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Army captain charged with My Lai war crimes

Army captain charged with My Lai war crimes


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The U.S. Ernest Medina and four other soldiers of committing crimes at My Lai in March 1968. The charges ranged from premeditated murder to rape and the “maiming” of a suspect under interrogation. Medina was the company commander of Lt. William Calley and other soldiers charged with murder and numerous crimes at My Lai 4 in Song My village.

The My Lai massacre became the most publicized war atrocity committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam. Allegedly, a platoon had slaughtered between 200 and 500 unarmed villagers at My Lai 4, a cluster of hamlets in the coastal lowlands of I Corps Tactical Zone. This was a heavily mined region where Viet Cong guerrillas were firmly entrenched and numerous members of the participating platoon had been killed or maimed during the preceding month.

The company had been conducting a search-and-destroy mission. In search of the 48th Viet Cong (VC) Local Force Battalion, the unit entered My Lai but found only women, children, and old men. Frustrated by unanswered losses due to snipers and mines, the soldiers took out their anger on the villagers. During the attack, several old men were bayoneted, some women and children praying outside the local temple were shot in the back of the head, and at least one girl was raped before being killed. Many villagers were systematically rounded up and led to a nearby ditch where they were executed.

Reportedly, the killing was only stopped when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, an aero-scout helicopter pilot, landed his helicopter between the Americans and the fleeing South Vietnamese, confronting the soldiers and blocking them from further action against the villagers. The incident was subsequently covered up, but eventually came to light a year later. An Army board of inquiry headed by Lt. Gen. William Peers investigated the massacre and produced a list of 30 people who knew of the atrocity. Only 14, including Calley and Medina, were eventually charged with crimes.

All eventually had their charges dismissed or were acquitted by courts-martial except Calley, who was found guilty of murdering 22 civilians. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but his sentence was reduced to 20 years by the Court of Military Appeals and further reduced later to 10 years by the Secretary of the Army. Proclaimed by much of the public as a “scapegoat,” Calley was paroled in 1974 after having served about three years.

READ MORE: How the Army’s Cover-Up Made the My Lai Massacre Even Worse


Command responsibility

Command responsibility, sometimes referred to as the Yamashita standard or the Medina standard, and also known as superior responsibility, is the legal doctrine of hierarchical accountability for war crimes. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

The term may also be used more broadly to refer to the duty to supervise subordinates, and liability for the failure to do so, both in government, military law, and with regard to corporations and trusts.

The doctrine of "command responsibility" was established by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, partly based on the American Lieber code, a war manual for the Union forces signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and was applied for the first time by the German Supreme Court at the Leipzig War Crimes Trials after World War I, in the 1921 trial of Emil Müller. [6] [7] [8]

The United States incorporated the two Hague Conventions on "command responsibility" into federal law through the precedent set by the United States Supreme Court (called the "Yamashita standard") in the case of Imperial Japanese Army General Tomoyuki Yamashita. He was prosecuted in 1945 for atrocities committed by troops under his command in the Philippines, in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Yamashita was charged with "unlawfully disregarding and failing to discharge his duty as a commander to control the acts of members of his command by permitting them to commit war crimes." [9] [10]

Furthermore, the so-called "Medina standard" clarified the U.S. law to clearly also encompass U.S. officers, so that those as well as foreign officers such as General Yamashita can be prosecuted in the United States. The "Medina standard" is based upon the 1971 prosecution of U.S. Army Captain Ernest Medina in connection with the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. [11] It holds that a U.S. commanding officer, being aware of a human rights violation or a war crime, will be held criminally liable if he does not take action. However, Medina was acquitted of all charges. [9] [12] [13]


March 17, 1970: 14 US Army Officers Charged in Cover Up of My Lai Massacre

On March 17, 1970, the US Army charged 14 officers with suppressing information about the My Lai Massacre that took place in South Vietnam in 1968, a horrible atrocity in which between 347 and 504 Vietnamese civilians, including women, children and babies, were slaughtered by C Company, 1st Bn 20th Regt of the 11th Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division of the US Army. Allegations included gang rape, shooting women with babies, bayoneting and clubbing people, using grenades and burning occupied dwellings.

Digging Deeper

Probably the best known and worst atrocity committed by US military troops during the Vietnam War, initial reports indicated that the people killed had been Viet Cong, guerilla communist fighters and C Company was applauded for doing a good job. Rumors and reports of atrocity began soon afterward, and officers up and down the chain of command minimized the incident or flat out suppressed true information. Even Colin Powell, then a major (later a 4 star General Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then Secretary of State), is said to have “whitewashed” the incident in his role of investigating a letter reporting the massacre.

