Was My Lai a war crime

Vietnam WarThe My Lai massacre and its aftermath

"I think the president should release Lieutenant William Calley," said one woman. One man agrees: "The President of the United States should promote Lieutenant Calley and give him the Medal of Honor on behalf of Congress."

Public protests in the US in early 1971 against a military trial. The officer William Calley was charged with being responsible for a war crime in Vietnam three years ago: the My Lai massacre in March 1968.

US officer William Calley (picture alliance / Everett Collection)

US President Johnson defended action in Vietnam

In 1964, in the middle of the Cold War, the United States embarked on a military adventure. They intervened in divided Vietnam to stop the presumed advance of the communist-ruled north on the west-oriented south. Air strikes by American bombers were followed a year later by combat troops, who set foot on Asian soil for the first time since the Korean War.

US President Lyndon B. Johnson justified the action: "Nowhere else is communist expansionism so aggressive. It crosses international borders and violates international law. It murders and kidnaps and ruthlessly tries to subjugate free people to its will. More than 10,000 Miles from the American coast, we defend the freedom and self-determination of all peoples. "

At the end of 1965, 100,000 US soldiers were stationed in South Vietnam, and in 1968 even more than half a million at times to fight the North Vietnamese army and the South Vietnamese Viet Cong allied with them.

The Hamburg historian Bernd Greiner, author of the book "War Without Fronts" about the USA in Vietnam: "Basically, symbolic capital had been invested and one fell into a trap from which one could not get out for political reasons. Whoever claims, Vietnam is vital for one's own society, it has to serve at some point. And that is exactly what happened. You will not be able to understand what happened there if you do not understand the politics, interests, specifications, sometimes the explicit orders from the military Disregards leadership. "

The orders had to be carried out by the common soldiers, the GIs. The US journalist Seymour Hersh spoke to many Vietnam fighters at the time. "They were told how bad and angry the communists were. They had sniper losses, fell into traps with poisoned sticks, terrible things. But if you don't meet an organized enemy and you lose people, friends, you inevitably let go of your anger in the villages and the civilian population. And then everything was allowed, including the killing of innocent people, but this was only considered a violation of rules and not a crime, "said Hersh.

US troops were unable to break Vietnamese resistance

Despite massive bombing and the use of state-of-the-art weapons, the resistance of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong could not be broken. A well-armed army could not achieve a decisive victory in this asymmetrical war against the guerrilla tactics of a largely invisible enemy. At the same time, protests in the USA against a war that was increasingly viewed as unsuccessful and pointless and which claimed more and more victims.

Against this background, the GIs of Companie Charlie, who were inexperienced in combat, arrived in Vietnam. US journalist Seymour Hersh: "There was never any direct engagement, they never saw the enemy. It was frustrating. And in the ten or twelve weeks from their arrival in early 1968 to March 16, they became increasingly brutal when they entered invaded a village. One evening the boys were told before their mission: Tomorrow you will meet the enemy, a regular North Vietnamese battalion, then you can pay them back. "

Officers gave GIs a free hand

A free ticket to reckless behavior. The officers gave the GIs a free hand - also with regard to the civilian population, according to historian Bernd Greiner:

"The chain of command that begins in the White House, in the Pentagon, all the way to the commanders at the middle level, the officers directly responsible for command and control This middle level, for example, in the run-up to the My Lai massacre, phased out their operational guidelines, which were designed to protect civilians The majority of these casualties - based on a policy of the body count as a criterion for success, means that the more Vietnamese killed, the higher the supposed war success. And in the end it made no difference who was included in these statistics or whether they were civilians were or were actually guerrillas. "

On March 16, 1968, the men of Charlie Company set out on a mission under the command of Lieutenant William Calley. Your destination: the village of My Lai.

"At three or four in the morning they jumped into their helicopters to kill and be killed. They came into the village, but there weren't any soldiers, the intelligence from the secret service was lousy, as is usually the case. They rounded up people, there were no exchanges of fire, there were just old men, women and children, "said Hersh.In the memorial in My Lai, the destruction of houses can still be traced today (picture alliance / Christoph Mohr)

"That was just: Shoot, shoot - at everything that moves"

Pham Thi Thuan was in her mid-30s when the GIs land in My Lai and jump out of their helicopters. "I woke up very early that day, made a fire and put on the water, then I heard the helicopters. But we weren't afraid. I thought they would search our houses, probably shoot our cattle and go again, as always."

