "He didn't have a weapon."

    West describes Charlie Company as a close group in which "we cared about each individual." The men, he told LIFE, considered Captain Medina a tough soldier whom they knew, approvingly, as "Mad Dog" 'Medina. The captain, be contends, "didn't give an order to go in and kill women or children. I don't think any of us were aware of the fact that we'd run into civilians." When the shooting started, he said, the men "might have been wild for a while, but I don't think they went crazy."

    Like a Little Island
    Another soldier in the group following Calley's was SP4 Varnado Simpson, 22. "Everyone who went into the village had in mind to kill," he says. "We had lost a lot of buddies and it was a V.C. stronghold. We considered them either V.C. or helping the V.C." His platoon approached from the left flank. "As I came up on [the village], there was a woman, a man and a child, running away from it toward some huts. So I told them in their language to stop, and then they didn't and I had orders to shoot them down and I did this. This is what I did. I shot them, the lady and the little boy. He was about two years old."

    A detailed account came from Paul David Meadlo, 22, a member of Calley's platoon. As they walked toward the village, be told CBS, "there was one gook in a shelter, be was all huddled down in there — an older man. And Sergeant Mitchell hollered, 'Shoot him.' And so the man shot him." (Sergeant David Mitchell, 29, one of Calley's squadron leaders, has been charged with assault with intent to commit murder, but a court-martial has not yet been ordered.) Meadlo says his group ran through My Lai, herding men, women, children and babies into the center of the village — "like a little island."

    "Lieut. Calley came over and said, 'You know what to do with them, don't you?' And I said 'Yes.' And he left and came back about ten minutes later, and said, 'How come you ain't killed them yet?' And I told him that I didn't think he wanted us to kill them, that he just wanted us to guard them. He said, 'No, I want them dead.' So lie started shooting them. And he told me to start shooting. I poured about four clips [68 shots] into them. I might have killed 10 or 15 of them.

    Not All Took Part
    "So we started to gather more people, and we had about seven or eight, and we put them in the hootch and then we dropped a hand grenade in there with them. And then they had about 70-75 people all gathered tip by a ravine, so we threw ours in with them and Lieut. Calley told me, 'Meadlo, we got another job to do.' And so lie walked over to the people, and he started pushing them off and started shooting. We just pushed them all off and just started using automatics on them."

    According to SP5 Jay Roberts, the rampaging G.I.s were riot interested solely in killing, although that seemed foremost on their minds. Roberts told LIFE: "Just outside the village there was this big pile of bodies. This really tiny kid — he only had a shirt on, nothing else — he came over to the pile and held the hand of one of the dead. One of the G.I.s behind me dropped into a kneeling position thirty meters from this kid and killed him with a single shot." Roberts also watched while troops accosted a group of women, including a teen-age girl. The girl was about 13 and wearing black pajamas. "A G.I. grabbed the girl and with the help of others started stripping her," Roberts related. "Let's see what she's made of," a soldier said. "V.C. boom-boom," another said, telling the 13-year-old girl that she was a whore for the Viet Cong. "I'm horny," said a third. As they Were stripping the girl, with bodies and burning buts all around them, the girl's mother tried to help her, scratching and clawing at the soldiers.

    Continued Roberts: "Another Vietnamese woman, afraid for her own safety, tried to stop the woman from objecting. One soldier kicked the mother and another slapped her tip a bit. Haeberle [the photographer] jumped in to take a picture of the group of women. The picture shows the 13-year-old girl, hiding behind her mother, trying to button the top of her pajamas. When they noticed Ron, they left off and turned away as if everything was normal. Then a soldier asked, 'Well, what'll we do with 'em?' 'Kill 'em,' another answered. I heard an M60 go off, a light machine gun, and when we turned all of them and the kids with them were dead."

    A Cursory Investigation
    Private Richard Pendleton arrived after most of the killing was over. "But some guys were still shooting people who were running around the village. There were big groups of bodies lying on the ground, in gullies and in the paddies." He said he saw a boy standing among the bodies of 15 adults. "There was just this little kid there, this little boy, and I looked over and saw Medina [the company commander] shoot him. I don't know why he did it, except that there was a bunch of bodies there — and I guess the boy's mother was one of them."

    Sergeant Michael Bernhardt said no one shot at the G.I.s. "We, met no resistance, and I only saw three captured weapons. As a matter of fact, I don't remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive." He claims Calley's men were "doing strange things — they were setting fire to the hootches and waiting for people to come out and then shooting them; they were gathering people in groups and shooting them. I saw them shoot an M79 [grenade launcher] into a group of people who were still alive."