The 14 officers charged included the Division Commander, Major General Samuel Koster and 11th Brigade Commander, Colonel Henderson. Of those involved in the alleged cover up, only Henderson stood trial by Court Martial and he was acquitted. Unlike the shameful behavior of senior officers that tried to cover up the incident, some helicopter crews had witnessed the massacre and intervened on behalf of the civilian Vietnamese, preventing even more killings. These men were later recognized as heroes and presented with medals for their bravery in intervening.

The designated scapegoat was 2nd Lieutenant William Calley, charged with and convicted of murdering at least 20 people, the only officer or soldier convicted of anything involved with the massacre. Sentenced to life in prison, per President Nixon Calley was sent from Ft. Leavenworth to serve house arrest instead, and the Convening General of the court martial reduced the sentence to 20 years.

Calley had pled the “Nuremburg” defense, that he had only been following orders and that as a “lowly” 2nd Lieutenant he dare not question or disobey orders. An inconsistency in the proceedings was that the enlisted men under Calley were not prosecuted for “following orders” and perpetrating most of the atrocities.

Calley later appealed his case, and was released after only 3 ½ years if confinement on the basis that pre-trial publicity poisoned the prosecution’s case and Calley’s defense, that defense witnesses were denied, inadequate notice of the charges, and the US House of Representatives refused to release testimony they had received during their investigation of the massacre. Calley’s conviction and ejection from the service was upheld, but his prison sentence was commuted to time served, and he was now (1974) a free man.

Many of the soldiers involved with the My Lai Massacre later reported regret about the incident, but they did not offer to accept any personal responsibility. The lenient treatment of Calley and the attempts at cover up by others implies that the US Army and American Government did not fully accept responsibility either. The Vietnam War was characterized by numerous brutal massacres and atrocities by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, as well as South Vietnamese military and government officials. The US military by comparison engaged in far fewer criminal type murders, but were presented to the world by the Communist Bloc and an all too accommodating Western media as the main criminals of the War. The Vietnam War cost as many as 3.8 million Vietnamese (both sides) their lives, and hundreds of thousands of other neighboring countries people, as well as 60,000 or so Americans.

The Vietnam War was a frustrating experience for Americans still flush with the resounding victory of World War II, and fostered so many lies and blunders by American politicians that the bitter debate about the War divided the US like few other things have since the Civil War. Unfortunately, it appears American politicians have learned little from the experience, and the American military is mired in the Middle East since 2001!

Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think we learned or failed to learn from the Vietnam War experience? Should we still be involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries? Please share your opinions with us in the comments section below this article.

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Cover-Up of the My Lai Massacre

The My Lai massacre reportedly ended only after Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot on a reconnaissance mission, landed his aircraft between the soldiers and the retreating villagers and threatened to open fire if they continued their attacks. Knowing news of the massacre would cause a scandal, officers higher up in command of Charlie Company and the 11th Brigade immediately made efforts to downplay the bloodshed. The coverup continued until Ron Ridenhour, a soldier in the 11th Brigade who had heard reports of the massacre but had not participated, began a campaign to bring the events to light. After writing letters to President Richard Nixon, the Pentagon , State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff and several congressmen, with no response, Ridenhour finally gave an interview to the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who broke the story in November 1969.

Amid the international uproar that followed Ridenhour’s revelations, the U.S. Army ordered a special investigation into the My Lai massacre and subsequent efforts to cover it up. The inquiry, headed by Lieutenant General William Peers, released its report in March 1970 and recommended that no fewer than 28 officers be charged for their involvement in covering up the massacre. The Army would later charge only 14, including Calley, Captain Ernest Medina and Colonel Oran Henderson, with crimes related to the events at My Lai all were acquitted except for Calley, who was found guilty of premeditated murder for ordering the shootings, despite his contention that he was only following orders from his commanding officer, Captain Medina. In March 1971, Calley was given a life sentence for his role in directing the killings at My Lai. Many saw Calley as a scapegoat, and his sentence was reduced upon appeal to 20 years and later to 10 he was paroled in 1974.


Captain Ernest Medina, Commander During My Lai Massacre Dies at 81

When one brings up the Vietnam War, invariably the subject of the My Lai massacre will come to the forefront. And Captain Ernest Medina, the commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the 11th Brigade, Americal Division, who conducted the operation was court-martialed for his role in it. Medina was eventually cleared and acquitted of all charges but his military career was over. Medina recently died in Wisconsin. He was 81.

Medina was born in Springer, New Mexico in August 1936. He joined the army in 1956 and worked his way up the ranks until he reached the rank of Captain and was a company commander in Vietnam. His unit arrived late in 1967 and by the spring of 1968 had lost about 20 soldiers to mines and booby traps. By the time of the My Lai operation, just after the Tet Offensive, his unit’s morale was low.

