Essay on My Lai

This essay has a total of 2675 words and 12 pages.

My Lai

The My Lai Massacre:
And It's Psychological Effects


The objective of the American military mission in March of 1968 was clear, search and
destroy My Lai. Throughout human history, millions of people have been exterminated at the
hands of their fellow man. It would be great to imagine that the perpetrators behind these
crimes are crazy, sadistic, and terrible people, but to the contrary these people are
usually normal men and women. The question we must then ask ourselves is, how can we, as a
race, commit such vulgar crimes against our own kind? The story of the My Lai incident
portrays the insanity and the

psychological effects that a given situation had on once normal men.
It wasn't clear what to do with any civilians who might be encountered at My Lai, on March
16, 1968. On this day Captain Ernest Medina ordered Charlie Company, a unit of the US
Eleventh Light Infantry Brigade, into combat. After Medina's orders 150 men led by Lt.
William Calley raided the village and four hours later over 500 civilians were dead. These
civilians consisted of elderly people, children, and women. Almost all of these people
were unarmed, three weapons were confiscated in all. In addition, no enemy soldiers were
found in the village. Only one U.S. soldier was a casualty in the incident, as a result of
a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot. The scenes from this tragic event were
unimaginable. Limbs were amputated, men were crying, people not fully dead were scattered
all over, two little girls were shot in the face and Calley was screaming "kill nam, kill
nam...".

What could actually make men behave this way? What kind of mentality were these men in?
Not only did these men murder women and children and babies, but it was also thought that
some were looking for women to rape. We can first look at the interesting and sometimes
appalling consequences of obedience. The men making up Charlie Company performed the vile
acts they did as a result of their duties and obligations to the military. There are
several identifiable explanations as to why individuals are more often than not inclined
to obey authority. First, when acts are authorized it normally relieves the perpetrator
from feeling guilty for his offensive actions. By shoving the responsibility away and
placing it on the authorizer of the command, a person does not feel as compelled to reject
the command, and can therefor fulfill his or her orders. Second, the voice of command
actually lessens and usually negates the need for individuals to make choices being told
what to do takes much less effort than thinking of a plan independently. The men in My Lai
were given orders and they obviously carried them out even to the point where they lost
control of themselves.

Cases in which individuals refuse to obey a command are very few and far between, but they
certainly occur on occasions. In such instances, individuals are able to differentiate
between right and wrong and understand what they should and shouldn't do. The individual
either steps down from his duties or acts against a superior commander, using his
conscience and morals as a guide. In the case in My Lai this was no exception. People
refused to fulfill the orders of their command because what they were being asked to do
was, in their opinion, unreasonable. One extreme example of an audacious person is CWO
Hugh Thompson. Up in the skies, flying a helicopter Thompson was aware of the unnecessary
carnage taking place down below. In a ditch, many individuals lay dead, though some were
still moving in the pile of corpses. Thompson took initiative and landed his helicopter on
the ground to save those Vietnamese that were still alive. He then commanded his soldiers
to fire upon any Americans that were firing at the Vietnamese. For his courageous efforts
to save innocent victims, Thompson was awarded "the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism
at My Lai". So it is possible to stop oneself from producing the same type of behavior as
others in the exact same position, but it is questionable how a person does this.

There are several explanations as of why humans can commit such violent acts such as the
ones committed in My Lai. Initially, one must delay looking at the motives behind the
violence and rather focus on "the conditions under which the usual moral inhibitions
against violence become weakened"*. One then discovers three main processes that seem to
enable and encourage the process of genocide. These underlying "social processes" can be
recognized as "authorization," "routinization," and "dehumanization". When acts are
authorized it seems to carry automatic justification for them. Moreover, authorization
processes create a situation in which people become involved in an action without
considering its implications and without really making a decision and it therefore can
become internalized as a routine action.*

This domino effect of authorization allowing for the routinization of killing that is made
possible by dehumanizing the enemy ultimately results in the death of innocent
individuals.* "Normal" people become victims to these "social processes," which increase
the likelihood for them to obey authoritative commands, and then they are able to commit
violent acts against humanity.

Now we can revisit the situation of My Lai and how the soldiers involved in it committed
the acts they did under the conditions they were in. The average age of soldiers in
Charlie Company, the company that was involved in the incident, was twenty, and they had
been in South Vietnam for three months. They were trained in Hawaii and the unit was
considered one of the best in the army. William Calley, aged 24, was not particularly
popular with the men he led. Small in stature, he was considered nervous and excitable and
too "gung ho" plus he was always trying to impress his superiors. Captain Medina ridiculed
Calley, calling him Lieutenant Shithead even in front of the troops. When the soldiers in
Charlie Company pushed into the village, they were expected to be locked into fierce
combat with a Viet Cong battalion already believed to be at My Lai. For three months the
American unit had been in no major battles but had suffered a lot of casualties from
snipers, mines, and booby traps. The soldiers were ready to prove themselves and ready to
give some revenge to the enemy.

Charlie Company met no resistance, there were no Viet Cong soldiers at My Lai. Calley then
ordered the slaughter of the civilians. People were rounded up into ditches and
machine-gunned down. They lay five feet deep in the ditches, and any survivors were trying
to escape were shot and killed instantly no matter who they were, what age they were or if
they were already injured.

As if the actions of the soldiers weren't bad enough even their lieutenant took part in
the horror. Calley spotted a baby crawling away from a ditch, he grabbed her, threw her
back into the ditch, and opened fire. The fact that the leader of the operation was even
acting irrationally may have had some influence on his troops, whether they see him as a
leader or not. Some of the dead were mutilated by having "C Company" carved into their
chests; some were disemboweled. One GI would later say, "You didn't have to look for
people to kill, they were just there. I cut their throats, cut off their hands, cut out
their tongues, and scalped them. I did it. A lot of people were doing it and I just
followed. I just lost all sense of direction."*

Cover-up of the massacre began immediately. Reports on the My Lai operation stated that it
was a stunning combat victory against a Viet Cong stronghold. Stars and Stripes, the army
newspaper, ran a feature story applauding the courage of the American soldiers who had
risked their lives. An initial investigation into My Lai was swift and definitive: My Lai
was a combat operation in which twenty civilians had accidentally been killed.

Too many soldiers knew what had really happened at My Lai. One of them was Ronald
Ridenhour, a Vietnam veteran who was not at My Lai but had heard about the operation from
several of his friends who had served in Charlie Company. A year after My Lai, Ridenhour
wrote a letter about the atrocity and sent it to his congressman, Morris Udall. He also
sent a copy of the letter to thirty other prominent officials, including President Richard
Nixon. Reaction to the letter was quick, and Westmoreland ordered an immediate inquiry.
Two separate investigations uncovered the horror of My Lai. The soldiers of Charlie
Company were extensively interviewed. An army photographer, who had been at My Lai
produced pictures of the carnage. In addition, it was learned that other army units, at My
Khe and Co Luy had also killed hundreds of civilians. Details of the investigations were
leaked to the press and an interview with William Calley, by freelance reporter Seymour
Hersch, put My Lai on the front pages of American newspapers.

Eighty soldiers were initially under investigation for the My Lai massacre. Twenty-five
officers and enlisted men, including Lt. Calley and his superior officer Capt. Medina,
were eventually charged with crimes. Only six cases were ever tried. In some cases, the
evidence was overwhelming; some of the defendants admitted killing the civilians. But only
one soldier, William Calley, was found guilty of murder.

The court martial of Lt. Calley began on November 17, 1970. For more than four months,
witness after witness came forward to testify before a six-officer jury, all six officers
had been in combat and five had served in Vietnam. Calley's defense was straightforward,
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