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The My Lai massacre

Was it truly a war crime?

By Marc HooverPublished 3 years ago 3 min read
South Vietnamese villagers moments before they are killed (March 16, 1968)

As Americans, many of us consider ourselves defenders of truth, honor and justice. We even become outraged when we learn about atrocities that occur in other countries. For instance, we think crimes like slavery, war crimes and child trafficking are crimes committed by non-Americans.

Unfortunately, in March 1968, American soldiers committed one of the worst war crimes in Vietnam against defenseless women, children and senior citizens. The crime was covered up until exposed by an American soldier named Ronald Ridenhour. He was a soldier in the 11th Brigade, but wasn’t at My Lai. But he had heard about the massacre. Another soldier, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, who ended the incident confirmed Ridenhour’s story. Today, it’s a horror story barely remembered by anyone.

War is Hell

On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company, part of the American 11th Infantry Brigade received intelligence that Viet Cong guerillas had infiltrated the area of Son My. Charlie Company had lost 28 fellow troops to death or injury and were down to 100 troops. The angry soldiers suffered from low morale. They were ticking time bombs ready to unleash their anger on enemy forces.

Charlie Company approached My Lai, a hamlet of Son My. The men expected to meet Vietnamese opposition. Instead, the soldiers found My Lai occupied by unarmed Vietnamese civilians eating their morning rice. The villagers had no weapons. Under orders of Lieutenant William Calley, Charlie Company rounded up all the villagers and began executing them. A witness said Calley, armed with a machine gun, mowed down women and children without any remorse.

During the carnage, soldiers set huts on fire, raped women, killed livestock and anyone who tried to escape. Calley had ordered every living person to be killed.

The civilian death toll would be 504. The victims included 182 women (17 pregnant) and 173 children (56 infants). No Americans died or were wounded. The massacre only ended when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot, landed his helicopter between American soldiers and fleeing villagers. Thompson threatened to shoot any fellow soldiers if they continued trying to kill villagers.

Did Charlie Company commit a war crime?

Charlie Company had committed a war crime. This was murder. Foreseeing the controversy, Calley’s superiors covered up the crime. The killings would have stayed buried with the dead until Ronald Ridenhour began a personal campaign to bring the incident to light.

Ridenhour wrote letters to the Pentagon, President Nixon and members of congress about the incident. After receiving no response, he gave an interview to the media. The story broke in November 1969.

An investigation finally began. In March 1970, several officers were investigated for the crime and cover-up. After its completion, only Lieutenant Calley faced punishment. He received sympathy from the public and was considered a scapegoat as he claimed he only followed orders. He received a life sentence in 1971. Eventually, his sentence was reduced to ten years.

He was paroled in 1974.

Vietnam was an unconventional war. It’s called a police action because American never declared war against Vietnam. But if you take a handful of kids who haven’t experienced life, give them weapons and send them to a strange country they cannot even find on a map, something will definitely go wrong.

In 1998, Hugh Thompson returned to My Lai to meet survivors. He received the Soldier’s Medal and the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award for his bravery. He was one of a few men who refused to participate in the killings and rescued many villagers. Thompson passed away on January 6, 2006.

In 1968, a group of men following orders executed over 500 unarmed civilians. As a military veteran, I realize the necessity of following orders. Soldiers are trained to receive orders and carry them out without question. But when following orders compromises one’s principles, the best solution may lose its color and appear to a closer shade of gray.


About the Creator

Marc Hoover

Marc Hoover is a Hooper award winning columnist for the Clermont Sun newspaper in Ohio. Contact him at or through Facebook: Marc also has a podcast called Catch my Killer.

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