The 1968 My Lai Massacre shocked Americans, but the true nature of the Vietnam War went far beyond anything the public could’ve imagined. This is the story of the war within the War, between the soldiers who brutalized Vietnamese civilians, and the unsung men who tried to stop them.
The 1968 My Lai Massacre shocked Americans, but the true nature of the Vietnam War went far beyond anything the public could’ve imagined. This is the story of the war within the War, between the soldiers who brutalized Vietnamese civilians, and the unsung men who tried to stop them.
Jones, Howard. My Lai. 2015.
Hastings, Sir Max. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy (1945-1975). 2018.
Hersh, Seymour M. Cover-Up. 1972.
Charles Rivers Editors. The My Lai Massacre. 2015.
Fitzgerald, Frances. Fire In The Lake. 1972.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. 1990.
Turse, Nick. Kill Anything That Moves. 2013.
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The Good Guys
The 1968 My Lai Massacre shocked Americans, but the true nature of the Vietnam War went far beyond anything the public could’ve imagined. This is the story of the war within the War, between the soldiers who brutalized Vietnamese civilians, and the unsung men who tried to stop them.
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PULLING THE THREAD
One of the most shocking revelations in modern American history began with a chance encounter at a tiny bar in Vietnam.
The year was 1968, and a 22-year-old American soldier named Ron Ridenhour was sipping on a cold beer at an airbase in Chu Lai.
Ridenhour was not the classic portrait of a soldier. He was a thin, lanky guy with a bowl cut and mutton chops. But appearances aside, Ridenhour was a capable helicopter gunner, and he was grateful for the refreshing pint and the brief respite from his usual duties.
As Ridenhour is sipping on his beer, he suddenly notices an old acquaintance across the bar, a private named Charles “Butch” Gruver.
Ridenhour and “Butch” had trained together back in Hawaii before they’d been deployed to Vietnam, and the two men were surprised and happy to see each other. So Butch brings his beer over to Ridenhour’s table, and they start chatting.
After a couple minutes of small talk, Butch sets his beer down. And he says to Ridenhour, “Did you hear what we did at Pinkville?”
“Pinkville” was a codename, referring to a cluster of villages in South Vietnam, called My Lai. The U.S Army called it “Pinkville” because on the tactical maps, the area had such a high population density that the all red dots made the area appear pink.
The name didn’t mean much to Ridenhour. He shrugged and told Butch he hadn’t heard of it. Butch leaned in and said in a hushed voice over the noise of the bar:
“We just went in there, and killed everybody. All the civilians in the village.”
Ron Ridenhour stopped sipping his beer and looked at Butch.
“Killed everybody? What do you mean?”
“We just shot ’em. Lined ’em up and shot ’em down. Three, four, five hundred people I don’t know how many.”
Initially, Ridenhour was speechless. American’s ground war in Vietnam had begun in earnest in 1965, and in those three years, it had become clear that this was unlike any other war the Unites States had fought. It was dirtier, more brutal, and plagued by political strife and moral ambiguity.
But this immediately struck Ridenhour as beyond the pale.
Ridenhour was one of many soldiers who did not want to be in Vietnam. He didn’t like the war, he didn’t believe in what they were doing, he just wanted to do his time and go home. After months in-country, he’d seen his fill of death and violence as a gunner, skimming over the paddies in a helicopter.
But what Butch had just said, rattled him deeply.
Ridenhour couldn’t help himself, and suddenly the questions came pouring out. What happened? Who did what? When was this? Who was killed? How many people?
And Butch held nothing back.
Butch told Ridenhour a tale of senseless, systematic butchery. He told of drainage ditches filled with hundreds of dead, women, children, and old people. He told of American GIs machine-gunning babies, throwing old men into wells and tossing grenades in after them. He told of a particularly bloodthirsty Lieutenant named Calley, who’d personally murdered over a hundred people with his own hands.
But the thing that troubled Ridenhour the most, was that his friend Butch seemed to be bragging about it. Like it was some kind of victory. Ridenhour had to hold his tongue in silence as Butch talked about raping a young girl in the village.
Years later, Ridenhour noted with disgust that Butch “almost boasted about it.”
Ridenhour bit his tongue, finished his beer, and the two men parted. But the conversation had lit a burning anger in the 22-year-old corporal. Something he couldn’t ignore. He thought to himself later:
These no good sons-of-bitches. Look what they’ve gotten me into. Look what they’ve gotten us all into.”
Ridenhour knew, that if this was true, he had an obligation to bring it to light. Just having the knowledge of it made him culpable by association. “Butch” Gruver could’ve confessed the truth about Pinkville to any number of US servicemen. But according to historian Howard Jones, by boasting about it to Ridenhour, he’d “confessed to the wrong person”.
Over the next several weeks, Ron Ridenhour began asking around about what had happened at Pinkville. He started reaching out to other old buddies and acquaintances in the Army in an attempt to confirm what Butch had told him. Initially, he hoped and prayed that Butch had just been drunk, and exaggerating.
But as Ron Ridenhour talked to more and more people, a terrible picture began to slowly come into focus. Something horrific had happened earlier that spring in a tiny hamlet in South Vietnam. Something that threatened to shake a century of assumptions about American exceptionalism to its very bedrock.
The next person Ridenhour spoke to was a man named Mike Terry. Terry was a devout Mormon and Ridenhour knew that if something bad had really happened, Terry would tell him the truth.
When Ridenhour finally spoke to him, Mike Terry confirmed Butch’s story. With palpable regret, he explained his own role in the mysterious massacre. Mike told Ridenhour that he had personally finished off dead and dying civilians in a ditch by peppering them with machine gun fire.
Ridenhour looked his friend in the eye, and whispered:
“Mike. Mike, didn’t you know that was wrong?”
“I dunno man. I guess it was a Nazi kind of thing.”
Ridenhour talked to several more men from the company that had gone into Pinkville, and one by one, they confirmed that a litany of shocking atrocities had been committed by American soldiers at Pinkville.
One man told him that he’d seen a wounded four year old boy who “just stood there with big eyes staring around like he didn’t understand.” Before a soldier finished him off with a bullet from his M16.
Ridenhour only had a tiny fragment of the entire picture, but he felt compelled to bring what he did know about Pinkville to light. As he said years later:
“I felt that I had to take some action. I had to do something. I couldn’t just – just rest with knowledge for the rest of my life. That I couldn’t – I couldn’t live with myself if I did.”
As Journalist Nick Turse put it, Ron Ridenhour was:
“the type of man many want to be, but few actually are.”
On March 29th, 1969 - after he returned to the States, Ridenhour wrote a five page later detailing everything he had learned, and sent it to over thirty high-ranking members of Congress and the US military.
After detailing everything he had learned, Ridenhour finished his letter:
Exactly what did, in fact, occur in the village of "Pinkville" in March, 1968 I do not know for certain, but I am convinced that it was something very black indeed.
I remain irrevocably persuaded that if you and I do truly believe in the principles, of justice and the equality of every man, however humble, before the law, that form the very backbone that this country is founded on, then we must press forward a widespread and public investigation of this matter with all our combined efforts. I think that it was Winston Churchill who, once said "A country without a conscience is a country without a soul, and a country without a soul is a country that cannot survive.
The consequences of Ridenhour’s letter were explosive.
What began as a quiet internal investigation by the US Army, quickly snowballed into a national scandal. Through a series of newspaper articles, highly-publicized court martials, and dogged investigative journalism, the American public soon learned the truth that Ron Ridenhour had pursued. And that truth was this:
On March 16th, 1968, more than a hundred American soldiers had entered the village of My Lai, codename “Pinkville”, and over the course of 4 hours systematically murdered 567 unarmed old people, women, children, and infants. They tore them apart with automatic machine gun fire. They blew them up with grenades. They caved their heads in with rifle butts. There were no less than 20 corroborated reports of rape and two confirmed gang rapes.
Their orders had been to “kill everything that moves”.
The American public was not prepared for this kind of revelation. The idea that soldiers of the United States military could engage in such flagrant cruelty and blatant homicide was inconceivable. Many people refused to believe it altogether. To them, this was the military that had stormed the beaches of Normandy, liberated concentration camps, and defeated Nazi Germany just 20 years earlier.
The sacred national myth, the story that we had been telling ourselves over and over again about the unimpeachable moral conduct of US troops, had suddenly evaporated with the morning fog over Vietnam.
The scandal plunged a red-hot spike of doubt into the national psyche: How could this have happened? How could we have done this? After all, we were the good guys. The white hats. The protagonists of the 20thcentury.
In the aftermath of the My Lai media frenzy, the American heartland woefully shook their heads at these few “bad apples”, this handful of renegade GIs who had besmirched the sterling reputation of the American military. As a government official wrote in 1971:
“The United States Army has never condoned wanton killing or disregard for human life.”
It was what everyone wanted to hear. What everyone needed to hear. A story we desperately had to believe was true.
But there was a darker, deeper truth festering beneath it. The My Lai Massacre, as it came to be known, was not a one-off event. Its scale was unprecedented, but as a veteran named Charles McDuff wrote in 1971:
“The atrocities that were committed in My Lai are eclipsed by similar American actions throughout Vietnam.”
As Ron Ridenhour bitterly observed years afterward, the butchery of Vietnamese civilians by American troops was “not an aberration, it was an operation”
To paraphrase journalist Nick Turse, the only aberration about My Lai was the fact that it had been investigated at all. This massacre was just a single note in a long, heartbreaking melody of misery.
The awful truth was that the roots of the My Lai massacre and countless others like it, stretched far beyond the soldiers on the ground. The tendrils on dysfunction, and hubris, and systemic disregard for Vietnamese civilian life reached all the way back across the Pacific Ocean to the highest halls of the Pentagon. The decisions made and policies enacted far away in Washington, almost ensured that a My Lai would happen. It was inevitable.
Today, we are going to be talking about that big, bad boondoggle of American history: The Vietnam War.
In the 45 years since it ended, the United States has been soul-searching in an attempt to grapple with what happened and what it meant. We’ve used every permutation of media and art and information as a means of collective therapy to process that national trauma. Movies, books, documentaries, paintings, comedies, tragedies, protests. But we never managed to fully absorb it – or its visceral lessons - into our cultural memory.
When I was in high school, about a decade and a half ago, our history textbooks conveniently ended *right* before Vietnam. We didn’t learn about it. American history seemed to just…end with the triumph of the Civil Rights movement. For those not old enough to remember it, Vietnam is either a punchline, or a slur. But the understanding stops there.
Undoubtedly, Vietnam is a titanic subject. Absolutely massive.
But in this episode, we’re going to narrow the aperture and look at the war *within* the war. The battle for the soul of the American military. Between the soldiers who brutalized the people of Vietnam, and the men who tried to stop them. Between the good men like Ron Ridenhour, and the butchers at My Lai. Between the Goliath of apathy, inertia, and cynical bureaucracy… and the handful of Davids who dared to speak up, or just simply say “No - I’m not doing that.”
