The Olson and Roberts book, My Lai is based upon the March 18, 1968, assault on My Lai. By examining the material, an explanation of why this massacre occurred is drawn. The main factors that lead to the My Lai assault were difficulty engaging with the enemy and the problem of distinguishing between the enemy soldiers and civilians, which both led to rage and frustration among soldiers and a misinterpretation of the mission.
On March 17, 1968, a mission was given to the Charlie company to go into the village of My Lia or Pinktown, and engage in battle with the enemy. The area was said to be heavily populated with Vietcong, the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong sympathizers (Olson, T’Souvas, CID Statement, p.68). On March 18, 1968, the Charlie company went to My Lia to seek and destroy the Vietcong’s 48th Local Force Battalion. The mission turned into a great massacre of harmless civilians. Old men, women and children were gathered together in groups and then executed. Everything that moved was killed. Pfc. Charles Gruver, a soldier at My Lai said to Ronald Ridenhour, “We went in there and killed everybody.” After the massacre the military was trying to cover the incident up to keep it from the public. On the report for the battle of My Lai it was listed
that 128 enemies killed but only three weapons recovered (Olson, p.23). It was evident to what had actually happened.
The difficulty engaging with the enemy was a factor leading up to the massacre. The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army were highly skilled in hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. The Vietcong made extensive use of land mines and boobytraps. Women, children and old men helped the Vietcong to construct and place these defensive weapons. (Olson, p.47,48) While trying to locate the Vietcong on search and destroy missions many American soldiers were killed or wounded by mines boobytraps or snipers. William Calley testified that the sight of men killed in a land mine during an operation brought out feelings of hate and fear towards the Vietnamese (Olson, Calley, p.52). While the American soldiers were being wounded or killed the enemy was rarely to be seen or shot at. The soldiers were frustrated that their friends were being killed by the enemy, but they could not find the enemy to kill them. This lead American soldiers into My Lai with the attitude to seek revenge for previous casualties and that nothing would stop them (Olson, Roberts, Peers Report, p.54).
3Distinguishing between the enemy soldiers and civilians was another factor of why this massacre occurred. The problem of not knowing who the enemy was also led to fear and frustration within the American soldiers. The enemy was not dressed in uniform so they were not easily detected. Some civilians were helping the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. Some would be civilians by day and snipers at night. Even children would coddle up to jeeps and drop hand grenades in the jeep (Olson, Roberts, Peers Report, p.54). The soldiers were becoming very frustrated because they did not know who to be friends with.
The misinterpretation of the mission by the captains and the soldiers also led to the My Lai massacre. To start off with, the plan was based upon a faulty assumption concerning the strength and disposition of the enemy and the absence of noncombatants in the operational area (Olson, p58). The village was supposed to be clear of all civilians, and those who remained were the enemy or sympathizers of the enemy. The initial orders given by Colonel Barker were to neutralize the village of My Lia and to destroy enemy resources, such as buildings, hootches, tunnels and livestock (Olson, Kotouc, Peers Report, p.59). When Captain Medina called the Charlie Company together to explain the mission, the
4 troops walked away with different interpretations of the mission. Gregory Olsen said they were instructed to kill any military age male running from them or shooting at them (Olson, G. Olsen, CID, p.64). Another soldier testified that Medina ordered them to kill everything in the village because it was completely enemy controlled (Olson, Stanley, CID, p.65). During training the soldiers were taught from the very first day to obey orders and not ask questions (Olson, Peers Report, p.11). It is clear that the soldiers were told that civilians were cleared of the village as many of the soldiers stated that in their testimony. Some soldiers got the impression to kill everything and others got the impression to not kill women and children (Olson, Maples, CID, p.70).
In conclusion the lack of engagement with the enemy, difficulty identifying the enemy, rage and frustration among American soldiers and the misinterpretation of the mission all led to the My Lai massacre. The mission was based upon lack of intelligence information about the occupancy of the enemy within the area of My Lai. I feel that the incident is excusable due to the circumstances. The soldiers followed orders given on what was said to be the enemy. Due to the many factors that lead to the My Lai massacre, no action should have been made on the select few.
Olson, James S. and Roberts, Randy, My Lai, Bedford Books, Boston, New York 1998.