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My Lai 1968 – A soldier’s duty to disobey!

Photography of the My Lai atrocity is by Ronald L. Haeberle © Time Inc from LIFE December 5, 1969 and maps BBCNews March 13, 1998

by James Travers-Murison - has a degree in American and Asian history minoring in psychology and a Law degree at Monash University and a diploma from the Australian College of Journalism and diploma of secondary education. He has travelled extensively around the world including writing on the War zones of Kashmir, Pakistan, Kurdish Turkey, Israel, Zimbabwe, Yugoslasvia and Iran. He worked at the BBC in accounts in London and as a journalist for Canberra Times, Darwin WIN, OPTUS cable TV and Channel 31 in Australia. He also has prepared an independent legal Human Rights Report on Lockhart River for the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and written article on President Clinton's failure to ban land mines. Has been published in law journals and is writing several books and a film through his business Enligtenart Media.


In the light of American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, atrocities committed there by US Forces this article questions how soldiers were led into committing the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. It looks at how My Lai happened and who was responsible. Whether there was a conspiracy to wipe out the village? It examines when a soldier has a duty to disobey an order to commit an atrocity. It looks to see how this kind of tragedy can be avoided by informing the military and general public of the reasons behind the worst case scenario of command failure. In this respect it indirectly looks at how this situation can be avoided by properly educating our soldiers on what is and is not an acceptable order given by a commander and very briefly touches upon the possibility of a model to be developed by the army, which would democratise and empower individual soldiers within the command structure through involving more consensus decision-making.


The atrocities of war may be considered ill to dwell upon, and seem of little if any relevance in today’s New World Order of peace. Yet for all our veneer of civilisation there is “a world out there” that engages in barbaric behaviour as we have seen on our television screens showing Afghanistan, Iraq and many other developing countries. The killing of tourists in Cambodia and Kashmir, the massacres in Rwanda, Bosnia and Chechnya and even the terrorist attacks still in Israel and once so close to home in Northern Ireland, all remind us that we are never far from violence. On Australian soil, the Port Arthur, Hoddle Street and Queen Street, Lindt Café massacres demonstrate that even in a peaceful wealthy country such as ours we are not spared the extremes of seemingly pointless killings. Perhaps the greatest reminder is the horrific September 11 attack that brought us into a War on Terror. This the greatest terrorist attack in history combined with the collapse of ‘the Communist Bloc’ has led the portended instigators of the New World Order, the West and in particular America, sometimes through the United Nations, to reluctantly take it upon themselves to be the policeman of the global community. Where atrocities occur in Kosovo or Iraq, they are only too willing to use military force to persuade these countries to behave in a more civilised and humane fashion. Australia has been delegated this unenviable task of so called “peacekeeping” in many countries including Timor, Iraq and still in Afghanistan. With the International Criminal Court still rejected by the United States and a remote possibility of an East Timor War Crimes tribunal being set up for the atrocities the militia and possibly Indonesian troops committed (and even with our own troops now in the firing line), the rules of engaging non-combatants and the duty to disobey illegal orders will be under close examination.


Though Serbians are being put before this court there is no doubt an issue of double standards when atrocities are clearly being committed under international law standards by United States Forces in at least Iraq, if not in Guantanamo Bay and other secret detention centres and no-one is prepared to stand up and confront the United States for its breaches of at very least the Geneva Convention for which the Western Democracies defended against the tyranny of Nazism and Fascism at such a very great price. But this is not the first time that the United States in recent history has flaunted international law and conventions with devastating results to other countries and itself not least in Latin America, what is truly stunning is that Nation has learnt so little from its recent history.


The World's current super power may in fact be its worst enemy and with it having a major gun problem and a crime rate 20 times worse than Japan and at the bottom of the Western nations, the indicators are that something very rotten and evil exists in the core of America's soul that needs redressing to restore confidence on this planet in decency and human dignity. And the answer to this may well explain the sense of inequality in the World that led to the attacks that instigated the 'War on Terror' and provide the answer to resolving the age old conflict between Islam and Christianity. It may well explain how Mullah's implicit commands and preaching to their faithful led disillusioned extremist groups to take action in their own hands out of proportion to the teachings of their leaders. Very much in the same fashion as US soldiers responded to their commanders when put in a basically immoral conflict at its core. Preventing atrocities by your own troops is essential to a moral civilisation. We detest the actions of ISIS in the Middle East and although atrocities by the US and Western forces pale into insignificance compared to more primitive nations, unless we can set the example to others of impeccable human decency and morality, we are in grave danger of reaping the gross barbarity of those on this planet that are of a more primal nature than us.




