The March 1968 Massacre in My Lai 4 and My Khe 4

5 October, 2009
Greiner Bernd

A 30-year-long war raged in Vietnam between 1945 and 1975. It was the longest and one of the most brutal military conflicts of the 20th century. In the period from 1966 to 1968 alone, the USA and its allies dropped almost 2,900,000 tonnes of explosives on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – this was 800,000 more than total tonnage dropped during the Second World War. The suffering of the civilian population defies imagination. Over half of the rural population was driven out of its villages in the 1960s and forced to live in urban slums or refugee camps. The most conservative estimates work on the assumption that almost 630,000 civilians were killed in North and South Vietnam between 1965 and the end of 1974. As opposed to this, many historians refer to over two million deaths and over four million wounded – in a country with a population at the time of about 35 million inhabitants. In any case, the proportion of civilians among the war victims was far in excess of 40 percent and therefore exceeded the corresponding quota for the Second World War.

A – Context

Very few would have deemed such an escalation of events possible in 1945. Although France had rejected the independence of its colony as proclaimed by the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam) and sent troops to the region which engaged in battle with the Viet Minh throughout the country from the end of 1946, for financial reasons alone, Paris could not afford a long-drawn-out war. And the idea that other major powers would join in was more or less out of the question. Meanwhile, however, the context was altered fundamentally as a result of the seizure of power by the Chinese Communists in autumn 1949, not to speak of the invasion of South Korea by North-Korean troops in June 1950. Seen through the lens of the Cold War and regarded as part of a world-wide struggle between «good and evil», post-colonial conflicts experienced an unexpected boost, and the victory of the Viet Minh over the French armed forces in Dien Bien Phu in early May 1954 was interpreted as an event of seismic political significance and a test case for the future world order. Following the division of the country along the 17th parallel in accordance with a resolution of the Geneva Conference on Indochina of summer 1954, the USA declared itself France’s substitute as the guarantor of an anti-communist South Vietnam, while the Viet Minh in the north could rely on the patronage of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China for support in the establishment of a communist social order.

The way for the big war was paved first by a year-long civil war. Or, to be more precise: by the policies of the «small actors» in Hanoi and Saigon. In an effort to consolidate their rule on each side of the demarcation line, Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem had tens of thousands detained or deported to re-education camps. Approximately 15,000 real or imagined opponents of the respective regimes are reputed to have been killed on both sides by the end of 1957. Diem, who was unpopular among all sectors of the population, ultimately became the fire-raiser. His campaign of terror had not only driven the disenfranchised farmers to fight back but also prompted the leadership in Hanoi to embark on a momentous change of course in January 1959. From then on, the communists in the South were provided with support in the form of weapons and experienced guerrillas. When the National Liberation Front (NLF) was finally established in 1960 and the Southern insurgents had a political umbrella organization, the «big actors» in Washington, Moscow, and Peking found themselves caught in a solidarity trap. The failure to honour the fervent promise of support made earlier would have damaged their credibility – an inconceivable option, in particular in the Cold War era.

Because all of the parties involved had invested enormous political capital and declared Vietnam as a «test case» – be it for the superiority of its social model, the clout of its armed forces or dependability of their allied policy – the efforts made to find a resolution to the conflict between 1960 and 1964 failed. Under John F. Kennedy, the contingent of American «military advisors» was increased by a factor of five to 16,300, Lyndon B. Johnson extended the «undercover operation» against the North and ordered that initial plans for aerial warfare be drawn up in early 1964, Hanoi dispatched regular formations of its armed forces across the border in September 1964, the new Soviet leadership under Leonid Breschnew granted North Vietnam millions in credit and supplied sophisticated weapons systems from February 1965 while, at the same time, Peking also declared its willingness to provide 320,000 sappers and artillery soldiers. All that was needed to trigger a major outbreak of war was a minimal provocation which came in February 1965 when guerrillas attacked several of the US Air Force’s positions. Operation Rolling Thunder, the aerial bombing campaign against North Vietnam, was launched shortly after this. Four months later, 50,000 US soldiers were stationed in South Vietnam. By late 1967, their numbers had swelled to almost 500,000 who fought a war of attrition with guerrillas and divisions of the North Vietnamese army.