The most well-known of the soldiers who took part in the operation was Lt. William Calley who was the only member of the army convicted for crimes in My Lai

Medina was the recipient of a Silver Star for heroism during a battle that took place just before My Lai, risking his life to save several soldiers.

In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, a Vietcong unit, the 48th Local Force Battalion of the National Liberation Front (NLF) as the Cong were called had dispersed and was hiding in the villages of Sơn Mỹ, in Quảng Ngãi Province. Charlie Company was to clear the villages named My Lai on the US maps (Sơn Mỹ).

Medina briefed his men that they were to kill all guerrilla and North Vietnamese combatants, including “suspects” (including women and children, as well as all animals), to burn the village, and pollute the wells.

Early the next morning on the 16th of March 1968, the operation began. Calley’s platoon was supposed to take down the village with the other two platoons acting as a reserve and as a blocking force. The troops arrived and found no Vietcong. No military age men at all. Just old men and women and children. Calley’s men rounded them up and then the killing began. Indiscriminate and cold-blooded.

Read Next: December 1866: Crazy Horse kills 81 US troopers in the Fetterman Massacre

Most of the women tried to shield their young children from the carnage. They were shot down and their children executed. Many of the women were raped before they were killed. Everything was being burned to the ground, anyone trying to run away was gunned down.

Sgt. Michael Bernhardt, who later told his story to the press, said, “I saw them shoot an M79 grenade launcher into a group of people who were still alive. But it was mostly done with a machine gun. They were shooting women and children just like anybody else,”

“We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village—old papa-sans [men], women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive,” Bernhardt added.

The killing continued until the troops took a break for lunch and then restarted. It only stopped when WO1 Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot flew his chopper between the soldiers and the civilians who were being slaughtered. He flew some injured Vietnamese children to safety.

Estimates for the killing at My Lai ranged as high as 504 people dead. Among the victims were 182 women—17 of them pregnant—and 173 children, including 56 infants. The unit wrote up their report as a great victory over enemy insurgents. The awful truth was kept under wraps for more than a year. It was another one of the events that turned the American public against the war and war effort.

Finally, some soldiers came forward and an investigation was started. In 1971, 14 officers were charged with various crimes as a result of My Lai. Medina, according to the official investigation:

“Planned, ordered, and supervised the execution by his company of an unlawful operation against inhabited hamlets in Son My village which included the destruction of houses by burning, killing of livestock, and the destruction of crops and other foodstuffs, and the closing of wells and impliedly directed the killing of any persons found there.”
“Possibly killed as many as three noncombatants in My Lai.”

Read Next: Bruce Crandall Awarded the Medal of Honor, Battle of the Ia Drang Valley

He was court-martialed for willingly allowing his men to murder non-combatants. His defense team was headed up by F. Lee Bailey. Medina admitted to killing one woman, who he said he believed was holding a grenade. At the end of his trial, the jury only took 60 minutes to acquit him of all charges. However, his Army career was finished. Shortly afterward, he resigned his commission and soon left the Army as well.

Calley was the only one convicted, his life sentence was reduced to just three years of home confinement.

In 1971 Medina moved to Wisconsin and went to work as a salesman for a helicopter manufacturer. Later he went into real estate.

In 1988, he broke his silence on My Lai and gave an interview with the Associated Press and admitted the operation and resultant illegal activity from troops under his command should have never happened.

“I have regrets for it, but I have no guilt over it because I didn’t cause it,” he said. “That’s not what the military, particularly the United States Army, is trained for. But then again, maybe the war should have never happened. I think if everybody were to look at it in hindsight, I’m sure a lot of the politicians and generals would think of it otherwise. Maybe it was a war that we should have probably never gotten involved in as deeply as we did without the will to win it.”

Medina lived quietly for the rest of his life and is survived by his wife, daughter and two sons.

An interview he gave shortly after the story broke while he was still a Captain in the US Army can be seen here:


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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:

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:

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.

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, cɾst la même chose?


How a Military Whistleblower Changed American History

In the 1960s, whistleblowers were treated like dirty snitches. Then Ron Ridenhour, a bit player in Vietnam’s horror show, stepped forward with tales of a massacre at My Lai.

Gil Troy

AP Photo/HWG

Some whistleblowers work inside the system, informing their bosses that something’s amiss. Others go outside, clueing in reporters, legislators, or regulators. A low moment in American history—the My Lai massacre in Vietnam—produced both kinds of truth-tellers. An army helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, Jr, along with his crew members Glenn Andreotta and Larry Colburn, saved Vietnamese villagers from American fire during the killings. Thompson then reported the horrors up the chain of command—which tried to cover it up.

