Had one strong leader stepped up, the atrocity that so stained America could have been averted.
It has been more than four decades since that morning in 1968, and yet Army officers, almost to a man, still ask themselves how the My Lai massacre could have taken place. What had happened to the chain of command when one of the worst stains ever to soil the uniform of the U.S. Army in its two-century history occurred? On March 16, 1968, where were the leaders?
What happened at My Lai has been more than adequately investigated by the Peers Inquiry and the trials of 2nd Lt. William Calley, Captain Ernest Medina and several other officers and enlisted men who were present during the murders on that morning. In all, 14 officers and enlisted men were charged, some as a result of the massacre and others for the ensuing coverup. The books on My Lai and the aftermath are too numerous to list, and few questions of what actually took place on the ground are left unanswered. But what remains an open question—and the nastiest scar of the Vietnam War yet to heal—is how the leadership, or lack thereof, permitted such an atrocity to happen.
The massacre’s implications went far beyond its inhumanity and horror. It fueled intense antiwar sentiment among the American public and contributed to the eroding support for victory in the minds of politicians and Pentagon officials.
DURING THE WAR, one of the great weaknesses of the chain of command—from the highest levels of the Defense Department through General William Westmoreland down to the platoon level—was the addiction to statistics as a measure of victory. The worst of these was the body count. This statistic contributed to a mindset in the average GI and his leaders that turned any dead Vietnamese into a dead Viet Cong (VC). And more dead VC found after a firefight produced a more favorable kill ratio; thus, one unit had a better performance under fire than some other unit. Commanders were compared—and evaluated—for their six-month “ticket punching” command tours, and success at command nearly always guaranteed an officer that he would be promoted to the next higher level. Low body counts and unfavorable kill ratios, by contrast, tended to ensure that a commander would be passed over for his next promotion. The body count became the Vietnam War’s Holy Grail.
The rotational policy of the Army undermined command effectiveness. As someone once said, “The Americans don’t have 10 years experience in Vietnam; they have one year’s experience repeated 10 times over.” Many battalion and brigade commanders were rotated into and out of command positions every six months so that everyone would have an opportunity to command. The effectiveness of the chain of command was diminished each time a new commander came in for his six-month tour.
During Tet in 1968, the U.S. military was shocked by the extent of the attacks on its bases. Normally there is a truce during the celebration of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, but the North Vietnamese Army violated that truce with largescale assaults. The reality suddenly changed from what most Americans believed to be a winning strategy to growing doubt about the conduct of the war. Although Tet was a tactical failure militarily for the Communists, it was a dramatic success for them psychologically.
In I Corps, north of My Lai, Hue was overrun and seized by the NVA in the early days of February 1968. It took weeks of counterattacks and desperate fighting by the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and the U.S. Marines to free the ancient city. When, on February 25, Hue was finally cleared of enemy troops, mass graves were discovered that contained thousands of Hue citizens who had been murdered by the NVA or VC. As these reports filtered down to the units in the southern portion of I Corps, the fear of the NVA and loathing for the VC grew to extremes. It was in this environment that the plan to attack and eliminate the Viet Cong’s 48th Main Force Battalion was hatched.
No written plan exists for the My Lai operation—at least, none has ever been found. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker, the task force commander, was well known for his disjointed briefings. Evidence from testimony at the trials leads one to believe that Barker made a plan, albeit a poor tactical plan. He was unclear on what was expected of his company commanders, and failed to explain the specific mission of each unit or how they would support each other during the combat operation. Barker never had an opportunity to shed light on the mission himself, as he was killed in a helicopter crash just weeks after My Lai.
As George Latimer, Calley’s chief defense lawyer, said: “Company C should never have been sent on this kind of mission, with a state of training woefully inadequate…. You can’t go in like a gang of isolationists, each man for himself and let the devil take care of the others. It is a hornbook principle that fear and stark terror is present in a unit on its first combat assault, and when raw troops are used disaster is the result.”
What is known is that Barker sent his weakest company against what was believed to be the enemy’s strongest point. My Lai was supposedly the headquarters of the 48th Main Force Battalion and guarded by a well-trained enemy unit of as many as 280 soldiers. Clearly this was a major tactical error. No competent commander would ever send a weak unit to attack a numerically superior, well-entrenched enemy unit—let alone an attacking unit that had little or no real combat experience. Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment (1-20th Infantry), commanded by Captain Medina, had suffered 25 percent casualties in its 90 days in country, and it had never been in a real firefight. Lieutenant Calley’s platoon alone had lost 18 soldiers—one killed and 17 wounded. Yet, at no time had the platoon actually engaged the enemy in a straight-up firefight. All Calley’s casualties had come from snipers, mines or booby traps. By March 16, this normally 45-man-strong platoon was reduced to only 27. An understrength green platoon led by an inept second lieutenant was now going to charge directly into the lion’s den, with no consideration of a flank attack or an encircling envelopment. This was to be the Charge of the Light Brigade redux, but in the rice paddies of Vietnam and with only 27 soldiers in lieu of 600.