Time is unreal and therefore all emotions which have to do essentially with an event as future or as past are contrary to reason, In so far as the mind conceives a thing under the dictates of reason, it is affected equally, whether the idea be of a thing present, past, or future. Spinoza History of Western Philosophy Bertrand Russell


It is in this light of Spinoza's unreal time of a past event giving rise to the equally irrational emotional paranoia of Islamic world terror that I revisited a closed investigation into something that touched me with great fear when I was a child, The Vietnam War and in particular, not that I was aware of it then, the worst known massacre ever perpetrated by American troops overseas. Much later after I discovered about an incident involving my own father during the Malayan Emergency that the ethics of guerrilla warfare and legitimised killing, of military command structures that control the actions of ordinary human beings, and how it can lead people into tragic situations, began to dominate my thoughts. This led me on to look at this the worst known atrocity committed by english-speaking military forces in modern Western history so as to face our humanity and the irrational forces that compel it, drive it into inhumanity and just perhaps can save us by bringing the past into the timeless now to resolve it for the future. For those of you who are of a sensitive persuation I recommend that you stop reading this article now...


An old Vietnamese man and survivor toils in a rice paddy that is emerald green, thinking about what happened many, many years ago on that field to women and children by soldiers of the great wealthy democracy that was sent to protect them. He may have remembered the brutality of the Vietcong and if he had been  one of us, he may have reflected upon the words of a great philosopher and mathematician -

‘Remembering the horror of war and pointless killing, one should not forget the crimes of War committed by the side we were on.’ Bertrand Russell


The My Lai story begins in 1968 as social revolution rocked Europe. The Beatles, the Doors, LSD, hash and flower power descended on humanities collective consciousness and in a small village in Vietnam called My Lai...

On March 16th 1968 at exactly 7.30 am, nine US Army helicopters drifted lazily through clouds of thick white phosphorus smoke left by a preparatory artillery deployment and landed gently at the Western edge of a small hamlet in South Vietnam. Soldiers jumped out and took cover in the emerald rice paddy bordering the hamlet. The helicopters disappeared into the dusty jade horizon. The village was Xom Wang, although to the Americans it was named My Lai (4) or Pinkville. The locals knew it as Thuan Yen, 'the place where trouble does not come'. The hamlet contained about 500 inhabitants, but there were less people since the communist militia, the Vietcong (VC), had established themselves in the area. They had recruited most of the people of military age, so those left were mostly old men, women and children.1 The American GIs had been told it was market day and that most of the civilians would be away. Some villagers were finishing breakfast.

Captain Medina of C Company reported the Landing Zone (LZ) as "cold", but a helicopter pilot radioed that they were receiving fire, that it was "hot". Medina immediately informed his three platoon leaders. Lieutenant Calley, 1st Platoon leader, moved his platoon about 150 yards to the east and set up a defensive position to secure the LZ. The 2nd Platoon rapidly moved to the northwest edge of the hamlet.

Medina's command group remained at the LZ.2 During this time several Vietnamese who had left their hiding places were killed when heavy rifle fire was directed at suspected bunkers. At 7.47 the 3rd Platoon arrived by helicopter and at 7.50 the 1st and 2nd Platoons moved in towards the hamlet. Lt. Calley's platoon of 25 men was split into two squads.

The platoon encountered no resistance as it approached the southern half of the village. When some of his men heard a noise just before the first huts they turned and shot. They shot a buffalo. The large Asian beast fell, but the soldiers did not stop shooting. "From then on it was like nobody could stop. Everyone was just shooting at everything and anything, like the ammo wouldn't ever give out".3 These were one private soldier's words that came out at General Peer's Inquiry.