But it's not the same as always. Led by Willliam Calley, an inexperienced 24-year-old lieutenant, the GIs still have the words of their superior Captain Ernest Medina in their ears, as some later recalled.

"Our Captain Medina told us: You go in there now, burn everything down and kill everyone: women, children, babies, cows, cats, everything. When we jumped out of the helicopters, we immediately started shooting."

"When the first civilian was shot, it was too late. Whoever fired that shot, then everything got out of control. That was just: Shoot, shoot - at everything that moves. Someone came out of a hut - bang, dead. It got completely out of hand. "

The GIs march through the village, going from hut to hut. Phan Tanh Cong was eleven years old at the time. “We were sitting in the kitchen when the Americans stormed in. There were six of us in my family. They yelled VC, VC, which means Viet Cong, and stood against the wall. Then they shot. I fell over with the others, but I did was not hit. The corpses of my parents and siblings lay over me. And the Americans probably thought I was dead too, that's why I survived. I still feel the horror today. My brothers and my sister - two, four, six years old - how can the Vietcong be? "

The GIs set fire to the houses, kill the cattle, poison the wells, rape women and drive the people who do not shoot them on the spot to several moats in the village and kill them there. A young boy who survived the massacre crawls out from under his mother's body and runs away. Lieutenant Calley snatches the gun from a subordinate who does not want to pull the trigger, runs after the boy and shoots him.

After the massacre, the US soldiers had lunch

After about four hours it is all over, My Lai is a slaughterhouse with 500 dead. US journalist Seymour Hersh: "After they stopped shooting, the soldiers ate lunch very close to the moat where the bodies were lying."

The losses on the American side: one wounded man who shot himself in the foot. Some details are reminiscent of the mass murders that German task forces carried out on the Jewish population behind the front in World War II after the attack on the Soviet Union. The American historian Christopher Browning has characterized the perpetrators as "completely normal men".

In My Lai, not all GIs participated in the massacre. No one was forced to kill innocent people, but none of Calley's men stepped in to stop the killing. The pilot Hugh Thompson and his crew saved some living Vietnamese. On his way back from a patrol flight, he saw bodies on the ground and landed the helicopter in the village - right in front of Calley's people.

"When I told my crew and the gunner to shoot them if they started firing at civilians again, I didn't know how I would have felt if that had really happened. But I didn't think twice that day," said Thompson.

Hugh C. Thompson (picture-alliance / dpa | UPI)

Hugh Thompson saved the lives of eleven Vietnamese women. He later became a hero in order to save the prestige of the US Army; a song announced his commitment. The My Lai massacre was a terrible war crime in its dimensions, but not an isolated incident, according to historian Bernd Greiner. He was one of the first to inspect the extensive sources on the Vietnam War in the National Archives in Washington.

Several 10,000 victims

Bernd Greiner: "There were dozens of other massacres, not necessarily on the scale of My Lai. But if we look at the number of victims, it adds up to several 10,000 according to a conservative estimate. You will never be able to determine exactly how Many victims were actually injured or killed as a result of these attacks. The truth literally lies in horror, because despite the extensive holdings that I was able to evaluate for my book, the records are very rudimentary. "

Officers from other companies learned of the massacre, but they did nothing. My Lai was considered a successful operation, the official army report only recorded the fallen Viet Cong fighters. Ronald Ridenhour, a GI and later journalist, learned of the war crime from an acquaintance weeks later.

Ridenhour: "He asked me: Did you hear what we did? And I said, no - and he: We went in there and killed everyone. We put them in a line and shot them, 300, 400, 500 people - I don't know how many. And I thought: You huge asshole. What are you pulling me into? My friend, when he told me about it, said: You know, it was like a Nazi thing. And that was exactly it . A Nazi thing. But we didn't go to Vietnam to be Nazis. Not the people I know, anyway. I don't want to be a Nazi. "

After returning to the United States in the spring of 1969, Ridenhour wrote letters to the President, the Secretary of Defense and the Army Chief. The military leadership launched an internal investigation, but tried to cover up the war crime. Then investigative journalist Seymour Hersh investigated the matter. "I'd been a freelance writer in Washington for a year and a half, watching the war and knowing what was going on. I tracked down Charlie Company kids and wrote it all down in five weeks."

