Albatross Revisited, Perspective on the My Lai Massacre

Excerpt from the book, Vietnam Insights, by James M. Griffiths


Every returning Vietnam veteran, to one extent or another, has been stained by the massacre at My Lai. Recent events have opened up questions again. (Bob Kerrey) Vilification of all Vietnam veterans is unwarranted as the following excerpt explains.

The My Lai massacre, an infamous and notorious event of the Vietnam War, will serve as the turning point in perspective in this chapter.  My Lai was terrible and inexcusable and in no way can be condoned.  It also cannot be denied.  It is a fact and a terrible blemish on American involvement in Vietnam.

My Lai also serves to illustrate how an event can be extrapolated to apply to a whole war and millions of American fighting men who served in that war.  The time has come to put My Lai and other events that define the Vietnam veteran in proper perspective.

My Lai, which has also been referred to as Son My, at times has been portrayed as the norm as opposed to an aberration.   “Was the My Lai massacre characteristic of the way all ‘search and destroy’ missions were carried out?  Some said that it was.  For example, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, a well known antiwar activist, declared: ‘My Lai epitomizes the Vietnam War...because every returning soldier can tell of similar incidents, if on a somewhat smaller scale...”8

“Three other psychiatrists agreed: ‘The most important fact about the My Lai massacre is that it was only a minor step beyond the standard, official, routine U.S. policy in Vietnam.’”9   “And Hans J. Morgenthau was ‘firmly convinced that what happened in My Lai and elsewhere were not accidents, or deviations..., but the inevitable outgrowth of the kind of war we were waging.’”10

Yet no evidence existed at the time—and none has materialized since—to substantiate the charge that My Lai was typical.  Nor is it likely, given the number of antiwar journalists reporting on Vietnam, that if other atrocities had occurred, they could have been kept secret.  Telford Taylor, who had been a prosecutor at Nuremberg and was a strong opponent of the war, disputed the judgment of Lifton and others on this point:11 ‘It has been said that the massacre at Son My was not unique, but I am unaware of any evidence of other incidents of comparable magnitude, and the reported reaction of some of the soldiers at Son My strongly indicates that they regarded it as out of the ordinary.’12

Daniel Ellsberg, himself staunchly anti-war, even understood full well that My Lai was not typical of actions by American soldiers in the Vietnam War.

My Lai was beyond the bounds of permissible behavior, and that is recognizable by virtually every soldier in Vietnam.   They know it was wrong:  No shots had been fired at the soldiers, no enemy troops were in the village, nobody was armed.  The men who were at My Lai knew there were aspects out of the ordinary.  That is why they tried to hide the event, talked about it to no one, discussed it very little even among themselves.13

My Lai, as has been mentioned before, was a terrible incident on the American record in Vietnam.  It was not, however, the norm in that war.  Those that have extrapolated this terrible incident unto the backs of millions of American soldiers that served in Vietnam have committed a grave injustice to these warriors.  “Facts aside, the public perception that My Lai was a common occurrence was generated largely by the vitriolic assertions and activities of celebrated leaders of the anti-war movement.”

James M. Griffiths, Vietnam Insights: Logic of Involvement and Unconventional Perspectives, (New York: Vantage Press, 2000).

8 Robert  J. Lifton, in Norman Podhoretz Why We Were in Vietnam, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982) p. 188.

 9 Edward M. Opton, Jr., In War Crimes and the American Conscience, pp113-114, cited in          Podhoretz

10 Hans J. Morgenthau, in War Crimes and the American Conscience, p110, cited in Podhoretz.

 11 Podhoretz

 12 Telford Taylor, Nuremberg and Vietnam, (New York: Bantam Books, 1971) p. 139,cited in         Podhoretz.

13 Daniel Ellsberg, in War Crimes and the American Conscience, p. 130, cited in Podhoretz.