Today, I’m going to tell you the full story of what happened at My Lai, minute by minute, bullet by bullet. In the words of the men who saw it with their own eyes, and killed with their own hands. In the words of the survivors, who had their entire world taken from them on a humid spring morning in 1968.
But to really understand how something like that could even happen in the first place, we need to go over how we got there, why we stayed, and what made the conflict so different than anything America had fought prior.
As Marine veteran Bill Ehrhart reflected on his experience in the war:
“I could not have made sense of what I was seeing and doing in Vietnam, because I did not have a full deck of cards. I needed to have an understanding of the political historical realities that brought us to Vietnam before I could make sense of what I was seeing. I began to acquire the other cards in the deck during the three years or so after I got back from Vietnam, but while I was there, nothing made sense; because I kept trying to, you know, play this game with 27 cards instead of 52 and it kept not coming out right. And I didn’t know why. All I knew was that it was nuts.”
So. Let’s go get our full deck of cards. Then we can try and understand what was so different about Vietnam. And what exactly happened to all the good guys.
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Seven hundred years before the United States decided to flex its military muscle in the tiny coastal country of Vietnam, another world power was resolving to exert its own influence in Southeast Asia.
The Mongol empire, which stretched from the mountains of Korea to the foothills of Eastern Europe, had set its sights on the fertile, subtropical kingdoms that made up what we now call Vietnam.
Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol empire and grandson to the famous Genghis Khan, had decided he wanted to add Vietnam to his vast domain. Another piece of territory to gobble up and squeeze for taxes, tribute, and resources.
So in the year 1258, the Mongol army rode south.
At the time, this was the largest, deadliest, most well-equipped military force on the planet. In the one hundred years since Genghis Khan had rode out from the frigid grasslands north of China, no fighting force in the known world had been able to stand up to the killing power of Mongolian cavalry.
One by one, kingdoms, caliphates, and empires had been crushed. And now it was Vietnam’s turn.
The Mongols were extremely confident as they rode into the jungles and wetlands of Vietnam. And why shouldn’t they be? They were basically the all-time undefeated champs of the Eastern hemisphere.
Almost immediately, they receive a very rude awakening.
Their shaggy horses, accustomed to the cool Northern climates, begin to struggle in the sweltering heat. The Mongol’s heavy iron armor turns their bodies into sweatboxes. The climate gives rise to diseases like malaria, jaundice, and dysentery.
And as bad as all that was, that was just the weather forecast.
To the Mongols’ surprise, the Vietnamese were formidable fighters. They excelled in guerilla warfare. Small, lightning-quick ambushes that drained and withered the Mongol army – which was accustomed to much larger scale, decisive engagements. The key to the Mongol war machine had always been speed and maneuverability, but in the dense jungles and swampy wetlands of Vietnam, that counted for almost nothing.
The most powerful military in the world had gotten itself into something they were completely unprepared for. In their arrogance, they believed that conquering Vietnam would be a breeze. After all, how could primitive, stone-age peasants resist the most powerful empire in the world?
It was a lesson that the Vietnamese would have to teach outsiders over and over and over again over the course of their history. Suffice to say, if anyone from the U.S military could’ve talked to Kublai Khan, he would’ve said, “Dude, don’t’ even bother.”
After heavy losses and long, frustrating jungle war, the Mongols did eventually manage to reach a deal with Vietnamese kingdoms, who agreed to pay tribute to the Great Khans. But as Empires tend to do, the Mongol empire collapsed, and the people of Vietnam were left to their own intrigues and devices for some time.
In the centuries following the Mongol incursions, the kingdoms of Vietnam remained largely unmolested and isolated for the next several centuries. Because of the region’s proximity to China, it soaked up a lot of cultural and religious characteristics of their big brother to the North. Things like Buddhism, Confucian patriarchy, and an Emperor-based monarchy.
But the Vietnamese also retained an identity and a language that was distinctly their own. They called their country – I’m going to butcher this, I’m so sorry - “dat nuoc”, (Daht NooOok) which means “earth and water”.
They developed the most advanced system for rice cultivation in all of Southeast Asia. And that simple, pastoral lifestyle was the norm for the majority of Vietnamese for almost their entire history. Most people in Vietnam lived in the same small village on the same tiny patch of farmland that their ancestors had.
Many of us in the West don’t know the name of their great, great grandfather off the top of their head. Well the Vietnamese could tell you the name of their ninth great grandfathers. The past was incredibly important to the people of Vietnam. For them, the past and the present were just two sides of the same revolving coin. Turning itself over and over in an endless, perfect cycle. Birth, growth, death, rebirth.
But it was only a matter of time before they came face to face with the future.
In the early 1800s, a Vietnamese scholar received reports of something sitting in the water off shore, belching smoke and covered in hard, shiny armor. He started thumbing through his bookshelf for an answer, and eventually concluded that it had to be a dragon. Vietnam was as old as time itself. Everything had an origin, everything had an explanation.
Well the dragon was actually a French steamship. And before long the Vietnamese, found themselves absorbed into the colonial French empire. Just as the other great Western powers had done across East Asia, the French set up shop, stuck a flag in the ground, and started plundering the region for all it was worth.
And as for the Vietnamese who protested, to quote the great Eddie Izzard, “no flag, no country”
The French quickly realized what a truly gorgeous possession they had just acquired. To quote one visitor, the scenery was absolutely intoxicating, noting the:
“paddy fields in which water buffalo grazed, almost every one with a white egret perched on its back picking at insects; of vegetation so bright and green that it hurt the eyes; of waits at ferries beside broad rivers the color of café crème; of gaudy pagodas and wooden homes on stilts, surrounded by dogs and ducks; of the steaming atmosphere, the ripe smells and water everywhere, giving a sense of fecundity, of nature spawning, ripening and in heat.”
Even more beautiful and bedazzling were the Vietnamese people themselves. They spoke in a monosyllabic language that relied on subtle tonal inflections to convey a variety of meanings. A single-syllable word could have up to six different definitions based on the way in which it was spoken.
One Westerner who became entranced and infatuated with the language said that the Vietnamese: “sound to me like charming ducks: their monosyllabic language comes out in a series of sweet quacks.”
That’s obviously a very patronizing oversimplification but his heart was in the right place.
However, the French Empire was not in Vietnam to learn the language or see the sights. They were there for the same reason all European empires were in Asia: for money. Specifically in the form of rubber trees, which, when punctured, bled sap they referred to as “white gold.”
Before long, the Vietnamese countryside was filled with plantations that grew rubber trees, sugar cane, coffee, and other crops to satiate the inexhaustible appetites of Europe’s bourgeois elite. And naturally, it was the Vietnamese people who paid the real price.
The intermingling of French and Vietnamese cultures wasn’t a complete tragedy. It gave us Bahn Mi sandwiches and iced Vietnamese coffee, but other than that, not great.
For seventy years, the French enforced a brutal regime that caused immense human suffering. In the year 1920, a man from Vietnam traveled to Europe and pled his case before the French socialist congress, saying:
“It is impossible for me in just a few minutes to rehearse to you all the atrocities committed in Indochina. There are more prisons than schools. . . . Freedom of the press and opinion does not exist for us. . . . We don’t have the right to emigrate or travel abroad. . . . They do their best to intoxicate us with opium and brutalize us with alcohol. They . . . massacre many thousands . . . to defend interests that are not [Vietnamese].”
His name was Nguyen Sinh Cung. But he would become known to history by a different moniker: Ho Chi Minh.
Ho Chi Minh was in many ways a fish out of water. The majority of his countrymen were extremely traditional, laser-focused on the past, and content to exist in the same pastoral cycles that their ancestors had.
Ho Chi Minh was completely different. Prior to the French arrival, Vietnam had been their entire world. But now that snow globe had been smashed to pieces and Ho Chi Minh had a ravenous curiosity about what lay across the oceans that had ferried these oppressors to his home country.
So in 1911, after getting into trouble with the law, Ho Chi Minh skipped town and secured a job as a galley boy on a French ship. He spent the next several years being basically the Vietnamese version of the Most Interesting Man in the World. He traveled to and lived in New York City, Boston, London, Moscow, Hong Kong and Paris. He worked as a sailor, a pastry chef, and a line manager for General Motors. He had an ear for languages, and could soon fluently speak English, French, Chinese and Russian.
The more he saw, and the more he experienced, the more he realized just how unfairly the Vietnamese were being treated back in his home country. And before long, Ho Chi Minh began plotting and planning to make his country independent once again. Ho summed it up:
“I always thought I would become a scholar or writer, but I’ve become a professional revolutionary.”
One man who met him described Ho as:
“taut and quivering, with only one thought in his head: his country.”
Meanwhile, back in Vietnam, things had gone from bad to worse. When World War 2 broke out, the Empire of Japan rolled over most of East Asia, plucking Europe’s prized colonial possessions like peaches off a tree.
The French could not hold onto Vietnam, and soon it was under Japanese control. Initially, the Japanese were a source of inspiration for the Vietnamese. The idea of an East Asian power humiliating Europeans was, as the Vietnamese said, “oai” – or awe-inspiring. But the Japanese, instead of being liberators, turned out to be just as cruel to the people of Vietnam as the French were. Just another empire looking to squeeze the territory for its natural resources.
Colonialism, as it turned out, comes in every shade.
In the midst of all the war and chaos, Ho Chi Minh returned to his country. He hadn’t seen it in over 30 years. Now a full-fledged revolutionary leader, he took control of the local guerilla movement and began fighting to disentangle Vietnam from the grasping fingers of Japan.
When two very big bombs put an end to Japanese ambitions and the Second World War in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh and his compatriots took advantage of the power vacuum and seized control of the northern part of Vietnam.
For the Vietnamese, this was a triumph. An amazing day. As Ho said to roaring crowds in Hanoi:
“The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, our people have broken the fetters which for over a century have tied us down.”
“We solemnly declare to the world that Viet-Nam has the right to be a free and independent country — and in fact it is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.”
One Vietnamese man, who was just a little boy at the time, remembered:
“Our teachers were so happy. They told us we must go out and celebrate independence. They said that when we are old men . . . we must remember this as a day of celebration.”
But there was just one teeny tiny little problem.
With the Japanese ousted, the French wanted their colony back. In their eyes, Vietnam was not an independent nation. It was a possession gone rogue. And it needed to be brought back under heel. Before the ink is dry on the peace treaties from World War 2, a hot war as erupted between the French army and the Vietnamese revolutionaries.
This is one of those moments from history that, at first glance, feels small. A squabble that appears insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But this little territorial scrap in Southeast Asia would become a pivotal axle upon which the 20th century turned.
Before you steel yourselves for any exhaustive lesson in Cold War politics, don’t worry, we’re not opening up that particular pandora’s box. If we go down that road, we’ll be lost in the weeds for hours. So scratch that.
The basic facts – just so we’re all on the same page – are that in the aftermath of World War 2, the world becomes bifurcated into two competing political ideologies. Democratic capitalism, spearheaded by the United States, and authoritarian communism, spearheaded by our dear friends in the Soviet Union. With the destructive capability of nuclear weapons now on the board, all-out war between the two superpowers is not an option. Not if we still wanted to have a planet to live on.