If it were not for a man named Ronald Ridenhour, however, the horrors of My Lai may never have come to light— and he deserves the most credit for forcing Americans to confront how some soldiers behaved in Indochina.

Fifty years ago, Ron Ridenhour was a grunt—a bit player in the Vietnam horror show. As a door gunner on an observation helicopter, he heard rumors shortly after March 16, 1968, of Americans shooting unarmed villagers.

Ridenhour started collecting testimonials, informally. In March, 1969, he sent a detailed report to 30 members of Congress, along with President Richard Nixon, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense.

“The question most often put to me,” Ridenhour later recalled, “was not why had they done it, but why had I done it. In a word, justice.” He admitted: “I was younger and more foolish then.”

A classic Baby Boomer, born in 1946, he was raised on words like justice and honor. “They lived,” he wrote. “They breathed. They were the flesh and blood of American political tradition, embodied daily” in the nation’s policies.

Unfortunately, like many Boomers, Ridenhour’s romanticized vision of America didn’t survive the Vietnam jungle. Some buddies of his transferred into “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry. In March, 1968 they neutralized a “notorious” area in South Vietnam nicknamed “Pinkville.” These soldiers had suffered heavy casualties in other search-and-destroy missions. Their superiors warned them that the villages were crawling with armed Viet Cong supporters.

Nevertheless, Ridenhour was shocked when his friend “Butch” Gruver described how soldiers mowed down as many as 504 civilians in the hamlet of My Lai, near Son My. Butch recalled “seeing a small boy, about three or four years old, standing by the trail with a gunshot wound in one arm. The boy was clutching his wounded arm with his other hand, while blood trickled between his fingers… Then the captain’s RTO (radio operator) put a burst of 16 (M-16 rifle) fire into him.”

One soldier shot himself in the foot to flee the violence. Gruver singled out one officer, Lieutenant William Calley, who rounded up villagers enthusiastically. He then ordered others to shoot them or machine-gunned them himself.

Ridenhour consulted his closest C Company friend. Mike Terry reported that, after finishing lunch, they shot badly wounded civilians to be merciful. Calley shot them in cold blood.

“Eating must have been difficult,” Ridenhour imagined. “There were dead Vietnamese everywhere.” After all, “the undead in the ditch had begun to cry out… It must have been a terrible sound, all that flopping and slapping of flesh, the crying, all that agony out there polluting a now otherwise peaceful morning.”

As Terry spoke, Ridenhour’s “head felt like it must feel when someone is scalping you alive. Even as it is actually happening, you can’t bring yourself to believe it. But yes, yes, yes, he said on every detail. It was all true.”

Terry sighed: “It was like a Nazi kind of thing.” Another buddy reported that Calley’s “men were dragging people out of bunkers and hootches and putting them together in a group” to be shot.

It was equally stunning that “so many young American men participated in such an act of barbarism,” and “that their officers had ordered it.” Ridenhour felt “an instantaneous spark of anger that soon grew to rage. I decided that I would track down the story. If it was true, then the chips would land where they fell.”

When he sent his letter in March, 1969—after being discharged—Ridenhour approached politicians and not reporters, because, “as a conscientious citizen I have no desire to further besmirch the image of the American soldier.” But the commanders and politicos responded half-heartedly.

Even journalists mostly overlooked it when the Army charged Calley in September, 1969. Seymour Hersh, the freelancer credited with breaking the story in November, would write that My Lai “remained just another statistic until late March, 1969, when an ex-G.I. named Ronald L. Ridenhour wrote letters…”

For the next two years, Calley’s case finally gripped America. Some condemned Calley’s crimes. Others grumbled that he alone was scapegoated. Most resented that a soldier whom they decided was doing his duty, and who claimed he was following orders, was prosecuted by superiors and hounded by reporters.

Ultimately, Calley was the only soldier convicted. Though sentenced to life in prison, he served three days in jail before President Nixon ordered him to be released to house arrest. A jury acquitted his commanding officer, Ernest Medina.

Nevertheless, the whistleblowers on My Lai changed American history.

In the 1960s, such informants were considered “snitches.” Then, the consumer crusader Ralph Nader fought to honor such truth-tellers as “whistleblowers,” evoking old-fashioned police officers who blew whistles while chasing bad guys. Today, various regulations protect those who expose systemic wrongdoing—although one person’s single-minded whistleblower remains another’s double-crossing traitor.

