A 1996 conference at Tulane University tried to sort out the U.S. Army’s most notorious atrocity–the My Lai massacre.

By Kevin M. Hymel

As American troops prepared to force the Iraqi army out of Kuwait in 1991, two division commanders gathered their brigade commanders together and told them, “No My Lais in this division. You hear me?” No more explanation was needed. Ever since Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., led his Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Brigade (part of the Americal Division), into My Lai on March 16, 1968, and massacred between 150 and 500 unresisting Vietnamese civilians, the military has worked to educate troops not to take out combat frustration on the innocent.

Calley and his men tore into My Lai with unbelievable savagery, herding the villagers into ditches and killing them. After slaughtering most of the town, Calley’s men sat down and ate their lunches. When they heard the wounded moaning, they walked between the piles of bodies and finished off anyone still alive. Only one soldier refused to fire on the civilians, and he was then forced to walk point every day for four months.

And yet, there were heroic actions in the tragedy. Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson flew several loads of wounded civilians out of My Lai. When he saw a group of Vietnamese flee into a hut, closely followed by American soldiers, he put his Bell UH-1 Huey down between the hut and the advancing Americans. He loaded the Vietnamese aboard another helicopter while telling his door gunner to fire on the Americans if they threatened to get closer. Fortunately, no shots had to be fired.

When news of the massacre got out, the U.S. military and public were shocked. How could well-educated American boys slaughter an entire village of civilians? As Calley’s court-martial played out on the nightly news through the early 1970s, another question arose: Was this an isolated incident, or was My Lai typical of American policy in Vietnam?

To answer this question and many others about the massacre, the Vietnam experience and military justice, a group of prominent historians, writers, soldiers and reporters gathered on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans, La., in 1996. Their conversations, arguments and speeches have been compiled and edited by David L. Anderson in Facing My Lai: Moving Beyond the Massacre (University Press of Kansas, 1998, $24.95).

The book opens with an oral history of the event from pilot Thompson and Ron Ridenhour, whose personal investigation into the massacre and whose letter to Congressman Morris Udall of Arizona sparked the official investigation into My Lai. Ridenhour personally interviewed most of the massacre’s participants while he served his tour with the Americal Division. He convinced Michael Bernhardt, the soldier who refused to fire on civilians, to give up his plan of assassinating every officer in the Americal’s chain of command and instead tell his story in hopes of bringing justice to the perpetrators of the incident. Both Thompson’s and Ridenhour’s stories provide background that helps to explain the massacre.

In each chapter, the Vietnam War is examined from different angles that lead back to My Lai: the military’s emphasis on body counts, which encouraged indiscriminate killing and discouraged taking prisoners; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “bean-counter mentality,” which focused attention on winning the war through statistics; and the attitude of the press. The massacre is also examined historically and legally.

Stephen Ambrose’s chapter on atrocities throughout America’s history proves the most interesting. Ambrose relates stories from the Lewis and Clark expedition and World War II to illustrate the fine line between order and chaos. During the trip across the continent, for example, Meriwether Lewis almost declared war on a pack of Indians–for stealing his dog. And Ambrose points out that atrocities were perpetrated by Americans even during World War II, which is generally thought of as “the good war,” relating that American soldiers gunned down German POWs days after their capture. Ambrose drives home the point that people who have not been in combat cannot judge those who have–and even the best soldiers can break under the strain of combat.

Vietnam Magazine’s Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., declares in the chapter “The Law of War” that Calley and his commander, Captain Ernest Medina, should have been hanged, drawn and quartered, with their remains placed “at the gates of Fort Benning, at The Infantry School, as a reminder to those who pass under it of what an infantry officer ought to be.” Summers also relates how General Harold K. Johnson, the Army chief of staff, became so disgusted with the war that he went to the White House to turn in his four stars and resign, but changed his mind on the way, deciding he could do more good within the system than outside. “And now I will go to my death,” he told Summers years later, “with that lapse in moral courage.” He died a few months after that.

What is impressive about Facing My Lai is that all sides of the arguments are presented coherently and competently. There are no outbursts or fevered accusations. The players have mellowed over the many years since the incident and seem to respect each other, even though they stick to their guns about their views.

As with most transcriptions of conferences, Facing My Lai at times heads in different directions or becomes redundant. The discussions tend to lose focus when the panels are opened to audience questions. Some topics are also raised but not fully discussed, such as Robert J. Lifton’s fanciful tale of the soldiers’ strike in Vietnam, during which soldiers supposedly refused to fight. For the most part, the questions raised and answered deliver a thorough examination of the massacre in specifics and in general perspective.

Was My Lai an aberration or a common occurrence in Vietnam? Facing My Lai points to aberration but also explains how the daily grind of the war took an enormous toll on both soldiers and civilians. Historian Robert Herring points out that the nature of the conflict in Vietnam created the potential for My Lai. But lessons were learned. After the war, the Pentagon made sure soldiers were taught military law. Indiscriminate killings like those at My Lai were not repeated in the Persian Gulf.

Facing My Lai is perhaps best suited to the experienced Vietnam reader. Anyone not familiar with Lieutenant Calley and the actions of Charlie Company might get lost in the back-and-forth exchanges of the conference and would do better with a narrative of the incident. Those familiar with the massacre will find the book hard to put down. It is an excellent analysis of My Lai and the Vietnam experience.