But here’s the problem, World War 2 upset the political status-quo of underdeveloped nations all over the world, and now all these little countries are trying to decide what kind of government they want to have. Democracy, authoritarianism, capitalism, communism, some mixture of the two. And the US and the Soviet Union are trying to influence which way those countries swing.
As President Harry S Truman said to Congress in 1947:
“At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. . . . I believe that it must be the policy of the US to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
It's hard for people of my generation, people who didn’t live through the Cold War, to fully appreciate the all-encompassing paranoia that Americans had about Communism. It was extremely intense. And after China converts to Communism in 1949, the United States government becomes unglued with anxiety.
As one British politician observed:
“There is now in the United States an emotional feeling about Communist China and to a lesser extent Russia which borders on hysteria.”
China, it was believed, would infect all the smaller countries around it, adding to the global hegemony of Communism’s team captain – Soviet Russia. The nightmare scenario was that Communism would spread into Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, then work its way into the Philippines, Australia, India, Africa, and before you know it, there are Russians crossing the border into El Paso.
It sounds irrational, but that was literally what US policy makers were afraid of. This was what they called “the domino theory”. Once the dominos started toppling, it would be very hard to stop that chain reaction.
The Americans resented any criticism. As a JFK’s secretary Dean Rusk said to a British journalist: “When the Russians invade Sussex, don’t expect us to come and help you.”
Back in Vietnam, our old pal Ho Chi Minh is looking for a sponsor to help him take back his country from the French. He needs weapons, artillery, supplies, and resources. Resources his very poor country does not have. Without someone backing him up, he’s going to lose this thing. So Ho Chi Minh, a card-carrying Communist, turns to China and the Soviet Union for help. They pour money and arms and advisors into North Vietnam.
And the French – well the French want their Vietnamese piggy bank back - so they turn to their ally, the Americans. Intent on containing the spread of Communism, the United States energetically provides financial and military support.
As an Arrny officer named Sam Wilson beautifully encapsulated:
We were caught on the horns of a dilemma. How can we maintain our friendship and our alliance with the French, and support them in Southeast Asia, while we as a former colony ourselves sympathize with the Vietnamese and their aspirations for freedom and independence?
Well, the hard choice was made in favor of the French. And by 1953, US taxpayers were footing 80% of the bill for the French war effort in Vietnam.
And just like that, a third-world nation the size of Florida has been turned into an ideological and literal battleground.
But despite all the American money and weapons and expertise at their disposal, the French eventually lose this war.
If you want to take a second to pause the episode and make a joke to yourself about French military prowess, I won’t judge you. Suffice to say, this is not the outcome America was hoping for. A French-controlled Vietnam meant a democratic, capitalist Vietnam. But rather than take its toys and go home, America throws its support behind a puppet government in South Vietnam, to keep Ho Chi Minh and his forces from taking over the entire country.
So - Vietnam settles into a political stalemate. The Communist stronghold of Hanoi in the north. And the US-backed regime operating from Saigon, in the south. Initially the US only sends advisors to equip and train the South Vietnamese army, but they quickly realize that’s not going to cut it. The Southern regime is inept, corrupt, and utterly incapable of mounting an effective military campaign against Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. According to one historian, they were not army, just “a collection of individuals who happened to be carrying weapons.”
So to keep South Vietnam from collapsing, the US has to keep escalating its military presence in the country, throughout the presidencies of both John F Kennedy, and his successor Lyndon B Johnson.
As H.R. McMaster noted:
“Vietnam was not forced on the US by a tidal wave of Cold War ideology. It slunk in on cat’s feet.
And eventually, in 1965, thousands upon thousands of American boots hit the ground in Vietnam. And they did so with a towering sense of optimism and can-do attitude. They were going to stop the forces of Communism and preserve a free, democratic government for the people of South Vietnam.
As historian Frances Fitzgerald wrote in her book, Fire In The Lake:
“Americans ignore history, for to them everything has always seemed new under the sun. The national myth is that of creativity and progress, of a steady climbing upward into power and prosperity, both for the individual and for the country as a whole. Americans see history as a straight line and themselves standing at the cutting edge of it as representatives for all mankind. They believe in the future as if it were a religion; they believe that there is nothing they cannot accomplish, that solutions wait somewhere for all problems, like brides.”
A young Marine named Philip Caputo remembered the expectations he had before he left for Vietnam:
“I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead, like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home with medals on my chest.”
It was an attitude many in the United States shared, according to legendary journalist Neil Sheehan:
“We thought we were the exceptions to history. We were Americans. History didn’t apply to us. We could never fight a bad war. We could never represent the wrong cause. We were Americans. Well in Vietnam, we learned we were not an exception to history”
According to a young American infantryman named Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam War was…. boring:
“Even in the deep bush, where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring. But it was a strange boredom. It was boredom with a twist, the kind of boredom that caused stomach disorders.
You’d be sitting at the top of a high hill, the flat paddies stretching out below, and the day would be calm and hot and utterly vacant, and you’d feel the boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet, except it wasn’t water, it was a sort of acid, and with each little droplet you’d feel the stuff eating away at important organs. You’d try to relax. You’d uncurl your fists and let your thoughts go. Well, you’d think, this isn’t so bad. And right then you’d hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you’d be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom.
When hundreds of thousands of American soldiers arrived in Vietnam, they were the best, most well-equipped army in the history of the world. That’s not hyperbole, that’s an objective fact. No fighting force in any millennia could bring the same level of destructive capability to bear. And with that force, came an intoxicating sense of power. As war correspondent Neil Sheehan remembered:
“For the first six months I was not at all afraid. I thought it was thrilling, skiing over rice paddies in a helicopter. I was a child of the Cold War. We all felt the same way. Americans could do no wrong. We went there to stop these evil communists trying to take over the world. We had very little grip on reality. We felt this country deserved support.”
A US intelligence officer named Harry Williams was even more optimistic:
“This was a good war, a wonderful war. We were cowboys. I loved the work, and felt I was making a real contribution. I felt assured of the rightness of our cause, and that we would win.”
And Lt Phil Caputo reflected on his own naivete years later:
“There was nothing we could not do because we were Americans, and for the same reason, whatever we did was right. Communists were the new barbarians who menaced the far-flung interests of the new Rome.”
But all that gung-ho enthusiasm quickly curdled with the realization that this was an army built for the wrong war.
The US Army could never invade North Vietnam directly. They could bomb it, they could blockade it, but they couldn’t march troops into Hanoi and definitively crush Ho Chi Minh’s power base. Doing that might have drawn China, or worse, the Soviet Union, into the war. And that was something no one in Moscow or Washington wanted.
But what the US Army could do was protect South Vietnam from the incursions of Communist guerilla fighters, who traveled down from the north and waged an insurgency campaign in the jungles and river deltas of the south, in an effort to collapse the southern government.
American intelligence officers dubbed these Vietnamese Communists, the “Viet Cong”. Which was then transposed into the military-speak “Victor Charlie”. Which eventually became abbreviated to “VC”, or “Charlie”. You’ve probably heard that in movies before – “Charlie”.
Well, the United States thought it could go toe-to-toe with the “Charlie” in direct, large-scale engagements. Just like it had against the Germans and the Japanese back in World War 2. But the Viet Cong weren’t idiots. Going head to head with the American military machine would be suicide for a ragtag army of illiterate, poorly-equipped guerrillas. So instead, they decide to wage a shadow war. Only engaging when they were absolutely positive they could win.
The Americans found themselves presented with a very difficult question. What do you do when an enemy won’t come out and fight you? Well, you go out and you find him. This evolved into a strategy called “search and destroy”. And as you can imagine, it was easier said than done.
The worst enemy that the US military faced in Vietnam was Vietnam itself. Just like Kublai Khan’s army seven centuries before, the Americans quickly discovered what a thoroughly agonizing experience jungle warfare could be.
As Captain Chuck Reindenlaugh wrote in a letter to his wife:
“No single piece of earth is less suited to waging conventional warfare. . . . Oozing water into which one sinks to the knees; trees and underbrush so thickly entwined that it is impossible to force a man’s body through in many places; giant trees whose upper bough structure keeps the ground in perpetual half-light.”
The terrain was made even more punishing by the oppressive climate. The heat, especially for men from the Northern and Midwestern states, was almost unbearable. The temperatures in Vietnam could get up to 120 degrees with 85 percent humidity. It rained incessantly, and everything was just wet – all the time. Tim O’Brien painted an extremely vivid picture:
“At night you’d find a high spot, and you’d doze off, but then later you’d wake up because you’d be buried in all that slime. You’d just sink in. You’d feel it ooze up over your body and sort of suck you down. And the whole time there was that constant rain. I mean, it never stopped, not ever.”
Diseases like dysentery, malaria, and ringworm lurked within swarms of mosquitos, ticks and lice. Snake bites were only a wrong step away. It was utterly inescapable. There’s a story about one GI who woke up in the middle of the night screaming; a giant leech had attached itself to his tongue while he was asleep. Another apocryphal tale describes a man who began collecting all his head lice in a little baggy, and mailed it back to the draft board in Ohio who’d compelled him into service, as a spiteful gift.
What made all if this physical misery even more infuriating and soul crushing is that the enemy were nowhere to be found. The VC were everywhere and nowhere – all at once. As a Marine veteran named Phil Earhart described:
“I only saw four armed enemy soldiers the first eight months I was in Vietnam. […] there was no one to fight back at. And you begin to think, these people are the enemy. They’re all the enemy.”
Another veteran said:
“All through the whole entire time that I spent out in the field, I could literally count the amount of men or boys that we saw. You go into a village, and there was never a man in a village. Never.”
Lt. Phil Caputo vented his frustration as well, saying:
“There was no pattern to our patrols and operations. Without a front, flanks or rear, we fought a formless war against a formless enemy who evaporated like the morning jungle mists, only to materialize in some unexpected place. Most of the time, nothing happened; but when something did, it happened instantaneously, and without warning.”
For the Viet Cong, this was all part of the plan. As one internal communique advised:
Keep the enemy constantly in a defensive, reactive posture. Force him to fight on our terms . . . in a constant state of psychological tension to erode his strength. . . . Ambush and annihilate small parties.”
The Viet Cong and their political masters in Hanoi were possessed by a single-minded determination to make the Americans’ time in their country so demoralizing and costly, that their fighting spirit would break. One North Vietnamese politician told the New York Times:
“And how long do you Americans want to fight? . . . One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? Ten Years? Twenty years? We shall be glad to accommodate you.”
One source of intense psychological tension, was booby traps. They ranged from ingeniously modern, such as repurposed mortar rounds, to the brutally simple, like spikes, pits, and tripwire.
As historian Max Hastings wrote:
Mines were often planted in clusters, so that the first crippled a man and the next wrecked the corpsman who sought to tend to him. Grunts engaged in macabre debates about which limb they would soonest lose; most claimed a preference for keeping knees and what was above them. In one two-month period, a single Marine company lost fifty-seven legs to mines and booby traps. As an officer bleakly observed, that amounted to almost a leg a day.