Thompson paid the whistleblower’s price, staying in the army and enduring harassment. Ultimately, he was vindicated, receiving military citations and seeing case studies analyzing his heroism taught broadly.

Ridenhour parlayed the skills he developed uncovering My Lai into an award-winning career as an investigative journalist—until he died suddenly while playing handball in 1998 at the age of 52.

With each telling of his tale, Ridenhour became more bitter. Insisting that it wasn’t just “some lowly second lieutenant who went berserk,” he deemed “the massacre… the logical outgrowth of overall U.S. military policy in Vietnam.” Even “the distressingly enthusiastic” Calley, he believed, “was following orders.”

In 1973, during the “Medusa of Watergate,” Ridenhour mourned “the moral chaos of a people who have too long allowed themselves to be manipulated into accepting the Nixonian sophistry that whatever is expedient is necessary whatever is necessary for the protection of Richard Nixon is legal whatever is legal is both moral and ethical.” Nixon, he claimed, “made a bitter porridge of that justice I set out so long ago to find.”

Twenty years later, Ridenhour still complained that “neither the military nor the U.S. government has made any effort to come clean with the American public, the Vietnamese people or the rest of the world regarding the reality of our deplorable conduct in Vietnam.”

Still, most historians agree with Professor Howard Jones that My Lai “galvaniz[ed] the antiwar movement… ultimately helping to end American involvement in Vietnam.” More profoundly, the historian David Greenberg adds, “The disclosure of atrocities not only moved public opinion further against an already unpopular war… it raised fundamental and unsettling questions about who were the good guys and bad guys in Vietnam, and why we were there at all.”

Although such stories muddied the veterans’ homecoming, Greenberg adds that, “as dark deeds often do, the actions of Charlie Company also led eventually to stronger and clearer rules of conduct for American soldiers in wartime and a resolve within the military to resist the pressures toward cruelty that war inevitably brings.”

Undoubtedly, then, as now, whistleblowing took great courage. And sometimes, then, as now, it achieves what Ridenhour hoped it would. Ridenhour’s letter misquoted Winston Churchill to the effect that, “A country without a conscience is a country without a soul, and a country without a soul is a country that cannot survive.”

Ridenhour and others righted wrongs, saved the nation’s soul, and focused Americans on living their values, not violating them, so indeed we could not just survive, but start to heal.

Additional Reading:

Ron Ridenhour, “Jesus Was a Gook,” Part I and Part II

Ron Ridenhour, “PERSPECTIVE ON MY LAI: ‘It Was a Nazi Kind of Thing’: America still has not come to terms with the implications of this slaughter of unarmed and unresisting civilians during the Vietnam War,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 16, 1993


Ernest Medina, Army Captain at My Lai

Photo caption: Capt. Ernest L. Medina on a visit to his hometown, Montrose, Colo., in 1970 after he had been charged in the massacre of Vietnamese in 1968. Photo Credit: Gary Settle/The New York Times

This obituary originally appeared at The New York Times on May 13, 2018.

Ernest L. Medina, the Army captain who was accused of overall responsibility for the March 1968 mass killings of unarmed South Vietnamese men, women and children by troops he commanded in what became known as the My Lai massacre, but was acquitted at a court-martial, died on Tuesday in Peshtigo, Wis. He was 81.

His death was confirmed by the Thielen Funeral Home in Marinette, a nearby town where he had lived. The cause was not given.

On March 16, 1968, a month and a half after North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces launched the Tet offensive, wide-ranging attacks that stunned the American military command in the Vietnam War, Captain Medina and the three platoons of his infantry company entered the village of My Lai in South Vietnam’s south central coast region.

What happened over the hours that followed became one of darkest chapters of American military history. An Army inquiry ultimately determined that 347 civilians were killed that day — shot, bayoneted or blasted with grenades. A Vietnamese memorial erected at the site has put the toll at 504.

But the mass killings were not exposed until November 1969, when the independent journalist Seymour Hersh, tipped off to the atrocity, wrote of it in a series of articles that brought him a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

The revelations were shocking in an America already divided over an increasingly unpopular war. But Captain Medina and Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr., who was subsequently convicted of murder at a court-martial as the leader of the platoon that carried out the massacre, came to be viewed by many as scapegoats in an unwinnable conflict.

According to Captain Medina’s later testimony at Lieutenant Calley’s court-martial, Army intelligence had advised that the villagers of My Lai (pronounced ME-LYE) would be doing their customary shopping at a nearby marketplace when the troops arrived. Those left in the village at that hour would supposedly be Vietcong soldiers who had blended in with the population.

The intelligence was faulty.

