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In the year 1968, a company of American soldiers involved themselves in an unfortunate event in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. The incident occurred during the American-Vietnam war when soldiers raided a Vietnamese village and killed all persons that were insight. The soldiers raped, physically abused, and killed all persons, including the elderly, as well as women and children. Aside from killing the residents, the soldiers also destroyed the villager’s homes and other properties.
The Genesis of My Lai
The soldiers had gotten information that the villagers were what was referred to as Vietcong. During the war, the term Vietcong was used to refer to persons who sympathized with the Vietnam side of the war encounter. The soldiers and their commandants used this information to justify their actions in the village of My Lai. At the beginning of the war, the argument was justifiable, given the situations that exist when a war is starting. It was impossible for the soldiers to identify their enemies as the Vietcong applied guerilla techniques to fight the American soldiers. As such, it was difficult to tell the civilians apart in a group of enemies.
As the war continued, the justification issued by the American soldiers made less sense. When the war progressed, it was clearer to the soldiers who the civilians were and how to identify them in a group of Vietnamese people as the civilians were not armed. The book My Lai: A Brief History with Documents paints a clear picture of the main explanations that were given by the American troops for their actions during and after My Lai. The soldiers claimed that the Vietcong attacked. There was a characteristic pretense of memory loss among the troops in order to avoid questioning. The troops also argued that they received orders from their superiors.
The American troops had been informed that by attacking My Lai, they would be able to neutralize the Vietcong troops as well as their sympathizers who resided in the village. The reality of the matter was that there were very few Vietcong who inhabited My Lai. According to Colonel Oran K. Henderson, “all persons living in this area [were] considered to be Vietcong or Vietcong sympathizers by the District Chief1.”
Colonel Henderson, as well as other officers, who were of his rank or other ranks above, dispatched men to My Lai on the basis of this belief. Even when the actions at My Lai were brought to the fore, the officers denied the reports and used this argument to justify their reasons for sending the troops to the village. Notably, Colonel Henderson made a report in which he stated that 128 Vietcong were killed during the attack and that only a total of 20 civilians had been accidentally caught in the line of fire. The report was inaccurate and went against the existing evidence that indicated that more than 150 civilians had been caught in the crossfire and that the village had very few Vietcong. The figure could be proven through a body count after the incidence took place. It is regrettable that an officer of the rank of colonel could give a falsified report and lie in an attempt to defend his actions and those of his troops. There is a higher likelihood that Henderson fabricated the figure regarding the number of Vietcong and civilians killed in the attack with the sole aim of ensuring that his reputation was not tainted as a result of the incidence.
In reality, it is factual that My Lai did have some Vietcong. As reported by Thomas Partsch, he watched when two American Soldiers walked into mines that were set up by the Vietcong2. The event occurred two days after the raid on My Lai. It is debatable whether the mines were placed before or after the attack, but what is clear is the fact there was a trace of Vietcong activities in the area. The Vietcong had placed the mines strategically in a place where American troops would run into them when they entered the area. Partsch did not expect anyone would read his journal, and he was more bound to note down what he had witnessed without trying to make an impression.
Many soldiers, as well as other officers, have indicated that they had little knowledge of what happened at My Lai in order to cover up for the event that took place. There is a characteristic of memories of soldiers who were involved in having forgotten the events so fast that they did not have any credible information to provide when questioned later. For example, Dennis Conti and his crew, who were present during the attack, were examined two days following the My Lai attack. When Conti was asked about the questioning, he feigned forgetfulness and even reported that he “was probably in a bunker somewhere trying to get some rest3.” That was not true given that there was documentation that Conti was among the group that was questioned two days after the attack. Conti claimed that all he knew was that there was some investigation that had been carried, and he had gotten this information through other soldiers. Conti had intentions of avoiding to incriminate himself or the soldiers, and as such, he resulted in such distortion of facts.
