Letter from Vietnam – by Robert Richert

By | July 8, 2013

Robert Richert

The My Lai Massacre and the Behavior of Soldiers in the Field

According to Wikipedia, My Lai (pronounced, me lie) “…was the mass murder conducted by U.S. Army forces on March 16, 1968 of 347 to 504 unarmed citizens in South Vietnam, all of whom were civilians and majority of whom were womean, children, and elderly people.  Many of the victims were sexually abused, beaten, tortured, and some of the bodies were found mutilated.  While 26 US soldiers were initially charged with criminal offenses for their actions at My Lai, only William Calley  was convicted. He served only three years of an original life sentence, while on house arrest”. 

 Excerpt from my letter home – December 26, 1969

           “I read with disgust the article in the November Time Magazine about the My Lai incident.  What kind of person would fire a magazine of 16 rounds into a little boy?  I’ve seen guys, who after seeing their buddies get blown away, feel like shooting at anyone with slanted eyes, but they didn’t because their reason dispelled their emotions.

          During the day, the farmers we see plowing their fields are innocent civilians.  At night, however, some of them are out setting booby traps.  But, we cannot hold an entire village, especially children, responsible for those among them who are VC.  Many of the civilians that we believe are VC sympathizers may just be scared civilians who pay taxes to and are harassed by the VC who come at night to the villages.  Most of these people are loyal only to themselves and their families.  They live in fear of destruction by VC and GI”.

This famous massacre occurred at  Son My village, Son Tinh district of South Vietnam by units of the Americal Division, the Division to which I was assigned one year and three months later.  On a few occasions our unit patrolled areas just a few miles south of Son My village.  However, the incident didn’t become public knowledge until sometime after March, 1969.  Thus, news of the massacre never reached us while I was in the infantry.  I first learned about it shortly before sending my December 26th, 1969 letter home.  At that time I had just been reassigned out of the infantry and into an artillery unit.

One had to be there to understand the mind-set of the average American infantry soldier in Vietnam.  During basic and infantry training in the U.S., the drill instructors made us sing as we marched or ran.  One song often repeated was, “I want to go to Vietnam, I want to kill a Charlie Cong…”   We were not encouraged but also not discouraged to use words like, “dink, gook”, or “slope”, to describe the enemy.  Dehumanization of the enemy is a psychological tactic that governments use to motivate young minds to want to go to war and once in combat, to make it easier to kill.

General Westmoreland was head of U.S. forces in Vietnam during the first few months of my tour.  Under his ‘leadership’, the paramount factor in assessing our success in combat was body counts.  Gruesome as it seems, winning a battle was measured by the numbers of piled dead bodies.  The army never admitted it, but Westmoreland’s tactic sometimes translated down the line to, “Kill as many gooks as you can”.  Of course, most of us knew that randomly shooting civilians, especially women and children, was considered a war crime and morally reprehensible.  Indeed, we were taught this in our infantry training before going off to war.  However, the Viet Cong didn’t wear nicely starched uniforms with shiny brass buttons.  They dressed in civilian attire.  The farmer, his wife, and sometimes his children waving at you during the day, at night might be out planting mines or booby traps, or ambushing our infantry forces.  The ambiguity about who is civilian and who might be Viet Cong created an extremely stressful situation for those of us in the field.  Also, unlike in previous wars, no clear cut battle lines were drawn.  We were constantly on guard, constantly aware that at any time we could be attacked; even in relatively safe rear areas.  Believe me, this causes one considerable stress.  Many soldiers expressed hatred toward all Vietnamese, and sometimes would act on that hatred.  Soldiers who normally treated the Vietnamese people civilly upon seeing their buddies get blown away in a firefight might become enraged killers seeking vengeance­—upon anyone.  While I considered the Vietnamese as primitive and inferior, I never developed hatred toward them.  I am not claiming moral superiority, only that I did not experience the horror of seeing my best buddy die next to me in a firefight.  That experience will warp anyone’s psyche, even the most mild-mannered amongst us.  During my six months in the infantry, I never witnessed soldiers kill civilians without provocation, but heard many stories of such.  Considering the circumstances, I have no reason to doubt that they happened.  I did see my share of uncivil behavior, and I will now share several examples.

