.. n combat, they focused their anger on the villagers of the province. According to Fred Widmer, a member of Charlie Company, we never really got into a main conflict per se . . .
So the whole mood changed . . . You knew there was an enemy out there- but you couldnt pinpoint who exactly was the enemy. And I would say that in the end, anybody that was still in that country was the enemy.
It was under these conditions that Lt. William Calley was instructed to lead Charlie Company to Son My in Quang Ngai Province and destroy a suspected Viet Cong stronghold in the hamlet of My Lai. The more hostile the area was, the more frustrated and hostile American soldiers were toward those who lived there. Paul Boehms unit was in the vicinity of My Lai and he called it the most heavily mined and booby trapped area in Vietnam that I was in.11 The mines and booby traps added a different aspect to the war because you could not fight back at the mines. As more of the Companys men were being killed and wounded by the mines the frustration grew for a traditional battle against a human, anyone would do. Coupled with the Companys men being frustrated and angry with seeing American soldiers and there friends dieing was the poor leadership the Officers displayed in Charlie Company.
Their ineptitude and poor leadership skills must be considered a contributing factor to the My Lai incident. Captain Ernest Medina, commanding officer of Charlie Company, once leaped from behind a rock to scare an old Vietnamese man. He grabbed the man, who was so scared he defficated, causing the Company to break into laughter. Another time Medina cut the ear off a Vietnamese that he was questioning. Such actions are unbecoming of an Officer. In transcripts taken from an interview, Lt.
William Calley reveals how he handled Charlie Companys abuse of civilians: We didnt punish the GIs for it . . . if just cutting hair off a Vietnamese or beating the hell out of a prostitute or just being with a prostitute . .
. if it increased morale I would forgive it. Lt. Calley was not a good leader and would not have been an Officer during peace time, but because of Officers being killed by the enemy as well as friendly fire he became one. The plans of the operation of Charlie Company were to destroy the 48th VC Local Battalion, the same group they let go weeks ago. The soldiers were briefed to burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy foodstuffs and perhaps to close the wells.12 Then Captain Medina added, the enemy would be present .
. . and that the enemy was to be destroyed.13 Charlie Company was told that the civilians were cleared out of the village and anyone left was VC or VC sympathizers. It was quite clear that no one was to be spared in that village.14 As Charlie Company entered the village; the men were tense with fear, edgy on adrenaline, and expecting the enemy to surface at any time. So they fired their weapons, forgetting- if they ever really learned- the rules of engagement.15 This was a time of chaos and confusion.
No one wanted to die, so anything that moved was fired upon. At one point, Lt. Calley had his men line up some villagers. The Vietnamese screamed, yelled . .
. It was pure carnage as heads were shot off along with limbs.16 This brutal activity was compounded with rape, sodomy, and various cases of torture. According to one eyewitness account, at least one member of Charlie Company later bragged about his feats at My Lai. Dennis Conti, boasted how Calley had earlier caught him with his pants down and his penis out trying to get a blow job from the Vietnamese woman, while threatening her child with a gun.17 Suffice to say, the horror of the individual and collective acts on March 16, 1968, border on the unimaginable. Yet, for all the carnage and crimes that were committed in My Lai 4, only Lt. Calley was found to be guilty in US Military Court. It is conceivable that no one who have been charged if Ridenhour did not send his letter, triggering an investigation.
Even so the inquiry by the CID US Army and the Peers Commission found only sixteen men guilty of some wrong doing at My Lai. Four of these sixteen were brought to trial. All with the exception of Calley were dismissed. He was found guilty of 22 counts of murder and one attempted assault and murder of a child. In many ways then, Calley served as a scapegoat for the My Lai incident.
After all, 500 innocent civilians were murdered, but only 22 were accounted for in the trial. In many ways all of Charlie Company serves as a scapegoat for America. It is easy to blame them, view them as flawed individuals. This may be the case. However, evidence suggests that the men of Charlie Company, straight from the Tet Offensive, were under extreme mental duress. They had seen their friends killed, and spurred on by their orders, they sought revenge in the village of My Lai.
Charlie Companys actions on March 16, 1968 cannot be excused. They murdered, raped, and tortured people. Nevertheless, given the circumstances their actions become more understandable, if not tolerable. If any thing can be learned from Charlie Companys actions, it is this: war is brutal. It shifts morals, distorts perceptions, and dehumanizes everyone involved.
The Vietnam War was not an exception. Charlie Company was not an exception. America must learn that these men were a product of their environment. Perhaps next time an ideological conflict occurs, images of My Lai will flood Americas conscious, and this country will not be as quick to draw guns. Unfortunately, with recent actions in Kosovo, these images seem all but forgotten.
Bibliography Bibliography Primary Sources: Goldstein, Joseph, Burke Marshall, and Jack Schwartz. The My Lai Massacre and its Cover- up. New York: The Free Press, 1976. Olson, James, and Randy Roberts. My Lai: A Brief History With Documents. New York: Bedford Books, 1993.
Secondary Sources: Bilton, Michael, and Kevin Sim. Four Hours in My Lai. New York: Viking Penguin, 1992. Ebert, James R. A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman In Vietnam, 1965- 1972. California: Presidio Press, 1993.
Olson, James, and Randy Roberts. Where the Domino Fell, 2d ed. New York: St. Martins Press, Inc., 1996. History Reports.