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49 years ago today, a tragedy happened in a place call My Lai

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March 16, 1968 | U.S. Soldiers Massacre Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai

By The Learning Network, NYTime.com

On March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War, United States troops under the command of Lt. William L. Calley Jr. carried out a massacre of about 500 unarmed men, women and children in the village of My Lai.

The C Company, also known as the “Charlie Company,” of the 11th Brigade, Americal Division, was ordered to My Lai to eliminate the Vietcong’s 48th Battalion. On the night of March 15, Capt. Ernest Medina, the commander of Charlie Company, told his men that all civilians would leave the village by 7:00 the following morning, leaving only Vietcong soldiers and sympathizers. He ordered them to burn down the village, poison wells and wipe out the enemy.

Ronald Haeberle/U.S. ArmyWomen and children were victims of the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968.

Ronald Haeberle/U.S. ArmyWomen and children were victims of the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968.

The next day, at 8 a.m., after an aerial assault, Lieutenant Calley’s 1st Platoon of Charlie Company led the attack on My Lai. Expecting to encounter Vietcong soldiers, the platoon entered the village firing. Instead, they found mostly women and children who denied that there were Vietcong soldiers in the area. The American soldiers herded the villagers into groups and began burning the village.

The New York Times provided an account of the massacre from a survivor in its Nov. 17, 1969, edition: “The three death sites were about 200 yards apart. When the houses had been cleared, the troops dynamited those made of brick and set fire to the wooden structures. They did not speak to the villagers and were not accompanied by an interpreter who could have explained their actions. Then the Vietnamese were gunned down where they stood. About 20 soldiers performed the executions at each of the three places, using their individual weapons, presumably M-16 rifles.”

 

Lieutenant Calley gave explicit orders to kill and participated in the execution of unarmed villagers standing in groups and lying in ditches. There were also accounts of soldiers mutilating bodies and raping young women. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson watched the massacre from his helicopter. Realizing that civilians were being killed, he landed his helicopter near one of the ditches and rescued some survivors.

The Army initially portrayed the events as My Lai as a military victory with a small number of civilian casualties. A year later, Ronald Ridenhour, a former soldier who had heard about the massacre from other soldiers, sent letters to leaders in Washington alerting them to the events. The Army opened an investigation and in September 1969 filed charges against Lieutenant Calley.

Two months later, in November 1969, the American public learned of the My Lai massacre as the journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story. Several publications ran in-depth reports and published photographs taken by the Army photographer Ronald Haeberle. The My Lai massacre intensified antiwar sentiment and raised questions about the quality of men being drafted into the military.

The Army charged 25 officers, including Lieutenant Calley and Captain Medina, for the massacre and its cover-up, though most would not reach court-martial. Lieutenant Calley, charged with premeditated murder, was the only man to be found guilty; he was initially given a life sentence, but after a public outcry he would serve just three and a half years of house arrest.


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In 2004, 35 years after he broke the My Lai story, Seymour Hersh reported on the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by United States soldiers at Abu Ghraib, a prison compound west of Baghdad. The story sparked comparisons with My Lai and reignited the discussion on punitive justice for United States military atrocities committed abroad.

In November 2005, a group of American Marines killed 24 unarmed civilians, including women, children and a wheelchair-bound man, in Haditha, Iraq. As with My Lai, the military at first claimed that enemy insurgents had been killed in the attack before media reports revealed that only civilians had been targeted.

Eight Marines were charged under United States military law, but charges were eventually dropped for all but one, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who was able to avoid jail time with a January 2012 plea deal.

In a January 2012 New York Times article. Charlie Savage and Elisabeth Bumiller reported that the case illustrated the difficulty in investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by military members, who are much more likely to be acquitted on murder and manslaughter charges than civilians charged with those crimes. Soldiers can “argue that they feared they were still under attack and shot in self-defense,” Mr. Savage and Ms. Bumiller wrote, and the “military and its justice system have repeatedly shown an unwillingness to second-guess the decisions made by fighters who said they believed they were in danger.”

In late 2011, The Times uncovered a classified interview transcripts of United States troops discussing the Haditha massacre, which reveal the scope of civilian killings in Iraq. Marines said that they saw nothing “remarkable” about the massacre and one described it as “a cost of doing business.” Michael S. Schmidt of The Times wrote: “Troops, traumatized by the rising violence and feeling constantly under siege, grew increasingly twitchy, killing more and more civilians in accidental encounters. Others became so desensitized and inured to the killing that they fired on Iraqi civilians deliberately while their fellow soldiers snapped pictures.”

This week, a United States Army sergeant has been accused of methodically killing at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children, in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan. Officials say he had been drinking alcohol — a violation of military rules in combat zones — and suffering from the stress related to his fourth combat tour.

What is your reaction when you hear of incidents in which United States troops explicitly target civilians? In your opinion, should soldiers be punished for their actions in the same way that civilians would be? Should wartime atrocities be viewed as unique events or as part of a bigger picture of the dehumanization of war and “history repeating itself”? Why?