Usually, our infantry unit went out on foot patrols.  One day, our company was working with a track vehicle unit.  We were riding on top of the tanks and armored personnel carriers (APC) through a small Vietnamese fishing village along what we called Highway 1.  This Vietnamese lifeline meandered along the entire coast of Vietnam from north to south, and at this location consisted of a two lane paved road.  Highway 1 was a busy throughway and many pedestrians moved about along the side of the road.  We soldiers usually rode on top of the tanks and APC’s because if we struck a landmine, we would be thrown off rather than injured or killed inside due to concussion.  One of the men in the track unit stood up and while laughing throughout, started throwing 50 mm shell casings indiscriminately into the crowd; at women, children, and old people.  One of these five inch long shells struck an old man in the leg.  He winced in terrible pain and then glared at us with a look of hatred I won’t ever forget.  I couldn’t help but wonder, “Will this civilian now be motivated to go out at night and plant booby traps and mines”?  I also remember how guilty I felt for not speaking out against this irresponsible behavior.  After all, those of us in the infantry were the most likely to suffer the wrath of abused civilians like that old man.

Early on in my days in the infantry, our company leader was a gung-ho captain, not unlike the character portrayed by Robert Duval in the movie, Apocalypse Now.  He hated the Vietnamese and was quite aggressive.  One day we were set up in an area along the coast near a civilian populace.  Sitting around with nothing to do, many of us were bored.  Just to show off and amuse himself, the captain began shooting his M-16 rifle at large rocks very close to some Vietnamese teenagers and children walking nearby.  He laughed about scaring the hell out of them.  It worked and they ran off!  I was disgusted by the captain’s reckless act, but kept my mouth shut.  I was in no position to question his ‘authority’.

Vietnamese civilians were subject to a curfew.  None were supposed to be out after dark, except in a few designated areas.  One evening our company set up in the late afternoon away from a populated area near a lake.  As the sun was going down we noticed a lone fisherman in a rowboat out in the middle of the lake.  This was the time he should have been heading in for the night.  Our crazed captain ordered the machine gunner to load a belt of tracer rounds.  Tracers are bullets that leave a red-orange trail as they exit the barrel.  About every fifth round in a belt is a tracer, thus the trail appears like a series of orange dashes.  The purpose of tracers is to enable the gunner to hone in on a target.  The captain proceeded to practice his marksmanship while having fun shooting at the man in his boat, which was about 1,000 feet away.  Hitting a target at that distance with the 60 is quite a challenge.  We could see the tracer rounds arc downward and zero in on this defenseless fisherman.  I saw the water around him splash and I think he jumped out in order to hide on the far side of his boat, but I’m not sure.  The captain acted like a kid at a carnival shooting gallery.  By the time our captain let up after 10 minutes or so, the sun had set behind some hills.  Darkness was beginning to settle in so I have no idea if the Vietnamese man was struck or managed to find his way safely to shore.

