Reflections on the 47th Anniversary of the My Lai Massacre

March 16, 2015

Author Jack Doxey is a Army veteran, Coordinator of VFP's Homeless Veterans Working Group and member of  Hugh Thompson Memorial Chapter 91 in San Diego.

March 16th 2015 marks the 47th. anniversary of the My Lai Massacre that occurred in Vietnam. To say that it was a sad day in the history of our country is a gross understatement. Our United States military systematically slaughtered over 350 Vietnamese women, children, infants and old men in the tiny village of My Lai.

I doubt very much that we will see any newspaper articles or television coverage concerning this horrific event. Our attention span is short; and revisiting old wounds is too boring. The result is that this event has been shoved into the "dust bin" of history. 

Never the less, I beseech our government and every American citizen to not forget but instead “learn”from the events that unfolded 47 years ago in the tiny village of My Lai.

So for those who perhaps never heard of the My Lai Massacre here is the story:

It was March 16th 1968, and things seemed peaceful. The weather couldn’t be any more beautiful.  Hugh Thompson, a 24 year old Army helicopter pilot, serving in Vietnam, was thankful for the clear weather.

He and his two man crew left their compound and headed for what they were told was a suspected North Vietnamese stronghold. As they arrived at the small village of My Lai, Thompson maneuvered his helicopter between two tree lines. His crew member, Larry Colburn said:

 “You could smell the jungle and see the fog rising up. It was, by all accounts, a beautiful day We were flying low and could clearly see the villagers. As hard as we looked, we encountered not one Vietcong.  The village was occupied by women, children and old men. It was Saturday morning and they were carrying empty containers and baskets. It was obvious that they were heading to the village market. It was an activity that was probably carried out, in the same fashion, by their ancestors for generations.”

Thompson decided to move out of the area and check another nearby village. Once again no enemy was encountered. They swung their helicopter around and headed back, once again, to the village of My Lai.

This time, they dropped below the tree line and were skimming across the jungle floor. They could clearly see the villagers but nobody was moving. They were all dead. Women, children, infants and old men were piled up like cordwood in a long irrigation ditch.

To the horror of Thompson and his two man crew, they were witnessing an American army platoon, lead by Lt. Calley, in the process of systematically murdering over 300 innocent Vietnamese villagers.  

Hugh Thompson landed his helicopter and placed his two men between the soldiers and the ditch. He instructed his two crew members to open fire on their American comrades if they attempted to kill one more villager. Hugh Thompson went about convincing ten terrified villagers to come out of a small earthen bunker. He also discovered an 8 year old boy in the ditch. He was alive and was clinging to his dead mother. Thompson called for additional helicopter support and they transported these few remaining villagers to a hospital and saved their lives. Hugh Thompson personally brought the young 8 year old boy to the Quang Nhai Hospital which was run by Catholic nuns.  One of the nuns met Thompson and only at that time did he release the young boy to the care of the nun.

Paula Bock, a journalist for the Pacific Northwest Magazine, who was reporting on this tragedy said:

 “When you are young, thousands of miles away from your home town, terrified and surrounded by all sort of craziness it is very easy to lose your moral compass.”

 It is self serving on the part of our government to single out these men as a“few bad apples” and encourage the American public to simply consider My Lai as an isolated incident. The actions of these American soldiers are not to be condoned however they are symptomatic of a deeper problem that exists in our country.

I believe that the young soldiers were duped into believing that the people they were killing were some kind of sub species and with that mindset it allowed them to carry out this terrible atrocity. You might think that this is a stretch but I do believe they were victims as well.

Another contributing factor is that our government, over the years, has developed a bias for violence and war. This bias for violence has been systemically institutionalized into the thinking of many American citizens. Our government’s “Might Makes Right” mantra is constantly communicated in the newspapers, TV and in the war games that we allow our children to play. The brutalization of innocent citizens has occurred in our recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and especially in Pakistan and Yemen with the indiscriminate use of drone warfare.

 Why are we surprised when young soldiers or civilians do things similar to what was experienced in the tiny town of My Lai?  It’s because they have been exposed to violence throughout their entire life.  Our country inexplicably draws itself to violence and war, much like a moth draws itself to a lit candle.

Symptoms of this show up in some startling statistics. The United States currently has 900 military installations throughout the world and argues that it is not empire building. We have a military budget of more than 500 billion dollars per year. This is more than the combined spending of all industrialized nations throughout the world.

If ever the citizens of the United States should be vigilant and question their government now is the time.  Seeking the truth and speaking out when you believe your country is not taking the moral high ground is not an option it is a responsibility. Dissent, rather than being unpatriotic, is the highest form of patriotism.”

Related articles :

Interview with VFP San Diego members:

The Scene of the Crime By Seymour M. Hersh

The Ditch At My Lai by Mike Hastie