While Captain Medina remained near his helicopter’s landing spot a few hundred yards outside of My Lai, keeping in radio contact with his men, Lieutenant Calley, an inexperienced officer, and his equally green infantrymen rampaged through the village, encountering only unarmed civilians.

The massacre that unfolded did not conclude until a helicopter pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., hovering with two crewmen to identify enemy positions by drawing expected Vietcong fire, saw signs of mass killings, landed in the village, demanded at gunpoint that Lieutenant Calley halt the attack and alerted higher authorities by radio.

Lieutenant Calley was convicted of premeditated murder of least 22 civilians at a lengthy court-martial ending in March 1971.

He testified that Captain Medina had ordered him via radio to “get rid of” what the lieutenant had described as “enemy personnel” whose detention was slowing his progress through the village.

Captain Medina denied that the conversation took place and his testimony was corroborated by his radio officer. He testified that in his pre-assault briefing, he had not generally addressed the issue of what to do with civilians in the village since he assumed everyone there would be Vietcong.

But he testified that when one his troopers asked, “Do we kill women and children?” he replied: “No, you do not kill women and children. You must use common sense,” adding that “if they have a weapon and are trying to engage you, then you can shoot back.”

Lieutenant Calley was sentenced to 20 years in prison but the case became embroiled in court battles and he spent a little more than three years confined to barracks or under house arrest at Fort Benning, Ga., before being released.

Captain Medina went on trial in September 1971, defended by the prominent criminal lawyer F. Lee Bailey, as well as a military lawyer. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter of at least 100 civilians, the murder of a woman and two counts of assault against a prisoner by firing twice over his head to frighten him the night after the massacre.

The defense contended that Captain Medina was unaware of large-scale killings of defenseless civilians until they had already occurred. The prosecution argued that the defense account was not credible since Captain Medina had been in continual radio contact with his platoons. The court-martial panel of five combat officers returned not guilty verdicts on all counts after an hour’s deliberation.

Following revelations of the massacre in the news media, the Army undertook an official investigation. Lt. Gen. William R. Peers, who oversaw it, declared on March 18, 1970, “Our inquiry clearly established that a tragedy of major proportions occurred there on that day.”

Lieutenant Calley was the only soldier convicted on criminal charges in connection with the massacre. Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster, the commander of the Americal Division, was found by an Army inquiry to have failed to investigate reports of the mass killings adequately. He was demoted one rank, to brigadier general. Col. Oran Henderson, a brigade commander in the division, stood trial and was acquitted of cover-up charges. Both had hovered above My Lai in their helicopters during the massacre but maintained they had been unaware of mass murders.

Ernest Lou Medina was born on Aug. 27, 1936, in Springer, N.M., one of two children of Simon Medina, a ranch hand, and his wife, Pauline. His mother died of cancer when he was an infant and his father sent him and his sister to live with grandparents in Montrose, Colo., while pursuing work as a sheepherder.

After graduating from high school he enlisted in the Army as a private in 1956. He later attended Officer Candidate School, was commissioned as a lieutenant and arrived in Vietnam in December 1967.

In the weeks before My Lai, Lieutenant Calley’s platoon had suffered casualties when his men wandered into a minefield. Captain Medina rescued survivors, an act for which he was later awarded a Silver Star.

Mr. Medina and Mr. Calley both resigned from the Army after their court-martials. Mr. Medina settled with his family in Marinette and worked as a salesman for a helicopter company and a real estate agent. Mr. Calley joined a family jewelry business in Georgia.

Mr. Medina’s survivors include his wife, Barbara his sons Greg and Cecil and a daughter, Ingrid Medina his sister, Linda Lovato, and eight grandchildren.

In an interview with The Associated Press in 1988, Mr. Medina called the My Lai killings a “horrendous thing.”

“I have regrets for it, but I have no guilt over it because I didn’t cause it,” he said. “That’s not what the military, particularly the United States Army, is trained for.”

He said that the My Lai killings needed to be viewed in the context of the Vietnam War.

“There were no front lines,” he said. “It was a guerrilla war. It’s something I feel a lot of draftees were not trained for, a lot of the officers were not trained. I’m talking not just about lieutenants. I’m talking about senior officers.”

“But then again, maybe the war should have never happened,” he added. “I think if everybody were to look at it in hindsight, I’m sure a lot of the politicians and generals would think of it otherwise. Maybe it was a war that we should have probably never gotten involved in as deeply as we did without the will to win it.”


‘Flawed intelligence’

When Tony Nadal went to Vietnam in 1965, as the war’s escalation and the anti-war movement were just getting started, more than 60 percent of Americans supported sending troops to the country.

Three years later, support had plummeted.