In spite of all the noble promises and undertakings, both sides to the conflict extended the war zone to the civilian population. It was the case for the guerrillas, since they could never be sure of the support of the population in the face of a long and hard war. When in doubt, they tended to generate allegiance through intimidation rather than consensus. Similarly, Americans also increasingly focused their attention on civilian targets as their impression grew stronger that farmers were active as a «fifth column» and were therefore also responsible for the failure to quell the revolt. In order to counter their weaknesses, both sides shifted to «total war», a strategy and tactic that made no distinction between combatants and non-combatants but concentrated instead on targeting all groups with every available resource.

«There was more of it in Vietnam»: this expression, which was widely used by American GIs, refers also and specifically to the incalculable scale of the violence perpetrated by ground troops against unarmed and defenceless civilians – at close proximity and in full knowledge of the identity of the victims. Thousands upon thousands of innocent bystanders did not come to harm in air and artillery attacks nor were they the victims of «collateral damage». They found themselves within eyeshot of the perpetrators, sometimes even stood face to face with them and had no opportunity to flee or resist. In other words: in the «face-to-face killing» they found themselves at the mercy of uniformed personnel who did not fight like soldiers but murdered like marauders who were as unlikely to baulk at attacking individuals as they were at mass murder.

As already stated, very little detail is known about the nature and scale of these acts of violence. In relation to the American troops, we know that only ten percent of the US soldiers stationed in Vietnam were directly assigned to combat missions. Of course, not everyone who saw combat in Vietnam was culpable of a war crime. This caveat with regard to individual soldiers should never be forgotten. However, when we look into the history of combat units, the picture is different. Literally all of the «primary combat units» deployed to Vietnam – infantry units, armoured and artillery units – could be linked with wartime atrocities and war crimes in one way or another. The majority of cases involved the murder of prisoners, torture, rape, raids, and armed attacks with civilian victims; however, there were also numerous cases involving the execution of groups and outright massacres. The term «boundless violence» would appear to be an appropriate one here, because these excesses took place beyond the war zones.

B – Decision-Makers, Organizers and Actors

The following picture emerges for the most heavily contested regions – the provinces of Quang Tri, Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang Tin and Quang Ngai in the north of South Vietnam and the Mekong Delta in the South – from 1967 to 1971: the locations and times of seven massacres carried out by American troops were officially confirmed. The estimated number of victims is over 600. It is also undisputed that hundreds and possibly over one thousand farmers were killed by a special unit of the 101st Airborne Division known as the Tiger Force between May and November 1967; that US helicopter crews regularly engaged in the practice of «target shooting» at civilians and killed thousands of civilians in this way; that tens of thousands of non-combatants – not including the victims of artillery and air attacks – were probably killed during major operations carried out by the US army. The claim that American troops were involved in approximately two dozen other massacres – often alongside South-Vietnamese soldiers – cannot be either proved or disproved. It is also unclear as to how many massacres were perpetrated by the South Korean troops; charges in relation to hundreds of deaths can be proven in at least four cases. Grave acts of terror were also perpetrated by communist forces. In Hue alone they murdered around 3,000 «enemies of the people» in February 1968 and abducted as many again. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese army stand accused of almost 40,000 murders and 58,000 abductions between 1957 and 1972.

The leaders of the US army were aware of this heavy price of the war. The supreme commander of the US army, William C. Westmoreland, made internal reference on several occasions to the many civilian victims as a «serious problem» and saw the war as heading for disaster. Nonetheless its further escalation was decided in early 1968. The Vietcong had paid dear for its Tet Offensive, which it had launched at the end of January of that year, and in the course of just a few weeks lost almost two thirds of its forces near the 17th parallel – a development which was viewed from the American perspective as an apparently unique opportunity to force a turning point on the battlefield. The attractions of a major achievement were also obvious for political reasons. In view of the growing anti-war movement at home and the loss of global prestige, the latitude for the continuation of the war had declined noticeably. The race against time could only be won, if at all, through a maximization of the material deployment and greater fire power.

