The Vietnam War is truly one of the most unique wars ever fought by the Unites States of by any country. It was never officially declared a war (Knowll, 3). It had no official beginning nor an official end. It was fought over 10,000 miles away in a virtually unknown country. The enemy and the allies looked exactly the alike, and may by day be a friend but by night become an enemy (Aaseng 113). It matched the tried and true tactics of World War Two against a hide, run, and shoot technique known as “Guerrilla Warfare.” It matched some of the best trained soldiers in the world against largely an untrained militia of untrained farmers. The United States’ soldiers had at least a meal to look forward to unlike the Communist Vietnamese soldiers who considered a fine cuisine to be cold rice and, if lucky, rat meat. The Vietnam War matched the most technically advanced country with one of the least advanced, and the lesser advanced not only beat but humiliated the strongest military in the world (Aaseng, 111). When the war was finally showing signs of end, the Vietnamese returned to a newly unified communist country while the United Stated soldiers returned to be called “baby killers”, and were often spat upon. With the complexities of war already long overdrawn because of the length of the war it is no wonder the returning solders often left home confused and returned home insane. Through an examination of the Vietnam War, in particular an event know as the My Lai Massacre, and the people involved with both, it can be proven that when the threshold for violence of a person is met or exceeded, the resulting psychological scarring becomes the most prominent reason for war being hell.
Although officially, the Vietnam Conflict had neither a beginning nor an end, for the purpose of this paper it can be best examined through the decade the United States was involved: February 6, 1965 – August 30, 1975. During World War Two the French had been a major ally to the United States in the defeat of Adolph Hitler and the Axis Powers. France occupied and claimed the small coastline country of Vietnam in Indochina. In this region there had been recent Communist uprisings funded by the USSR The Vietnamese were willing to accept Communism in return for what they had been fighting for over 2000 years: self rule. In 1950 the United States, owing a debt of gratitude towards France, sent several advisors to aid French control in Vietnam. Over the next decade and a half, the United States would send an entire Army and Navy to aid the French in maintaining control in South Vietnam, which had separated from the Communist North Vietnam by treaty in 1954. In early August of 1964 a small Vietcong (term used to identify South Vietnamese in favor of communism and unification) patrol boat had an encounter with a United States war ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. Gunfire was exchanged, and, in the end, President Johnson agreed to allow aggressive retaliation. On February 6, 1965, the United States began the bombing of North Vietnamese cities, marking the unofficial start of the Vietnam War (Winthrop, 853-861).
In the years of the war to follow, the media began to play a role. Photo-journalists would accompany platoons on missions and, through the aid of cameras and video equipment, relate the stories to the American at home. Every night for the length of the war news programs were saturated with reports of the happenings in Vietnam and death tolls for the day. Grossly eggzrated enemy casualty numbers were reported, giving the public a false view of happenings of the war. Suddenly on January 30, 1968 a Vietcong uprising, now commonly known as the Tet Offensive, took place. Tet is the Vietnamese new year and is commonly accepted as a cease-fire. With a cease-fire in effect, most major cities’ defensives were less tight. As if all at once, more than one hundred South Vietnamese cities were being shelled with Vietcong gunfire. Included in the cities were Saigon, capital of South Vietnam and home to the United States Embassy. At first the Tet Offensive appeared a failure for North Vietnam. A large portion of Vietcong troops were killed, and major Vietcong outposts were discovered. Most of the overtaken cities, including Saigon, had been regained. Unfortunately for the United States the timing of the Tet Offensive couldn’t have been worse. For the past three years the Americans at home had been promised a swift defeat of the (so called) nearly destroyed Communists, which, after the retreating of the French, had become the main goal of the United States. Worst of all, election year was approaching, and the incumbent Richard Nixon was promising a swift plan of “Vietmenization” in which the war was supposed to be placed in the hands of the South Vietnamese and allow for the retreat of American soldiers. Johnson was so unconfident he didn’t run for reelection. Finally, in 1972 the last United States foot soldiers were removed from Vietnam, and in 1975 the North Vietnamese over took Saigon, renaming it Ho Chi Mien City after their brilliant military leader. At this time the United States Embassy was surrendered, marking the end of the war (Winthrop, 861-865).
