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The words "My Lai" will forever be infamous in the annals of American military history, for they denote the site of the event that shames America most in a war she would rather forget. The book in question is an account pieced together by journalist Seymour Hersh of the Associated Press. His account of the incident itself is based entirely upon personal interviews with the men involved, frequently two or three each. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of eyewitness testimony, there is a great deal of contradiction between these various accounts, and to his credit, Mr. Hersh does an excellent job of cross-referencing and combining them into a single picture. Where necessary, he enumerates anywhere from two to ten different recollections of a single event, allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions from the data.
Unless new evidence someday comes to light, the account contained in this book will likely remain the most accurate description of the events that took place in and around the hamlet of My Lai 4 on 16 March, 1968. The remainder of the book traces the aftermath of the incident, both in Vietnam and in America. This section is much more precise, for the simple reason that all the events he relates are matters of public record. The response of the American people to revelations of the events at My Lai 4 is shocking, not to mention quite instructive.
Briefly, this is what probably happened at My Lai 4: an assault was planned upon the hamlet and executed by Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion of the 20th Infantry Division, United States Army. After being inserted into the area by helicopter, the company proceeded to sweep the area and essentially massacre anywhere from 100 to 1000 unarmed civilians (there is still much debate about the exact figure). Anyone attempting to run was shot. The houses and huts of the village were systematically demolished or burned. Unarmed old men, women, and even children were shot in cold blood. The best-known part of the massacre was when Lt. Calley ordered several hundred civilians to lie on top of one another in a ditch, whereupon he and some of his men raked them with automatic-weapons fire and tossed grenades into the ditch. Some time later, noise from some surviving people in the ditch attracted the attention of men from another platoon of Charlie Company, who put those still alive out of their misery.
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There is no evidence that a single enemy shot was fired at any U.S. soldier during the operation. Evidently, many soldiers participated in the killing to a greater or lesser extent, the greatest offences being those of Lt. William Calley, the commander of the company's first platoon. It was Calley who would eventually be court-martialed and imprisoned for his role in the incident. It is quite clear from a great many accounts that the soldiers of Charlie Company, almost to a man, acted in a blatantly criminal manner.
Most of these soldiers had been normal, psychologically healthy men before entering military service and being deployed in Vietnam. The question then arises of what influences made so many men capable of deliberately murdering hundreds of people. The best explanation is probably the nature of combat to which they had been subjected. Ever since their deployment in Vietnam, the men of Charlie Company had not had a single substantial encounter with their enemy. The casualties they suffered were due to mines, booby-traps, snipers, ambushes, and so forth. In other words, there was no visible enemy for these soldiers to direct their mounting stress, frustration, and anger against. Their aggression needed an outlet, and in the end, they took it out on the inhabitants of My Lai 4.
Other contributing factors were the Vietnamese people themselves who, for a variety of reasons, were commonly regarded as inferior and subhuman by American soldiers. No attempt was made by the Army to bridge the vast culture gap between America and Vietnam, and without a clear understanding of Vietnamese culture, language, and so forth, American troops began to view things that were, in the end, merely different as disgusting and repulsive. Without an understanding of the Vietnamese psyche or anything else, the resulting disrespect and apathy made the actions of Charlie Company much easier than they might have been.
More interesting is the American popular reaction when the story of the massacre finally did break in the news. Many people simply refused to believe it, despite interviews with a number of soldiers who had been there, and the photos of an Army reporter who was accompanying Charlie Company that day. In fact, the former soldiers who testified to the tragedy on television received hate mail and threats, which accused them of being traitors, or otherwise "un-American." When Lt. Calley was court-martialed, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised for his legal defense. This patent unwillingness to accept that American soldiers were capable of such an act, even in the face of tremendous amounts of evidence, forces one to question the public's collective sanity.
The most basic reason for the public's refusal to believe the story is that the public had no clear idea of why the war was being fought at all. They had no real stake in the outcome of the conflict itself; if they believed that America was doing the right thing by fighting in Vietnam, they did so more or less on blind faith that the government was telling the absolute truth. Over time, this became an almost fanatical belief among many Americans (fanaticism here is defined as "extremely strong belief not backed by evidence"). When a fanatic's beliefs are called into serious question, his first reaction will be anger or even violence. A single glance at the uncounted horrors that religious beliefs have inspired throughout human history is enough to verify this statement. Therefore, the American public's initial reaction is unsurprising. However, as evidence mounted and Calley's guilt became more and more evident, public sentiment ultimately turned against the government and against the continuation of the war. This change in public opinion suggests that all but the strongest belief will eventually give way under the weight of contradictory facts, when they are clearly presented and verified.
In the final analysis, a study of the My Lai 4 Incident reveals several interesting aspects of human behavior. The first thing one learns is that soldiers in a combat environment must have a way to relieve the stress inherent in any combat operation. The second thing one realizes is that in order to adequately perform in a foreign environment and culture, especially under stress, one must have a detailed and thorough understanding of said environment before ever entering it. The last thing one realizes is the two-fold nature of fanaticism, as spelled out in the preceding paragraph. The massacre at My Lai 4 was a singularly needless, senseless episode in a needless, senseless war. Its lessons must be learned, both to avoid like incidents in the future and so that this atrocity does not go down in human history as a complete waste. My Lai 4 by Seymour M. Hersh. © 1970, Random House, New York.