The My Lai Massacre

"Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam"

February 17, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


A memorial inscribed with the names of 504 people stands in the Vietnamese village called Son My. On March 16, 1968, these 504 people died sudden, violent deaths at the hands of "Charlie Company" of the U.S. Army's Americal Division. Almost all the dead were women, elderly, and children (including infants). Many of the women were raped, and the bodies of many of them were mutilated beyond recognition.

Dozens of people were forced to lie in ditches where they were blasted with automatic weapon fire. People were killed with bayonets, and by grenades thrown into their homes. Seven women who refused to undress were mowed down by the soldiers of Charlie Company. A young boy who already had one of his arms half blown off was shot in the head at point blank range. All the livestock in the hamlet of My Lai, part of Son My village, were blown away. The homes and grain stocks in the village were burned. The orgy of destruction continued for two days, including the hamlet of My Khe.

Author Nick Turse wrote of My Lai that, "Over four hours, members of Charlie Company methodically slaughtered more than five hundred unarmed victims, killing some in ones and twos, others in small groups, and collecting many more in a drainage ditch that would become an infamous killing ground. They faced no opposition. They even took a quiet break to eat lunch in the midst of the carnage. Along the way, they also raped women and young girls, mutilated the dead, systematically burned homes, and fouled the area's drinking water."

U.S. General William Westmoreland, the overall commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam, began what would be a yearlong cover-up by congratulating Charlie Company for doing an "outstanding job" in the slaughter at My Lai. Colin Powell, then a major charged with investigating some initial charges of extensive brutality by soldiers of the Americal Division against Vietnamese civilians, summed up in his report: "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal Division soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."

Finally, in November 1969, reporters brought the first news of the My Lai massacre to the world's attention, a year and a half after it had happened. The name My Lai became seared into the minds of millions of people across the world. My Lai was, and remains, synonymous with the atrocities—the towering war crimes—the U.S. committed upon the Vietnamese people.

If the truth about the U.S. was taught in history classes in this country, every high school student would know the name My Lai today.

A Military Doctrine of Mass Murder

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, a recent book by Turse, exposes in damning, horrifying detail that My Lai was, as Turse quotes a soldier, "an operation, not an aberration."

Turse unearthed documents that had been lying dormant in the U.S. National Archives in Washington D.C. for decades. The documents had been compiled by a secret military task force called the "Vietnam War Crimes Working Group," which had been set up, as Turse said in a radio interview, because the U.S. Army command "had a real stake in finding out which atrocity allegations might bubble up and then tamping them down whenever possible."

My Lai was a brutal concentration of the entire way the U.S. waged an unjust war upon the people of Vietnam. Mass murder of Vietnamese people was the policy, the military doctrine, of the war the U.S. waged in Vietnam.

Thousands of My Lais happened in Vietnam. Some on a larger scale, some on a smaller scale. They happened every day of the 14 years American troops were in Vietnam.

U.S. patrols like Charlie Company regularly killed everyone and everything within farming villages. U.S. forces routinely assaulted and killed Vietnamese people they came across—saying that if the Vietnamese ran it was because they were liberation fighters, and if they didn't run it was because they were standing ready to fight. Countless women and thousands of children were raped and forced into prostitution.

Rural and agricultural areas were regularly pounded with heavy artillery fire, from heavy cannons based on both land and sea. B-52 planes unleashed so-called "carpet bombing"—attacks which could cover every inch of an area two miles long and 5/8 of a mile deep with 500 pound bombs, and destroy every living thing within it. U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered what became known as the "Christmas bombing" on the North Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Haiphong, dropping over 20,000 tons of bombs in 12 days, and killing at least 1,600 civilians.

Helicopter gunships appeared over people working in rice fields, firing thousands of machine gun rounds per minute and large rockets at them. Napalm—jellied gasoline that burns at over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit—was routinely dropped by U.S. forces on Vietnamese people, burning their flesh to the bone and causing agonizing pain and almost certain death. U.S. forces dropped 373,000 tons of napalm on the people of Vietnam.

