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Brutal American Soldiers In Vietnam: My Lai, Conversations

The Vietnam War brought out the sordid side of American soldiers. The goody-goody image that had been created during World War Two was shattered during the Vietnam war. It is a fact that American soldiers  often went berserk and did things that made the Geneva Conventions a joke book. Hollywood did its share in puking out the poison that entered American consciousness with Vietnam. Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone's Platoon are films that come to mind.


Two tragedies took place in 1968 in Viet Nam.  One was the massacre by United States soldiers of as many as 500 unarmed civilians-- old men, women, children-- in My Lai on the morning of March 16.  The other was the cover-up of that massacre.

Military leaders encouraged and rewarded kills in an effort to produce impressive body counts that could be reported to Saigon as an indication of progress.  GIs joked that "anything that's dead and  isn't white is a VC"  for body count purposes.

U. S. military officials suspected Quang Ngai Province, more than any other province in South Viet Nam, as being a Viet Cong stronghold.  The U. S. targeted the province for the first major U.S. combat operation of the war.  Military officials declared the province a "free-fire zone" and subjected it to frequent bombing missions and artillery attacks.  By the end of 1967, most of the dwellings in the province had been destroyed and nearly 140,000 civilians left homeless.  Not surprisingly, the native population of Quang Ngai Province distrusted Americans.  Children hissed at soldiers.  Adults kept quiet.

Two hours of instruction on the rights of prisoners and a wallet-sized card "The Enemy is in Your Hands" seemed to have little impact on American soldiers fighting in Quang Ngai.  Military leaders encouraged and rewarded kills in an effort to produce impressive body counts that could be reported to Saigon as an indication of progress.  GIs joked that "anything that's dead and  isn't white is a VC"  for body count purposes. Angered by a local population that said nothing about the VC's whereabouts, soldiers took to calling natives "gooks."

Charlie Company came to Viet Nam in December, 1967.  It located in Quang Ngai Province in January, 1968, as one of the three companies in Task Force Barker, an ad hoc unit headed by Lt. Col. Frank Barker, Jr.  Its mission was to pressure the VC in an area of the province known  as "Pinkville."  Charlie Company's commanding officer was Ernest Medina, a thirty-three-year-old Mexican-American from New Mexico who was popular with his soldiers. One of his platoon leaders was twenty-four-year-old William Calley.  Charlie Company soldiers expressed amazement that Calley was thought by anyone to be officer material. One described Calley as "a kid trying to play war." Calley's utter lack of respect for the indigenous population was apparent to all in the company. According to one soldier, "if they wanted to do something wrong, it was alright with Calley." The soldiers of Charlie Company, like most combat soldiers in Viet Nam, scored low on military exams.  Few combat soldiers had education beyond high school.

Seymour Hersh wrote that by March of 1968 "many in the company had given in to an easy pattern of violence."  Soldiers systematically beat unarmed civilians. Some civilians were murdered.  Whole villages were burned.  Wells were poisoned. Rapes were common.

On March 14, a small squad from "C" Company ran into a booby trap, killing a popular sergeant, blinding one GI and wounding several others.  The following evening, when a funeral service was held for the killed sergeant, soldiers had revenge on their mind.  After the service, Captain Medina rose to give the soldiers a pep talk and discuss the next morning's mission.  Medina told them that the VC's crack 48th Battalion was in the vicinity of a hamlet known as My Lai 4, which would be the target of a large-scale assault by the company.  The soldiers' mission would be to engage the 48th Battalion and to destroy the village of My Lai.  By 7 a.m., Medina said, the women and children would be out of the hamlet and all they could expect to encounter would be the enemy.  The soldiers were to explode brick homes, set fire to thatch homes, shoot livestock, poison wells, and destroy the enemy.  The seventy-five or so American soldiers would be supported in their assault by gunship pilots.

Medina later said that his objective that night was to "fire them up and get them ready to go in there; I did not give any instructions as to what to do with women and children in the village."  Although some soldiers agreed with that recollection of Medina's, others clearly thought that he had ordered them to kill every person in My Lai 4.  Perhaps his orders were intentionally vague.  What seems likely is that Medina intentionally gave the impression that everyone in My Lai would be their enemy.

At 7:22 a.m. on March 16, nine helicopters lifted off for the flight to My Lai 4.  By the time the helicopters carrying members of Charlie Company landed in a rice paddy about 140 yards south of My Lai, the area had been peppered with small arms fire from assault helicopters.  Whatever VC might have been in the vicinity of My Lai had most likely left by the time the first soldiers climbed out of their helicopters.  The assault plan called for Lt. Calley's first platoon and Lt. Stephen Brooks' second platoon to sweep into the village, while a third platoon, Medina, and the headquarters unit would be held in reserve and follow the first two platoons in after the area was more-or-less secured.  Above the ground, the action would be monitored at the 1,000-foot level by Lt. Col. Barker and at the 2,500-foot level by Oran Henderson, commander of the 11th Brigade, both flying counterclockwise around the battle scene in helicopters.

