What drove a company of American soldiers -- ordinary young men from around the country -- to commit the worst atrocity in American military history? Were they “just following orders” as some later declared? Or, did they break under the pressure of a vicious war in which the line between enemy soldier and civilian had been intentionally blurred? AMERICAN EXPERIENCE focuses on the 1968 My Lai massacre, its subsequent cover-up, and the heroic efforts of the soldiers who broke ranks to try to halt the atrocities, and then bring them to light.
On the morning of March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers entered the village of My Lai, located in Quang Ngai Province in central Vietnam. Frustrated by their inability to directly engage the enemy and emotionally devastated by the ongoing casualties their unit had sustained, the men had been told that this was their chance to finally meet the Viet Cong head on. By the end of the day, they had shot and killed between 300 and 507 unarmed and unresisting men, women and children, none of them apparently members of the enemy forces. Most of the survivors hid under the dead bodies of their families and neighbors. The incident, subsequently known as the My Lai Massacre, would only come to light more than a year later, when shocking photos of the atrocities were splashed across the pages of national newsmagazines and the evening newscasts, further eroding public support for the war in Vietnam.
The approximately 140 young men who made up Charlie Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division, represented a cross-section of America: from the East, West, North and South, they were black and white, Mexican American and Mormon. Under the leadership of Captain Ernest Medina, they became a tight knit group. Early training for the unit included a stint in Hawaii, where the young soldiers were trained in jungle warfare. But this simulated training did little to prepare the men for the horrors of Vietnam. Once overseas, Charlie Company was detailed to Task Force Barker, operating in the Northern Province of Quang Ngai, known to the Army as Pinkville and one of the bloodiest areas of conflict in all of Vietnam. Sent out on search and destroy missions, they suddenly started to lose men, one after another — horrific bloody deaths from snipers’ bullets, mines, and booby traps that would instantly dismember a man without the slightest warning.
Demoralizing and psychologically unsettling, this strange and terrifying form of combat continued day after day, for nearly two months, with soldiers unable to even see their enemies, or distinguish friend from foe in the villages they walked through every day. On March 15, Charlie Company was told that they were going to finally face the 48th Vietcong infantry battalion head on the following day. The brigade commander charged his officers to be aggressive with the enemy, and Captain Medina fired up the troops. This was it. This would be their chance to finally avenge the deaths of their fallen comrades.
According to sworn testimony, Captain Medina told the soldiers that there would be no civilians, or “innocents” in the village on March 16, and anyone who was present was an enemy or enemy sympathizer. But that information was based on faulty intelligence; the Vietcong were 150 miles away on the other side of the Province. Lieutenant William Calley, the especially gung-ho leader of the 1st Platoon of Charlie Company, told his men to enter My Lai firing, but when the initial smoke cleared, they saw only unarmed elderly men, women and children emerging from their houses in terror. A few minutes later the shooting started.
For almost 16 months after the incident at My Lai, the American public remained unaware of what had happened until reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story in 30 U.S. newspapers. He based his story on conversations with Ron Ridenhour, a former member of Charlie Company (though not present at My Lai) who had sent letters to various government officials urging them to investigate “something rather dark and bloody” that had happened in Vietnam. At first ignored, his letters eventually resulted in Lieutenant Calley being charged with murder in September 1969. A week after Hersh’s story, My Lai was covered in Time and Newsweek, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer published the now-infamous, still tragic photos of the bloody lifeless bodies by the side of the road. The images raised serious questions about what was really going on in Vietnam.
The U.S. Army commissioned an investigation, eventually charging over 20 men of wrongdoing. The commission concluded that there had been widespread failures of leadership, discipline and morale. On March 29, 1971, Lieutenant William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison, causing a firestorm of public outcry. Anti-war Americans saw Calley as a scapegoat for a corrupt military; those in favor saw him as a dedicated soldier who had only been carrying out orders.
Public sentiment overwhelmed the White House, and President Nixon ordered Calley released and confined to his quarters pending a review of his conviction. In total, he ended up serving four and a half months in a military prison. Captain Medina was acquitted, having denied that he gave any orders for the massacre. None of the other military men initially charged were ever convicted.
My Lai had a lasting impact on a war-weary American public. Demands for withdrawal from Vietnam continued to grow, while others questioned the idea of blind loyalty to military leadership, the effectiveness of a military draft for finding suitable recruits, and the wisdom of a war whose success was measured on the nightly news by body counts. Today, the My Lai Massacre is still considered the worst case of an American war atrocity.
From director Barak Goodman (The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Kinsey, The Lobotomist,) My Lai features the first ever in-depth interviews with the people involved in both the massacre and its cover up, as well as those responsible for finally bringing the truth to light.
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