As they moved into Xom Lang they shot many fleeing Vietnamese and bayoneted others. They burned crops and houses, destroyed livestock, and threw hand grenades into bunkers. Then they rounded up women, children and old men. Some were shot in the groups they formed, the rest were moved along trails to the south and southeastern edge of the village. Calley ordered one group of 20 to 50 peasants "to be taken care of".4 They were led to a place 20 yards south of the village and put under guard. He charged up and yelled, "Why haven't you taken care of these people... I mean kill them".5 He and Sergeant Meadlo opened fire on them. About 8.30 he reported to Medina over the radio 69 VC dead and 30 civilians. Medina only marked down the VC dead.6

Another platoon, the 2nd, had moved into the north of the village. Some women were raped and they also began to torch huts and houses. At 8.30 Medina ordered this platoon to a northern village, Binh Tay. The killings and rapes continued. In one instance 20 to 30 women and children were forced to squat in a circle, and round after round from an M79 grenade launcher was fired into their midst. The soldier firing was reported as having a half-crazed snarl that distorted his face. He was covered in blood.6A The 3rd Platoon moved from the My Lai LZ at about 8.45 and destroyed the remaining livestock and crops. They killed the remaining Vietnamese, who were mostly wounded.

Most of the remaining villagers at My Lai were gradually herded to the edge of a canal about 100 yards east of the hamlet by 1st Platoon. Official US Army figures admitted 75 to 150 were forced there although it was probably in excess of 200.7

In this time Calley shot one child and rifle butted a priest in the face. He fired point blank into his head. Calley walked to the canal reaching it at about 9. About this time Medina left the LZ and walked the short distance to the edge of the village where he interrogated an old man. Roughly at 9.15 at the canal, Calley and several others opened fire. He had to change his magazine over ten times.7A Ron Haeberle, an army photographer, secretly took shots of the massacre with his own camera. The bodies piled up. Back in the village the rest of the platoon were burning houses and several rapes had occurred.

At 9.15 Medina ordered 2nd Platoon to cease fire and immediately their atrocities stopped.8 But no such order was given to Calleys and 3rd platoon. At 9.30 Medina claims to have received a message that a wounded VC was 100 yards south of the village. He went to investigate. A pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, on a screening and reconnaissance mission with two other helicopter gunships in the area said "I noticed something terribly amiss; there were large piles of bodies everywhere".9 At about 9.30 to 9.45 he landed his helicopter near the canal and saw it filled with dead and dying. Thompson decided to evacuate some of the wounded. Thompsons scout helicopter was already filled with his own crew, so he radioed for more helicopters to help lift the civilians to safety, mainly children. He managed to save only one little boy. Thompson claimed to have seen Medina walk up to a badly wounded woman, kick her over and shoot her.10

The pilot returned later, perhaps 9.45 to 10.00 and spotted from his chopper more children caught in a bunker with American soldiers running towards them. Thompson radioed again for help. He landed his helicopter between the bunker and the soldiers. He got out to rescue the children. One of the Americans on the ground was Lt. Calley. He rushed forward and tried to stop Thompson. After a heated argument Thompson told his waistgunner, Lawrence Colburn, to aim his machine gun "at that officer and if the officer intervenes to shoot him".11 Shortly after this Medina got a message from Calley radioing that a helicopter pilot had landed and criticised his actions. Meanwhile Medina did nothing and the killing continued.

At about 10.00 Medina admitted to coming across a pile of executed bodies south of the village. At 10.30 after a call from HQ asking, "what the hell is going on there",12 he claims to have called a cease-fire, but even this is doubtful. He walked north through the village where extraordinarily he claims to have seen no bodies and ordered a lunch break.13 During that time the company had made no reports of enemy fire, none of American casualties, no requests for fire support and one report of three weapons captured.

Despite this incredible anomaly, given the large enemy kills being reported, the company commander, Medina, made only a cursory investigation to find out what was happening. In effect he allowed the killings to place over three hours before he ordered a cease-fire.

Pham Thi Trinh said, "I saw my house had burned completely my loved ones were burned to death. My mother and little brother still in my mothers arms, my seven month old brother whose body was half burned. I didnt know anything anymore. I stood by my mothers body and cried."

As is often the case in bloodshed there were moments of humanity. Several soldiers refused to fire a shot, and one GI even directed villagers to safety. But the only US casualty was a GI who shot himself in the foot.14 Even amongst those soldiers that decided to kill the horror became too much. Some threw down their weapons, others cried openly and later nightmares were to haunt their sleep.

Why did American soldiers commit such atrocities and how was it that no commander stopped them? General Peer's investigation ended by giving nine reasons for the massacre. One of the major reasons he gave was the lack of proper training within C Company. They had been in Vietnam only three months. The soldiers were from 11th Brigade, Americal Division, and were part of McNamaras 100,000 draftees thrown into Vietnam as part of the numbers game being played in the Pentagon. Called up at short notice, they were given rapid and inadequate training, especially in guerrilla warfare. Their average age was twenty.