Gambling on a supposed last chance, William C. Westmoreland gave his troops unprecedented scope for action in February 1968 by making the provisions for the protection of the civilian population and its moveable and immoveable assets temporarily negotiable. Contrary to the generally valid «Rules of Engagement», commanders could henceforth attack villages and towns without prior consultation and use weapons and troops of their choice. In the area between Quang Tri and Quang Ngai, in particular, the aim was to make large stretches of the enemy’s withdrawal areas unusable, to resettle the inhabitants, and prevent their return. The farmers had to be made to understand that opposing resettlement to a camp would have fatal consequences for them. William C. Westmoreland could also have told them that they were being bombed out of solidarity with the Vietcong and their resistance was being overcome through acts of terror. In this phase of the war, therefore, there was no question of an inability to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants; the fact was that there was no will to distinguish between them. The burden to be borne would be increased indiscriminately and beyond all bearing for all.

The 23rd Infantry Division (Americal) was deployed for the «accelerated pacification» of the province of Quang Ngai. And so was, from mid-February 1968, a special unit recruited from its ranks – the 500-strong Task Force Barker. The members of Task Force Barker had already acquired a reputation as perpetrators of violence and mass murderers just a few weeks after their arrival in Vietnam. It would appear that this self-radicalization was brought about by two circumstances: it was impossible to record an identifiable victory in the face of an invisible enemy and the loss of 100 men or 20 percent of the unit’s strength through booby traps and mines also had to be dealt with. This kind of unit would have needed rigorous control at all command levels. However, the commanders of Task Force Barker were not interested in this. Some of them wanted to exploit the pent-up aggression of the troops to improve the meagre record of success on the battlefield, others were of the view that they could make a particular impression and further their careers through the particularly ruthless «clean-up» of the province, and others, again, gave their men licence to perpetrate unrestricted acts of violence simply to alleviate the troops’ frustrations.

In any case, it is known for certain that the commanders of the Task Force Barker ordered an offensive on the district of Son My in the province of Quang Ngai in mid-March 1968. It is still a matter of dispute as to whether they were targeting the 48th Vietcong Local Force Battalion or wanted to flush out political functionaries while «combing» the villages and hamlets. In any case, no measures for the evacuation of the civilian population or the provision of emergency medical care were undertaken during the planning of the operation against the villages of Kho Truong and My Khe (My Lai 1), Xom Lang and Binh Tay (My Lai 4), and My Hoi (My Khe 4). A fortiori , the soldiers were not admonished to show consideration for civilians. Ernest Medina, the commander of Charlie Company actually exploited the frustration of the troops and manipulated the imaginations of those who wanted to seek revenge against the farmers as the supposed supporters of the Vietcong: they should kill all of the enemies. And it was left to the individual soldiers to define who should be classified as an enemy.

On the morning of March 16, 1968, two companies of Task Force Barker – comprising almost 200 GIs from Bravo and Charlie Companies – descended on the village of Son My. They supposedly encountered ten Vietcong, four of whom were armed. However, not a single shot was fired at the GIs. The outcome after two and a half hours: between 400 and 430 civilians assassinated in My Lai 4 and 90 in My Khe 4; thus a total of over 500 victims.

While the events in My Khe 4 still remain for the most part shrouded in mystery, it has been possible to establish an almost complete reconstruction of the bloodbath in My Lai 4. The following observations would appear to be particularly informative:

- At the beginning of the operation, military helicopters carried out a round up at low altitude and, over a period of 15 minutes, killed approximately 50 farmers, who were trying to flee their village on an arterial road.

- Due to the impression created by the intensive fire from helicopters and by artillery, many GIs believed themselves to be in the middle of a massive enemy presence and shot indiscriminately around them while advancing on My Lai 4. Approximately 20 more inhabitants were killed during this general confusion.

- As soon as they entered the village, the members of Charlie Company divided into small groups of between five and eight men; some soldiers headed off alone, or in the company of a single comrade. Separated from each other by dense plant cover, the majority were able to act on their own initiative. By this point at the latest, it was clear to them that they were dealing exclusively with unarmed civilians – elderly people, women, and children.

