This Day in History 1968: My Lai Massacre

I don’t think I have to explain what this post is about. Everyone knows about My Lai in 1968, right?

So here’s just an interesting take on things from Thompson — the American helicopter pilot credited with saving civilian lives.

“One of the ladies that we had helped out that day came up to me and asked, ‘Why didn’t the people who committed these acts come back with you?’ And I was just devastated. And then she finished her sentence: she said, ‘So we could forgive them.'” Thompson said he himself could never forgive the Americans who killed those civilians. “I’m not man enough to do that,” he said.

I also want to reflect on a post I wrote a while ago about Operation Dingo in Mozambique, November 1977, which had many of the same chilling hallmarks of the My Lai Massacre (and was based on similar “kill rate” tactics) except nobody ever talks about it.

American perpetrators of the My Lai massacre, as revealed in their memoirs, were using phrases in 1968 almost identical to those by the Rhodesian white separatist forces in Mozambique a decade later.

Calley later described his training as intense and lacking in nuance. “Nobody said, ‘Now, there will be innocent civilians there,’…”and I told myself, I’ll act as if I’m never secure. As if everyone in Vietnam would do me in. As if everyone’s bad.” […] Calley and other members of Charlie Company set out for My Lai by helicopter. They started shooting even before the helicopters had landed. “Everyone moved into My Lai firing automatic,” Calley later wrote. “And went rapidly, and the GIs shot people rapidly. Or grenaded them. Or just bayoneted them: to stab, to throw someone aside, to go on.”

Thompson always should remain the focus of this sad story, despite refusing to be called a hero, because he took such huge risks to stand up to Calley and stop the massacre of innocent civilians.

Thompson continued to fly observation missions in Vietnam, despite suspicions he’d been assigned missions purposely to get him killed. He was hit by enemy fire a total of eight times and in a final crash after his helicopter was brought down by enemy machine-gun fire, he broke his back. In 1998, the Army did an about-face. Thompson and his crew were awarded the Soldier’s Medal in a ceremony near the Vietnam Memorial.

On a similar note, Lt Gen William Peers investigated the My Lai massacre under mixed orders from the US Army Chief of Staff.

Peers was a decorated veteran of World War II, a founder of the Green Berets and special forces who conducted counterintelligence and covert operations during the Korean War, and a former Vietnam corps commander. He was chosen to head the investigation because he was not a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. […] “You do this for me, and I’ll make sure you get that fourth star,” Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland told him, according to Peers’ daughter, Chris Neely. Instead, Peers next assignment was as a deputy commander in Korea — serving under a four-star the Army brought out of retirement. “He made the Army look bad. He got punished and the guys that murdered people didn’t,” Neely said. “He was appalled by that.”

Peers might have been appalled by that, yet the enticement of that fourth star for the report allegedly corrupted his independence on Westmoreland’s role.

But what the press and public have never understood is that the Peers Commission was involved in an even bigger cover-up: It exonerated the commander of US forces in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, from any responsibility for My Lai, despite the fact that the policy Westmoreland conveyed to his subordinates was to treat civilians who remained in long-term Vietnamese Communist, or Viet Cong (VC), base areas like My Lai as enemy combatants. […] The directive actually allowed the creation of free-fire zones in hamlets and villages under long-term Viet Cong control such as My Lai, in which the civilian population would have no protection whatsoever. Although the official MACV directive did not explicitly state that civilians living in “specified strike zones” were not to be given any protection, it clearly implied that this was indeed the policy.

“Free-fire zones” is a crucial phrase here. While it starkly describes America intentionally killing innocent civilians in the Vietnam War, it also sets the stage for veterans shifting into Mozambique ten years later to assist with “Fire Force” tactics doing much of the same.

However in Mozambique there was no Peers, and definitely no Thompson. Their significance today is that while the My Lai massacre has documentation such that historians don’t dither about it (or dare I say Sand Creek, the My Lai massacre of 1864), white insecurity extremist groups instead invoke stories of similar tactics and massacres in Mozambique to bypass censorship.

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