So in writing the last post, I had to do some basic research into the My Lai Massacre. That proved to be a lot more unsettling than I’d expected.
Let me explain…
I knew the basics. My Lai was a horrible massacre that took place just after the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. Bunch of Americans went into a village, killed a bunch of people. Heroic chopper pilot eventually managed to intervene and stop the killings. Lt William Calley was the only person convicted. Seemed straightforward enough. Then I went and did some reading.
I didn’t get much further than the Wikipedia article, plus a few news reports marking the 25th Anniversary of the event. I planned to do a deeper dive later, but for the post I just needed some basic facts and to confirm a few quotes. I never really got down into the weeds, but something like My Lai…the water’s deeper than it looks, and just dipping your feet is enough to confirm that there’s a hell of an undertow.
I knew that Oliver Stone had modelled the village scenes from his 1986 movie Platoon after the Massacre (and make no mistake, those scenes are ugly as hell) but as it turns out, Mr Stone drastically toned things down for the movie.
The first thing that hit me was the numbers. The two most likely estimates cited are 347 and 504 people killed, mostly during a roughly four hour period on 16 Mar 1968. Mostly by two platoons of C-Company (1st Battalion 20th Infantry Regiment) in My Lai and My Khe itself. So that’s fifty to sixty soldiers, killing as many as five hundred defenceless men, women, and children over the course of a single morning.
These numbers are only the start of the story, though. Because unlike in situations like say, the Nazi Holocaust, where an established system was in place to round up, transport and execute Jews (and other victims), there was nothing in place here. The American soldiers entering a village that, until now had only existed as a dot on the map, had to search the various houses and huts, drag the inhabitants out, then decide on their own to shoot them.
This reality contrasts heavily with other studies of infamous massacres. In Christopher Browning’s 1992 work ‘Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland’ the titular police unit was able to carry out a truly staggering number of killings and transportations largely due to a division of labour. One group of soldiers forced the targeted Jewish population out of their homes, others guarded and herded them to collection points, still others marched them into the woods, where the firing squads waited to execute them.
While the majority of the troops involved in any particular mass killing never fired a shot, they all had a hand in the killings. But the fact that they didn’t directly kill anyone helped assuage their consciences and carry on with their work. The men in the firing squad, on the other hand, only had the job of shooting the people who were stood up in front of them, thus giving them a sense of diminished responsibility as well (since they weren’t the ones selecting anyone to die).
At My Lai there wasn’t any formal separation of tasks. The troops doing the killing had a lot more contact with the people they were about to kill, and the authority driving them was far less personal or present.
As WO Hugh Thompson testified, one of the first incidents he witnessed was a group of American soldiers shooting women and children in a ditch outside the village. 2Lt William Calley was there, encouraging his men to shoot and periodically firing shots of his own. The scene Thompson described was chaotic and disorganized, with 2Lt Calley able to pause and answer questions even as his men continued to fire.
So this is where things really got under my skin.
Ron Haeberle was an official Army Photographer who joined the mission for its first day, when the bulk of the massacre took place. He had two cameras with him that day, one official camera shooting high resolution black and white film (see the earlier photo of the GI searching the hut), the other a personal model loaded with colour film for less official pictures (the above photo was taken by the latter).
In the above photo, these women were ordered out of their homes and gathered together as a group. Haeberle took this picture, then moved on to photograph other things in the village. Seconds later, he heard a volley of gunfire behind him and turned in time to see the women fall dead at the hands of the Americans who’d just shot them.
This picture captures a group of women just seconds before they’re about to be murdered.
Haeberle later testified at the trial of Lt William Calley, giving detailed background information for every picture that remained from the operation. When asked how he could simply move from location to location, taking pictures of the dead and soon-to-be-killed, he replied that he’d simply acted on reflex. Much as a soldier stunned by the ferocity of combat might fall back on training and simply fire their rifle on instinct, Haeberle had fallen back on his training and taken pictures.
People get defensive when you look at events like this in military history. At least with some people there’s a kind of sense that if you criticize the worst failures of the war, you’re criticizing the war itself (and by extension, the people who fought in it). There was an kind of Us vs Them notion that decided – since anti-war activists invoked My Lai as a reason why the war was wrong – the only response was to embrace Lt Calley and call the massacre justified.
I’m not able to speak for the people of the Vietnam era, I have seen the same ‘us vs them’ mentality show up in the modern CAF. As time distorts the lens of hindsight, I’ve seen a couple of people (at least) start re-writing the history of the Somalia Affair to try and rehabilitate the actions of the Airborne Regiment.
But burying the past ignores the fact that there is a great deal to learn from failure.
This character here is Prof Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist and public educator who tried to break down complex psychological research into layman’s terms for public consumption. He was kind of a weirdo, but he was also a person who asked some very hard, uncomfortable questions. The fact that the 1960s were a time when ethics boards weren’t really a thing in research meant that he could go in some terrifying directions.