Anti-infantry mines were a big problem, like the famous “Bouncing Betty”. These mines were initially invented by the Nazis in World War 2 – of course – and they were specifically designed to shred infantry at close range. Basically what these things would do, is once you tripped the wire, the explosive charge would spring up into the air, about waist-high, and *then* detonate. The shrapnel could cut men in half, take off limbs, rip off jawbones – it was horrific.
One day, a man from the 9th cavalry stepped on a Bouncing Betty, but he managed to stop putting down pressure on it fractions of a second before it exploded. The problem was, he couldn’t take his foot off the mine, or it would explode. So an engineer named Harold Bryan had to spend a full hour, carefully trying to remove the prongs of the tripping mechanism, which were embedded like fish hooks into his boots. Eventually, the men from his platoon tie a rope around his waist and yank him as hard and as fast as they can away from the mine. The man got very lucky. Only the heel of his boot was damaged.
When the US infantry did engage the VC, they had to deal with the fact that their primary weapon, the M-16 rifle, often didn’t even work. As one Marine said:
“the M-16 was a piece of shit.”
Soldiers hated this rifle. It required incessant cleaning, which in a rainy, muddy, humid climate like Vietnam, was next to impossible. The M-16 would often fail in the middle of ambushes and firefights. A Marine from Idaho wrote the following in a letter to his parents:
“Our M-16s aren’t worth much. If there’s dust in them, they will jam. Half of us don’t have enough cleaning rods to unjam them. Out of 40 rounds I’ve fired, my rifle jammed about 10 times.
Naturally, having to use a rifle that didn’t work 25% of the time led to deaths. As another Marine said:
“You know what killed most of us? Our own rifle. . . . Practically every one of our dead was found with his rifle tore down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.”
The Viet Cong, who normally stripped dead Americans of every scrap of equipment they could find, often just left the M-16s behind. They were considered to worthless, too unreliable even for the guerrillas
When the M-16 worked, it was absolutely devastating. But you couldn’t count on it when your life depended on it. Just one more thing for the soldiers to worry about. You’d think that the manufacturer, Colt, would haul ass to address the issue, right? Wrong. They just shrugged and said the Marines weren’t cleaning them properly.
To be a soldier in Vietnam was to be submerged in a climate of constant fear and anxiety. But the human brain is a weird thing. And there’s an element of seduction, a thrill, to all that danger. As Tim O’Brien put it:
Vietnam had the effect of a powerful drug: that mix of unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure that comes as the needle slips in and you know you’re risking something.
The endorphins start to flow, and the adrenaline, and you hold your breath and creep quietly through the moonlit nightscapes; you become intimate with danger; you’re in touch with the far side of yourself, as though it’s another hemisphere, and you want to string it out and go wherever the trip takes you and be host to all the possibilities inside yourself.
Tim O’Brien is the kind of writer who makes other writers jealous. He has so vibrantly distilled his experiences in Vietnam into his books, that I’m gonna be indulging in more than a few snippets of his writing. For example, the one I’m about to read you is probably my favorite passage of his writing, and in it, he elaborates on the bizarre duality of being in a war zone:
But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm, the rocket’s red glare. It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference—a powerful, implacable beauty.
Holy shit. Slow cap for that.
Now - there may have been a surreal beauty to the landscape of Vietnam, but before long, the war turned very, very ugly.
The VC were ghosts, impossible to find, endlessly ambushing, killing, and laying booby traps for American GIs. They often found themselves fighting in the same places over and over again. A sergeant named Jim Stevens recalled:
“Sometimes you’d hit an LZ you’d dropped on two weeks before—your old trash was still there.
And all of that pent up frustration, hopelessness, anger, and aggression only had one place to go: The Vietnamese people themselves – the civilians. This is the point in the story where you can start to see the idealistic core of the American military start to warp and rot and change in real time.
Before we go any further, I want to preemptively warn you that a lot of the primary sources and quotes you’ll hear going forward, contain more than a few racial slurs against East Asian people. I wrestled a lot with whether I wanted to include them at all. But at a certain point, it became obvious that to omit the language of that oppression and cruelty would be a huge disservice not only to the narrative, but to the people who suffered because of those racist platitudes.
Not to belabor the point, but it’s always been very important to me, as we navigate cultures from all over the world on this show, to approach them with the utmost objectivity and respect. So please understand, the stuff you’re about to hear is included purposefully, not carelessly.
In journalist Nick Turse’s masterful expose on American atrocities in Vietnam, a book titled “Kill Anything That Moves”, he spends a lot of time describing the kind of ecosystem the vast majority of American soldiers were trained in. Although “programmed” would be a more accurate word.
A veteran named Wayne Smith confided to him:
“The drill instructors never ever called the Vietnamese, ‘Vietnamese.’ They called them dinks, gooks, slopes, slants, rice-eaters, everything that would take away humanity … That they were less than human was clearly the message.”
Another Vet, Haywood Kirkland, said this:
“As soon as [you] hit boot camp … they tried to change your total personality … Right away they told us not to call them Vietnamese. Call everybody gooks, dinks. They told us when you go over in Vietnam, you’re gonna be face to face with Charlie, the Viet Cong. They were like animals, or something other than human … They wouldn’t allow you to talk about them as if they were people. They told us they’re not to be treated with any type of mercy … That’s what they engraved into you. That killer instinct.
[XXXX] Milord said:
“I didn’t become a robot, but you can get so close to being one it’s frightening. For eleven months I was trained to kill. For eight weeks, during basic training, I screamed ‘kill,’ ‘kill.’ So when I got to Vietnam I was ready to kill.”
As journalist Nick Turse recounted, the country itself was referred to as:
“The outhouse of Asia,” “the garbage dump of civilization,” “the asshole of the world.”
Another soldier remembered that Basic Training taught him:
“the enemy is anything with slant eyes who lives in the village. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s a woman or child.
As Marine Veteran John Musgrave said, with a heartbreaking sense of retrospection, the training was designed to:
“Turn a subject…into an object. It’s racism 101. And it turns out to be a very effective tool when you have children fighting your wars, for them to stay sane doing their work.”
You may have noticed his mention of “children” there. Well, that brings us to another big issue. The average age of the soldiers in Vietnam. In World War Two, the average age of an American soldier was about 26. That’s a pretty good age. You’re in the physical prime of your life, you’ve got some life experience, some perspective, but more importantly, your brain has finally finished developing.
The human brain isn’t fully developed until you’re about 25; the last piece to finish cooking is something called the frontal cortex. That’s the part of the brain that controls things like risk-taking, sensation-seeking, and impulsive violence. I’m not a biologist or a brain surgeon – clearly – but that seems like a good thing to have under control in a war zone.
The average age of American soldiers in Vietnam was 19. Most NCOs, non-commissioned officers like Sergeants, were only a few years older, about 22.
Let’s just stop and think about that for a second. Do you remember what you were like when you were 19? I remember what I was like. I wouldn’t trust the average 19-year old with a fully automatic weapon, or a helicopter, or the ability to call down an airstrike, much less with the task of weighing complex geopolitical issues or ethical dilemmas.
And again, 19 is the *average*. Many more were even younger: 17, 18.
In fact, the youngest person to die in Vietnam serving in the US Army was named Dan Bullock. He wrote back to his family in Brooklyn, New York:
“I think I joined the Marines at the wrong time. Pray for me, because I won’t be coming home.”
He lied about his age to join the Marine Corps, and just three weeks after arriving in Vietnam, he was blown apart by a Viet Cong satchel charge.
Dan Bullock was 14 years old.
Now hopefully you can begin to see, and understand, that the ground war in Vietnam was inevitably careening in a direction destined for tragedy and atrocity.
But as badly indoctrinated as the average soldier might be, a good commander could theoretically restrain those impulses and contain bad conduct. But the dysfunction went much deeper, and higher, than any bigoted boot camp instructor.
Official army policy – the methodology for which the war was going to be fought – virtually guaranteed that war crimes would start taking place. And that policy went all the way to the highest corridors of the U.S government.
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Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was a numbers guy.
In 1965, he was 49 years old.
McNamara had initially served under President John F. Kennedy in the early 60s, and he’d been selected for the post because of his brilliant analytical mind and powerful aptitude for numbers and statistics.
It was McNamara who had conceived of the blockade that eventually averted the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Earlier in life, McNamara had risen to fame by putting his arithmetic bona fides to use in the private sector, lifting the Ford Motor Company back to prominence after years of flagging sales. Well, in the mid-to-late 60s, McNamara found himself under serving JFK’s successor, Lyndon B Johnson.
McNamara and LBJ could not have been more different. They were polar opposites in terms of attitude and style. McNamara was a straight arrow, with a demeanor as rigid as his perfectly-parted slicked back hair.
LBJ - as pretty much everybody knows - was a big, bombastic Texas democrat. A hard-cussing, back-slapping, baby-kissing politician who had served as JFK’s Vice President, before being thrust into the big seat after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
Together, the two men had inherited the problem of Vietnam from previous administrations. What LBJ called “ a piddling piss-ant little country”. But Robert McNamara had a very specific idea of how to solve that problem. He believed that he could use the same algorithmic, statistics-based approach that had worked so well in the private sector, and apply it to government work.
Everything would be quantified. Number of troops, numbers of bombs, numbers of rations time in the field, time on the march, age of combatants, age of enemy combatants, and on and on and on.
McNamara was a fervent believer in the power of quantitative analysis. He believed if he had enough information, enough metrics, the Vietnam War would become an equation that simply had to be cracked.
Solve for X and win the war.
After much number-crunching, politicking, and debate, the Johnson Administration, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and McNamara decide that if they could reach what they called a “crossover point” in Vietnam, then the war would be won.
The “crossover point” was defined as the point in time when the US military was killing more Viet Cong soldiers than could be replaced. It was an attrition strategy. Keep fighting on a long enough timeline, and eventually the Communists would run out of either manpower or willpower.
But how do you ascertain when that “crossover point” is reached? The only way to know for sure is to know how many enemies you’re killing in each engagement. Measure the kill rate against the estimated strength of the enemy, and you’ve got a theoretical timeline for success.
It was from this seemingly innocuous conclusion that *the* root of so much misery and atrocity inflicted upon Vietnam was born.
To solve his equation, McNamara wanted “body counts”. Literal breakdowns of how many VC were killed in each engagement, how many weapons captured, how many villages pacified. From the pristine halls of the Pentagon, it just seemed like good record-keeping. But in the jungles and paddies of Vietnam, it became a direct incentivization for rampant, unrestricted murder.
Let me explain. For American troops in Vietnam, the pressure to rack up kills was extremely intense. One commander remembered:
Your success was measured by your body count. It came down through the channels.”
