Massacre at Pinkville
March 15, 2008 7:17 AM   Subscribe

40 years ago tomorrow, more than 500 villagers were raped, tortured, and slaughtered (disturbing images) by American soldiers in a hamlet nicknamed Pinkville. Four Hours in My Lai tells the story. Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

Amidst the carnage, a few courageous souls distinguished themselves. Hugh Thompson, Jr. tried to stop events and rescued some children. (Prior mefi thread). Events were covered up for a year until whistle blower Ron Ridenhour wrote a letter that triggered an investigation leading to Seymour Hersh's reporting, the first wide public airing of the atrocities.

The My Lai Courts-Martial 1970 found Lt. Calley guilty and sentenced him to life, but he was pardoned by Nixon and today, is a jeweler in Georgia. No one else was held publicly accountable. Varnado Simpson, the soldier whose story opens and closes the video clips in the post, killed himself in 1997.

Oliver Stone is working on a film called Pinkville based on My Lai events. Production has been delayed doe to the writer's strike.
posted by madamjujujive (45 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The massacre occurred before I was born, and I've only heard the subject raised by people who were appalled by Calley's actions and by the subsequent pardon. I found the poll numbers suggesting that he enjoyed widespread support, at the Famous Trials page, to be very disconcerting.
posted by Phlogiston at 8:00 AM on March 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oliver Stone is working on a film called Pinkville

The feel good movie of 2008?
posted by Dave Faris at 8:02 AM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

fascinating film, thanks for the link
posted by subpixel at 8:06 AM on March 15, 2008

is it a musical per chance?
posted by billybobtoo at 8:08 AM on March 15, 2008

Just a few bad apples. Nothing to see here, move along please.
posted by kcds at 8:08 AM on March 15, 2008

"Veterans" who fabricate this kind of "atrocity" are evil, lying scumbags. [LGF link]
posted by fleetmouse at 8:14 AM on March 15, 2008

I was in the 5th grade of elementary school, in the heart of the very conservative south (Birmingham, Alabama) when My Lai made the news. Down there, there was a strong conservative reaction against any suggestion that William Calley (or any of his men) should receive any punishment at all, and it even went as far as a petition being passed around for children to sign, at my school, saying something to the effect that Calley was a good soldier, had done nothing wrong, etc. While I was a bit young to really grasp it all at the time, I still recall feeling that there was something fishy about this, and that this Calley guy probably did do something bad, and I didn't sign the petition. And I think that was the beginning of what thereafter became a very anti-Vietnam-war stance that I held throughout the remainder of the war.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:33 AM on March 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

According to Michelle Malkin, this never, ever happened. If you think it did, you're a fucking traitor.
posted by trinkatot at 8:38 AM on March 15, 2008

I remember I first heard about this a couple of years ago, and I was so pissed off I tracked down Calley and wanted to send him horrible anniversary cards of the massacre. I haven't, but I feel like it wouldn't have an effect--nothing he's ever said or done has indicated he thought the massacre was wrong.
posted by Anonymous at 8:40 AM on March 15, 2008

Haditha didn't happen either. US soldiers are automatically heroes and they provide you with freedom of speech or whatever-- no matter what you value, they're somehow responsible for you having it. SUPPORT OUR TROOPS!
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:53 AM on March 15, 2008 [6 favorites]

trinkatot - are you joking, or has Malkin actually gone on record as denying My Lai?
posted by jonson at 9:12 AM on March 15, 2008

. x 500+
posted by papakwanz at 9:28 AM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

a soldier is a terrorist from a wealthy country.
posted by kitchenrat at 9:31 AM on March 15, 2008 [8 favorites]

Colin Powell, later in the USA government, was involved in the cover-up.

Disgusting. Thank you for this bit of history mjjj. I'd heard about My Lai before, but never seen the photographs or the videos you've linked to. Will give them a watch when I have some more time. The pictures are horrendous though.
posted by hadjiboy at 9:38 AM on March 15, 2008

Three very quick links that need to be remembered, especially in this election year:

I would not normally use WikiPedia quotes, but this really IS "common knowledge" ... though a lot of folks seem to have forgotten.