His most famous experiment in 1963 is one which has come to bear his name The Milgram Experiment (the actual name was the Behavioural Study of Obedience but it has since taken on its author’s name). The idea was that two volunteers would be conducting a kind of memory test in which one volunteer would ask questions of the other, delivering increasingly powerful electric shocks as punishment when the answers were wrong. Chillingly, the controls which the first volunteer would use to administer the shocks were clearly labelled to indicate at which point the shocks would become harmful. The highest setting was indicated as lethal.
That was the cover story at least. In reality the second volunteer (the one answering the questions and getting shocked) was an actor who was in on the experiment, and was not actually getting electrocuted. He was working off a specific script in which he would deliberately fail to answer questions, and cry out in feigned pain as the first volunteer administered the shocks. After a certain point, he would cry out for help and beg to be released from the chair (he was in a separate room from the first volunteer, but could be heard clearly through a screen that separated them). After a further series of shocks he would go silent as though he had lost consciousness. The entire purpose of the experiment was to gauge the response of the first volunteer as the experiment continued and more electric shocks were expected to be delivered. .
You can go on Youtube and find footage of these volunteers during the experiment (yes, they recorded the entire thing). It’s horrifying stuff. Some of the subjects are reduced to tears as they hear the cries of the actor in the next room. They argue with the scientist (really just an important looking man with a clipboard who is supervising the experiment) against continuing. But when the ‘scientist’ insists that the experiment continue, over 60% of these random people went all the way up to lethal.
Obviously there’s huge problems with an experiment like this, and because of the grotesque ethical violations it can never be repeated with a more refined protocol, but the conclusions that Milgram drew are deeply unsettling:
Lacking anything more than some prompting by a random authority figure, about two thirds of the population could be convinced to murder an innocent stranger.
So what does all this seem to imply? Milgram’s experiment seems to suggest that, under the right level of authority and coercion, an ordinary person can be induced to commit murder. Browning’s study suggests that, by dividing up individual levels of responsibility, that murder can be scaled up to an industrial level to kill tens of thousands. So far so good. But My Lai seems to suggest something closer to the ground level. Something a lot more intimate and uncomfortable.
The American troops sweeping the Son My region definitely had the tacit approval of their Chain of Command to kill anyone they encountered, but when the time came these men carried out their killings without the depersonalized separation that Milgram and Browning suggest are necessary.
Like I said, I need to do a deeper dive on this subject. I’m probably going to tie what I find in with my closer examination of the Airborne Regiment and the Somalia Affair, but for now the implications here are really worrisome. When I read historical accounts of war and military actions, I tend to try and study it from a professional perspective. As a Sergeant, how would this look to me? How would I recognize a similar situation today? How could I act to make sure something like this didn’t happen on my watch?
Because that’s the ultimate goal. History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce. If you don’t learn the lesson the first time around, there’s no sympathy when you preside over the same failure a second time.
Neitzsche once said warned against becoming a monster even as you fight them. When you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss stares back. Looking at what we’ve discussed here, I can’t help but wonder if the truth is more sinister:
Maybe the abyss is staring back because it recognizes its own kind.
 The only reason I remember Lt Calley’s name was because one of my favourite authors – Dr Hunter S Thompson – referenced him frequently in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
 Reserve Police Battalion 101 proved to be an invaluable case study of the Holocaust, as the unit was formed in its entirety prior to the War with men from a single region (the city of Hamburg) and remained largely unchanged for the duration of its deployment to Poland. Due to its less-prestigious nature, many of its records were not destroyed as the War came to a close, making it possible to track its activities in detail over a multi-year period. Furthermore, a large number of its members survived the War to later stand trial for their actions, and many proved willing to talk in detail about their experiences. Over a hundred and twenty men provided extensive interviews to investigators, even though by doing so they risked convicting themselves at their trials.
 It gets even more unsettling when you get into the details of specific mass killings. Men were regularly rotated out of the firing squads as their nerves began to fray, giving those men a false sense of ‘listening to their conscience.’ Others were allowed to be selective in the killings. There’s a description of one man who outright refused to shoot children. So it was arranged for him to instead shoot the parent holding the child, while another Police man standing next to him shot the child as well.
 In the days that followed the massacre, Haeberle destroyed many of the pictures he’d taken, finding their contents too disturbing. This was long before he knew there would be a trial in which these pictures might be needed as evidence.
 The conservative estimate for Reserve Police Battalion 101 is over 40,000 Jews and other ‘undesirables’ shot in person, with upwards of a quarter million people whom they helped transport to extermination camps such as Treblinka. All of this by a five hundred man police Battalion made up of middle aged reservists who were not deemed suitable for front line service.