As the soldiers returned home they had to adapt from a war in which over one million people were killed. There were no banners or celebrations, and as the news of events such as the My Lai Massacre spread, they were seen as ruthless killers. When these soldiers risked their lives every minute for a reason they were not told and seemingly was purposeless, and then returned to a country that despised them for what they did negative effects are emanate(Winthrop, 861-865). During the war many soldiers realized their maximum threshold for violence. When, as was the case for many soldiers, this limit was reached and even exceeded, psychological scarring is going to take place. This, combined with the return to a country that hated you for doing what you were told to do, leads to a very defective psychological behavior.
March 16, 1968 is truly a date remembered for one of the most horrendous acts ever committed by the United States. On this day, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, under the leadership of twenty-four year old 2nd Lt. William L. Calley Jr. became responsible for the execution of over 300 Vietnamese civilians, mostly old men, women, and children. This atrocity, now known as the My Lai Massacre, opened the eyes of many to the realities of war. The infantry men of this battalion were ordered to systematically murder every inhabitant in this small South Vietnamese hamlet for suspicion of the harboring of Vietcong Soldiers. In this village no signs of Vietcong inhabitants were found. Neither a single uniform nor a gun was found anywhere (Hersh, 11-44) . This leads one to wonder about the motives involved. Was the massacre necessarily, or was it simply an outlet for built up anger and frustration towards the very idea of the Vietnamese (Knowll, 104-110)? It is well known that the majority of United States troops didn’t want to be in Vietnam. A lesser known fact is that the majority of South Vietnamese didn’t want United States troops there either. Infantry men in the army were usually at the lesser end of intelligence scale because more intelligent soldiers were used more as medics or as officers. In fact, thirteen of the 130 men in Charlie Company had failed the army’s basic intelligence test, which should have stopped them from even being in Vietnam (Knowll, 18). This intelligence limit means the soldiers had less comprehension skill and probably had a lower threshold for violence. Also, by this time soldiers in Vietnam had became aware of the treatment they would receive when they returned home. “Doves” (a generic term for anti-war demonstrators) were well known for acts such as waiting for a solider to return home so they could harass him with questions like “How many babies did you kill today?” (Winthrop, 861-865). As if the war itself wasn’t traumatic enough, these extra influences make the event of mental damage very possible. These issues raise the question as to whether they are simply excuses for the terrible actions such as the one at My Lai, or were the happenings such of My Lai the result of these influences. Or is it possible that the My Lai Massacre occurred for a totally different, perhaps from the anger and frustration of one man given too much power?
William L. Calley Jr., born 1944, grew up in Miami Florida. He attended grammar and high school there, and in 1963 flunked out of college after earning four F’s. He became very uptight, and began smoking up to four packs of cigarettes a day. After leaving college, Calley became a switchman for the East Coast Railway. In 1964 he made local headlines when he was arrested for allowing a forty-seven car freight train to block rush-hour traffic for thirty minutes.. In 1965, Calley left Florida and eventually enlisted in the Army in 1966. In spite of poor academic performance, Calley joined Officers’ Training School at Ft. Benning, GA and graduated without even learning to read a map. In 1967 Calley became the platoon leader for Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Captain Ernest Medina, the company’s commanding officer, was a large, powerfully built man who was certainly respected, respect that he earned rather than demanded. Lt. Calley was described as being boyish-looking. He was a mere five feet-three inches tall, and seemed jealous of the respect the soldiers had for Medina (Hersh, 19). Troops under Calley said “he was always trying to be the big man; always would be the one to beat them Vietnamese up. He didn’t know what was going on half the time.”(Hersh, 20) Calley, unlike Medina, placed high emphasis on respect towards himself; respect he simply demanded and wasn’t willing to earn. Then, on March 16, Lt. Calley became fed up with not receiving the respect the thought the deserved. On a routine investigation of the small village of My Lai, Calley discovered an outlet for his rage (Hersh, Chpt. 2). Calley ordered for the 300 plus Vietnamese civilians to be lined up and be systematically excited, one by one while the others watched. Every civilian found was killed. The following is a portion of a letter from a GI concerning the incident:
…Some of the guys are so careless! Today a buddy of mine called “La Dai” (come here) into a hut. An old man came out of the shelter. My buddy told the man to get away from the hut, and since we have to move quickly on a sweep, just threw a hand grenade into the shelter. As he pulled the pin the old man got excited and started jabbering and running toward my buddy and the hut. A GI, not understanding, stopped the old man with a football tackle just as my buddy threw the grenade… After he threw it, and was running for cover, we all heard a baby crying from inside the shelter. There was nothing we could do…. After the explosion we found the mother, two children (ages about six and twelve, boy and girl), and an almost newborn baby. That is what the old man was trying to tell us!… (Hersh, 12-13)
November 17, 1970 Lt. Calley was tried for, and eventually convicted for, his part in the premeditated murder of 109 “Oriental human beings”. In a court-martial, murder is punishable by death by hanging. After a long deliberation, the jury returned a sentence of life imprisonment, of which William Calley served three years. Calley is now a successful jeweler in Columbus, Georgia (Knappmar, 598-601).