Normally, for the attacking force to have any opportunity for success, it must have a combat advantage of at least three-to-one, especially when attacking a well-trained unit. In this instance, the formula was exactly the reverse. How could Barker have made such a decision? If he believed the intelligence, which turned out to be wrong, Barker was either one of the most incompetent comanders in Vietnam…or simply one of the stupidest.
From testimony given at the trials, it was determined that Barker had placed one of his rifle companies, A Company, 3-1st Infantry, north of the Diem Diem River, more than 1,500 meters away from My Lai; and the other company, Bravo, 4-3rd Infantry, east of My Lai by approximately the same distance. Their initial mission was to block, followed by a task to sweep southward along the coast of the South China Sea. C Company, 1-20th Infantry, Captain Medina’s command, was to sweep the village of My Lai. Because of the distances and terrain involved, in these locations none of the companies could be mutually supporting. Certainly, this was a disaster in the making if Task Force Barker was to be attacking a 250-man-strong Main Force Viet Cong battalion dug in at My Lai. Fortunately for Barker’s men, it was not.
Captain Medina compounded this bad situation by sending Lieutenant Calley’s platoon into this so-called Viet Cong stronghold first. Medina had little respect for Calley and stated so on several occasions. Plus, the backbone of Calley’s platoon, Sergeant George Cox, who was well respected by the men, had been killed only two days earlier. It was a macabre scene as Cox was mortally wounded by a booby trap that went off directly between his legs, splitting his insides open. The entire platoon watched in horror as he lay dying, screaming for relief from the excruciating pain.
At the briefing the night prior to the attack on My Lai, Medina and Calley encouraged a pep-rally-like atmosphere, suggesting that they were going to get “those bastards” who killed Sergeant Cox. The air assault was scheduled for 0730. Based on what he believed to be accurate intelligence, Medina told his company that there would be few, if any, noncombatants left in My Lai by that time, as they would have departed for the market by 0700.
This was yet another intelligence error coming from the Task Force Headquarters, added to the poor preparation by the leaders of Medina’s company—who by this time had completely misunderstood the true situation in My Lai. In fact, some intelligence officers at 23rd (“Americal”) Infantry Division headquarters knew that the 48th Viet Cong Battalion was far from My Lai, but classifications on the use of radio intercepts would not allow them to divulge its location to Task Force Barker. The 48th was actually resting in the mountains west of Quang Ngai, licking its wounds from battles fought in the Tet Offensive.
The normal organization of infantry maneuver units consists of brigades commanded by colonels, battalions commanded by lieutenant colonels, companies commanded by captains and platoons led by lieutenants. In the case of the Americal Division, prior to Colonel Oran K. Henderson’s assumption of command on March 15 and for reasons that are not entirely clear, the 11th Light Infantry Brigade had formed a special unit. Its purpose was to conduct search-and-destroy missions in the area north and east of Quang Ngai city. This task force was composed of units that would normally have been assigned to different battalions and would have been accustomed to the operating procedures of those respective commanders. However, these separate units were joined under the command of Lt. Col. Barker. This ad hoc organization was born as Task Force Barker about two months prior to the massacre.
Having assumed command of the 11th Brigade the day prior to the My Lai massacre, Colonel Henderson obviously did not know the strengths or weaknesses of the leaders within his brigade. He had never met them, had never seen their performance under fire and had no knowledge about his subordinate leaders’ abilities under stress. Nevertheless, whether in command for a day or for a year, a commander is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do.
Up until March 16, Task Force Barker had little direct contact with the enemy. It was the tactic of the 48th Battalion to avoid a firefight with American forces. The VC knew that the massive firepower of an American infantry battalion, plus its supporting artillery and helicopter gunships, could rain devastation down on them. Tet was the only time the 48th came out into open combat, and then it was severely wounded and probably would have been destroyed had its men not slipped into the outskirts of Quang Ngai city. The American forces were unable to get clearance to fire with their heavy weapons while the 48th hid in the coastal lowlands, heavily populated by rice farmers and where free-fire zones were few and far between. The 48th was then able to escape to the mountains, most likely marching down Highway 516 through the Viet Cong–friendly Nghia Hanh District.
Although Captain Medina lacked experience, he had responded well when his company was trapped in a minefield on February 25. Charlie Company suffered three killed and 12 wounded that day, but Medina was able to lead his troops out and was decorated for his actions.
Lieutenant Calley, up to this point in his life, had hardly been successful at anything. Standing only 5 feet 3 inches tall, the 24-year-old was unemployed when he entered the Army. He was selected for Officer Candidate School and graduated 127th out of 156 in his class. Calley had been in Vietnam just 90 days prior to March 16, and during that time the diminutive lieutenant had not gained the respect of his men; on the contrary, they regarded him as a joke and made snide comments behind his back. The men often did not follow his instructions and sometimes directly disobeyed his orders. In spite of this, Calley saw himself as a tough, hard-core infantry leader.