Over 20 million gallons of a highly toxic chemical defoliant called "Agent Orange" was sprayed on forests and farmlands to destroy the ability of Vietnamese peasants to sustain themselves and their families. The government of Vietnam estimated that 400,000 people were killed by Agent Orange. In August 2012, CNN reported that one million Vietnamese people continue to suffer from "disabilities and other health problems associated with Agent Orange." To this day, infants continue to be born with severe health problems because of the widespread presence of Agent Orange residue throughout Vietnam and the genetic damage it causes.

Cluster bombs—"slaughter, spring loaded into little cans"—were rained on people in rural Vietnam. A canister called a "pineapple" was dropped from planes and set to detonate at knee or waist level into 250,000 deadly steel balls; a B-52 bomber could drop 1,000 of these "pineapples." In the years 1964-1971, the U.S. ordered 37 million of these pineapple cluster bombs, and 285 million other types of cluster bombs to be used on the people of Vietnam and the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia.

In 1995, the government of Vietnam released figures saying it estimated four million civilians and one million soldiers were killed during the war. These figures have not been challenged.

Yet, in the face of decades of this multi-dimensional horrific onslaught that lasted over a decade, the U.S. lost the war.

The Army and the System

An army is an extension, a concentration, of the social system it is fighting for. The U.S. unleashed its military might in Vietnam because it feared the upsurge of revolutionary liberation struggles then surging across Southeast Asia, and it feared the influence of China, then a revolutionary socialist country under the leadership of Mao Tsetung, spreading throughout the region. The U.S. justified its utterly unjust and criminal war upon Vietnam with the "domino theory," claiming that countries throughout Asia would fall like dominos out of its imperialist grip if Vietnam were liberated.

U.S. soldiers were trained to look at Vietnamese people as less than human, and to treat all Vietnamese as the enemy. Westmoreland himself justified mass murder when he told a reporter "the Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful; life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is—is not important." High "body counts" of dead Vietnamese people were not just acceptable to the U.S. command, they were encouraged and expected. Any cruelty inflicted upon them was excused, praised, and rewarded with medals. The advanced technology and industrial might of the U.S. were used to develop ever more ghoulish ways of killing large numbers of people. The guiding military doctrine on the ground was "search and destroy."

Urgently Needed—Moral Clarity and the Conviction to Act

The U.S. likes to portray itself as the "good guys" of the world. Its military and its spy agencies are said to carry out the necessary "dirty work" to "keep the world free, and protect democracy."

During the Vietnam War, millions of people throughout the world—including millions in this country—saw through this lie. Powerful support for the liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people rocked through countries on every continent.

Basic questions of right and wrong, of having the morality and the conviction to look squarely at the world, and at the unjust war the U.S. was waging for the monstrous crime against humanity it was, infused millions. And millions acted on those convictions, and took responsibility for confronting imperialism and its monstrous war machinery, and changing the world.

People throughout U.S. society rejected thinking like Americans, and broke with the deadening outlooks that justify the military aggression of capitalism-imperialism, like "my country right or wrong" and "I was just following orders."

The world situation today is very different. Liberation struggles are not spreading across the globe. There are no socialist countries. But U.S. imperialism remains the predatory, murderous beast it has always been.

And the anti-imperialist outlook and spirit that characterized the movements of the Vietnam era is acutely needed today. The U.S. is routinely committing atrocities every bit as gruesome and criminal as the My Lai massacre.

U.S. drone strikes have killed thousands and spread terror to millions more. These drones are quite possibly pouring death on people in Yemen or Pakistan as you read this article. Millions of people have been killed and dislocated by the wars the U.S. has waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. has more than 1,000 military bases outside the U.S., according to an article in Mother Jones magazine. It has a network of torture chambers spanning the planet.

The time is long past for people in this country to snap out of acceptance of these crimes, this grotesquely lopsided world of extreme wealth and extreme poverty backed up by awesome military might, as "the way things are." It is long overdue for people to stop thinking that somehow what the U.S. military and its spy agencies do is "protect American lives" and "defend democracy against evil doers," when in fact they brutally enforce and protect a system of brutal, non-stop exploitation and oppression. It is time to stop buying into the endless barrage of movies, TV shows, and commercials that defend all this.

It is time to stop thinking like Americans, and to think about humanity. And time to act in accordance with this.

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