As one historian noted:
Producing a high body count was crucial for promotion in the officer corps. Many high-level officers established “production quotas” for their units, and systems of “debit” and “credit” to calculate exactly how efficiently subordinate units and middle-management personnel performed
A combat medic named Gary Nordstrom said that there was constant pressure to:
“Get the body count. Get the body count. Get the body count. It was prevalent everywhere. I think it was the mind-set of the officer corps from the top down.”
Another veteran remembered:
“They would set up competitions. The company that came in with the biggest body count would be given in-country R and R or an extra case of beer. Now if you’re telling a nineteen-year-old kid it’s okay to waste people and he will be rewarded for it, what do you think that does to his psyche?”
Now, on its face, asking an army to be more effective at killing the enemy is not a bad thing. You want them to rack up body counts. But what if you can’t find the enemy? What if you can’t tell who the enemy is? What if you’re not killing the right people?
But you need that body count, right? Your entire career depends upon filling a quota. You have to find bodies, one way or another. There was an all-consuming desperation to meet those expectations. As one Marine remembered:
“If we came across four different body parts, we called in four kills.”
Phil Caputo summarized the issue in his memoir, “A Rumor of War”:
Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill Communists and to kill as many of them as possible. Stack ‘em like cordwood. Victory was a high body count, defeat a low kill ratio, war a matter of arithmetic. The pressure on unit commanders to produce enemy corpses was intense, and they in turn communicated it to their troops . . . It is not surprising, therefore, that some men acquired a contempt for human life and a predilection for taking it.”
The biggest day-to-day problem for American soldiers, was that it was almost impossible to distinguish Viet Cong guerillas from normal Vietnamese civilians. There was no VC “uniform”. They didn’t wear insignias or markers of rank, they essentially just wore street clothes.
Most Vietnamese peasants wore loose-fitting pants and tunics that were dyed black so that they would show less dirt and could be worn for longer periods of time before being washed. The GI’s started calling these “black pajamas”. And after they found enough VC armed with AK-47s and grenades clothed in these kinds of garments, the “black pajamas” became synonymous with Communist guerillas.
As Captain Edward Blake admitted:
“You never knew who was the enemy and who was a friend … Some of them were Viet Cong … They all looked alike.”
Marine Vet Phil Ehrhart confessed:
“Over a relatively short period of time, you begin to treat all of the Vietnamese as though they are the enemy. If you can’t tell, you shoot first, ask questions later”
An advisor named Capt. Chuck Reindenlaugh out of Saigon, wrote home ot his family:
“Imagine a football game in which one of the teams is conventionally uniformed, observes the NFL rules of play. “The opposing team, however, wears no uniform and in fact has been deliberately clothed to resemble spectators. This team plays by no rules, refuses to recognize the boundary markers, the ref’s whistle, and when hard-pressed at their own goal the team’s quarterback will hide the ball under his shirt and calmly run into the spectator boxes and defy you to find him. The inclination of the unenlightened is to holler ‘shoot ’em up, burn ’em out, smash the villages harboring the Vietcong.’ That is what the VC hope we will do, and it is very difficult to refrain.”
So Vietnamese civilians start getting killed, en masse. These search-and-destroy platoons were absolutely terrified, every hour of of every day; they got extremely jumpy. And the firepower they had at their disposal was godlike. If a unit received even the slightest bit of resistance from a village or hamlet, they could call in airstrikes, napalm and artillery that would kill everything and everyone within a quarter mile.
A marine named Reginald Edwards recalled:
“They told us if you receive one round from the village, you level it.”
Now I don’t want to create the impression that there were no efforts to reduce civilian casualties and collateral damage. The Americans knew that the Viet Cong were living and operating among the civilian population. 80% of the population of South Vietnam lived in rural areas, spread across tens of thousands of villages, towns, and hamlets. The VC exploited those people for resources, intimidated them into cooperation, plied them with propaganda and leeched off their harvests to continue the war.
So before the Americans sent search-and-destroy platoons, airstrikes, or artillery barrages into a specific area, they’d try to let all the civilians know that they were coming, and warned them to get out. Helicopters would swarm over target areas, dropping thousands of paper leaflets telling the civilians that violence was coming, and that they needed to run for the hills. So many leaflets were dropped, in fact, that one villager said it “turned the forest white”.
Well, the problem was, a vast majority of Vietnamese civilians were illiterate. They couldn’t make sense of these warnings, so obviously they stayed put. American helicopters also delivered spoken warnings via loudspeakers, but they were often dismissed, went unheard, or were spoken in such poor broken Vietnamese that they were essentially meaningless.
The tactical disadvantage of all these humanitarian safeguards, was that it gave actual Viet Cong a clear, unequivocal warning that Americans were advancing towards them. So these VC units would just pack up and retreat, set booby traps, or prepare ambushes. It’s this awful Catch-22, where in protecting civilians you’re actually helping the enemy.
The result was that American soldiers often walked into areas that were saturated with hostile booby traps, but completely devoid of actual Viet Cong to fight. The only people that were left in the area were the civilians. Which, again, were extremely hard to distinguish from VC.
It didn’t help that the basic rules of engagement were very broad.
When huge, lumbering American soldiers would come marching through rice paddies, or helicopter gunships would scream over villages, many of the civilians, naturally terrified by this awesome display of force, would run.
This was a mistake. By running, you were signaling that you had something to hide. And American soldiers would often just open up on these people down and gun them down. And as one Vet observed:
“the line between walking and running could be very thin.”
You’d think that would be against the rules. Well, no. Entwined in all of these tactical considerations, was another important policy that would take the American military down the path towards daily, normalized atrocity.
American troops could declare certain areas something called “free-fire zones”. That meant that anyone in the parameters of that area, was an enemy. It didn’t matter if it was a 70-year-old woman or a 6-year-old boy, American GIs had permission to shoot and kill anything with a pulse in that radius.
When entering a free-fire zone, a very common order from NCOS was to “kill anything that moves”.
One American soldier recalled:
If you saw or heard—or thought you saw or heard—movement in the house next door, you didn’t stop to knock; you just tossed in a grenade.”
Verteran and weiter Phil Caputo remembered a commander saying:
“If they give you any problems, kill ’em,. Don’t sweat it. All the higher-ups want is bodies.”
To make sure they were filling their kill quotas - excuse me, body counts,- Americans GIs would often count dead civilians as Viet Cong. A common phrase was:
“If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.”
The result of all this was the cultivation of a military culture absolutely indifferent to Vietnamese life. When an old woman was accidentally shot, an innocent family blown apart by a grenade, or a little boy drenched in napalm, a very particular acronym was used to shrug it off. The GIs would say:
Which stood for “Mere-Gook-Rule”. Meaning, don’t worry about it. They’re just Vietnamese.
And what began as careless collateral damage, evolved into widespread, indiscriminate murder, abuse, torture, and rape - fueled by Pentagon policy, sharpened by military training, and accelerated by a flawed tactical approach.
It was nothing short of systemic. As Nick Turse describes, the Mere-Gook-Rule, or MGR:
“held that all Vietnamese—northern and southern, adults and children, armed enemy and innocent civilian—were little more than animals, who could be killed or abused at will. The MGR enabled soldiers to abuse children for amusement; it allowed officers sitting in judgment at courts-martial to let off murderers with little or no punishment; and it paved the way for commanders to willfully ignore rampant abuses by their troops while racking up “kills” to win favor at the Pentagon.
Nolan Jones of Alpha Company said:
“I saw guys just shoot people for nothing. They’d see an old person walking down the trail and shoot. They abused the people, shot people, they burned their villages up, threw their food away, shot up their animals, and I mean this happened regularly, this didn’t happen just one or two times.”
Specialist Leslie Lantos corroborated this kind of sport-killing:
“I’ve seen innocent people killed simply because someone wanted to kill ‘a gook.
Lieutenant Philip Manuel recalled an occasion where he heard a pilot of a helicopter gunship say over the radio channel:
“‘There’s people down there. I got them in sight. We are going to have some fun here … Okay. I’m going to roll in and kill some folks.’”
A helicopter co-polit testified to court-martial jury about a particular mission:
“We flew over a large rice paddy and there were some people working in the rice paddy, maybe a dozen or fifteen individuals, and we passed a couple of times low over their heads and they didn’t take any action, they were obviously nervous, but they didn’t try to hide or anything. So we then hovered a few feet off the ground among them with the two helicopters, turned on the police sirens and when they heard the police sirens, they started to disperse and we opened up on them and just shot them all down.”
This kind of willful contempt wasn’t isolated to the front line. Rear areas weren’t safer for South Vietnamese people either.
In April 1969, a twelve-year-old boy was picking through a garbage pile on a U.S. military base, looking for scraps of food. A soldier from the 82nd Airborne Division put a bullet through his chest.
On another occasion, an American medic found two dead Vietnamese children on the side of the road. He discovered the cause of their deaths shortly after:
I found out they’d been hit by an American military truck and that there was this kind of game going on in which, supposedly, guys were driving through town gambling over who could hit a kid. They had some disgusting name for it, something like “gook hockey.” I think they were driving deuce-and-a-halfs—big-ass trucks. The NCO who ordered me to clean the bodies could have cared less.
A CIA case officer named Bruce Lawler was absolutely furious at the American conduct in Vietnam, saying:
How in hell can you put people like that into a war? How can you inject these types of guys into a situation that requires a tremendous amount of sophistication? You can’t. What happens is they start shooting at anything that moves because they don’t know. They’re scared. I mean, they’re out there getting shot at, and Christ, there’s somebody with eyes that are different from mine. And boom—it’s gone.”
Now you may have noticed that I am including a lot of direct quotes in this episode. Even more than usual. Well, because we’re talking about an extremely sensitive topic from an extremely divisive war, I’m not gonna dive into this stuff without bringing the receipts. And believe me, this is only a fraction of firsthand accounts we have. Most of it is a matter of public record.
As the war ground on and American casualties compounded, the mood of both politicians and people at home began to sour. It’s no secret that Vietnam is considered to be a mostly fruitless conflict. But American leadership, from JFK to LBJ to Nixon, were so concerned with saving face, with not tarnishing the reputation of the American military, that they kept us over there long after they realized it was an unwinnable war.
There’s an astonishing phone conversation between LBJ and his National Security Advisor George McBundy, where expresses some extremely transparent doubts about Vietnam. You can actually go and listen to the tape, it’s out there, and you can almost just feel LBJs voice dripping with exhaustion and guilt and frustration:
I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing, the more I think about it, I don’t know what. In. the. hell – It looks to me like we’re getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there with once we’re committed. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess. And I just thought about ordering these kids in there, and what in the hell am I ordering them out there for? What in the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is it worth to this country? Of course you start running from Communists, they may chase you right into your own kitchen.
Even Robert McNamara, architect of the “body count” policy expressed disillusionment in a memo to the President:
“The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”
Back in Vietnam, the violence and the cruelty were escalating.
The consequence-free carnage waged on the civilian population was so prevalent, the 1st Cavalry division, a helicopter unit, had a cute little rhyme for it:
We shoot the sick, the young, the lame, We do our best to kill and maim, Because the kills count all the same, Napalm sticks to kids. Ox cart rolling down the road, Peasants with a heavy load, They’re all VC when the bombs explode, Napalm sticks to kids.