This was an extremely weak chain of command.
On the morning of March 16, an understrength American infantry rifle company air assaulted into a rice paddy just west of My Lai, expecting to confront a combat-hardened enemy battalion of 250 Viet Cong. Captain Medina’s company was going to attack the dug-in enemy battalion while the two other rifle companies of Task Force Barker lay waiting in blocking positions to blast away at the fleeing Viet Cong—like quail flushed from a grain field.
Fear was uppermost in the minds of these men as the helicopter rotors slapped the air en route to My Lai and to what would be their first close combat with the enemy. Some said silent prayers. Others simply cursed and shivered.
At 0730 the helicopters of the 174th Assault Helicopter Company dropped Calley’s platoon into the wet rice paddy. As they delivered their troops, the gunships fired away with machine guns to provide them with cover. As soon as the choppers pulled up and were gone, quiet descended upon the soldiers left lurking behind rice paddy dikes.
Return fire should have been intense, but not a single enemy shot was heard. The silence—the lack of that unmistakable crack of rifle fire—was overwhelming, and unnerving. Where was the 48th Battalion? Had the Viet Cong somehow mysteriously disappeared? Were they waiting in ambush?
After a short delay, Calley ordered his men to move out toward My Lai. The fear turned into hate as the soldiers waded through the mud, closing on the first huts of the village. There the horror began.
The law of unintended consequences seems always to rear its head when given the opportunity. This was just such a case. But, when Murphy’s Law comes into play, it is the leaders who must correct the situation—the strong leaders for whom the U.S. Army is so well known. Were there none on the ground at My Lai? Or overhead?
Flying above My Lai in their command and control (C&C) helicopters were the commanders and their staffs. Crammed with radios, bristling with antennae and M-60 machine guns, the C&Cs orbited in slow counterclockwise circles. The airborne staff personnel shuffled maps covered with multicolored grease pencil marks while they listened to every transmission from the ground below. Nestled in their armor-plated seats, the commanders looked down from an altitude of 1,000 to 2,500 feet. What were they seeing?
It appears that these commanders and their flying staffs were turning a blind eye to the bloody scene below. At 0930 Colonel Henderson did report to the Americal Division commander, Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster, that he saw 10 or so dead. If he could see 10, how could he have failed to see the rest of the carnage exposed to aerial view in drainage ditches around the village? It was reported that more than 100 old men, women and children had been killed by their men in the vicinity of My Lai by this time. What were the commanders of these men doing while orbiting over the village?
Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, his door gunner and his crew chief from the 123rd Aviation Battalion did see the horror unfolding below. Thompson took immediate action and landed his helicopter to rescue some wounded women and children from the scene of terror. In order to accomplish this heroic mission, Thompson ordered his gunner, Laurence Colburn, and his crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, to threaten members of Calley’s platoon if they wouldn’t allow him to fly the women and children away to safety. Thompson immediately reported what he had witnessed to his chain of command: first his platoon leader, then his operations officer and finally to Major Frederic Watkes, who then alerted Lt. Col. Barker.
The commander on the ground, Captain Medina, was now far in the rear, while Calley was personally killing old men, women and children in a ditch on the east side of the village. Photos taken by Army photographer Ron Haeberle captured the stark terror in the victims’ faces moments before they were killed by Calley’s automatic rifle.
The laws of land warfare explicitly protect noncombatants. When captured, they must be treated as prisoners of war or detainees. In any case they may not be executed.
Is it believable that among all the commanders and their airborne staff members who flew above My Lai on that fateful morning, not a single one of them saw the death and destruction that was being inflicted on the villagers? From 1,000 feet it is easy to distinguish an American soldier in his green jungle fatigues from a black pajama–clad Vietnamese. One could not fail to recognize the tangled corpses, heaped on both the south and east sides of this village.
The entire chain of command failed in its duty.
My Lai was a horrific outcome of failed leadership. A leader would have taken immediate disciplinary action against any soldier or officer who violated the universal law for protection of noncombatants. Had there been a single strong leader in the chain of command from General Koster to Lieutenant Calley, the massacre might have been stopped in its initial phase, saving dozens of old men, women and children from death. Instead, today visitors can read the names of 504 civilian victims on a memorial erected at My Lai.
Precisely because no battle plan survives the first shot, it is the unequivocal responsibility of leaders to be prepared for unusual contingencies—to go to the sound of firing so as to lead their men.
At My Lai on March 16, 1968, there were no leaders.
Ben G. Crosby was operations officer for 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry in Vietnam and also served in the 82nd Airborne, 1st Cavalry, 25th Infantry and 101st Air Assault. Crosby was awarded two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal and four Bronze Star Medals.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.