My Lai village had about 700 residents.  They lived in either red-brick homes or thatch-covered huts.  A  deep drainage ditch marked the eastern boundary of the village.  Directly south of the residential area was an open  plaza area used for holding village meetings.  To the north and west of the village was dense foliage.

By 8 a.m., Calley's platoon had crossed the plaza on the town's southern edge and entered the village.  They encountered families cooking rice in front of their homes.  The men began their usual search-and-destroy task of pulling people from homes, interrogating them, and searching for VC.  Soon the killing began.  The first victim was a man stabbed in the back with a bayonet.  Then a middle-aged man was picked up, thrown down a well, and a grenade lobbed in after him.  A group of fifteen to twenty mostly older women were gathered around a temple, kneeling and praying.  They were all executed with shots to the back of their heads.  Eighty or so villagers were taken from their homes and herded to the plaza area.  As many cried "No VC! No VC!", Calley told soldier Paul Meadlo, "You know what I want you to do with them".  When Calley returned ten minutes later and found the Vietnamese still gathered in the plaza he reportedly said to Meadlo, "Haven't you got rid of them yet?  I want them dead.  Waste them."  Meadlo and Calley began firing into the group from a distance of ten to fifteen feet.  The few that survived did so because they were covered by the bodies of those less fortunate.

What Captain Medina knew of these war crimes is not certain.  It was a chaotic operation.  Gary Garfolo said, "I could hear shooting all the time.  Medina was running back and forth everywhere.  This wasn't no organized deal."  Medina would later testify that he didn't enter the village until 10 a.m., after most of the shooting had stopped, and did not personally witness a single civilian being killed.  Others put Medina in the village closer to 9 a.m., and close to the scene of many of the murders as they were happening.

As the third platoon moved into My Lai, it was followed by army photographer Ronald Haeberle, there to document what was supposed to be a significant encounter with a crack enemy battalion.  Haeberle took many pictures.  He said he saw about thirty different GIs kill about 100 civilians.  Once Haeberle focused his camera on a young child about five feet away, but before he could get his picture the kid was blown away.  He angered some GIs as he tried to photograph them as they fondled the breasts of a fifteen-year-old Vietnamese girl.

An army helicopter piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson arrived in the My Lai vicinity about 9 a.m.  Thompson noticed dead and dying civilians all over the village.  Thompson repeatedly saw  young boys and girls being shot at point-blank range.  Thompson, furious at what he saw, reported the wanton killings to brigade headquarters 

Meanwhile, the rampage below continued.  Calley was at the drainage ditch on the eastern edge of the village, where about seventy to eighty old men, women, and children not killed on the spot had been brought.  Calley ordered the dozen or so platoon members there to push the people into the ditch, and three or four GIs did.  Calley ordered his men to shoot into the ditch.  Some refused, others obeyed.  One who followed Calley's order was Paul Meadlo, who estimated that he killed about twenty-five civilians.  (Later Meadlo was seen, head in hands, crying.) Calley joined in the massacre.  At one point, a two-year-old child who somehow survived the gunfire began running towards the hamlet.  Calley grabbed the child, threw him back in the ditch, then shot him.

Hugh Thompson, by now almost frantic, saw bodies in the ditch, including a few people who were still alive.  He landed his helicopter and told Calley to hold his men there while he evacuated the civilians.  (One account reports Thompson told his helicopter crew chief to "open up on the Americans" if they fired at the civilians, but Thompson later said he did not remember having done so.)  He put himself between Calley's men and the Vietnamese.  When a rescue helicopter landed, Thompson had the nine civilians, including five children, flown to the nearest army hospital.  Later, Thompson was to land again and rescue a baby still clinging to her dead mother.

By 11 a.m., when Medina called for a lunch break, the killing was nearly over.  By noon, "My Lai was no more": its buildings were destroyed and its people dead or dying.  Soldiers later said they didn't remember seeing "one military-age male in the entire place".  By night, the VC had returned to bury the dead.  What few villagers survived and weren't already communists, became communists.  Twenty months later army investigators would discover three mass graves containing the bodies of about 500 villagers.