During a supposed truce in observation of Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year, on Jan. 30, North Vietnam troops launched a huge surprise assault that took 10 U.S. battalions nearly a month to beat back.

After that, only a third of Americans agreed that progress was being made. Nearly half said the U.S. should never have intervened in Vietnam.

On Feb. 27, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, considered the nation’s most trusted newscaster, told his millions of viewers that the war could not be won.

Two weeks later, on March 16, Capt. Ernest Medina led Charlie Company, part of Task Force Barker, into the hamlet of My Lai.

The unit had lost 28 soldiers from snipers, landmines and booby traps, and hadn’t once seen the enemy, Jones said. The area was considered rife with Viet Cong fighters and civilian sympathizers.

“You’ve got all this fear and frustration. And then they got flawed intelligence, that up to 300 or 400 Viet Cong would be implanted in My Lai,” Jones said.

That there were no Viet Cong fighters became clear early in the mission. No shots were fired at the troops, no weapons were found.

Platoon leader Lt. William Calley and his men nonetheless went to work, burning huts, raping women and girls, and killing with knives, grenades and machine guns.

Some soldiers testified later that they’d understood their orders were to lay waste to the village and kill everyone there because they were Viet Cong sympathizers. Officers denied it no such written orders were ever found, although it was acknowledged that the troops were ordered to kill the livestock, burn the huts and poison the wells, and that there was no order as there should have been addressing the safeguarding of civilians.

One soldier shot himself in the foot to avoid his orders, turning the quintessential action of a coward into something almost self-sacrificing. He, like the rest of the soldiers, kept quiet about what they’d seen and done.

“I just started killing any kind of way I could kill. It just came, I didn’t know I had it in me,” Varnardo Simpson said in a 1982 TV interview, 15 years before he killed himself. “From shooting them to cutting their throats to scalping them to cutting off their hands and cutting out their tongue. I did that. And I wasn’t the only one that did it, a lot of other people did it.”

EVERYTHING ROTTED AND CORRODED THERE: BODIES, BOOT LEATHER, CANVAS, METAL, MORALS. SCORCHED BY THE SUN, WRACKED BY THE WIND AND RAIN OF THE MONSOON, FIGHTING IN ALIEN SWAMPS AND JUNGLES, OUR HUMANITY RUBBED OFF OF US AS THE PROTECTIVE BLUING RUBBED OFF THE BARRELS OF OUR RIFLES.”

— PHILIP CAPUTO, IN HIS 1977 BOOK “A RUMOR OF WAR

The exception was Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson and his two-gunner helicopter crew. “Something ain’t right about this,” Thompson said over his radio as he flew overhead. “There’s bodies everywhere. There’s a ditch full of bodies that we saw.”

View of My Lai from overhead helicopter

Thompson landed his helicopter repeatedly to confront and defy higher-ranking officers. He coaxed out a dozen villagers hiding in a bunker Calley and his solders were about to kill with grenades, and called in a gunship to evacuate them. “Y’all cover me,” Thompson told his gunners, Larry Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, as he faced off against the U.S. infantrymen.

“If those bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them.”

Thompson officially reported the slaughter up the chain of command, which called off the rest of the operation and buried the report.

Battalion commander Lt. Col. Frank Barker called the operation in My Lai “well planned, well executed and successful” in his after-action report. He reported 128 “enemy” killed in action.

Brigade commander Col. Oran Henderson, informed by Thompson of all he’d seen, reported 20 noncombatants inadvertently killed in a crossfire between U.S. and Viet Cong forces.

Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster, Americal Division commander, insisted later to investigators that he’d reviewed and believed Henderson’s report, which, unfortunately had somehow gone missing.

But the truth would come out.


March 16, 1968 | U.S. Soldiers Massacre Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai

Ronald Haeberle/U.S. Army Women and children were victims of the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968.
Historic Headlines

Learn about key events in history and their connections to today.

On March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War, United States troops under the command of Lt. William L. Calley Jr. carried out a massacre of about 500 unarmed men, women and children in the village of My Lai.

The C Company, also known as the 𠇌harlie Company,” of the 11th Brigade, Americal Division, was ordered to My Lai to eliminate the Vietcong’s 48th Battalion. On the night of March 15, Capt. Ernest Medina, the commander of Charlie Company, told his men that all civilians would leave the village by 7:00 the following morning, leaving only Vietcong soldiers and sympathizers. He ordered them to burn down the village, poison wells and wipe out the enemy.

The next day, at 8 a.m., after an aerial assault, Lieutenant Calley’s 1st Platoon of Charlie Company led the attack on My Lai. Expecting to encounter Vietcong soldiers, the platoon entered the village firing. Instead, they found mostly women and children who denied that there were Vietcong soldiers in the area. The American soldiers herded the villagers into groups and began burning the village.

