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Vietnam MY Lai Massacre Essay

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Updated: Dec 15th, 2019


This paper analyses the vents that happened at My Lai village and why it could have been prevented had the US army followed the principles of war. The paper starts by looking at what really happened and then proceeds to analyze whether the killings could indeed have been prevented.

Many will remember the My Lai massacre as one of the most shocking events of the world and can be described as one of the most infamous events in the history of Vietnam War (Bilton and Siam, 1992).

This war took place on March in 1968 in the village of My Lai which had approximately 700 people, located in the southeast of the United State base of Danang (Bilton and Siam, 1992). It is in this village that innocent people were killed on that date by the US Army while they were in search of rebels.

The question then becomes whether this attack on innocent people was justified; the first part of this paper discusses what happened and the US army conducts at that particular time and is a synopsis of the events of that fateful day.

The second part of the discussion looks at whether the principles of war were adhered to and examines whether these deaths would have been prevented had the rules of engagement been followed (Bilton and Siam, 1992)

The events at My Lai

The US troops conduct during that time was incredible and least expected and the outcomes of that day have left many people dumbfounded. The morning of March 16th saw three platoons of US troops from C Company of the eleventh Brigade arrive in the Son My area (Bilton and Siam, 1992).

The Platoon which was commanded by Lieutenant William Calley was on a search and destroy mission that was directed on My Lai village with the sole aim of finding members of the NLF popularly described as Vietcong (Bilton and Siam, 1992). The reason for directing the operation on that village is because the area had in the recent past been very active with the Vietcong rebels.

As the Platoon troop advanced through the village they started firing towards the village and instantly killed innocent civilians mainly women, children and the elderly who had at the time gone to the paddy fields to carry out their daily chores.

By then, Sergeant Michael Bernhardt, 1973 who was at My Lai said that he saw no one who could have been of military age and went on to say that “the US troops in My Lai met no resistance from the villagers” (Bilton and Siam, 1992).

One of the army photographers who had accompanied the platoon also said he “saw a US soldier shoot two young boys” that were probably just about 5 years old while many of the dead people comprised of other even much younger children (Bilton and Siam, 1992).

These facts were collaborated by the people who later returned to the village and claimed it took them several days to bury the dead who included very young children. To make it worse, the bodies had been badly mutilated apart from being shot.

This horrifying episode came into public light in November 1969 when a US soldier was interviewed on television; it is during that time that the soldier gave an actual account of the events of that day and admitted to how the platoon had deliberately and systematically shot civilians during that day (Bilton and Siam, 1992).

In the wake of this admission, the US military was under pressure to investigate this grave violation of human rights but turned out it was aware of the allegations and had even initiated an inquest into the matter; this was in April 1969, some six months before the public admission made by the soldier (Bilton and Siam, 1992).

The actual number people who were killed during that day remains unknown, however the official approximation figure was pegged at 175 but the actual figure is thought to have been much more higher in the region of 500 people (Bilton and Siam, 1992). In fact according to the memorial at My Lai the list actually has 504 people written.

So Could it have been prevented?

What happened at My Lai should have been prevented if rules of fair engagement were followed by the US soldiers especially when combat is in civilian locations. Based on universal principles it is illegal to follow orders that are illegal or which borders on illegality even from superiors.

Based on this principle of law it was therefore wrong for the US soldiers to have followed illegal orders of attacking the village that clearly contravened the human rights principles.

It is always important when fighting war or attacking enemies in civilian locations to take into account careful planning and consideration. There are Principles of War that have been used successfully for many years by military commanders which have always avoided unnecessary death of civilians; the same principles could have been important in this case.

Even on its own standards it is clear that the US laws of engagement in civilian locations were not adhered to which led to the death of innocent people. These soldiers should have identified a clear objective and target during this mission which required using precautionary force under the circumstances.

In fact one might argue that the soldiers had no clear objective from the start since they obviously attacked the civilians as opposed to the rebels that they were pursuing. Meaning that they confused their target, which is not only acceptable but an indication of incompetence or outright regardless of human life.

In fact during the inquest the US army said that “the people they encountered lacked military skills and were not a threat” (UNHCR.org. 2010); which clearly shows that there was no reason for the soldiers to have had used excess force in the first place.

Instead they were supposed to have applied diplomacy and only use force where necessary; at the same time the Commanders in the field were supposed to make important decisions and not give orders of civilian’s execution.

It was also important for the US soldiers to have had sought permission from the relevant Authorities before attacking the My Lai village.

What happened is that the soldiers abruptly opened fire attacked without due diligence or even obtaining prior permission from relevant authorities as the attacks were carried out without prior knowledge from the Vietnam authorities. If permission was first sought then probably the soldiers would have been directed to their targets and the operation wouldn’t have resulted in deaths of the civilians.

As a general rule of natural laws on armed conflicts, military attacks should never be directed towards churches, innocent people, agricultural places, water points and all other places that are essential for well being of the citizens of the attacked country (UNHCR.org. 2010). But what the US army did in My Lai was in fact contrary to this principle as they also destroyed important resources that are vital to the citizen’s survival.

The question is whether it was necessary for these soldiers to have gone about killing women and children in the way that they did; the answer is certainly no especially when you consider that there was no justification at all for doing so, and not even the need to capture the rebels can be cited as the reason for the simple reason that the people killed posed no threat at all.

There is no reasonable soldier who will go about killing innocent civilians which is the reason why the actions of this day was so appalling as this was a common sense decision. The only time that civilians can be attacked is if they are trying to engage the soldiers and poses a threat to them (UNHCR.org, 2010).

Therefore in these attacks reasonable force was not used by the US Army and if the principles of war were followed then innocent children and women wouldn’t have been killed during that day.


Bilton, M., & Siam, K.(1992).Four Hours in My Lai. New York: Penguin Group.

UNHCR.org. 2010. The United Nations Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Web.

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IvyPanda. "Vietnam MY Lai Massacre." December 15, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/vietnam-my-lai-massacre-essay/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "Vietnam MY Lai Massacre." December 15, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/vietnam-my-lai-massacre-essay/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Vietnam MY Lai Massacre'. 15 December.

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