It can be asserted with certainty that Conti knew everything about the My Lai situation and the investigations that followed, but he did not want to put himself and the other men at risk. By telling the truth, Conti could have broken their camaraderie. Another reason he chose not, to tell the truth, is the fact that he participated in the My Lai attack, and as such, he was as guilty as everyone else. Interestingly other men had similar memory issues as those demonstrated by Conti. Oran K. Henderson, who had questioned a number of men two days after the event, had no recollection of the troops he had questioned when he was filing his report. Just like Conti, Henderson was not honest when he stated that he could not remember the names of the men he had spoken to during the investigations.
There was a group of soldiers who never feigned memory loss, but they chose to state that they could not discuss anything as they had orders from their superiors not to tell anything concerning the My Lai attack. Michael Bernhardt, who was under the command of Captain Medina, indicated that he and other men were under instruction not to talk about the investigation. According to Bernhardt, Captain Medina had given them the reason that is talking about the attack “was not going to do any good, and it was going to get a lot of people in trouble4.”
Such an utterance would be incriminating for Medina, but it was an excuse used by Bernhardt to evade having to report on what happened at My Lai. When Herbert Carter, who was one of the men who participated in the attack, was asked about it, he stated that he was hospitalized during the events. He said that he had learned from his colleagues who had visited him that the information that they were to give to anyone asking about My Lai was that they “were fired upon and [to] say a sniper round had come in or something5.” It is interesting that Carter, despite being hospitalized, was aware, “somebody was trying to cover something up6.”
It is evident that he gave such an explanation just to ensure that if in case he was discovered to be lying, the focus would be shifted to someone else. As such, Carter would be cleared of any responsibility.
It is against the fair principles of war to justify the actions of the American troops who perpetrated the events at My Lai. The soldiers gave excuses for their actions during the attack as well as covering up for their actions or lack of, after the My Lai attack. Some of the soldiers falsely stated that they were aware of Vietcong existing in the area and that some of the troops had been attacked by the Vietcong, and as such, they only took action to neutralize the threat. The soldiers feigned forgetfulness or blamed their superiors for the events when the investigations began. Such was the tragic events at My Lai that led to the loss of life of innocent civilians. The actions of the troops revolving around My Lai should never be covered up to protect the perpetrators of the heinous acts.
Bernhardt, Michael, “Testimony to Peers Commission, 1970,” in My Lai: A Brief History with Documents, 123. Edited by James Olson & Randy Roberts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s,1998. Web.
Carter, Herbert, “Testimony to Peers Commission, 1970,” in My Lai: A Brief History with Documents, 125. Edited by James Olson & Randy Roberts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998. Web.
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Conti, Dennis, “Testimony to Peers Commission, 1970,” in My Lai: A Brief History with Documents, 124. Edited by James Olson & Randy Roberts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998. Web.
Henderson, Oran, “Report of Investigation, 1968,” in My Lai: A Brief History with Documents, 127. Edited by James Olson & Randy Roberts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998. Web.
Partsch, Thomas, “Journal Entries, 1968,” in My Lai: A Brief History with Documents, 141-142. Edited by James Olson & Randy Roberts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998. Web.
1 Oran, Henderson, “Report of Investigation, 1968,” in My Lai: A Brief History with Documents, ed. James Olson and Randy Roberts (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998), 127.
2 Thomas, Partsch, “Journal Entries, 1968,” in My Lai: A Brief History with Documents, ed. James Olson and Randy Roberts (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998), 142.
3 Dennis, Conti, “Testimony to Peers Commission, 1970,” in My Lai: A Brief History with Documents, ed. James Olson and Randy Roberts (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998), 124.
4 Michael, Bernhardt, “Testimony to Peers Commission, 1970,” in My Lai: A Brief History with Documents, ed. James Olson and Randy Roberts (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998), 123.
5 Herbert, Carter, “Testimony to Peers Commission, 1970,” in My Lai: A Brief History with Documents, ed. James Olson and Randy Roberts (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998), 125.
6 Ibid., 126.