Not many books have been written about the dark side of the American soldier in Vietnam. Mark Lane's  Conversations With Soldiers is one of the few books. It has been maligned for not being very loyal to facts but such hard-hitting books invariably invite sharp criticism. It is up to you to make your own judgement about Lane's book. Below are some excerpts from the book.

"I do not know if I should talk about it, but the fact is that once I had killed with his own hands a few prisoners. In the bunker ... After they killed my friend. I was not myself. I was sent for psychiatric treatment. I said I was simply tired of fighting and the shock of the fact that the friend was killed before my eyes. And that all this happens quite often. (...)

+ + + + +

The prisoners were kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs. And we were pushing them. During interrogation, they were on their knees, and sometimes - well, more accurately, I have seen how they were beaten with fists and feet. I was told that this happens more often after a particularly brutal battle where Americans suffered losses. Then those who are questioning are not prone to sentimentality, and that shows in  the interrogation techniques. (...)

But the most important thing to say about the center of the inquiry, is that in the period following the first Tet (...) and the May offensive, about 2 thousand were executed in the center. By way of reprisals, or to maintain their reputation after losses incurred during the New Year's offensive. (...)

And for small children, we had blue pill given with food. Outwardly, they looked very much like candy.  By selecting them, the the children burned their hands ... We all did that , because after my return from Ke San, where so many of our boys were killed, I could not bear the sight of the Vietnamese. Well,  if I wanted to give vent to my anger, when I met an old man or old woman on the streets, I made sure they were searched and hit on the butt, or required to produce documents, and those who did not have documents, were shot. "

+ + + + +

"One day, a patrol got a captive. He had been wounded. The soldiers threw him on the ground and crowded around him. The sergeant shouted: "Well, guys, who wants to beat this cross-eyed?". The prisoner knew only two words in English - "Geneva Convention" - and incessantly, repeated them. He was very young. Maybe he was a Viet Cong. The soldiers began to shoot him. First they aimed near him. And then began to shoot at his feet. Nobody wanted to finish him off, but in the end someone did."

+ + + + +

AN US ARMY OFFICER: “There’s this question—I think anyone who goes to (Viet) Nam asks it. What’s a civilian? Someone who works for us at day and puts on Viet Cong pajamas at night?”

 AT THE TRIAL.......Paul Meadlo, Witness for the Prosecution

Defense Attorney George Latimer
Prosecutor Aubrey Daniel

Direct examination by Aubrey Daniels:

Q: What did you do in the village?

A: We just gathered up the people and led them to a designated area.

Q: How many people did you gather up?

A: Between thirty and fifty. Men, women, and children.

Q: What kind of children?

A: They were just children.

Q: Where did you get these people?

A: Some of the was in hooches and some was in rice paddies when we gathered them up.

Q: Why did you gather them up?

A: We suspected them of being Viet Cong. And as far as I'm concerned, they're still Viet Cong....

Q: What did you do when you got there?

A: Just guarded them.

Q: Did you see Lieutenant Calley?

A: Yes

Q: What did he do?

A: He came up to mean and he said, "You know what to do with them, Meadlo," and I assumed he wanted me to guard them. That's what I did.

Q: What were the people doing?

A: They were just standing there....

A: [Calley] said, "How come they're not dead?" I said, I didn't know we were supposed to kill them." He said, I want them dead." He backed off twenty or thirty feet and started shooting into the people -- the Viet Cong -- shooting automatic. He was beside me. He burned four or five magazines. I burned off a few, about there. I helped shoot ‘em.

Q: What were the people doing after you shot them?

A: They were lying down.

Q: Why were they lying down?

A: They was mortally wounded.

Q: How were you feeling at that time?

A: I was mortally upset, scared, because of the briefing we had the day before.

Q: Were you crying?

A: I imagine I was....

Q: Were there any Vietnamese there?

A: Yes, there was Viet Cong there. About seventy-five to a hundred, standing outside the ravine....

A: Then Lieutenant Calley said to me, "We've got another job to do, Meadlo".

Q: What happened then?

A: He started shoving them off and shooting them in the ravine.

Q: How many times did he shoot?

A: I can't remember.

Q: Did you shoot?

A: Yes. I shot the Viet Cong. he ordered me to help kill people. I started shoving them off and shooting.

Q: How long did you fire?

A: I don't know.

Q: Did you change magazines?

A: Yes.
Q: Did Lieutenant Calley change magazines?

A: Yes.

Q: How many times did he change magazines?

A: Ten to fifteen times.

Q: How many bullets in a magazine?

A: Twenty, normally.

Q: How was Lieutenant Calley armed?

A: He had a M-16.

Q: What were the people doing after you and Lieutenant Calley shot them?

A: The people were just lying there, with blood all over them.

Q: What was the condition of the people?