We are so frelled ...
posted by aldus_manutius at 9:44 AM on March 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

We never learn.
posted by hojoki at 10:16 AM on March 15, 2008

No, I don't know that Malkin has ever officially denied My Lai. I just get enraged every time she goes on one of her whole the Winter Soldiers were a bunch of lying, thieving liars because obviously a U.S. soldier is beyond reproach.

I mean, they're kids, essentially. Someone gives them a gun and throws them into a middle of a war and people are being blown up and their friends are dying and they're in the middle of a situation that most have been completely impossible to puzzle out and it's shocking - shocking - to consider the notion that maybe all that frustration and anger and confusion found an outlet in senseless murder.

posted by trinkatot at 10:18 AM on March 15, 2008

Hey, you can't make an omlette without breaking a few eggs, amirite? Just seems like jocular fraternity-style antics to me.

Shit like this will happen. Soldiers are the State's hired killers, and in order to make them more effective killers, whoever the enemy du jour is is dehumanized and made into an evil caricature. In rare cases, such as European Fascism, they actually are evil bastards and it's not difficult. Most of the time, though, their alien culture is used to twist them into the Other and deny their basic humanity in order to accomplish the aims of the State's bullshit ideology or thirst for conquest. This, on top of a lifetime of propaganda at home (fun fact: mandatory public schools were first instituted in Prussia in a plan to make the State a surrogate parent and inundate male children with propaganda in order to make them more effective soldiers later. And today, I pledge allegiance to the flag...), is usually enough to get a young man to kill with impunity.
posted by DecemberBoy at 10:20 AM on March 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

This sh*t really, really bothers me. I want to slap the likes of Malkin and LGF right across the damned face; don't you understand that this is what happens in war? But it's not as if they don't understand that; and it's not as if they don't realize that My Lai happened, that the winter soldiers aren't all lying. They know Americans are as prone to these things as soldiers from other countries (though as DecemberBoy notes, some soldiers may be more prone to it).

The denial, rather, is for pure political reasons. It's a denial of human nature because their nationalist interest trumps truth - always.
posted by kgasmart at 10:55 AM on March 15, 2008

This 1970 Time magazine article reports that Surprisingly, Americans are not particularly disturbed by the disclosure that U.S. troops apparently massacred several hundred South Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. By a substantial 65% to 22%, the public shrugs off My Lai, reasoning that "incidents such as this are bound to happen in a war."

Of course, just weeks before, Time Magazine had declared Man and Woman of the Year: The Middle Americans:

THE Supreme Court had forbidden it, but they prayed defiantly in a school in Netcong, N.J., reading the morning invocation from the Congressional Record. In the state legislatures, they introduced more than 100 Draconian bills to put down campus dissent. In West Virginia, they passed a law absolving police in advance of guilt in any riot deaths. In Minneapolis they elected a police detective to be mayor. Everywhere, they flew the colors of assertive patriotism. Their car windows were plastered with American-flag decals, their ideological totems. In the bumper-sticker dialogue of the freeways, they answered MAKE LOVE NOT WAR with HONOR AMERICA or SPIRO IS MY HERO. They sent Richard Nixon to the White House and two teams of astronauts to the moon. They were both exalted and afraid. The mysteries of space were nothing, after all, compared with the menacing confusions of their own society.
posted by Rumple at 11:02 AM on March 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

The boys and me are drunk and looking for you
We'll eat your frigging entrails and we won't give a damn
Me daddy was a blue shirt and my mother a madam
And my brother earned his medals at Mai Lai in Vietnam

posted by UbuRoivas at 11:13 AM on March 15, 2008

posted by lester's sock puppet at 11:23 AM on March 15, 2008

you know, there used to be a governor of Georgia, a nice man of God, who responded to MyLai by inviting his fellow citizens to "honor the flag" and to leave car headlights on to show support for the unjustly convicted man.

the governor's name?

Jimmy Carter.
posted by matteo at 11:23 AM on March 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

History's greatest monster!
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:25 AM on March 15, 2008

I think a lot of people nowadays would argue that the shame of My Lai was that it took too long, and the village should simply have been incinerated instantaneously. There just doesn't seem to be any concern nowadays for civilian casualties of war of they happen to be in the wrong country -- I can't tell you how many people I have spoken to who have shrugged off the death of Iraqi civilians by saying, well, it's war, what are you going to do? And some say, scorch the earth, kill the all, send a message.