- The small groups embarked on their murderous rampage immediately and without any identifiable provocation. Some of them set fire to houses and mowed the fleeing inhabitants down with M-16 assault rifles or M-60 machine guns, sometimes from a distance, sometimes in close range, sometimes with a single shot, sometimes with sustained fire. Others stormed the huts, threw grenades into bunkers and cellars, and drove the people at gun point into air-raid shelters which they then blew up. Individuals were slain, as were groups who pleaded for grace crouching in fear on the ground. Women with small children in their arms were shown as little mercy as elderly people.

- Most cases were murder redolent of «killing work», i.e. routined, calculated, and distanced. Reports were made of soldiers who took aim in the kneeling position of marksmen and killed their victims like game at a hunt. Riflemen exchanged weapons with each other so as to proceed as effectively as possible or consulted as to who had shot how many people, at what time, and which victims could be credited to whose «account». The majority of the perpetrators acted with calculating systematism, i.e. they went to a lot of trouble to discover their victims’ hiding places and to ensure that nobody escaped.

- There can be no doubt that some of them went berserk, descended into a murderous frenzy and went for their victims, both humans and animals, with their guns, bowie knives and bayonets. However, the number of soldiers who ran amok in My Lai 4 could be counted on two hands. The massacre could also have taken place in their absence.

- Similarly, the fact that many victims were mutilated in every conceivable way (i.e. they were scalped, their ears, heads, and tongues were cut off, their throats and abdomens slit) cannot mainly be explained by the actions of maniacs. Armed with the knowledge of how mutilation is interpreted in the Buddhist faith, namely as a sign of eternal unrest of the deceased, many GIs deliberately engaged in sending out a shocking message.

- In terms of the sexual violence perpetrated against women, there was little difference between routine acts and murderous frenzy. Unlike in the previous weeks and months, the rapists did not stop at the actual act of rape, they also murdered and mutilated their victims. In one case, they even tested the effect of a hitherto unused grenade launcher.

- Unlike the murders of individuals or small groups of people, mass executions were only carried out under express orders. The execution of a group of 60 in a rice field and another involving 110 farmers in an irrigation ditch were preceded by conflicts between the platoon leader, Lieutenant William Calley, and hesitant GIs. Calley succeeded in asserting his murderous will by making the weakest members of the group into his accomplices.

- Approximately half of Charlie Company was among the group of perpetrators, the other half held back and merely tolerated the events. A similar picture emerges from the few studies available on other massacres, which demonstrate, moreover, that it is not always possible to make a clear distinction here. Sometimes soldiers who had previously committed murder refused to participate on another occasion. Or former objectors became accomplices if not perpetrators in other places.

- One soldier, the pilot Hugh Thompson, held back some of his comrades, who were willing to participate in the killing, by placing his helicopter between the attackers and the victims, and in this way ensured that 16 people were flown out by other helicopters. Apart from that carried out by Hugh Thompson, rescue operations by four other GIs are also reported. It is possible that 80 inhabitants were spared certain death through the actions of American soldiers.

- That the first order to stop firing was issued after a period of almost two hours is solely due to the radio messages of helicopter pilots – and the fact that their horror at events unfolding on the ground were transmitted and recorded on the usual frequencies. Up to this point in time, six senior officers – including Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker and Colonel Oran Henderson – flew over the location and observed at least the initial terror attacks carried out by the fighter helicopters. Despite this, they allowed events to take their course.

C – Victims

The inhabitants of the province of Quang Ngai were traditionally reputed as being stubborn, intellectually independent, and distrustful of political elites. The opposition to the French colonial leaders had originated among them as far back as the late 19th century, and they contributed further to the opposition to French and Japanese heteronomy in the 1930s and 1940s. When France reasserted its claims in the region at the end of the Second World War, the province’s most famous son, Ho Chi Minh, declared Quang Ngai a «liberated zone» and recruited numerous young men for the military resistance of the Viet Minh. Fifteen years later, along with its neighbouring provinces and the Mekong Delta, Quang Ngai was the main operation area of the National Liberation Front (NLF). In autumn 1963, the Saigon government had to abandon as fruitless an attempt launched a few months earlier to resettle the rural population of Quang Ngai in militarily secure defence villages or «strategic hamlets». Apart from the recent intake into the Vietcong, the policy of repression remained without effect.