A: I can't say what their condition was. I didn't get down in the ditch and check them out.

Q: Were they wounded?

A: They had wounds in the head, in the body, in the chest, in the stomach.

Q: Where were you when you shot at those people?

A: We was standing on top of the ravine and shooting down.

Q: Did you miss?

A: On automatic? Yes.

Q: Did Lieutenant Calley miss?

A: On automatic? Yes.

Q: Was anyone still alive when you stopped firing?

A: I couldn't tell whether they was mortally wounded. I didn't check them out.

Cross examination by George Latimer:

Q: You did start firing into that group, didn't you?

A: Yes.

Q: You killed men, women, and children?

A: Yes.

Q: You were ordered to do so?

A: Yes.

Q: Why did you carry out that order?

A: I was ordered to. And I was emotionally upset . . . And we were ordered to get satisfaction from this village for all the men we'd lost. They was all VC and VC sympathizers and I still believe they was all Viet Cong and Viet Cong sympathizers.

Q: Did you see Captain Medina?

A: Yes. And he didn't say anything and did not even try to put a stop to it. So I figured we was doing the right thing.

Q: What was your impression of Lieutenant Calley at this place where he gave you these orders?

A: I thought the man was doing his duty and doing his job....

Q: Was Lieutenant Calley violent and in a sense raving around?

A: No.

Re-direct examination by Aubrey Daniel:

Q: Why didn't you fire when you got on line?

A: I don't know. There was a lot of firing going on and I couldn't tell whether it was incoming or outgoing.

Q: Weren't you ordered to fire into that village?

A: I don't remember whether the orders was to fire when we hit the ground.

Q: Wasn't everyone else firing?

A: I don't know.

Q: When did you first see a Vietnamese?

A: Right after we landed. In an open field.

Q: Did you fire?

A: No.

Q: Why not?

A: I didn't have orders to fire.

Q: Was he a resident of the village?

A: He was a Viet Cong, yes.

Q: Then why didn't you fire?

A: I didn't have my orders to fire.

Q: Didn't you get orders to kill him from Medina?

A: No. And besides, he was being guarded.

Q: When did you see the next Vietnamese?

A: In the village. He was thirty to fifty years old.

Q: Did you shoot him?

A: Yes.

Q: Why?

A: I was ordered to by Sergeant Mitchell, I believe. And besides, why take chances?

Q: Then you gathered up people. Why?

A: That was my orders. It ain't my reason to say why.

Q: When Lieutenant Calley came up and said, "Take care of these people," why did you continue to guard them?

A: I figured he just wanted me to guard them.

Q: Why didn't you shoot them?

A: I figured maybe he wanted to hold them for interrogation.

Q: What did you do?

A: I held my M-16 on them.

Q: Why?

A: Because they might attack.

Q: They were children and babies?

A: Yes.

Q: And they might attack

A: They might have a had a fully loaded grenade on them. The mothers might have throwed them at us.

Q: Babies?

A: Yes.

Q: Then why didn't you shoot them?

A: I didn't have no orders to kill them right then.

Q: Why didn't you fire first when Lieutenant Calley said, "I want them dead?"

A: Because Lieutenant Calley started firing first. I don't know why I didn't fire first.

Q: What were the people doing when Lieutenant Calley arrived?

A: They were sitting down.

Q: The women, the children and babies were sitting down?

A: Yes. Q: Did they attack you?

A: I assumed at every minute that they would counterbalance. I thought they had some sort of chain or a little string they had to give a little pull and they blow us up, things like that.

Q: What did you do?

A: I just watched them. I was scared all the time.

Q: How many people did you take to the ditch?

A: Seven or eight people.

Q: Why didn't you shoot these people rather than take them with you?

A: I assumed we was going to hold them for interrogation.

Q: Why didn't you kill them?

A: I didn't have my orders to kill them. It ain't my reason to figure what they was going to do with them. It was just natural procedure to hold them for questioning.

Q: Captain Medina's orders did not change that standard operating procedure for these seven or eight people, to hold them for interrogation?

A: No.

Q: What changed the order?

A: Lieutenant Calley said, "We've got another job to do, Meadlo."

Q: You said you were under emotional strain. Can you describe the strain?

A: Just I was scared and frightened.

Q: At what?

A: At carrying out the orders.

Q: Why?

A: Because nobody really wants to take a human being's life

Q: But they were Viet Cong, weren't they?

A: Yes, they were Viet Cong.

Q: And it was your job?

A: It was my job, yes.

Q: What were the children in the ditch doing?

A: I don't know.

Q: Were the babies in their mother's arms?

A: I guess so.