On yet another day out in the field and under the same gung-ho captain, our unit captured two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers.  I couldn’t believe how young they were; 15 or 16 at best.  They were seated and tied up back to back.  I, along with another soldier, was assigned to keep watch until a chopper could arrive to pick them up.  We stood a few feet away with our rifles pointed right at them.  One of the prisoners was actually smiling, and I remember thinking, “Doesn’t this guy know what’s going on”?  That is not as far-fetched as you might think.  Sometimes the NVA soldiers were so doped up that they didn’t know up from down!  Or perhaps these kids were just too young and naïve to grasp the gravity of their situation.  Anyway, I was really concerned that our gung-ho Captain was going to order us to shoot these two young prisoners.  He was crazy enough to do it!  As I recall, I mentioned this to my fellow soldier, and he expressed the same anxiety.  In this awful war, I heard that many a would-be prisoner ended up shot in the head or thrown out of a helicopter in flight; sometimes just for the hell of it!  We two guards faced potential peer pressure from other aggressive soldiers and a direct order from a superior.  The situation was quite tense.  Thankfully, the order to kill the prisoners never came.  I sighed in relief.  However, I have no idea what I would have done had he given that dreadful order; an order in defiance of military codes of conduct.  I would like to think that I would have declined such an illegal order, but I can’t honestly say that I would have mustered the courage.  The nature of combat is such that ugly scenarios and shameful acts are inevitable.  To this day I am at peace that our captain didn’t give the order to kill the boys and that I wasn’t faced with an agonizing wartime dilemma.

I contrast the attitude of this aggressive captain with that of a new Second Lieutenant that arrived about one month before I left the infantry.  By this time, the aggressive captain had gone home; good riddance!  The new lieutenant was quite concerned about his safety—not from the enemy, but from us!  He told us that during his training back in the states, rumors were rampant about disgruntled soldiers ‘fragging’ their superior officers.  Fragging is an expression describing an incident in which a soldier surreptitiously tosses a hand grenade into the dwelling of his despised officer.  It also refers to any manner of killing an officer by an enlisted man for the sake of revenge.  Sensing the Second Lieutenant’s anxiety, I sought to reassure him.  I told him that like most rumors, the extent to which these incidents occurred was exaggerated.  Although I heard about fraggings and was certain that they happened, as far as I knew, perhaps one had occurred in our unit during my previous five months in the infantry.  Unlike this rookie officer, many Second Lieutenants came to Vietnam breathing fire.  They were anxious to prove themselves, earn medals, and become the next George Patton.  This aggressiveness did not sit well with most of us in my unit.  We just wanted to stay away from danger and bide our time until it was time to go home.  I advised the second lieutenant not to be gung-ho.  Instead, listen to the wisdom gained by those of us that had been in the field for a while.  He showed openness to my suggestions.  In the short time I knew him he learned to relax and became admired by members of our platoon.  I cannot remember his name, but I hope that he survived the war.

There were times that my unit became engaged in a firefight emanating from a village.  When we were attacked, we fired back, sometimes into flimsy bamboo constructed hooches.  I could only hope that elders, women and children were evacuated or hiding underground in tunnels.  In the firefight or shelling incidents that I experienced, we never found any women and children among the dead, thank goodness!  After one brutal artillery shelling, we entered a village and I expected that we would find dead bodies everywhere.  To my surprise, we didn’t find anyone—alive or dead!  It was as if the villagers were warned ahead or just vanished into the Twilight Zone; it was an eerie experience.  I remember how guilty I felt on the single occasion we burned down a village after one of these firefights.  I also remember how some of the men seemed to relish setting the fires.  The Vietnamese people worked very hard to build and maintain their dwellings, crude as they seemed to us.  The platoon leader rationalized this act as a military necessity, but I suspect it was revenge—or worse, just sport.

The ambiguities about the purposes for our involvement in Vietnam, who is civilian and who is V.C., the lack of clearly drawn battle lines, and Westmoreland’s policy of compiling body counts, was a recipe rife for the abuse of the civilian populace by American soldiers.  I believe that Westmoreland’s body count policy led to many unnecessary and terrible deaths.  I retain zero respect for that man, and I hope that history does not honor him.

It is easy sitting in a comfortable living room sipping coffee to condemn atrocities and other uncivil behavior by American soldiers involved in this war.  I plead with my readers to consider:  When young men and women are sent into the insanity that is war, especially with all of the ambiguities of Vietnam, how can we expect them to behave sanely?

All of the above being said, even in combat some acts are just too horrific to be swept under the rug.  My Lai is one of those.


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