At this point, it’s very important to clarify that the American military was not a monolith of cruelty and butchery. Far from it. For every GI that shot, killed, tortured, or raped innocent civilians, there was a man who would not participate, would not fire, or reported what they saw to their higher-ups. But those men were often ignored, marginalized, discredited, and outright threatened by colleagues and superiors.
There’s one story about a GI who saw fellow soldiers from his platoon sexually assaulting a young village girl. The GI was a big man, easily the biggest in his platoon. He used his intimidating physical presence to put a stop to the gang rape, saying “You leave that girl alone.”
Well, later that night, two or three of them woke the good Samaritan up while he was sleeping and said, “Look, man - you leave us alone, or we’re gonna kill you.”
One man who paid the price for standing up for his beliefs was a Private named Sven Eriksson. He a young guy from Minnesota, and in 1966 he was fighting with the Army in Vietnam.
The longer he was in Vietnam, he started to notice changes in the other soldiers around him. He said:
From one day to the next, you could see for yourself changes coming over guys on our side—decent fellows, who wouldn’t dream of calling an Oriental a ‘gook’ or a ‘slopehead’ back home. But they were halfway around the world now, in a strange country, where they couldn’t tell who was their friend and who wasn’t.
Day after day, out on patrol, we’d come to a narrow dirt path leading through some shabby village, and the elders would welcome us and the children come running with smiles on their faces, waiting for the candy we’d give them. But at the other end of the path, just as we were leaving the village behind, the enemy would open up on us, and there was bitterness among us that the villagers hadn’t given us warning. All that many of us could think at such times was that we were fools to be ready to die for people who defecated in public, whose food was dirtier than anything in our garbage cans back home. Thinking like that—well, as I say, it could change some fellows.
He’d even noticed a change in himself:
“I discovered it’s not difficult to kill a human being—in combat it’s as instinctive as ducking bullets”
In November of 1966, Eriksson was assigned to a six-man team who’s mission was to embark on a reconnaissance mission and scout for Viet Cong activity. They were going to be in the jungle for five days, at which point they’d circle back and report their findings to base.
The Sergeant who would be commanding the patrol, a man named Meserve, gathered his men before they set out. He was all business at first. The Sergeant had a sterling reputation as a capable fighter and an exceptional leader of men. Eriksson felt confident being under his command.
But at the end of the briefing, Meserve makes an announcement, according to Eriksson:
After we were briefed by Meserve, he said that we would take a girl with us on patrol, or that we would try to take a girl with us to have some fun. . . . He said it would be good for the morale of the squad.”
Eriksson thought he was joking at first. Then Sergeant Meserve made his plan abundantly clear. They would leave about an hour early on their patrol, kidnap the first young, attractive Vietnamese woman they found in a village, and keep her with the squad over the course of the week to rape as they pleased. At the end of the five days, they’d kill her.
Eriksson went to sleep that night, certain that it was a joke or empty bravado. The men left 4:30 the next morning, and at about 6AM they entered the tiny village of Cat Tuong. It was still dark. Eriksson watched with astonishment as the other men in the squad searched house to house for a girl they could abduct.
Eventually, they found one. A pretty young teenager named Phan Thi Mao was hauled out of her family’s house and Sergeant Meserve had her hands tied with rope. Mao’s mother cried and cried, but she knew she was powerless against these five men with automatic weapons. She tried to give her daughter a scarf before the squad left, but one of the men just shoved it in the girl’s mouth as a gag. Then they headed into the jungle.
At 10:30 in the morning, they found an abandoned hut in the wilderness. The men started cleaning it up to convert it into a command post. The girl Mao began helping them tidy up without being asked. Eriksson noted sadly years later:
“She had no idea the kind of place she was helping to prepare. It was impossible for me to have any part of what I knew was about to take place.”
At some point, the Sergeant Meserve corners Eriksson, and he asks him, point-blank, whether he was going to join in the fun. The young private looked him in the eye and said no, he would not. This pissed Sergeant Meserve off. He got in Eriksson’s face, called him “chickenshit” and “queer”. When Eriksson stood firm against the verbal assault, Meserve took a darker tack. He said, that if Eriksson didn’t participate, he might end up “a friendly casualty”. That meant that the five other men might kill Eriksson out in the jungle and make it look like an accident.
But still, Eriksson said, No.
Meserve, defeated, shrugged it off and went into the hut to assault the girl, Mao. One by one, every single man in the squad did the same, except for Eriksson. He heard it all happening, but he stood watch on the perimeter.
Eriksson said years later he gave serious thought to killing his fellow soldiers. But then:
I’d have had the bodies of four men to justify. I was wishing I wasn’t in the situation I was in. But I was praying to God that if I ever got out of there alive I’d do everything I could to see that these men would pay for what they did.”
Eventually after the other men had finished assaulting Mao, the Sergeant and the rest of the squad left the hut for a perimeter check. And Eriksson was left behind to guard the command post as a form of punishment. He was alone with Mao, and once the other men were gone, he rushed inside to check on her:
When Mao saw me come into the hootch, she thought I was there to rape her,” Eriksson said. “She began to weep, and backed away, cringing. She looked weary and ill, and she seemed to be getting more so by the minute. I had a feeling she had been injured in some way—not that I could tell. She had her black pajamas on. I gave her crackers and beef stew and water. It was her first food since she’d been taken away from her hamlet—it had been still dark then, and here it was the middle of the afternoon. She ate, standing, and it was whimper, then eat, whimper, then eat. She kept looking at me, as though she was trying to guess what my game could be. When she finished eating, she mumbled something in Vietnamese; maybe it was ‘Thank you’—I wouldn’t know. And I told her, in English, ‘I can’t understand you.’ I wanted to tell her other things. I wanted to say, ‘I apologize to you for what’s happened, but don’t ever accept my apology or anyone else’s for that. Please don’t ask me to explain why they did it. I’ll never know. You’re hurt, I can see, but how are you? I mean, if I let you go, do you think you can make it home?’ I wish Mao and I could have talked, “She might have helped me know what to do, instead of my having to figure it out alone—it was her life that was at stake.
I wish I could say that Mao did get back to her village. That she managed to escape. But she didn’t. The next day, Sergeant Meserve and the other men unceremoniously shot her, then knifed her three times as was she was crawling away.
Eriksson couldn’t do a thing. If he did, he would’ve been killed along with her. All he could do, was make sure the men who’d committed the gang rape and the murder rotted in prison for the rest of their lives. If he didn’t:
No one would ever know what had become of her. Who else would tell but myself? All the others in the patrol had raped or killed her. I knew I wouldn’t rest until something was done about Mao’s murder. It was the least I could do—I had failed her in so many ways.
When Eriksson finally did get in front of a Commanding officer to report the crime, he did not get the reaction he had hope for. Initially, the commander asked him:
“You realize how serious this incident is, and that it could cause an international issue?”
Eriksson replied, of course he did. That’s why he was telling him. Eriksson said that the commander warned him that if he proceeded with his whistleblower complaint:
“the men would get off with hardly any or no sentence at all, then myself and my family would really have something to worry about.
But Eriksson was undeterred and after weeks of searching for someone who would take his story seriously, his accusations were elevated to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. To confirm his story, Eriksson needed to lead the investigators to Mao’s body. The girl who’d been killed. The young soldier did exactly that, and they found the girl’s body right where the patrol had left her after shooting and knifing her
Sergeant Meserve and the other men who’s raped and murdered Mao were taken into custody. Not long after, a court martial for all four men was set into motion. The defense attorney tried to destroy Eriksson’s credibility at every turn; they accused him of cowardice, perjury, even hinted that he had participated in the rape himself and was trying to save his own skin.
But Eriksson just calmly, cooly told them what he’d seen.
One of the prosecutors asked one of the accused men why he’d gone into the hut. Why he’d participated in the rape, when Eriksson had not.
A: Better to go into the hootch, sir, and keep contentment in the squad, and keep a better—well, how can I explain it?—keep the thing running smooth. It makes for an easier mission and no problems.
Q: You don’t believe the military gives a choice between rules, orders, and conscience?
A: The Army expects you to do it the Army way, and that’s follow orders.
In the end, Sergeant Meserve and the three other men that raped and murdered Phan Thi Mao were all convicted and sentenced to military prison.
As for Eriksson, he went home to Minnesota, and tried to forget everything he’d seen.
Eriksson reflected on his service years after the war:
“We all figured we might be dead in the next minute, so what difference did it make what we did? But the longer I was over there, the more I became convinced that it was the other way around that counted—that because we might not be around much longer, we had to take extra care how we behaved […] that we had to answer for what we did. We had to answer to something, to someone—maybe just to ourselves.”
In a conversation with the New Yorker’s Daniel Long, Sven Eriksson told the interviewer that one day after the war, he’d been riding a public bus to work in Minneapolis. And he’d dozed off. Suddenly, a bump or jolt in the road caused him to wake up, and he found himself staring into the face of a young Southeast Asian woman, sitting in the seat across from him. In that moment, for a half-second, he thought he was back in the central highlands of Vietnam, and the young girl Mao was alive, somehow. Once the daze of sleep wore off, and clarity settled in, he realized she was just a stranger. He got off the bus, and went to work.
As Eriksson’s wife remembered about the day her husband returned from Vietnam:
“The girl was very much with us when Sven came home that day, and maybe she always will be,”
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Welcome back, everybody. As we move into the final stretch of this episode, after lots of background, it’s time to finally discover what actually happened at the infamous My Lai Massacre.
On March 16th, 1968, at about 7 in thr morning, twenty-two American helicopters were preparing to take off from a Landing Zone in South Vietnam. The helicopters were packed to the gills, 1,300 horsepower of screaming metal, bristling with rockets, heavy machine guns, and infantrymen.
Among the men, crouching in one of the choppers, was a young Lieutenant named William Calley.
Calley was a 25-year-old soldier who’d been in Vietnam the better part of a year. He was a small guy, about 5’3, 130 pounds. He had reddish hair, and people called him “Rusty”.
Calley hadn’t gone into the Army by choice. After receiving a draft notice in his hometown of Miami, he’d skipped town and went West, working a series of odd jobs to avoid military service. Eventually, the government tracked him down and gave him a choice. Enlist or go to jail. He chose the Army.
After getting over the initial jitters, Calley thought the Army could be a new home for him. A fresh start. A place where he could become a new man. A big, bad warrior spreading democracy around the world for Uncle Sam.
The reality was much different.
Calley did not excel at being a soldier or an officer. He struggled to command the respect of the men beneath him, and to secure the trust of the men above him.
His commanding officer often called him “Lieutenant Shithead” in front of his own men. According to one of his superiors, Calley “lacked both command presence and command voice” One of his own men remembered: “He couldn’t read darn map and a compass would confuse his ass”. Another man described him as: “a little kid trying to play war”.
