Murray Polner: Review of William Thomas Allison's "My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War" (Johns Hopkins, 2012)


Murray Polner is a regular HNN book reviewer.

The My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians on March 16, 1968, is symbol of the moral morass of the Vietnam War. Elderly men, women, and children, were slaughtered by rampaging U.S. soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division. The intrepid Seymour Hersh first broke the story for the Dispatch News Service, hardly a major news network. Though My Lai has since become synonomous with Vietnam War-era atrocities, it by no means the only murder of civilians in that brutal war; the South Koreans and both the North and South Vietnamese were especially brutal.

If anything positive emerged it was that a few American soldiers dared to denounce the assassins and their military and civilian defenders. One of them in William Thomas Allison’s first-rate My Lai is Captain Aubrey Daniel, an army lawyer who successfully prosecuted Lieutenant William Calley, the only participant in the massacre convicted. Daniel became enraged when President Nixon released Calley from prison pending his appeal. In a letter to the president written in April 1970, Daniel charged that by such an act the president had damaged the military’s judicial process and helped boost the image of Calley “as a national hero,” thus lending credibility to millions who believed the murders were inevitable if not justified during wartime. Sickened, Daniels’s letter continued: “How shocking it is if so many people across the nation have failed to see the moral issue which was involved in the trial of Lieutenant Calley -- that it is unlawful for an American soldier to summarily execute unarmed and unresisting men, women, children and babies.”

Many pro-war Americans saw Calley as the scapegoat in a frustrating war supposedly against communism’s expansion into Southeast Asia and even beyond. “The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley” sold 200,000 copies in three days.

With this in mind Daniel lectured Nixon in a tone rarely heard publicly: “I would expect that the president of the U.S., a man who I believed should and would provide the moral leadership for this nation, would stand fully behind the law of this land on a moral issue about which there can be no compromise.” This, of course, was before it became patently ridiculous to include “moral leadership” and Richard Nixon in the same sentence.

Allison, a professor of history at Georgia Southern University and author of Military Justice in Vietnam: The Rule of Law in an American War has written a succinct and impressive summation of what happened on March 16, 1968 and after. He doesn’t offer much that’s new but the book is nonetheless replete with facts, insights and perspective that should make it required reading in high schools and colleges, where knowledge of what happened in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the '60s and '70s is barely known.

Allison, whose father was a Vietnam vet, considers some of the 58,282 U.S. troops killed in the war: “A draftee was two times more likely to be killed in Vietnam than an enlistee.” Meanwhile, “the burden of service largely fell upon young working-class Americans, African Americans in particular, who could not afford to enroll in college or otherwise get a deferment.” Unstated was that, according to the Congressional Quarterly years ago, only fourteen members of Congress had close family members in the military during the war. The same was true of fathers in the executive and judicial branches. Nor for that matter did the draft prevent or shorten the war. No wonder that Allison opens the book with a pithy and relevant quote from Sophocles: “War loves to seek its victims in the young.”

Relying in part on army and congressional testimony, Allison’s judgment is that My Lai’s “sheer brutality ... staggers the imagination.” The book is enhanced by gripping photographs of the massacre taken by army photographer Ron Haeberle. One of them depicts women and children terrified while the killing proceeds and other shows the dead. [27] Informed that the Vietnamese villages of My Lai and neighboring Son My were a hotbed of embedded Viet Cong the carnage led to shootings, torture, mutilations, rape and sodomy. Re-reading about the wanton savagery cannot but remind a reader, even if on a far lesser scale, of SS death squads roaming the Ukrainian countryside and murdering any and all Jews they could find.

Along with Aubrey Daniel there were other authentic heroes serving in Vietnam. Warrant Office Hugh Thompson was flying overhead in his helicopter. When he and crew chief SP4 Glen Andreotta and gunner SP4 Larry Colburn witnessed the slaughter he landed his chopper, climbed out and, spotting a group of troops getting ready to kill even more, told Andreotta (who was killed in action three weeks later) and Colburn to start firing if any of them shot at him or the villagers. By his astonishing act he rescued eleven Vietnamese and possibly saved countless others when he threatened to shoot more Americans still menacing villagers. Allison’s description of the butchery and the bravery of Thompson and his crew members’ roles are riveting. Another helicopter pilot, Lieutenant Brian Livingston, who helped Thompson evacuate the refugees, wrote his wife, “I tell you something it sure makes me wonder why we are here.” (See, too, Trent Angers’ biography The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story).

Yet another genuine hero was Ron Ridenhour, also a Vietnam vet, who had heard about the story from eyewitnesses. Once he found their stories to be true he wrote dozens of letters in March 1969 to Washington politicians that “something dark and bloody did indeed occur sometime in March, 1968 in a village called Pinkville” -- the name used by American forces -- and called for an investigation. He ended up quoting Churchill: "A country without a conscience is a country without a soul, and a country without a soul is a country that cannot survive.”

There were extensive behind-the-scenes efforts to cover up what had happened at My Lai, and in Vietnam generally. “Within the halls of the Pentagon, and even in the White House, some wanted to whitewash any damming evidence.” [82]. Certainly, General William Westmoreland’s decision to rely on overwhelming American destructive power never succeeded. Nor did the White House’s reliance on extensive bombing succeed in bringing Hanoi to its knees. What it did was obliterate Laos’ Plain of Jars and wreak havoc on Laos, which was on the receiving end of some 2.1 million tons of bombs “more than the total tonnage dropped by the U.S. in the European and Pacific theaters in WWII” according to Oxford's Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War.

The Pentagon, still stuck in the mentality of World War II, was at a loss coping with a nationalist guerilla force. Allison complains that Westmoreland, who backed search-and-destroy and body counts, was “ever willing to take credit and protect his reputation at the expense of others.” But, after the disclosures about My Lai, Westmoreland insisted on a full inquiry and threatened to appeal personally to President Nixon to allow the investigation to continue hindered. [82] In the end, Allison notes, My Lai “further tarnished Westmoreland’s much-coveted reputation” just as it did the Pentagon and the Nixon White House, none of whose prime movers were ever held accountable.

All the same, it was Westmoreland, Major General Kenneth Hodgson and Colonel William V. Wilson and a few others inside the officer corps who supported a full-scale investigation. And, to his credit, it was Westmoreland who appointed Lieutentant General William Peers, who had entered the army via the ROTC at UCLA, to lead the inquiry, for which he was probably denied a fourth star because of his truthful findings. When his friend and protector Westmoreland retired, Peers did the same. And once Calley was convicted and soon released, My Lai soon became a relic of the past.

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