    Private Michael Terry reported how he and Private William Doherty found few animals or people alive when they got to the village about noon. "Billy and I started to get out our chow, but close to us was a bunch of Vietnamese in a heap and some of them were moaning. Calley['s platoon] had been through before us, and all of them had been shot, but many weren't dead. It was obvious that they weren't going to get any medical attention, so Billy and I got up and went over to where they were. I guess we sort of finished them off."

    Did any soldier try to stop the slaying? One saw what was happening, then shot himself in the foot so he could get out of it — and be was the only U.S. casualty of the day's action. At one point, a private stopped firing his M60 machine gun into a group of 20 people, refused to resume on Calley's orders — so Calley took the gun over and blasted away. Bernhardt said he had refused to take part, but feels guilty because "I just stood back and let it happen." One helicopter pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Clowers Thompson Jr., 27, saw 15 children hiding in a bunker. He landed, ferried thern to safety, returned to pick up a wounded boy. Amazingly, the Army — apparently without determining who the children were hiding from — awarded Thompson the Distinguished Flying Cross for "disregarding his own safety" to rescue them. The only danger to Thompson that day was from the free-firing U.S. infantrymen. Thompson promptly complained to his superiors that there had been unnecessary killing at My Lai — but a cursory Army investigation turned out a whitewash.

    Why did they deliberately many defenseless civilians? West claims that the orders read to them by the company commander, Captain Medina, were "to destroy Pinkville and everything in it." Another member of the company, Lenny Lagunoy, 25, said Medina had told them to "kill everything that moves." "Well, hell," adds Meadlo "I was just following the orders of my officer like any good soldier — what's the good of having officers if they've nobody to obey them?" More thoughtfully he explains: "It just seemed like it was the natural thing to do at the time. My buddies had been getting killed or wounded. What it really was — it was just mostly revenge." Contends Corporal William Kern, who says he walked through My Lai when it was all over: "You can't just blame Calley's platoon; you've got to blame everyone. It was a free-fire zone. And you know, if you can shoot artillery and bombs in there every night, how can the people in there be worth so much?"

    Of all the eyewitnesses willing to talk publicly about the action so far, only one has expressed doubts that a large-scale massacre occurred. Former Army Private Leon Stevenson says he was in a platoon on the other side of My Lai from Calley's and saw " 15 to 20 bodies at most — and I doubt if that much." He also denied having heard Captain Medina suggest that civilians should be killed. "It isn't going to do those dead people any good to hang Calley," he adds.

    Conspiracy of Silence
    In Quang Ngai province last week, TIME Correspondent Robert Anson talked to some of the survivors of the massacre. Do Thi Chuc, an aging woman, said she had lost a 24-ycar-old daughter and a four-year -old nephew at My Lai. "All I remember," she said, "was people being killed. There was blood all over. White Americans and black Americans both did the killing. Heads were broken open, and there were pieces of flesh over everyone." Sobbing, she said that she too had been wounded and had fallen among the bodies.

    A young lance corporal escorting Anson was unimpressed. "They're all V.C., you can just tell," he said. "You don't see many young men in there, do you? All women, children and old men. Where'd all those guys? Out with the V.C., that's where. We come in at night and sneak into one of their hootches and you know where they are? All in their bunkers. They gotta be V.C."

    Both the extent of the massacre and the number of soldiers involved make it incredible that the matter could have been kept quiet for so long. Some men of Charlie Company contend that Captain Medina assembled them, told them not to complain about the affair to anyone back home, and promised to back them up if there was an investigation. As a result of Pilot Thompson's complaint, the commander of the 11th Brigade, Colonel Oran K. Henderson, quizzed Captain Medina and some of the troops. He asked a group of the men whether they had seen any soldiers shooting civillians. The repeated response was no. He concluded that some 20 bodies he found at the scene were those of civilians caught in advance shelling and crossfire between U.S. and enemy forces. He dismissed Vietnamese claims of unnecessary killings as "common Viet Cong propaganda technique" and reported his findings orally to the commander of the Americal Division, Major General Samuel Koster, now Superintendent at West Point. This "conspiracy of silence," as one participant terms it, kept any official alarm from reaching Washington for many months.

