The slaughter of more than 400 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in My Lai and My Khe on March 16, 1968, is one of the most horrific incidents in American military history. It occurred in the aftermath of the surprising Tet offensive, when the North Vietnamese launched a violent and successful attack on major towns and cities of South Vietnam.
Two commanders for a retaliation move — Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker and 2nd Lieutenant William Calley — met no resistance in Son Mỹ, a patchwork of hamlets in Quang which included My Lai. American soldiers entered My Lai and with guns blazing murdered old men, women, and children; they raped women, burned houses, poisoned wells, and destroyed livestock. The orgy of killing and destruction lasted four hours.
How could such a massacre of unarmed Vietnamese take place? Anyone who has seen Stanley Kubrick’s riveting film Full Metal Jacket will recall the repulsive and hateful programming given by a gung-ho drill sergeant to a group of Marine recruits, with intent to transform them into a savage band of fighting men. His message is clear: Thinking is a vice and killing is a virtue. Soldiers of that era report having received the same message in their training.
After a wide-ranging cover-up of the incident, Lt. William Calley was court-martialed for his role in the massacre. Although convicted of ordering the killings, he was pardoned by President Richard Nixon.
To Name This Day . . .
In her book Deep Violence, winner of a 2018 S&P Most Spiritually Literate Books award, Joanna Bourke cites the following statistic: “In the twentieth century, between forty-three and fifty-four million non-combatants were killed because of war.” This staggering figure bears witness to the indiscriminate loss of life in wars all over the world. It is certainly not a new phenomenon, and it continues to this day.
In his 2005 book War and the Soul, Edward Tick examines the effects of war on soliders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He notes, “We are trapped in a terrible tension between the soul’s craving for realization of the warrior archetype and the realities of a warfare that devastates the soul who seeks it.” Read this excerpt as a starting point for your ethical considerations of the slaughter of innocents in war.