Today is the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. It certainly wasn’t the first military massacre of civilians in US history, nor even the worst. Monstrosities on a colossal scale are the very nature of colonialism & war which characterize the last 500 years of human history, including the extermination of indigenous peoples in the Americas. What distinguished My Lai & made it a political turning point was the Vietnamese struggle against US military might & massive international opposition to US intervention. The Vietnamese anti-colonial struggle succeeded where others failed because it had a regular army combined with irregular forces experienced by 40 years of fighting French colonialism & because support for their struggle actively involved millions of people in every country.
For a generation raised on the glorification of colonialism & war, descriptions of what happened at My Lai were a rude awakening to reality. The antiwar movement, along with the civil rights movement, emerged in the 1960s & broke the chokehold of the McCarthy witch-hunt which suppressed all political dissent in the US. The combination of antiwar & civil rights was a double-whammy to the colonial mentality. The US army in Vietnam was a conscription army with thousands of mostly young men forced to deploy against their wills. It became an antiwar army & Black & Latino soldiers played no small part in making it so.
When My Lai happened in 1968, it took over a year for three soldiers who tried to expose the massacre to be heard. Seymour Hersh, then a reporter for the NY Times, is attributed with breaking the story of My Lai & toured campuses speaking about it. But it was in fact helicopter crewmen Hugh Thompson, Glenn Andreotta, & Lawrence Colburn who intervened to save villagers, to expose the crime, & to get the soldiers involved prosecuted. Hersh gained fame while Thompson, Andreotta, & Colburn were vilified as traitors for nearly three decades. It might be added that in his campus lectures, antiwar activists had to rebuke Hersh for blaming My Lai solely on the psychological perversities of the lieutenant in charge & not criticizing the US government for deploying troops in Vietnam.
My Lai remains an issue because there has never been justice for the over 500 unarmed Vietnamese men, women, & children who were raped, mutilated, tortured, & murdered. It didn’t just change consciousness about the character of war but it changed the way the US conducts war. Which is why the Pentagon works tirelessly for security agreements in Afghanistan & Iraq to give impunity to US soldiers for war & human rights crimes.
Photo is bodies of mostly women & children after My Lai massacre.
(Photo taken by US Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on March 16 1968)