    The Army's own routine reports on the action at My Lai should have aroused suspicion. As related by the Army's "Stars and Stripes". "U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle." That large an action, rare at the time, normally would call for a detailed report. The former information officer who wrote that report, Lieut. Arthur Dunn, 27, said he was puzzled at so many enemy dead and so few — only three — weapons reported found. Although it sounded "fishy," he asked no further questions. Nor did anyone else, it seems, until a troubled Viet Nam veteran, who had served with many of the men at Charlie Company, wrote his now famous letters to some 30 Washington officials, including the President, the Secretary of Defense and — most important — key Congressmen.

    Just Another Crank Letter
    The letter writer, Ronald Lee Ridenhour, 23, had pursued the matter for a year and talked to a dozen participants in the massacre. He finally found one, Sergeant Bernhardt, who agreed to verify the details if Ridenhour reported the affair to authorities. Discharged last December, Ridenhour asked friends what he should do about the matter, was repeatedly told "to forget about it." But last April he decided to mail his letters. "I thought that what happened in that village was so terrible nobody should get away with it," he explains. "The shocking thing is not that I wrote, but that there weren't other letters."

    Now a literature student at Claremont Men' s College, where he plays defensive tackle on the campus football team and takes no part in peace demonstrations, Ridenhour insists that he "has no ax to grind" with the Army. But he concedes that he did not get along, well in the service. "It's very authoritarian, just not my bag. I'm one of those guys who questions orders." He is also handy with a typewriter. He crammed his letter with so many graphic descriptions of the "rather dark and bloody" happenings at My Lai that it could not be ignored.

    The Pentagon almost did, however. It was considered just another crank letter and drew little attention for almost a month. What got the Army moving were inquiries from two Congressmen: Mendel Rivers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee — a man the Pentagon always listens to — and Arizona's Morris Udall, who had personally checked out Ridenhour. Rivers' committee demanded an investigation on April 7. It took Army investigators four months to finally place charges against just one man — Lieut. Calley — on Sept. 5. Presidential Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was notified in November — and so, presumably, was Nixon. The fact that Calley was charged with an unspecified number of murders produced only a small Associated Press dispatch on Sept. 8. It took the enterprise of a tiny Washington news service to break the story on a major scale on Nov. 13.

    As the implications of the story grew, everyone got very busy. The Army decided that it would indeed hold a public court-martial for Calley. It seems certain that Sergeant Mitchell will face a court-martial on charges of intent to murder some 30 Vietnamese. The biggest mystery so far is why no charges have been placed against Captain Medina, who played an important role in the slaughter by the accounts of a number of his men, though exactly what orders he issued is disputed. At the same time, the Army has ordered a top-level probe of its own initial investigation, which found nothing amiss at My Lai.

    The House Appropriations Committee and the Armed Services Committees of both houses plan hearings. The Saigon government issued a statement that My Lai amounted to "a normal act of war" — the pro forma response of a loyal ally and a government that does not want to add fuel to the considerable anti-Americanism of its population. But two committees of the South Vietnamese Senate have challenged the government and announced a joint investigation of their own.

    Other Incidents
    As the furor grows, many Americans are seeking comfort in the claim that the massacre at My Lai was an isolated incident, unexplainable, and wholly out of character with U.S. military activities. Although no one can be sure, the chances are that no other atrocity of comparable scope has taken place in Viet Nam. But inevitably, the My Lai revelation bas started a flood of other horror stories. Dozens of journalists, soldiers and visitors to Viet Narn have begun to recall other incidents of U.S. brutality. Individual acts of senseless — sometimes gleeful — killing of civilians by U.S. troops apparently happened often enough to be deeply disturbing.

    Terry Reid, 22, a former infantryman in the same Americal Division, claimed last week that he counted "60 dead bodies — women, children and maybe a few old and decrepit men" after U.S. troops had shot up a village 130 miles south of My Lai in early 1968. A Viet Nam veteran at Fort Benning, Ga., who would not give his name said be and other G.Ls had taken three Viet Cong prisoners up in a helicopter. "We told them to talk or we'd throw them out. The first guy wouldn't talk, so we tossed him out. The second wouldn't say anything, so we dumped him. The third one talked."

    TIME Correspondent Frank McCulloch, who spent 3 1/2 years covering the war, recalls: "I have seen men pushed out of airplanes, shot with their hands tied behind their backs, drowned because they refused to answer questions. I have also seen the bodies of women and children disemboweled by the Viet Cong." He recalls a young Marine who flung a Vietnamese woman to the ground and robbed her at knife-point of all her money because She failed to produce 15 piastres in change for some cookies lie had bought from her. He saw Americal Division troops pound sand into the mouth of an old man suspected of being a V.C. They poured water down his throat until he nearly drowned. When he still would not talk, they unleashed a Doberman war dog — and watched the dog tear the man from head to belly. Then they left.

