“Just Mow ‘Em Down”

Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the very few well-known atrocities committed by U.S. forces in Vietnam. Compare mainstream coverage of this anniversary with the following …

Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, Four Hours in My Lai  (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).
Seymour Hersh, My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath (New York: Random House, 1970).

On March 16, 1968, over a hundred men of the Army’s Charlie Company of the Americal Division entered the village of Mỹ Lai and murdered over five hundred people, overwhelmingly women, children, and old men.  A military cover-up of the mass murder ensued. Lieutenant William “Rusty” Calley was the only member of the company or of the higher command who received any punishment, initially, a sentence of life imprisonment with hard labor, which became three and a half years under house arrest, after which he was released. Some in the Army were relieved as the Mỹ Lai massacre was eventually termed a “tragedy,” later to be viewed as an “incident.”


A Pentagon official wrote, “The way to eradicate the Viet Cong is to destroy all the village structures, defoliate all the jungles, and cover the entire surface of Vietnam with asphalt.”

An American soldier asked, “How can you tell the enemy? They all look the same.”

An officer said, “We are at war with ten year-old children. It may not be humanitarian, but that’s what it’s like.”

A private said to a journalist, “No one has any feeling for the Vietnamese. They’re lost. The trouble is, no one sees the Vietnamese as people. They’re not people. Therefore it doesn’t matter what you do to them.”

A soldier explained, “It was like going from one step to another, worse one. First, you’d stop the people, question them, and let them go. Second, you’d stop the people, beat up an old man, and let them go. Third, you’d stop the people, beat up an old man, and then shoot him. Fourth, you go in and wipe out a village.”

The Secretary of Defense said, “The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”

A soldier said, “You didn’t trust anybody. Deep down inside, you had mixed emotions. You knew there was an enemy out there—but you couldn’t pinpoint who exactly was the enemy. And I would say that in the end, anybody that was still in that country was the enemy.”

The Marines circulated a joke in Quảng Ngãi: “The loyal Vietnamese should all be taken and put out to sea in a raft. Everybody left in the country should then be killed, and the nation paved over with concrete, like a parking lot. Then the raft should be sunk.”

An American doctor said, “Prisoners told me of being tortured by electricity with wires attached to ears, nipples, genitalia; by being forced to drink concoctions containing powdered lime; and by being tied up and suspended by ropes often upside down from the rafters for hours.”

A soldier in Charlie Company said, “I found myself doing the same things that had been going on all along. I found myself caught up in it. We cut his beard off him—this was an insult. A papa san with a beard is considered as the wise man, and to off their beard was a real sign of disrespect to them…. You found yourself punching them around, beating them up trying to get them to talk. I never did hit anyone with my rifle. I have taken a knife to them…. I never tortured anyone to death. I think I probably saw people tortured to death.”

A soldier in Charlie Company said, “Rape? Oh, that happened every day.”

A soldier said to a journalist newly arrived in Quảng Ngãi, “You wouldn’t believe the things that go on in this war…You wouldn’t believe it, so I’m not going to tell you. No one’s ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over, and we’ve all gone home, no one is ever going to know.”


The night before the mission in Mỹ Lai, a soldier asked after hearing the orders, “Do we kill women and children?”

A soldier said, “The men in my squad talked about this among ourselves that night because the order to ‘kill everything in the village’ was so unusual. We all agreed that Captain Medina meant for us to kill every man, woman, and child in the village.”

A soldier said, “Do you realize what it was like killing five hundred  people in a matter of four or five hours. It’s just like the gas chambers—what Hitler did. You line up fifty people, women, old men, children, and just mow ‘em down. And that’s the way it was—from twenty-five to fifty to one hundreds. Just killed. We rounded ‘em up, me and a couple of guys, just put the M-16 on automatic, and just mowed ‘em down.”

An Army photographer said, “I didn’t notice a GI kneeling down beside me with his M-16 rifle pointed at the child. Then I suddenly heard the crack and through the viewfinder I saw this child flip over the top of the pile of bodies. The GI stood up and just walked away. No remorse. Nothing. The other soldiers had a cold reaction—they were staring off into space like it was an everyday thing, they felt they had to do it and they did it. That was their job. It was weird, just a shrug of the shoulder. No emotional reaction.”

A soldier in Charlie Company said, “The boys enjoyed it. When someone laughs and jokes about what they’re doing, they have to be enjoying it.”

Another member of Charlie Company said, “If I had been told to do so, like Meadlo was ordered by Lt. Calley, I would have refused because I know that it is a war crime. Even if General Westmoreland would have ordered me to shoot women and children I would have refused.”

The photographer said, “I feel sometimes that the camera did take over during the operation. I put it up to my eye, took a shot, put it down again. Nothing was composed. Nothing was prethought, just the normal reaction of a photographer. I was part of it, everyone who was there was part of it, and that includes the General and the Colonel flying above in their helicopters. They’re all part of it. We all were. Just one big group.”

A local Vietnamese man said about people in the vicinity of Mỹ Lai, “After the shooting, all the villagers became Communists.”


An Army investigator said, “If the Pinkville [Mỹ Lai] incident was true, it was cold-blooded murder. I hoped to God it was false, but if it wasn’t I wanted the bastards exposed for what they’d done.”

The Army Chief of Staff said, “We cannot permit our ethical standards and humane principles to be reduced to those of the enemy for it is his very brutality and lack of respect for the dignity of the individual that we most abhor.”

A soldier who heard about the massacre said, “I wanted to get those people. I wanted to reveal what they did. My God, when I first came home, I would tell me friends about this and cry—literally cry. As far as I was concerned, it was a reflection on me, on every American, on the ideals that we supposedly represent. It completed castrated the whole picture of America.”

A girlfriend of Lt. Calley said, “I know deep down he wouldn’t hurt anyone. Just look at the way he takes care of his pets and how gentle he is.”

A soldier said, “The people back in the world don’t understand this war. We are here to kill dinks. How can they convict Calley for killing dinks? That’s our job.”

A Christian minister said about Lt. Calley, “There was a crucifixion 2,000 years ago of a man named Jesus Christ. I don’t think we need another crucifixion of a man named Rusty Calley.”

A fellow officer at Fort Benning said of Lt. Calley, “He’s a good soldier. He followed orders.”

A journalist said, “The massacre calls for self-examination and for action, but if we deny the call and try to go on as before, as though nothing had happened, our knowledge, which can never leave us once we have acquired it, will bring about an unnoticed but crucial alteration in us, numbing our most precious faculties and withering our souls. For if we learn to accept this, there is nothing we will not accept.”

An American mother said, “So what if a few Vietnamese got shot? They’ve killed 40,000 of our boys over there.”

Another American mother whose son was at Mỹ Lai said about the Army, “I gave them a good boy, and they made him a murderer.”

A medic from Charlie Company who was not present at Mỹ Lai said, “To me, it was just another day in Vietnam. Something like this is always happening. If you really wanted to find stories, you could find fifteen or twenty that could make this look like a nursery rhyme.”

Pham Thi Trinh, here age 27; as a ten-year-old in 1968, she was one of the few survivors of the massacre by Charlie Company.


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