Whether or not Lt. Calley was acting on order, as he claimed, or out of pure rage may never be known. It is known, however, that without the psychological stresses caused by Vietnam, the My Lai Massacre may have never happened. The remainder of this paper is an investigation of the causes and effects of those stresses in attempt to answer “why”, and, ideally, prevent another atrocity like the My Lai Massacre.
In any war, psychological stresses are inevitable. The memory of risking one’s life will not fade quickly and is reason alone enough to drive one insane. As stated previously, however, the war in Vietnam provided additional stresses. A major stress was the fact that neither the citizens of the United States nor of South Vietnam accepted American interference. A solider was usually uninformed of the intentions of their government. Soldiers are taught to carry out orders without asking questions. This could lead to a solider developing a belief that all fighting was being done in vain. Eventually, a solider would lose care in what he was doing. His self worth would lower, thus lowering his view of worth of others. When he sees all the death and destruction in what has became his world and realizes he is partly responsible, he begins to regard himself as a killer, who himself deserves death. It is highly probable that even with the end of a tour soldiers go home with this “responsible killer” attitude, and is forced back into an unaccepting society still believing he doesn’t deserve to live, and often questioning why he still is. Over the years, these repressed feelings grow until they eventually become uncontrollable, and take control of the person, physically and mentally. There are two major viewpoints on the psychological effects of events such as My Lai. One of these views is from the commanded solider. If the happenings of everyday life in Vietnam are enough to drive one insane, the effects of watching and participating a massacre of over 300 innocent people are truly destructive. Months after such happenings, the soldiers are expected to return to normal, everyday civilian life. This in its self is a form of denial. The same pressures on every solider are on those witnesses to the outrages, only the witness must find a way to deal with both. Common sense leads one to deduce that if causes are extreme the results should be expected, too, to be extreme.
Another viewpoint is that from the commanding officers. If Lt. Calley really was responsible for the My Lai happenings, one must wonder why he wanted it to happen. Perhaps the officer was simply fed up with the war situation. He may have been tires of having responsibility for not only himself, but for all the soldiers he commanded. Not knowing the enemy from the ally could cause a situation like the “fish in water” tactic. This method, which was used highly as a rationalization, stated that one way to be sure to catch a fish would be to eliminate the water, just as a method killing “Charlie” would be to kill all Vietnamese. It can also be said, however, that the commanding officer isn’t to blame, but his commanders are. Not being in the war could lead to a sense of “dehumanization” towards the Vietnamese, so it becomes easier to order a massacre from Washington than to become part of one in Vietnam. One must also remember, however, that the highest rank in the army is the President, and the citizens are directly responsible for whom this may be.
Through this research, it has been proven that because of events such the My Lai massacre in Vietnam there were certainly psychological changes in those involved. Today’s writers too often get caught up in what the media wants the people to believe. The only way to aquire pure, unedited information is to speak personally to someone who has experienced events such as the one mentioned. No matter what their view of the war is, when asked if war will change a person the most common response will be “Nobody ever returns the same” (Knowll, 127) (Mahan Interview). With the certainty of scarring evident, one must begin to question why this scarring happens and why people have a threshold for violence. The most obvious and most correct response is that war wasn’t meant to be. If people were designed with a threshold, it wasn’t meant to be exceeded. This leads one to deduce that although sometimes seemingly necessary, war is hell and it is wrong.