Q: And the babies moved to attack?

A: I expected at any moment they were about to make a counterbalance

Q: Had they made any move to attack?

A: No.

Q: When you left the ditch, were any of the people standing?

A: Not that I remember.

Q: Did you see anyone who was not shot?

A: I can't say. I didn't get down and check them out.

Q: Did you see anyone who wasn't shot?

A: There might have been a few. I didn't check ‘em out.

Q: Now, Mr. Meadlo, one last question: Did Lieutenant Calley or did Captain Medina order you to kill?

A: I took orders from Lieutenant Calley. But--

Daniel: That's all.


+  + + +

"We talked about the murders of prisoners, torture, rape. And each of us had photos showing the most terrible acts. Nevertheless, the reaction of new "recruits" was positive: They obviously liked the idea, because the Marines were only volunteers. And they could not wait to go to Vietnam, and apply in practice all the things they learned. Many of them volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Sergeants played on the unhealthy motives: "What a luck - you can kill" ... and all that."

"I talked a lot with the (...), who returned from Vietnam. And they told me how they killed people simply because of scorn. Well, you know how it happens, "Squint-eyed, they  can not be considered as people. Kill them - a trifling matter."

+ + + + +

AN ARMY SOURCE: “The Army knew it was going to get clobbered on this at some point. “f they don’t prosecute somebody, if this stuff comes out without the Army taking some action, it could be even worse.

Another view that many held was that the top level of the military was concerned about possible war crime tribunals after the Vietnam war.


"Some areas are regularly subjected to bombing and shelling, without regard for human life of the population. Entire areas were designated as Vietcong imfested. However, the population consisted mainly of farmers and fishermen. Most of them did not engage in politics. Their main concern was obtaining their daily bread. Many were killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

+ + + + +


Lt. William Laws Calley

He was accused of killing 109 Vietnamese.He was convicted and sentence to life imprisonment with hard labor. It was later lessened to 20 years than 3 years of house arrest and later pardoned completely. At the trial Calley said, "I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children. They were all classified as the same, and that's the classification that we dealt with over there, just as the enemy. I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the order that I was given and I do not feel wrong in doing so."
CALLEY'S LAWYER: “You can’t afford to guess whether a civilian is a Viet Cong or not. Either they shoot you or you shoot them."

“The whole thing was so deliberate. It was point-blank murder and I was standing there watching it”
 Sgt. Michael Bernhardt.

Bernhardt said he had been delayed on the operation and fell slightly behind the company, then led by Calley’s platoon, as it entered the village. This is his version of what took place:

“They (Calley’s men) were doing a whole lot of shooting up there, but none of it was incoming—I’d been around enough to tell that. I figured they were advancing on the village with fire power.

“I walked up and saw these guys doing strange things. They were doing it three ways. One: They were setting fire to the hootches and huts and waiting for people to come out and then shooting them up. Two: They were going into the hootches and shooting them up. Three: They were gathering people in groups and shooting them.

“As I walked in, you could see piles of people all through the village. ... all over. They were gathered up into large groups.

“I saw them shoot an M-79 (grenade launcher) into a group of people who were still alive. But it (the shooting) was mostly done with a machine gun. They were shooting women and children just like anybody else.

“We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village—old Papa-san, women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive. The only prisoner I saw was about 50.”


Another witness to the shootings was Michael Terry, Orem, Utah, then a member of the C Platoon of Medina’s company and now a sophomore at nearby Brigham Young University. Interviewed at his home, Terry said he, too, came on the scene moments after the killings began.

“They just marched through shooting everybody,” he said. “Seems like no one said anything. …They just started pulling people out and shooting them.”

At one point, he said, more than 20 villagers were lined up in front of a ditch and shot.

“They had them in a group standing over a ditch-just like a Nazi-type thing. ...One officer ordered a kid to machine-gun everybody down, but the kid just couldn’t do it. He threw the machine gun down and the officer picked it up. ...” Terry said.

“I don’t remember seeing any men in the ditch. Mostly women and kids.”

Later, he and the platoon team he headed were taking a lunch break near the ditch when, Terry said, he noticed “some of them were still breathing. ...They were pretty badly shot up. They weren’t going to get any medical help, and so we shot them. Shot maybe five of them. ..”

Why did it happen?

“I think that probably the officers didn’t really know if they were ordered to kill the villagers or not. ...A lot of guys feel that they (the South Vietnamese civilians) aren’t human beings; we just treated them like animals.”

Conversations with Americans: Testimony From 32 VietnamVeterans

Voices from the Vietnam War: Stories from American, Asian, and Russian Veterans 
By Xiaobing Li
Other Books

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