In reality, the Vietcong dominated Quang Ngai since the early 1960s. Only the provincial capital Quang Ngai City and its direct surroundings were controlled by government troops. In the villages, the farmers adapted to their new rulers with their customary stoicism. On the one hand, this arrangement brought them certain advantages. Abandoned estates were distributed, and poor farmers could lease fields for low rates and were generally exempt from the progressive taxation system. On the other hand, the Vietcong expected loyalty – the handing over of part of the harvest, the provision of accommodation, assistance in the construction of tunnel systems, bunkers, and roads for courier services, and in the production and laying of booby traps. Unreliable farmers could expect arrest, internment in re-education camps, and the forced military recruitment of their sons. In the case of open refusal, villages were sometimes released for destruction by snipers who opened fire on patrolling enemies in the expectation that both the South Vietnamese and Americans would not shrink from retaliatory strikes on inhabited areas. Farmers from the village of Son My repeatedly reported of such practices. Bowing to necessity, numerous families decided to serve both sides: anyone who had a son among the ranks of the South Vietnamese army did well to make a brother or other relative available to the guerrillas.

In its efforts to deny the Vietcong any space for withdrawal, after mid 1967 the US army had virtually declared the entire province of Quang Ngai a «free fire zone», i.e. as an area in which the protective provisions for civilians could be interpreted very loosely if not entirely ignored. At the end of 1967, almost 70 percent of all settlements lay in ruins, 40 percent of the population of Quang Ngai was temporarily or permanently on the run, and tens of thousands camped behind barbed wire in refugee camps. Before Task Force Barker set out to «pacify» the Son My settlement complex, South Korean marines had already ransacked the area and perpetrated massacres near My Lai 4 in both February and December 1967. Number of victims: unknown.

Nonetheless, the inhabitants of My Lai 4 and My Khe 4 harboured no suspicion on the morning of March 16, 1968. Many farmers in My Khe 4 had returned from refugee camps just the previous day, trusting the government representatives who had designated their village as a safe area. Moreover, it was clearly assumed in My Lai 4 that Task Force Barker would behave like other US soldiers who had come to the village at the beginning of February: they had asked for water, given chocolate to the children and cigarettes to the adults, and taken care of the sick. Despite the heavy artillery fire at the beginning of the operation, farmers stood expectantly in front of their huts, some of them waved at the soldiers, and children asked for food. It would appear that, initially, just a few people sought protection in cellars and underground bunkers. The majority simply waited in their houses and farms. And those who approached the soldiers did so slowly with outstretched arms in the awareness that anything else would arouse suspicion.

The murderers of Task Force Barker did not stop for anybody. The victims, who were mainly middle-aged farmers, also included babies, who were just a few weeks old, and elderly men and women. Those who escaped had chance and fortunate circumstances to thank for their survival. Some were protected by courageous GIs, others managed to flee in good time or hide, a few were undiscovered because they pretended to be dead, or were buried under the bodies of those already killed. It is likely that just over 200 people survived the operation in Son My village.

D – Witnesses

Numerous witnesses expressed their outrage and anger in the early days and weeks following the massacre. The fact that helicopter pilots used the operation debriefings to express severe criticism of their superiors and that GIs mentioned the names of murderers in conversations with field officers was confirmed in many cases. Letters to family members have also survived. Several soldiers are also supposed to have made written submissions to high-ranking officers, however evidence of this eminently plausible claim is nowhere to be found in the repeatedly «cleansed» records of the «Americal»-Division. The need to bear witness did not last very long, however. The perpetrators, accomplices, witnesses, and objectors quickly withdrew in a shared silence. Feelings of guilt arising from the failure to come to the aid of the victims played just as much a role here as the perpetrators’ fear of confronting their own violent behaviour; the resigned assumption that they were up against a superior military apparatus and disinterested public was also a factor. In the end, however, it was something else that tipped the balance: the feeling of belonging and solidarity. In the words of Army photographer Ronald Haeberle, who was present in My Lai 4: «We thought that we should not go public with this story because we were part of it ourselves.»

