My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice

About the author
Martin Shaw is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) and the University of Sussex, and professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton. His books include War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern Society (Polity, 2003); The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005); and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here

Forty years ago, on 16 March 1968, United States armed forces committed their most notorious massacre. In the course of one morning in My Lai, a hamlet in Vietnam, approximately 504 civilians - men, women and children - were slaughtered by Charlie Company of the 1st battallion, 20th infantry. A number of the victims were raped before they were murdered; the thatch-roofed huts and red-brick homes of the village were burned; livestock was killed, wells were poisoned. It took over three days for survivors to bury the dead.
Martin Shaw is professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. A historical sociologist of war and global politics, his books include War and Genocide (Polity, 2003), The New Western Way of War (Polity, 2005), and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). He is editor of the global site

Also by Martin Shaw in openDemocracy:

"The myth of progressive war" (11 October 2006)

"Genocide: rethinking the concept" (1 February 2007)

"The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

"The genocide file: reply to Anthony Dworkin" (6 March 2007)

There was nothing unusual about Charlie Company compared to other US forces: it was "very average" according to authors Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim (see their Four Hours in My Lai [Penguin, 1992]). Most of the men, historians James Olson and Randy Roberts note, "were high school graduates between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two; there was a fairly even division between black and white soldiers; and the company had the look of a cross-section of American society" (see their My Lai: A Brief History with Documents [Bedford Books, 1998]).

But the company had experienced the realities of combat against their elusive Vietcong and North Vietnamese enemies, who often melted into the rural population. US soldiers could not easily distinguish between civilians and combatants, and violence against civilians was commonplace.

The massacre took place against the background of the comprehensive attack (the "Tet offensive") launched during the Vietnamese new year in January 1968, which had inflicted mounting casualties on American troops. Charlie Company had been ordered to attack the hamlet known as My Lai. Captain Ernest Medina told his men that 250-280 enemy were outside the village, neutral civilians would be away at market, and any remaining civilians would probably be Vietcong supporters. Medina's commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Barber, had ordered the village destroyed - the burning of houses and killing of livestock were fairly standard policy. The orders that Medina gave his men are still vague, but many certainly interpreted them to mean that no one was to be spared.

When Charlie Company entered the village, there was no sign of the enemy. The nervous soldiers shot everything that moved. The only people who died were civilians - later testimony singled out scores of horrors and brutalities: old people, babies and children shot, people mutilated, women raped. One officer, Lieutenant William Calley, was responsible for the most horrific incidents, ordering mass executions of civilians whom other soldiers had herded together. An army photographer, Ronald Haeberle, took pictures of the killings all morning long. Some soldiers, however, refused to fire; others only did so when directly ordered. A pilot, Hugh Thompson Jr, landed his helicopter between soldiers and a group of defenceless villagers to protect them, and later reported the atrocity to his superiors.

Yet there was what Olson and Roberts call a "coldly calculated" cover-up. Thompson's charges were dismissed right up the chain of command, and it was over a year later that a letter from another soldier to his congressman finally forced a full military investigation by Lieutenant-General William Peers, leading to charges and a massive scandal. Twenty-two officers were charged, but military tribunals acquitted everyone except Calley; sentenced to "life", he was free within three and a half years.

War crimes or degenerate war?

Even after the 1969 revelations, many Americans continued to excuse My Lai on the grounds of the pressure that the soldiers were under, or saw it as an isolated incident. However the massacre was the nadir of the extensive violence that United States troops inflicted on Vietnamese civilians. Napalming and torching villages to clear out the enemy, and shooting civilians suspected of being or harbouring Vietcong, were policy. Rape and abuse of prisoners were rife. The Peers investigation and Calley's conviction indicate that the US officially distinguished civilians from the enemy; but in practice the military regularly treated all Vietnamese as Vietcong suspects and condoned almost all violence against them.

Thus the massacre was treated as a matter of "war crimes" by individuals, but it was actually the outcome of a degenerate war - civilians were systematically targeted as part of the US's ultimately futile attempt to defeat communism in Vietnam. War is supposed to be a contest of two armed opponents. But states and insurgents alike mobilise society, so that the temptation to strike at the enemy's presumed civilian supporters is a built-in danger of all war. In some wars, like the Falklands-Malvinas war of 1982, civilians are left alone by both sides, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. And in modern total war, both interstate and guerrilla, the systematic mobilisation of civilian society has led in turn to systematic targeting of civilians. In counterinsurgency war, this targeting always involves murderous excesses, and even degenerates into genocide. My Lai was not genocide, but soldiers like Calley showed a genocidal mentality in their facile murder of so many innocent Vietnamese.

Also in openDemocracy on war, massacre and genocide:

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (11 October 2007)

Anthony Dworkin, "The law and genocide: Bosnia, Serbia, and justice" (2 March 2007)

Ed Vulliamy, "Srebrenica: ten years on" (5 July 2005)

After decades, indeed centuries, of degenerate wars, publics too easily ignore these atrocities. Vietnam was traumatic for most Americans despite rather than because of My Lai. The failure of US policy, and the 58,000 American soldiers' lives it cost, weighed much more heavily with US public opinion than the millions of Vietnamese deaths and the atrocities they involved. When the US started to fight wars differently in the 1990s, with even greater reliance on airpower, it was mainly to stop its own soldiers being killed, rather than to save civilians.

However the "new western way of war" of the post-cold-war era, promising a "cleaner" war precision-guided to exclusively military targets, also proclaimed a more caring attitude to civilians. But these claims rang hollow in Kosovo in the war of March-June 1999; there, not a single Nato soldier was killed while hundreds of Serb and Albanian civilians died because, from 15,000 feet, it was difficult for US pilots to discriminate between them and the Serbian army. By protecting its own forces, the US transferred risks to civilians. And in Afghanistan and Iraq, aerial targeting of the "enemy" in places where civilians congregate, together with troops on the ground shooting first and asking questions later, have caused tens of thousands of casualties.

The dam resists

Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has seen an American massacre on the scale of My Lai. But intimations of cruelty (Abu Ghraib), brutality (various rape cases) and murder of civilians have never been far away, and very serious accusations have been made against British as well as United States forces. Most notoriously, on 19 November 2005 in the town of Haditha, US marines killed twenty-four Iraqis, most if not all of them civilians, allegedly in retaliation for an attack on a US convoy which had killed a soldier.

These killings, the subject of Nick Broomfield's film Battle of Haditha, have led to military charges against the marines, though none has been accused of murder. As at My Lai, in the few cases in which US - and British - soldiers have been accused over atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, convictions have been few and far between. Plus ça change, c'est la même chose?