Officer Thompson landed the helicopter, compassion overtaking him as he saw ditches full of bloodied women and children, families huddled together for protection, and the elderly in their last, and worst, moments of life. Frantically, the pilot turned to his fellow American soldiers, asking for help in rescuing the survivors. “I’ll help… put them out of their misery,” one soldier snorted, and proceeded to shoot the moaning people on the ground. The horrific truth dawned upon Officer Thompson: his peers had caused this evil. American soldiers were murdering helpless Vietnamese civilians, without a hint of mercy.
Woman killed at My Lai
The horror that Officer Hugh Thompson witnessed on the morning of March 16, 1968 would come to be known as the My Lai Massacre. Five hundred people – all women, children, and elderly men – were slaughtered by the 23rd Infantry Division, otherwise known as Charlie Company, of the United States Army. Charlie Company arrived in Vietnam less than 3 months before the massacre. Between December 1967 and March 1968, its men had not engaged in battle, but casualties abounded due to land mines and hand grenades.
My Lai civilians
Finally, Charlie Company was given a direct assignment. The soldiers were deployed to target a village suspected of harboring Viet Cong fighters. They were told anyone in the village was either a member of the Viet Cong or a Viet Cong sympathizer, and therefore set out expecting to only encounter the enemy. However, the Americans found civilians instead. Frustrated, and eager to practice the American military strategy of ‘seek and destroy,’ a policy of combing through the Vietnamese jungles destroying anything or anyone that might aid the enemy, the soldiers massacred the bystanders – raping women, burning homes, and mutilating children.
Child dead at My Lai
While civilian casualties do occur in war, the deaths of the unarmed Vietnamese innocents were not tragic byproducts of a necessary military campaign – they were intentional acts of brutality. The excessive barbarism on display thoroughly justifies its description as a massacre. Massacre is a very different word from battle. Battle is a consensual act of war, rooted in principle. Massacre on the other hand strips heroism from our perception of the military. Reckless and indiscriminate slaughter compromises any honor that soldiers might have.
Man killed at My Lai
When Americans and others abroad learned of the shocking occurrences on that March day, opposition to the Vietnam War dramatically increased. As the first televised war in history, Vietnam was already under hyper-scrutiny. The truth of the violence on the battlefields was conveyed through a powerful medium. Visual representation expresses magnitude unlike statistics, and these pictures, converted into posters with tag lines of “And babies,” persuaded the public of the need for an end to the war.
U.S. soldier burning down civilian home
The photographs were taken by army photographer Ronald Haeberle. He was assigned to capture on film the success of Charlie Company defeating the Viet Cong. However, the day hadn’t gone as planned, and Haeberle, who had been carrying both a professional and a personal, color-photo camera, snapped images of the massacre instead. When the day ended, he relinquished the black and white camera to the Army Information Office as per protocol, but secretly retained his own camera, containing the incriminating evidence. Haeberle sold the color photographs to Life Magazine in December 1969.
Black and white photo of the massacre
Despite the truth captured in the photographs, the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre did not offer justice. Only one man, Second Lieutenant William Calley, was convicted of war crimes, but was given a mere 4-month jail sentence. Not until thirty years later did Officer Thompson and his crew receive medals commending their heroism, and not until last August did Calley make a public apology to the Vietnamese.
Black and white photo of soldier torching hut
The My Lai Massacre not only accelerated the US withdrawal from Vietnam, but, in the long-term, forced the American military to evaluate its treatment of civilians during wartime. To ensure massacres do not ever again occur, the military has created the policy of ‘courageous restraint’, currently employed in Afghanistan. Courageous restraint encourages soldiers to do all in their power to prevent civilian casualties. Even when a soldier feels threatened by a group of civilians, he is not to fire.
History has taught us that the bravery of a soldier is determined by his regard for human life and respect for human principle, and not by his willingness to engage in conflict. Though it is difficult to intellectually distinguish necessary from excessive death in wartime, pictorial depictions can alert our hearts to what is right and what is wrong. Reading about, and particularly seeing photographs of the My Lai Massacre can evoke doubt in the military, and in humanity as a whole. However, we can also use these moving images to remind us of catastrophic errors we shall never return to.