An investigation was not carried out until Private Ronald Ridenhour wrote a letter to President Nixon, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretaries of State and Defense, and 29 senators and members of the House of Representatives in late March 1969, presenting in detail the information about the massacre he had received from fellow GIs. In the ensuing months, the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the US Army conducted way in excess of 100 interviews with members of Task Force Barker, interrogated the perpetrators, and recorded the testimonies of survivors.

In the case of My Khe 4, the investigation came to nothing. Apart from the fact that most of the GIs of Bravo Company refused to make a statement or claimed loss of memory and the rest gave contradictory testimonies, the investigation also failed due to a lack of interest if not deliberate obstruction on the part of the army leadership and the White House. The interrogations of surviving victims such as Nguyen Thi Bay confirm that 90 inhabitants of My Khe 4 were actually shot. However, what exactly occurred and who the perpetrators were will probably remain a mystery forever.

As opposed to this, members of the Charlie Company willingly came forward as witnesses to the events in My Lai 4. Almost a dozen of them even gave the impression of having been waiting for the opportunity – in part because the past weighed heavily on them and partly also because they had been dismissed from the army and no longer had to fear any legal consequences of their actions. In addition, the photographs taken by Ronald Haeberle during the operation were available, and these helped not only in the reconstruction of the event but also in the identification of victims. Considering the permanent obliteration of all traces of events in other locations, it is possible to state without equivocation that no other war crime in Vietnam can as accurately be described as the massacre of My Lai 4.

The statements of Charlie Company are also unique for another reason: they provide information about the mindset of the participants. Reference is made to the fact that they revelled in their power to kill, wanting to negate their own self-image as notorious failures; that they indulged their thirst for revenge or lived out sadistic proclivities; that they believed themselves to be overcoming their own fears, or were unable to resist the pressure of the group. The question as to what ultimately tipped the balance can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. Paul Meadlo’s statement can nonetheless be applied to the majority: «It seemed like that, at the time I felt I was doing the right thing. […] So after I done it I felt good.» And the majority shared Varnado Simpson’s view: «And once you start, it's very easy to keep on. Once you start.» For the duration of the killing they were relieved of all sense of responsibility, simple truths and clear boundaries emerged at the scene of a war that was both confusing and misunderstood; the prospect of establishing order emerged in the chaos of the massacre – and in the killing, the promise of freedom, because nothing else mattered any more.

E – Memories

Following the violent reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the government in Hanoi made the honouring of the soldiers the focus of public remembrance of the war. Soldiers who had sacrificed their lives in the fight against internal and external enemies were interred symbolically in the centres of the municipalities; as opposed to this, civilian casualties did not feature in either the construction of the heroic role models or in any meaningful reflection on the past. The victims of massacres were even rendered invisible. Those who survived them could not re-inter their bodies because they lacked the necessary resources in an economically difficult period and because the traditional rituals for the honouring of the dead were despised as the relics of a colonialist, bourgeois past. The mass graves on the outskirts of settlements found no place in official memory, many were even completely forgotten.

Any attention paid to civilian victims of the war by the state is focused on the expectations and needs of foreign visitors – mainly in Ho Chi Minh city and My Lai. An extensive museum complex and monumental sculpture, which as the «stone of fury» lends visual expression to the horror of the commemorated events, were erected on the site of the massacre in the mid-1970s. However, irrespective of how touching these testimonies or how impressive the associated appeals for historical remembrance are, the local population and survivors simply do not take any notice. The vast majority even stay away from the annual memorial events. Apart from internationally renowned locations like My Lai, the public places of remembrance throughout Vietnam have fallen into decay and ruin. Erected as a claim to state interpretation and guidance, they now symbolize the failure of the state to overcome the cultural self-will of its population – and above all the power of religion.