Greiner about the investigative research: "Hersh followed up on this lead, put the puzzle together over months of detailed work. And then came up with a long article in the 'New York Times' in November 1969 that really came as a shock to the American public especially because Hersh chose a very provocative title for this article, namely: It was a Nazi-style crime. After that, the public's interest was aroused, and afterwards many GIs felt encouraged and strengthened in their resolve to join the Going public and reporting what they had seen firsthand. "

Went to Vietnam as a nice boy, returned as a murderer

For example, Paul Meadlo, a young farmer's son, one of the riflemen in Lieutenant Calley's squad, had himself interviewed on television. "I killed maybe 10, 15 men, women, children and babies. I did it because I thought I had to obey orders." - "Are you married?" - "Yes." - "Children?" - "Two."

Paul Meadlo was a psychological wreck after the war. His mother charged the military and the government with allegations that her son went to Vietnam as a nice boy and returned as a murderer. In response to public pressure, a military committee investigated and interviewed Calley's company commander, Captain Ernest Medina. "The orders that I passed on to my company were orders that I had received. They were to destroy the village, burn it down and kill the herds. I did not give orders for a mass execution or orders to admit women and children shoot. "

Ernest Medina was Calley's company commander (picture alliance / AP Photo)

Five acquittals, public support for Calley

Captain Medina got away with it. A military court acquitted him and four other officers. William Calley was less fortunate. Although he cited an orderly emergency and referred to the orders of his superiors, he was charged nonetheless. The court martial was supposed to take place at Fort Benning in late 1969, but was postponed several times and finally began in November 1970, accompanied by public protests.

"Mr. Nixon, our president, should pardon Lieutenant Calley."
"I think Calley deserves to be acquitted. He was just doing his duty."
"I think Lieutenant Calley should be given a medal, honors, and promotion."

In solidarity with the defendant, some states had the flags set at half mast in front of public buildings. A Louisiana congressman said the Vietnamese got what they deserved. Several governors, including the future President Jimmy Carter, called for expressions of sympathy for Calley.

The prosecutor in the Military Tribunal, Aubrey Daniel stated, "This country wanted to end the war. And they didn't want to believe that this massacre really happened. And if it did, it was the fault of the whole people, the whole thing Army - and not Lieutenant Calley's fault. "

Life imprisonment, later pardon by Nixon

For the trial, a record was released that praised Lieutenant Calley and sold millions of copies within a few days. But all expressions of solidarity were in vain. On March 29, 1971, the Military Tribunal convicted William Calley of the willful homicide of 22 civilians and attempted murder of a two-year-old child. The sentence was passed two days later: life imprisonment. Calley explained that he and his comrades didn't really know what they were fighting for: "And the frustration is, you have no idea, why you're doing, what you're doing."

Calley served only three days of his sentence in prison, then President Richard Nixon personally ordered him to be released and placed under house arrest. Prosecutor Aubrey Daniel was outraged and wrote to Nixon that the President's intervention would turn a mass murderer into a national hero. Nonetheless, Nixon finally pardoned Calley in 1974.

Memorial commemorates the My Lai massacre (picture alliance / dpa - Bennett Murray)

Lieutenant Calley apologizes 40 years later

Three decades after the My Lai massacre, helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson and his gunner Lawrence Colburn were awarded the "soldier’s medal" for their courageous efforts. Colburn said after receiving the award: "It is my sincere wish that we all never forget the tragedy and brutality of the war. I would like to quote General Douglas McArthur: 'The soldier, friend or foe, is obliged to protect the weak and To care for the defenseless. This is his foremost task. '"

About 20 years earlier, "Apocalypse Now" was released, an award-winning anti-war film by director Francis Ford Coppola, which shows the brutality and madness of the Vietnam War. Lieutenant William Calley did not apologize for the crime until four decades after the My Lai massacre. Not a day goes by on which he does not regret what happened then.