Us vs. Them at My Lai
Arguably the single most shocking event of the Vietnam War, an atrocity that finally shook America’s self-perception as a force for good, was the My Lai Massacre. On March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley Jr., attacked the unarmed civilians of the village of My Lai. The company had been in Vietnam all of three months and had not direct enemy contact. They had, however, suffered twenty-eight deaths or injuries due to booby traps and mines, reducing the company’s numbers to around one hundred. The common interpretation, one that we readily recognize by now, is that they had a fierce, vengeful desire to connect faces to this faceless enemy. The official rationale was that the village harbored Viet Cong fighters and civilian sympathizers; there is minimal evidence to support this. Some of the participants reported being instructed to only kill Viet Cong fighters; others that they should kill everyone, burn houses, kill livestock, and destroy wells.
Regardless of these conflicting reports, the rest, as they say, is agonizing history. Between 350 and 500 unarmed civilians, including infants and elderly people, were killed. Bodies were mutilated and dumped down wells, huts and fields set ablaze, numerous women gang-raped before being killed. Calley was described to have personally shot children under their mother who had died sheltering them. The Americans encountered no enemy fire, found no military-aged men. It was destruction of biblical proportions, or Roman proportions, or Crusader, or Viking, or…This destruction was photographed. The horror is worsened because My Lai was not a solitary atrocity, and the government labored to conceal events and slapped Calley on the wrist, sentencing him to three years of house arrest.
There was by no means universal participation by Americans (ultimately twenty-six soldiers were criminally charged, with Calley the only one convicted; “just following orders’ was the order of the day). Individual thresholds varied. One soldier killed a mother and child and then refused to do more. Another helped herd civilians together but refused to fire. Some refused orders outright, even in the face of threats of court-martial or being shot. One, PFC Michael Berhnhardt, refused and threatened to report events to superiors; officers subsequently placed him on more dangerous patrols, perhaps hoping he’d be killed.
And three men halted the killings. Predictably, they were outsiders. The catalyst was Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., age twenty-five, who was flying a helicopter, along with two crew members, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn. Perhaps pertinent to what occurred was the fact that Thompson descended from Native American survivors of the Trail of Tears death march; his religious parents raised him, in the 1950s in rural Georgia, to oppose segregation. Colburn and Andreotta were observant Catholics.
Thompson and his crew had flown over the village; intending to aid the infantry fighting Viet Cong. Instead of evidence of a battle, they saw masses of dead civilians. Thompson initially thought that the village was under attack, with Americans protecting villagers, but couldn’t figure out where the attack was coming from. He landed the copter amid the chaos and saw one soldier, Sergeant David Mitchell, firing into a mass of injured, wailing civilians in a ditch and another, Captain Ernest Medina, shoot a woman point-blank; Thompson realized who was doing the attacking. He confronted Calley, who was higher ranking than him and told him to mind his damn business.
Thompson saw a group of women, children, and elderly men huddling by a bunker with American soldiers approaching them, preparing to attack. Discussing what happened next, more than twenty years later, he described his feelings about those soldiers: “ It’s – they were the enemy at that time, I guess. They were damn sure the enemy to the people on the ground.” He did something of dizzying strength and bravery, something that proves every word in this book about how Us/Them categorizations can change in an instant. Hugh Thompson landed his helicopter between the villagers and the soldiers, trained his machine guns on his fellow Americans, and ordered his crew to mow them own if they attempted to further harm the villagers.
- Robert Sapolsky, from Behave (2017)