However, since the late 1980s there has been an increasing individualization and privatization of remembrance. Spurred on by economic reforms and greater cultural tolerance, the municipalities and families have been reclaiming the practices of religious worship of ancestors. Of particular importance here is the facilitation of a dignified burial of the victims of massacres – in the way prescribed by religion since time immemorial. Like all of the dead, those who die a «death in the street» or «bad death» – through violence, removed from family, and deprived of grieving survivors – have the inalienable right to eternal burial in a holy place. A ceremony held in accordance with the traditional rites enables the dead to enter into their own world and maintain daily contact with the living. Thus, based on this, the victims of the massacres were previously condemned to wander around in an intermediate world of captured spirits and destined to constantly re-experience the fatal violence perpetrated against them. Reburial away from anonymous graves into symbolically individualized graves is the only way to save these unhappy souls. Thus the recent appearance of temples and shrines constructed on private and municipal lands to commemorate the victims of mass murder is indicative of the fact that the state-controlled approach to history has temporarily forfeited if not entirely lost its powers of interpretation.

It is difficult to assess whether and how the horrors and crimes of war will be discussed in Vietnam in the future. When the massacres of South Korean troops were reported in the press around the turn of the millennium, young readers, in particular, showed considerable interest in obtaining more detailed information about these events – a development that provided a welcome opportunity for the government, for its part, to push for an end to the public debate. According to its own statements, Hanoi does not wish on any account to harm its good relationship with its most important economic partner, i.e. the USA. On the other hand, this hasty consideration is difficult to understand as a majority of the Vietnamese view the USA with a mixture of admiration and worship. Irrespective of this, in addition to the question as to how the victims murdered by foreigners should be commemorated, there is another and, moreover, far more complex problem to be resolved. What form should and can the remembrance of a war take when it was, from the outset, a fratricidal war, a war between enemy Vietnamese, a war in which the perpetrators and victims often came from the same family and, in the course of which the South Vietnamese army perpetrated massacres against its own compatriots?

Little or no attention has been focused on the civilian victims of the Vietnam War in the USA to the present day. Of course, repeated attempts were made to confront the public with the horrific human cost of the war. Journalists wrote about it, religious groups (most prominently Quakers and the ecumenical association «Clergy and Laymen Concerned») took up the issue, the «Vietnam Veterans Against the War» bore witness, and private organisations still provide humanitarian aid in the former death zones of Quang Ngai and elsewhere. However, for the most part, the debate which has been ongoing since the 1960s has focused on one question: How did the war affect American society, what traces did it leave behind on the home front? The much-cited condition of «Vietnam Syndrome» is indicative of American society’s preoccupation with itself in the context of a monologue that is still ongoing today.

Vietnam was and remains an obsession in the USA due to the internal division it caused within the country. Thus, the focus here is on the gaps that were created between the opponents and supporters of the intervention policy from the 1960s and the loss of trust in political elites and institutions. As a result, Vietnam tends to be referred to in the same breath as the Civil War. According to this interpretation, in both cases not only was the unity of the nation at stake but the very idea of America as the vision of a unique and therefore exemplary society. For this reason the promise «to heal the nation» still has not lost any of its political power. Ronald Reagan took advantage of it during his election victory of 1980. And George W. Bush also benefited from it when he reproached his opponent John F. Kerry for having once (as an activist of the «Vietnam Veterans Against the War») denounced a just cause and since then contributing nothing to the honorific commemoration of the Vietnam generation.

Finally, the war still exercises imaginations because it called America’s role as a superpower into question. In some opinion polls, as many as 70 percent of participants described the war in Vietnam as morally reprehensible. However, only in exceptional cases was this condemnation accompanied by support for a pacifistic reversal or watchful reticence in the area of foreign policy. Moreover, the escaped victory was unacceptable to the majority. This exactly is the core of the «Vietnam Syndrome» – the refusal to come to terms with a defeat and the aversion to military and political self-fettering. Seen from this vantage point, it is possible to call the Vietnam war amoral without acknowleding the suffering of others.

F - General and Legal Interpretations

The massacres of My Lai 4 and My Khe 4 merely feature as peripheral events in most of the academic studies on the Vietnam war. Their main focus tends to be on political-diplomatic and cultural historical issues or – more recently – on the question of «nation-building» and the problem as to how societies in the former centres and on the periphery deal with the legacy of colonialism. Also because they see the events in My Lai 4 as exceptional or unique lapses, some authors limit themselves to a cursory presentation. In other words, they usually write about the war without describing the war in itself.