Calley must’ve often remembered, with bitterness, one of his very first days in Vietnam. He’d heard rustling in the trees, and thinking it was a Viet Cong patrol, lit up the area with bright flares. All he managed to do was expose his own position and endanger his men. His commanding officer was furious, and they had the following conversation:
“You’re without a doubt the most stupid second Lieutenant on the face of the earth.” Calley just replied; “Yes sir. I know, sir. I’m stupid, sir. What should I do?”
Vietnam didn’t get any easier for Calley, or the men serving with him in Charlie Company of the Americal Division. They had been sent into Quang Ngai province in the South to track down and destroy an infamous Viet Cong battalion, the 48th. And as of yet, Calley and the rest of his company had been unable to locate them. All they had encountered were the endless booby traps, ambushes and nightmarish jungle conditions that plagued Vietnam.
Calley in particular had started getting really resentful of the locals. Specifically the kids. He was absolutely convinced that they were deliberately luring American GIs into ambushes and traps. There was some truth to his suspicions; some Vietnamese children had been trained by the Viet Cong guerrillas to throw grenades into restaurants or put explosives into US Army fuel tanks.
Calley admitted years later:
“All the men loved them. “Gave the kids candy, cookies, chewing gum, everything. Not me: I hated them.”
“I had no love for these people now. I did have a few weeks earlier, but it had been slowly driven out.”
In their search for the 48th VC Battalion, Calley and the rest of Charlie Company had endured daily, demoralizing losses. All the landmines, tripwires and booby traps took a heavy toll. They racked up 28 casualties and five deaths. The company’s captain remembered that one man had been:
“split as if somebody had taken a cleaver right up from his crotch, all the way up to his chest cavity.”
But one night in particular haunted the men of Charlie Company. They had been out in the wilderness searching for VC, and one of their patrols hadn’t come back yet. The men made camp, set up a perimeter, and waited for their comrades to return. In the middle of the night they start to hear screaming coming from somewhere in the hills. It’s completely pitch black, but they can hear this screaming.
A young solider from Texas described it as:
“The vomit cry. Like death. But it didn’t stop. Not after one time. It kept going. It got weaker and weaker, but it held out. And it did make you want to shit right there in your tracks.
When the sun eventually comes up, the Company goes to investigate. According to historian Howard Jones, they find:
“the body of a tortured American soldier, a bloody hulk hanging from a pole. The Viet Cong had peeled off most of his skin and then doused his wounds in salt water while forcing him to drink water to remain alive and scream even more.
Calley said that in the moment, he said:
“What in the hell’s happening? What in the hell - inhuman, crude, and— oh my God.”
This incident really messes with Charlie Company’s heads. In all this time, they’d never found this massive VC battalion that was taunting them with mines and booby traps and skinning their soldiers alive.
But in the spring, word comes down from intelligence officers. They’d found the 48th. Through a collection of reconnaissance, spies, and intel gathering, they’d pinned down the 48th Vietcong Battalion to a tiny little cluster of villages called My Lai, codename Pinkville.
This was where the VC in the area had been operating from, and now Charlie company and the Americal Division had an opportunity to strike and take them out of commission once and for all.
So at 7 am in the morning on August 16th, 1968, Lieutenant Calley and the rest of his company were ready to take their revenge. The plan was simple. The civilian population would leave that morning to go to the market, and once they were gone, the American strike force would descend on My Lai via helicopters and neutralize the Viet Cong guerrillas.
The mood among the men was strange. It was a mix of anxiety, anger, and adrenaline as the choppers took off and zipped over the bright green landscape. An advisor in another outfit described the physical sensation of being in one of these helicopters:
“Sitting on the hard floor of the chopper, we are overwhelmed by noise. The engine throbs behind us, the gearbox whines as it transfers power to the main and tail rotors, the rotors whop away and the wind whistles past our ears. We are in the pilot’s hands, defenseless against any enemy who wants to take a shot at us in a thin aluminum shell. Below the crazy quilt of rice paddies and fields flashes by, soon to give way to denser foliage as we head west toward the mountains.”
Before they left, the men of Charlie Company had a mission briefing. What was said in that briefing is a matter of huge debate. It would disputed in courts martial, newspaper articles, and memoirs for decades to come. But most men who were there agree that their commanders made it very clear, that they were to “kill everything that moves”.
The Captain said: “Our job, is to go in rapidly and neutralize everything. To kill everything. One of the soldiers asked if that meant “women and children too”
The Captain responded: “I mean everything. When we go into My Lai, it’s open season. When we leave, nothing will be living”
The Captain’s words were no doubt echoing in Calley’s head as he sat in one of the choppers roaring towards their drop zone on the outskirts of My Lai. This was his opportunity to prove himself as a good commander. As a leader of men who could take charge and get the job done. And best of all: they had carte blanche to avenge all of their fellow soldiers who’d lost lives and limbs at the hands of an unseen enemy.
That didn’t mean they weren’t scared.
According to Army intelligence, they would be facing upwards of 250 crack guerilla troops at My Lai, fortified in a spider work of underground bunkers and fortifications. Charlie Company would be outnumbered 2-to-1.
For most of the men, this would be there first actual engagement with the Viet Vong. As one sergeant remembered: “I was really scared.”
These choppers moved fast, and after only 8 minutes, they were touching down and off-loading troops.
Lieutenant Calley leapt off the chopper and hit the ground. Dozens of men followed, fanning out in precisely coordinated lines of attack. They were only about 100 yards from the village proper. A football field away from the enemy and death. Calley remembered:
“The fear. I was saturated with it. I felt it. I kept running but it took extra effort to. The fear: nearly everyone had it. And everyone had to destroy it: My Lai, the source of it.”
As the men got closer and closer, they started noticed something weird. Something unsettling. They weren’t takingany enemy fire. There was no shooting coming from the village.
One GI observed:
“I didn’t feel the familiar crack of the bullet or whining beside you or cutting the air beside you,”
They moved closer to the village. Closer and closer, through he paddies, across the dirt roads, until they were in the midst of the village itself. Still no enemy fire. All they found were old people. Kids. Grandmothers. Pregnant women. The village had not left for the market. It was just 400 people having breakfast in their huts and homes.
Suddenly the awful fear of what the GIs had been told to expect slammed into the reality of their situation. The 48th VC Battalion was not here. This was not an enemy fortress. The intelligence had been wrong.
But the adrenaline is pumping. Coursing. These men have loaded rifles, months of pent up rage, frustration, and anger. And nowhere to direct it.
One of the Americans says: “What the hell is this? They’re not supposed to be in here.”
The villagers start backing away, looking around, with wide scared eyes. Then a few of them start to make a break for it. To run. The GIs yell “Dung Lai” or “stop” in Vietnamese. After all, this is a free-fire zone.
Then an American soldier says: “They must be VC.”
One American GI locks eyes with an old man. A thin, skinny farmer. His arms were at his side. The GI raises his rifle and puts a bullet through the man’s torso. Then the killing starts.
A radio operator who was there that day said:
“Once the first civilian was killed it was too late, period. Whoever killed the first civilian that was the end of the situation. It went out of control.”
The civilians – kids, old people, women, mothers – start throwing up their hands and yelling the only English words they knew: “No VC! No VC!”
It’s very easy to imagine a short, intense period of killing. But the My Lai Massacre was episodic. It lasted hours. The massacre that was about to unfold is basically a mosaic of hundreds of individual stories of butchery.
A soldier named Allen Boyce stabbed an old man in the back with a knife, then shot him while he writhed on the ground. After that, Boyce took another old man, and shoved him down a well. Then he tossed a grenade in a few seconds later. It exploded, sending water and blood shooting up into the air. He turned to some soldiers nearby and grinned: “That’s the way you gotta do it.”
20 women and children sat praying at a Buddhist idol in the midst of the chaos. The incense and smoke swirled around them, as US soldiers opened up and tore them all apart with automatic fire.
Private Dennis Conti pulled a young mother aside, aimed a gun at her 4-year-old son’s head and forced the woman to perform oral sex on him.
Private James Bergthold stormed into a hut, pushed aside a young mother and her children, pulled out a .45 pistol and put a bullet in their grandfather’s skull. The old man had been wounded in the shooting, and Bergthold later claimed it was “a mercy killing.”
The US soldiers start gathering up the Vietnamese they don’t outright murder into small groups and clusters. Prisoners, essentially.
Around this time, Lieutenant Calley got a signal on his radio from the Captain of the company. This was their conversation:
Captain Medina: “Where are you?”
Calley: “I’m on the eastern edge, and I’m checking the bunkers out.”
Captain Medina: “Well, damn it! I didn’t tell you to check them out. Get your men in position.”
Calley: “I have a lot of Vietnamese here.”
Captain Medina: “Get rid of ’em. Get your men in position now.”
Lieutenant Calley put down his radio and walked over to a 21-year-old rifleman named Paul Meadlo, who’d gathered up fifty men, women, children, and infants and was standing guard over them. Calley was concerned they were losing their momentum, that they would run across the 48th VC Battalion at any moment They had to keep moving. And they had to get that body count.
As Paul Meadlo later told the world on 60 Minutes, Calley asked him:
“You know what do with them, don’t you?”
Meadlo replied, “yes”, he did. And as Calley stormed off, Meadlo believed he was supposed to keep guarding these young and elderly prisoners. But about 15 minutes later, Calley returned. The Lieutenant asked the young soldier: “How come you ain’t killed them yet?”
“I didn’t think you wanted us to kill them, that you just wanted us to guard them.”
“No – I want them dead.”
Initially, some of the guys weren’t sure what to do, but Calley organizes them into a line, and they start shooting their M16s into the crowd of innocent people. It takes about a full minute to kill them all.
During this some of the men stop firing. They become so overwhelmed by what they’re doing. The 21-year-old, Meadlo, after shooting by his own estimation 15 innocent civilians, including babies, breaks down into sobs. And he throws his rifle at a fellow soldier, saying: “You shoot them.”
In this group of 50 people, there were children, the infants, who hadn’t been hit, were just sitting their crying or dazed, looking around at their dead parents. At this point, Lieutenant William Calley raised his M-16. According to historian Howard Jones, he:
“Coldly and methodically picked off the children one by one with his M-16, ignoring other soldiers’ shouts until both their voice and the cries of the children had gone silent. “OK, let’s go,” Calley asserted with an air of official finality.
Calley later told a journalist:
“On babies, everyone is really hung up. “If we’re in Vietnam another ten, if your son is killed by those babies you’ll cry at me, ‘Why didn’t you kill those babies that day?’
The killing keeps going and going. At this point, it’s about 9 o’clock in the morning. Calley and his soldiers, drive a group of women and kids into a drainage ditch. And they open fire, killing all of them. One of the women who managed to survive Sa Thi Qui, said that they “were chased into the ditch like ducks”. A small boy, about 4-years-old, tried to crawl out of the ditch. Calley just threw him back into the ditch and shot him.
A young woman named Pham Thi Tuan played dead under the rest of the bodies in the ditch and managed to survive. She remembered “their dead bodies weighed down on me.” A pool of blood began to form by her head as it dripped down from the corpses above her. She had to turn her head to the side to avoid drowning in the liquid.