    TIME Correspondent Burt Pines relates the case of a sergeant on patrol who suddenly shouted: "A three-day pass for whoever gets that gook." After a moment's hesitation, most of the patrol opened tip with their Ml6s. ripping an old man, as well as the child he carried, into pieces.

    It is important to remember that the U.S. in Viet Narn faces an unusually brutal enemy who uses terror deliberately. But that certainly is no excuse for American behavior at My Lai. It is also small comfort to the U.S. that other Western nations have been guilty of wartime atrocities. The French executed some 15,000 Moslems in the long Algerian war of the 1950s. At Amritsar in India's Punjab, British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer marched 50 of his soldiers toward a menacing mob of Indians in 1919 and, without warning, they killed 379 people with rifle fire. The Germans bombed and gunned to death 1,600 people of tiny town of Guernica, Spain, in 1937, rounded up and shot 200,000 Jews at Babi Yar in 1941. And there was Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau.

    The desire to equate all such savagery is tempting to some. Moscow's "Trud" compared My Lai "to the destruction by the Hitlerites of the Czechoslovak village of Lidice, the French town of Oradour-sur-Glane, and to the Nazi atrocities on Soviet soil." A baker in Bonn was overheard telling a customer who asked about the massacre: "What else can you expect — they're just doing the same as we had to do."

    Yet a deliberate national policy of genocide is not the same as the unlawful actions of groups of soldiers running amuck. The U.S. as a nation bears no guilt equivalent to that of Nazi Germany, though perhaps the individual soldier in the American Army who commits an atrocity should be judged more harshly than a storm trooper. All the sanctions of his state, his education, his training were brought to bear on the Nazi soldier to obey an order, including the killing of civilians: it was more difficult for him to disobey. An American butchering noncombatants must act against all he has been taught.

    Sonic of the men of Charlie Company say that their act was no different from bombings carried out by high-flying pilots — and for pesants the outcome is often deathly similar. This argument raises a troubling ethical question about the nature of war; yet it clearly takes greater savagery to kill a defenseless human being when one looks into his face than when one never sees him.

    In an attempt to face and understand My Lai, some contributing causes help explain, if not condone. There is, unfortunately, a racial element. To the G.I., the Vietnamese, both North and South, is a "g-ook," "dink," "slope" or "slant." The terms, often used unthinkingly, tend to shift the object into a thing rather than a person — and hence something that it is easier to kill.

    There is the frustration of guerrilla warfare in a hostile countryside, where the enemy wears no uniform, strikes from ambush, and where women do fire rifles and a ten-year-old selling pop by day may be a demolition expert by night. Kids in Quang Ngai have been known to profiteer in land mines: they carn get 200 piastres from the V.C. for planting one, then disclose its location to the G.Ls for a bigger sum.

    Something Harder to Understand
    Those conditions breed fear and paranoia, in which the young soldier sees all Vietnamese as threatening. When he is also weary from hours of trudging through swamp and jungle and then sees a friend killed beside him — and friendships are highly emotional bonds in combat — a soldier can easily go wild. At My Lai, however, the rampage was a group affair rather than individual breakdowns, something much harder to understand.

    That is why some of the parents of the men of C Company found their deeds so incomprehensible. "Why did they have to take my son and do that to him?" asked Mrs. Myrtle Meadlo, mother of Paul David. "I raised him as a good boy, and they made a murderer out of him." Paul's father, Tony, had a more forceful view. "If it had been me out there, I would have swung my rifle around and shot Calley instead — right between the goddarn eyes. Then there would have been only one death." Others prefer not to face up to the implications of the affair. Says the company's Corporal William Kern: "I can't figure out why everybody is so upset. Especially Ridunhour, who wasn't even there. How can it bother you if you're not even there?

    Sharing the Guilt
    It can and it did bother those who were not there — the mounting shame and the relentless exposure at least testified to the still-active conscience of America. The guilt Of My Lai has to be shared by the nation that raised the soldiers, by the Army that trained and disciplined them. But shared in what measure? Only months and years of accumulated judgment might tell. Above all, the event weighed on the individual soldiers, most of them back in their peaceful home towns, living with the knowledge of what they did. When Private Meadlo stepped on a land mine shortly after the massacre and it ripped away his foot, he screamed: "God has punished me for what I did in the village." Other men of the company have recurrent nightmares about My Lai. Th scene itself is quiet now. All that remains today is a low pile of red-brick rubble, scorched black by fire and surrounded by fields filled with graves.