On the eve of the attack, U.S. military command advised Charlie Company that any genuine civilians at My Lai would have left their homes to go to market by 7 a.m. the following day. They were told they could assume that all who remained behind were either Viet Cong or active Viet Cong sympathizers. They were instructed to destroy the village. At the briefing, Captain Ernest Medina was asked whether the order included the killing of women and children; those present at the briefing later gave different accounts of Medina's response.
The soldiers found no insurgents in the village on the morning of 16 March 1968. It is rumoured by Vietnamese that the soldiers asked the villagers where the Viet Cong were and that the villagers either didn't know or refused to reveal their location. Many suspected there were Viet Cong in the village, hiding underground in the homes of their elderly parents or their wives. Nevertheless, the American soldiers, one platoon which was led by Lt William Calley, killed hundreds of civilians — primarily old men, women, children and babies. Dozens were herded into a ditch and executed with automatic firearms. At one stage, Calley expressed his intent to throw hand grenades into a trench filled with villagers.
And from a BBC article on the massacre:
Elsewhere in the village, other atrocities were in progress. Women were gang raped; Vietnamese who had bowed to greet the Americans were beaten with fists and tortured, clubbed with rifle butts and stabbed with bayonets. Some victims were mutilated with the signature "C Company" carved into the chest. By late morning word had got back to higher authorities and a cease-fire was ordered. My Lai was in a state of carnage. Bodies were strewn through the village. The death toll totalled 504. Only one American was injured - a GI who had shot himself in the foot while clearing his pistol.
So like members of the Einsatzgruppen, American soldiers showed themselves just as capable of killing innocent women and children - and just as capable of inflicting as much hurt and torture as the Nazis. Social psychologist, Stanley Milgram was as moved by the My Lai massacre as he had been by the atrocities of WW2. From an article on Milgram's work:
Milgram argued that the following factors could help explain the situation at My Lai. Military training sets apart soldiers from all others to prevent competition with authorities outside the military. The purpose of basic training is to break down the concepts of individuals and expand on the group or unit. During this time the soldiers spend a lot of time being disciplined. Following orders is the basis for the soldiers' actions. Cultural differences set the two sides (U.S. and North Vietnam) further apart and race was used to depersonalize the actions of war. The soldiers involved with this massacre felt that they were just following orders and it was their duty to follow orders from their "authority" figure.
Milgram has noted reoccurring themes (as found in Obedience to Authority) in these specific incidents as well as others. People who are doing a job as instructed by an administrative figure are following the instructions of that administrative outlook and not the outlook of a moral code. The feelings of duty and personal emotion are clearly separated. Responsibility shifts in the mind of the subordinate from himself/herself to the authority figure. There is a well defined purpose behind the actions or goals of the authority, and the subordinate is depended upon to help and meet those goals. Milgram points out, "The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or -more specifically-the kind of character produced in American society, cannot be counted on to insulate the citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority."
Blindly following authority figures can be a recipe for disaster and history shows us that events like the My Lai massacre are by no means unique, but are a consequence of human psychology being manipulated to nefarious ends - either intentionally or unintentionally by authority. Obedience can be dangerous, for you and others - you have been warned!Go Top