At this point, some of the men start refusing to participate in the killings. Which was a huge gamble; officers in the field were well within their legal rights to shoot soldiers for disobeying direct orders. One man, named Gresik, told Calley he wouldn’t do it, saying “If you wanna court martial me, you do that.”
Another man, named Robert Maples, refused to shoot. So to make a point, Calley got in his face and said “ I’d like to use your machine gun, please”.
Maples refuses. Saying: “I’m not gonna do that. I’m not gonna kill these people. You can’t order me to do that, Lieutenant.”.
Several men objected to the killing that day, or refused to participate. But not one of them put a stop the massacre. Except for one.
Now, I realize I’ve thrown a lot of individual names out during this episode, the reason I do that is to emphasize the point that the guys doing these things – or not doing them – were real flesh and blood people. Men with lives, hopes, fears, dreams, and families. They were real, not extras in a war movie – in some ways that makes it all the more horrifying.
But there’s one last name I’m going to mention. And if you remember any single name from today’s episode, remember this one. In my opinion, he’s one of the greatest heroes of the entire Vietnam War.
His name was Hugh Thompson, Jr.
Thompson was 25-year-old guy from Georgia, with a thick country drawl and a mop of dark hair.
That morning, Thompson was commanding an observation helicopter circling above My Lai. His job was to report enemy troop movements and serve as the eyes and ears of the attack. But before long, Thompson and his crew instantly realize something is wrong. The American soldiers on the ground weren’t reporting taking any fire. But yet Thompson kept hearing gunshots. Kept seeing bodies pile up in the outskirts of the village.
So they go in for a closer look. As Thompson and his crew hover about 10 feet above the ground, they see an old woman “flailing around, waving back and forth with gushing chest wounds”
So Thompson pops a smoke canister and throws it down to mark her location for the medic. So they could help her. He radios to the ground troops and ask them to assist her. A voice answers, “I’ll help her”.
Thompson and his crew watched a Captain walk up, nudge the dying woman with his foot, and walk away. Then, the soldier turned and shot her multiple times with his rifle. Thompson and his crew are floored. One of them yells, “son of a bitch”.
Thompson says to them “ She’s history, and I’m just sitting here. Oh my god, he just killed her.” Thompson was enraged. According to his crew, he “was just beside himself.”
So in that moment, Thompson turns to his crew and says:
“This isn’t right. These are civilians; There’s people killing civilians down there. We’ve got to do something about this. Are you with me?”
The entire crew answered “Yeah”
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As the My Lai Massacre continued to unfold on the morning of March 16th, 1968, Hugh Thompson Jr. and his crew landed their observation helicopter, looking for a way to stop the killings.
They landed near the long drainage ditch, which Thompson estimated must have been filled with as many as 150 dead Vietnamese women, children and elderly people - with more being added by the minute.
Thompson stepped off the chopper and stormed over to the first American soldier he could find. He gestured towards the ditch full of dead civilians and angrily asked the GIs to start giving aid to the wounded.
The soldier said that “the only way to help them was to put them out of their misery”.
Thompson yelled: “Quit joking around. Help ‘em out.”
Then another soldier walks up the helicopter. It was Lieutenant Calley. By this point in the morning, Calley had personally killed almost 100 civilians.
Calley outranked the helicopter pilot, but Thompson pointed his index finger at Calley and said: “There’s a lot of wounded here.”
Calley barely even registered it. He said “Yea?”
“So what are you gonna about it?”
“Nothing, Calley said, “Relay it to the higher-ups”
The two men go round and round for about a minute. Thompson quickly realizes that he’s not getting anywhere with this guy. So returns to his helicopter and takes off. No sooner were they in the air then Thompson and his crew see Calley and his men start shooting people and shoving them into the ditch again.
They helicopter crew make another pass over the area, and then something catches their eye on the ground. They see about 9 Vietnamese civilians sprinting towards a shelter. Marching after them and closing fast were 10 American soldiers, armed with M-16s and hand grenades. As historian Howard Jones noted, Thomposon realized he had about 30 seconds to try and save these peoples’ lives.
He remembered years later:
“I felt I was in a cage. Innocent people were getting harmed. This was not combat. This was not war. I had tried talking. I had tried asking. I had tried screaming. None of that was working.”
He turns to his crew and says “Those people are going to die. We’re not gonna let that happen”
One man replied: “If we’re gonna do something, we better do it right now.”
Thompson lands his helicopter between the Vietnamese civilians and the pursuing American soldiers. Before getting out of the chopper, he tells his crew:
“They’re coming this way. I’m gonna go over there myself and get these people out. If they fire on these people, or fire on me while I’m doing that, shoot ‘em.”
Thompson had just gambled with his life, his future, and his career to save these civilians. He commanded his two door gunners to level their machine guns at the approaching American troops, and to open fire on them if they made any move to hurt the civilians.
The pursuing American soldiers, stopped right in front of the chopper. They immediately had to appreciate the men leveling big, M60 machine guns at them, weapons that could easily cut any of them in half. One of the soldiers said later that in that moment looked at Thompson’s crew and thought to himself:
“Oh my god, what are they gonna do?”
No one moves. The two groups just look at each other. Americans standing off against Americans. In the meantime, Hugh Thompson realizes he can’t get all the people to safety. There’s barely any room in his own small observation helicopter. Thomspon counted two women, five children and two old men. He tries to calm them down, to make them unafraid, even though they had every reason to be.
Out of options, Thompson gets on the radio, and he calls another chopper pilot nearby. A friend he knew personally, someone he could trust. And he says:
“Danny, I need a favor. I got about nine or ten people here and I can’t haul ‘em. Y’all land and get ‘em out of here.”
The other pilot replied: “Where do you want me to take ‘em?”
Thompson said: “Away from here.” / this place
As they waited for the other helicopter to arrive, Thompson stood between the 9 Vietnamese civilians and the ten American soldiers who had been pursuing with the intent to kill them. He stood there the whole time. A member of his crew remembered:
“He was shielding people with his body. He just wanted to get those people out of there.”
Eventually, the second helo arrives, lands, loads up the civilians and takes off.
Hundreds of people had been butchered in My Lai that morning. But Hugh Thompson Jr. and his men had managed to save nine lives. And they’d been prepared to shoot and kill their fellow American soldiers to do it.
In a war as ugly, and brutal, and dehumanizing as Vietnam. In a military that glorified cyclical destruction, systemic abuse, and casual racism – there still were good men like Hugh Thompson Jr. who stood up and said “ Fuck that.”
The My Lai Massacre happened in the spring of 1968. The American public didn’t hear about it until 18 months later. Hugh Thompson filed countless complaint and testified to the war crimes he saw with his own eye. The Army ignored him, marginalized him, and actively tried to discredit him. They buried My Lai.
Only by chance, did Ron Ridenhour, the young whistleblower from the beginning of our story find out about it. It took dozens of people, soldiers, journalists, witnesses and activists to bring this thing to light. Without their moral outrage and rejection of self-preservation, the Army would have kept this incident in a file cabinet in the bowels of the Pentagon.
Even Richard Nixon tried to help the military cover up the massive expose, saying: “It’s those dirty rotten Jews from New York who are behind it.”
Eventually, the Army is forced, through public exposure and political pressure, to prosecute the war criminals who killed 400-500 innocent people at My Lai.
Upwards of 100 American soldiers took part in the murders. Only 14 were charged and court martialed. And every single one of them was acquitted. All except for one. Lieutenant William Calley was convicted to life imprisonment by a military court in March 1971.
Well, hey at least we got one, right? No, c’mon. You know how these stories end.
But unfortunately, we all know that’s not how these stories end.
An appeals court reduced Calley’s sentence to 20 years. Then 10 years. Then a few months of house arrest. A few years later, he came up for parole. By 1974, he was a free man.
He continued to assert his self-described innocence, saying:
“Personally, I didn’t kill any Vietnamese that day: I mean personally. I represented the United States of America. My country.”
If you’re like me, when you hear the story of the My Lai Massacre, the most vivid emotion that starts to bubble up to the surface…is anger. Righteous, indignant anger at the men who did this. Well, if you feel that way, you’re not alone.
Hugh Thompson Jr. The helicopter pilot who had stopped the massacre and saved a handful of lives, never let go of the anger he felt towards Calley and the butchers of My Lai.
When he was an old man, Hugh Thompson was interviewed about My Lai. Even decades later, the man had tears in his eyes. Hot, angry tears, combined with a shaking baritone Georgia drawl. An interviewer asked him:
“can you ever forgive the people who did that?”
“-no. No. I can’t. I don’t think I’m man enough to. Because I know – I know the pain and suffering that they inflicted for NO reason. No reason whatsoever. There was no threat. Ya know. There was no enemy. Now they might’ve all grown up to be enemy. But that’s not what a soldier does. In any country. It’s just not. ”
As he said in a different interview:
“We were supposed to be the guys in the white hats.”
If you go to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, you can read the names of the 58,000 American soldiers who died during the conflict. Measured end to end, it’s about 246 feet long. About 235 names per foot.
If you were to create a similar wall, displaying the names of all the Vietnamese people who died – both civilian and military –, it would stretch for almost 2 miles. Anywhere from 2-3 million names.
I don’t really have any kind of wise, philosophical conclusion to today’s episode. In some ways that’s kind of meta, because the Vietnam War ended in an equally unsatisfying fashion. It just kinda stopped. The last Americans fled Saigon in 1975, and the Viet Cong took over the country.
The conflict exposed the massive moral liabilities of America’s armed forces. It was a breeding ground for incompetence, cruelty, and murder. Flawed policies, institutional racism and astonishing arrogance virtually guaranteed that a My Lai or something like it would inevitably occur. And there are thousands of smaller, unknown My Lais languishing in manila folders in the basements of the Pentagon.
According to Nick Turse in his fantastic book “Kill Anything That Moves”, there are “more than 300 allegations of massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations, and other atrocities that were substantiated by army investigators.
And those are just the ones were reported and recorded.
But Vietnam was also a place where countless good men, like Hugh Thompson Jr, Ron Ridenhour, and Sven Eriksson fought to curtail and expose that conduct, to take stands against their fellow soldiers in defense of basic human dignity. Even when they knew their only wages for such an endeavor would be threats, intimidation, and loneliness.
We all want to believe – need to believe – that if we ourselves were put in these situations, we’d act like the good guys. We’d stop the killings, report the murders, stand up to our colleagues, damn the consequences. But war – and life – is a lot more complicated than that. And if I’m being honest, I hope that I would have the courage to do what Thompson or Eriksson or Ridenhour did. But it’s hard to ever know for sure. That’s a scary thought. But it also reinforces just how brave and exceptional those men were.
I want to bring today’s episode to a close with one last passage from Tim O’Brien, the soldier-turned-author who has been able to so beautifully distill his experiences of the conflict.
In his book, The Things They Carried, which reads a bit like a semi-autobiographical, fever-dream confession, O’Brien said the following:
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.
“And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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