The New York Times provided an account of the massacre from a survivor in its Nov. 17, 1969, edition: “The three death sites were about 200 yards apart. When the houses had been cleared, the troops dynamited those made of brick and set fire to the wooden structures. They did not speak to the villagers and were not accompanied by an interpreter who could have explained their actions. Then the Vietnamese were gunned down where they stood. About 20 soldiers performed the executions at each of the three places, using their individual weapons, presumably M-16 rifles.”

Lieutenant Calley gave explicit orders to kill and participated in the execution of unarmed villagers standing in groups and lying in ditches. There were also accounts of soldiers mutilating bodies and raping young women. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson watched the massacre from his helicopter. Realizing that civilians were being killed, he landed his helicopter near one of the ditches and rescued some survivors.

The Army initially portrayed the events as My Lai as a military victory with a small number of civilian casualties. A year later, Ronald Ridenhour, a former soldier who had heard about the massacre from other soldiers, sent letters to leaders in Washington alerting them to the events. The Army opened an investigation and in September 1969 filed charges against Lieutenant Calley.

Two months later, in November 1969, the American public learned of the My Lai massacre as the journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story. Several publications ran in-depth reports and published photographs taken by the Army photographer Ronald Haeberle. The My Lai massacre intensified antiwar sentiment and raised questions about the quality of men being drafted into the military.

The Army charged 25 officers, including Lieutenant Calley and Captain Medina, for the massacre and its cover-up, though most would not reach court-martial. Lieutenant Calley, charged with premeditated murder, was the only man to be found guilty he was initially given a life sentence, but after a public outcry he would serve just three and a half years of house arrest.

Connect to Today:

In 2004, 35 years after he broke the My Lai story, Seymour Hersh reported on the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by United States soldiers at Abu Ghraib, a prison compound west of Baghdad. The story sparked comparisons with My Lai and reignited the discussion on punitive justice for United States military atrocities committed abroad.

In November 2005, a group of American Marines killed 24 unarmed civilians, including women, children and a wheelchair-bound man, in Haditha, Iraq. As with My Lai, the military at first claimed that enemy insurgents had been killed in the attack before media reports revealed that only civilians had been targeted.

Eight Marines were charged under United States military law, but charges were eventually dropped for all but one, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who was able to avoid jail time with a January 2012 plea deal.

In a January 2012 New York Times article. Charlie Savage and Elisabeth Bumiller reported that the case illustrated the difficulty in investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by military members, who are much more likely to be acquitted on murder and manslaughter charges than civilians charged with those crimes. Soldiers can 𠇊rgue that they feared they were still under attack and shot in self-defense,” Mr. Savage and Ms. Bumiller wrote, and the “military and its justice system have repeatedly shown an unwillingness to second-guess the decisions made by fighters who said they believed they were in danger.”

In late 2011, The Times uncovered a classified interview transcripts of United States troops discussing the Haditha massacre, which reveal the scope of civilian killings in Iraq. Marines said that they saw nothing “remarkable” about the massacre and one described it as 𠇊 cost of doing business.” Michael S. Schmidt of The Times wrote: “Troops, traumatized by the rising violence and feeling constantly under siege, grew increasingly twitchy, killing more and more civilians in accidental encounters. Others became so desensitized and inured to the killing that they fired on Iraqi civilians deliberately while their fellow soldiers snapped pictures.”

This week, a United States Army sergeant has been accused of methodically killing at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children, in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan. Officials say he had been drinking alcohol — a violation of military rules in combat zones — and suffering from the stress related to his fourth combat tour.

What is your reaction when you hear of incidents in which United States troops explicitly target civilians? In your opinion, should soldiers be punished for their actions in the same way that civilians would be? Should wartime atrocities be viewed as unique events or as part of a bigger picture of the dehumanization of war and “history repeating itself”? Why?


The Trial of William Calley

Ever after the truth had come out, though, virtually no one was punished &mdash except for platoon leader William Calley, who alone was given the full blame for the entire My Lai Massacre.

For the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, Calley was sentenced to nothing more than house arrest (he was originally sentenced to prison, but President Richard Nixon himself ordered the transfer). He only served three years before a federal judge granted his release.

Of the other soldiers charged in the massacre, all but Calley were either acquitted or had their charges dropped. In the case of the My Lai Massacre, justice never came.

After this look at the My Lai Massacre, discover the surprising story behind the iconic Saigon execution photo and read up on the horrific effects of Agent Orange on its Vietnamese victims.


Watch the video: The My Lai Massacre. History (May 2022).