On the other hand, since the publication in 1970 of Seymour M. Hersh’s pioneering study, a handful of monographs have been produced that are devoted to the massacre of March 16, 1968. These focus on both the role of the political and military leadership and the demeanour of the military commanders, and the willingness of ordinary soldiers to engage in violence. Particular emphasis is given to the fact that, unlike many other incidences involving mass murder and genocide, it is not possible to speak here of an act of murder planned in advance. Instead, the authors concentrate on issues of negligence and disinterest and a chain of situative factors that encouraged the radicalisation of violence. Most recently, attention has also been drawn to the fact that My Lai 4 and My Khe 4 were part of an entire series of war atrocities and crimes. This finding is based on sources that were ignored for decades – for example those of the «Vietnam War Crimes Working Group» and the «Peers Commission». Whether historians will also have access to the files of the South Vietnamese and South Korean armed forces in the future remains open, however.

Last but not least, attention should be drawn to a desideratum in the legal debate on war crimes in Vietnam and their punishment. Many experts refer to an erosion of military legal culture at the time of the Vietnam War. It is a well known fact that, of the My Lai perpetrators, only one, i.e. William Calley, had to atone for his actions. It is similarly widely acknowledged that the formally valid principles of international law of war were ignored in the practice of military courts. It remains open as to how and with what degree of success efforts have been made to rectify this situation, i.e. how the principle of respondeat superior (individual responsibility of superiors) is being dealt with; and what use was made of the mens rea principle which obliges soldiers with normal powers of reasoning and understanding to object when orders can clearly be recognised as illegal at a glance. The response to these questions also dictates how the legacy of the Vietnam War will ultimately be assessed.

G - Bibliography

Anderson, D. L. (Ed.), 1998, Facing My Lai: Moving Beyond the Massacre , Lawrence/Ks.

Angers, T., 1999, The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story , Lafayette/La.

Belknap, M. R., 2002, The Vietnam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley , Lawrence/Ks.

Bilton, M./ Sim K., 1992, Four Hours in My Lai , New York.

Citizens Commission of Inquiry (Ed.), 1972, The Dellums Committee Hearings on War Crimes in Vietnam: An Inquiry into Command Responsibility in Southeast Asia , New York.

Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, (Ed.), 1968, In the Name of America: The Conduct of the War in Vietnam by the Armed Forces of the United States as Shown by Published Reports , New York.

Falk, R., (Ed.), 1976, The Vietnam War and International Law , 4 Vols., Princeton.

Greiner, B., 2007, Krieg ohne Fronten: Die USA in Vietnam , Hamburg. (2009, War without Frontiers. The USA in Vietnam, forthcoming).

Hersh, S. M., 1970, My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and its Aftermath , New York.

Hersh, S. M., 1972, Cover-Up: The Army’s Secret Investigation of the Massacre at My Lai 4 , New York.

Hillman, E. L., 2005, Defending America: Military Culture and the Cold War Court-Martial , Princeton/Oxford.

Kwon, H., 2006, After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Hy My and My Lai , Berkeley, Los Angeles, London.

Nelson, D., 2008, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes , New York.

O’Brien, T., 1994, In the Lake of the Woods , New York.

Oliver, K., 2006, The My Lai Massacre in American History and Memory , Manchester, New York.

Olson, J. S../ Roberts, R., 1998, My Lai: A Brief History with Documents , Boston/New York.

Schell, J., 1987, The Real War: The Classic Reporting on the Vietnam War , New York.

Solis, G. D., 1989, Marines and Military Law in Vietnam: Trial by Fire , Washington D.C.

Solis, G. D., 1997, Son Thang: An American War Crime , Annapolis

Trullinger, J. W., 1994, Village at War: An Account of Conflict in Vietnam , Stanford.

Turse, N., 2009, Vietnam: Kill Anything that Moves (Forthcoming)

Vietnam Veterans Against the War, (Ed.) 1972, The Winter Soldier Investigation: An Inquiry into American War Crimes , Boston.

Young, M. B., 1991, The Vietnam Wars 1945–1990 , New York.

Cite this item

Greiner Bernd, The March 1968 Massacre in My Lai 4 and My Khe 4, Mass Violence & Résistance, [online], published on: 5 October, 2009, accessed 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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