However contrary to much of the evidence C Company performed well in training in Hawaii advancing so swiftly in an amphibious assault the exercise was stopped. It is doubtful that they had any proper training in UN or the Geneva Conventions on The Laws of War nor when an order is illegal according to U.S. Army Field Manual 27-10.15 This alone does not explain the butchering of 400 people. Other companies went through the same training and experiences yet did not do this. Common sense would tell any objective bystander that what they were doing was wrong, however this was overridden possibly as a result of orders given that day.

In Calleys defence, he stated that the G.I.s considered the Vietnamese peasants to be basically sub-human. Gook, dink, or slope was a general term used for all Vietnamese, not just the VC. Furthermore this was a VC sympathetic area. Most of the mines and booby traps had been set by local villagers including women and children. Often villagers would watch or even direct U.S. troops into mine fields and C Company had suffered 95% of its casualties by this unseen enemy. On the 25th February three men had been killed and twelve badly injured at Loc Son in a mine field.16 On patrol on 14th March one of C Company's best men, Sergeant Cox, had been killed by a mine and on their way back the squad kicked a woman to death in a field.16A The day before the atrocity an emotional service was held for him.17 Private Michael Bernhardt said, "cruelty and brutality was sometimes seen as heroic that is what it turned into".17AA C Company had been chasing the 48th VC battalion in this area since the end of the Tet Offensive in February. Several operations had made contact, but failed to trap the VC.

At Loc Son on the 24th February Task Force Barker had lost another man and had fifteen injured. Col. Henderson complained bitterly about the units failure to close with the enemy and lack of aggression.17A Medina's commander, Lt. Col. Barker had told him to get the troops aggressive so they could close rapidly with the enemy. The Vietcongs Tet Offensive had only just collapsed with significant damage caused to U.S. bases. Medina built this to a crescendo in a pep talk to the troops the night before. Revenge and destruction were stressed. This was to be the companys first direct action against a major enemy concentration. The fear and frustration at the lack of contact with an enemy against whom they wished to revenge their losses was about to end. They were told the renowned 48th VC battalion was fortified in My Lai (4).

The 48th VC was one of the best VC battalions in South Vietnam. Formed from the local population, the communists hold was so strong that all males of military age had to join and all civilians had to co-operate or suffer reprisal such as re-education or worse brutal execution.18 The area had been communist since 1945. With no uniform, underground tunnels and unable to distinguish VC from the local community, C Company was in a difficult position.19

Next Edition: Why and who was responsible for the atrocity. Was higher command involved? We interview veterans and see whether the lessons of My Lai are being recognised and applied in the army.

Tell us what you think of this article and if it's meritable we will post it up.


    • 1 R.Hammer, One Morning in the War (1970) pp.43-56
    • 2 W.R. Peers, The My Lai Enquiry (1979) p.172
    • 3 Hammer, op cit. p.121 evidence of soldier 1st Platoon
    • 4 Ibid. pp.134-137
    • 5 S.Di Mona, Great Court Martial Cases (1972) p.251
    • 6 M.McCarthy, The 17th Degree (1974) p.387
    • 6A Hammer, op.cit. p.128
    • 7 Di Mona, op.cit. p.261
    • 7A Di Mona, op.cit. p.261
    • 8 Peers, op.cit. p.176
    • 9 Hammer, op.cit. pp.138-149
    • 10 McCarthy, op.cit. p.392
    • 11 Hammer, op.cit. pp.138-149
    • 12 McCarthy, op.cit. p.386; S.Hersh, Cover Up (1972) p.113
    • 13 Peers, op.cit. p.178
    • 14 Ibid. p.178
    • 15 Ibid. p.230; G.Lewy, America in Vietnam (1978) p.331
    • 16 Peers, op.cit. p.231; Lewy op.cit. p.329; Di Mona, op.cit. p.264; Bilton, 4 hours in My Lai (1992) p.84
    • 16A Bilton, op.cit. p.92
    • 17 Peers, op.cit. p.234
    • 17AA Bilton and Sim,4 hours in My Lai TV documentary 1992
    • 17A Bilton, op.cit. pp.85-87
    • 18 W.Calley, Body Count (1971) pp.105-6
    • 19 Peers, op.cit. p.236

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