The only message I can see is that we are a country who forgets that the only possible excuse for a war is that it is unavoidable, and the only way you can acquit yourself of the hideous sin of war is to enter it in as honorable, just, and ethical a manner as possible. And, in that system, non-combatants are not simply collateral damage; they are civilians who must be protected as much as they can be. Otherwise we transform our soldiers into butchers, and our wars into mass murder.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:35 AM on March 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

This one, we know about because someone was brave enough to blow the whistle. How many other My Lais will we never know about? Odds are, even today, wherever a war is fought, My Lai is happening all over again. This is not an excuse for My Lai or its ilk; it's a lamentation for the inevitable.

As hojoki so succinctly put it: "We never learn." Why? It's because we can't.
posted by WalterMitty at 11:39 AM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Looking forward to making my way through this post-- thanks, madamjujujive.

I'll go ahead and add that one of the first books I ever re-read was Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods, a book that I still recommend to people.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 12:08 PM on March 15, 2008

I grew up in the 1960s and there were indeed, many, many Americans who didn't want to believe that US soldiers could have perpetrated this. But there were many who did and were completely horrified. It didn't help that Calley and his captain were the main targets of legal action and so it became easy to believe that they, particularly Calley, were scapegoats for others.

As I recall, this story unfolded rather slowly and there was the usual military foot-dragging to keep it from coming out. What always struck me about this massacre is that it went on for hours and hours. Initially, when it first was reported,the impression I had was that it was something that had occurred in a quick flash of anger, in response to an attack on the soldiers. As it turned out, it wasn't like that at all.

As long as we send young people to war, tell them everyone they meet could be an enemy, give them monstrous weapons and then turn them loose, this kind of thing is going to happen. It's not uniquely American. But neither are we immune from this kind of abuse and murder simply because we're American.

On a related note, yesterday I was listening to the parents of an Iraq war veteran who came home, fell apart and ultimately killed himself because of things he said he'd done or witnessed in Iraq. Their testimony (at the winter soldiers' gathering) made me weep, as a parent and as an American. The mother broke down telling of their inability to get help for their son, who was 23 when he died. The father told how he occasionally cradled his grown, weeping son in his lap and ended by describing one such cradling and then said the next day was the last time he touched his son, as he removed his son's body from the rafter from which he'd hung himself. Heartbreaking doesn't begin to describe this father's words and pain.

There was another story told by a weeping veteran of Afghanistan, who, if I understood him correctly, accidentally called in a mortar strike on a village because he'd misread his compass settings.

We can expect to read more about atrocities once we pull away from Iraq. Fewer and fewer reporters are covering Iraq and Afghanistan but eventually, we'll learn more and we'll be ashamed. Or should be. War is hell.
posted by etaoin at 12:18 PM on March 15, 2008 [5 favorites]

On a related note, yesterday I was listening to the parents of an Iraq war veteran who came home, fell apart and ultimately killed himself because of things he said he'd done or witnessed in Iraq. Their testimony (at the winter soldiers' gathering) made me weep, as a parent and as an American. The mother broke down telling of their inability to get help for their son, who was 23 when he died.

Jesus. That's just... man, it just reduces me to inarticulate rage. It's fucking obscene. You take these kids and lie to them and lie to them and lie some more and fill them full of bullshit propaganda and mindless macho jingoism, just so they can be effectively used up and thrown away like a used condom, to accomplish the goals of some twisted political ideology dreamed up by a bunch of Trotskyist-turned-Fascist cowards who have to use poor kids from the Midwest with few opportunities to live out their twisted Conquisatador/Crusader fantasies and create business opportunities for their soulless blood-soaked buddies. It's a New American Century!

Anyone ever see the Jodorowsky film The Holy Mountain? In it, the God of War is an arms salesman who creates and promotes war for her own profit. She does it by starting kids off on toy guns and war comics and the like, then takes a more or less random Other (in the example she gives, it's Peruvians) and builds them up as alien and evil through various media until a child grows up thirsting for war and violence and full of hatred for Peruvians or whoever, and can then be effectively used. Think about it, most of these kids are 18-22 or so, and for their ENTIRE LIVES Saddam Hussein and Iraq have been The Bad Guys in their world view, as promoted by all kinds of media. You think that's an accident? The kids who went to Vietnam had "the Commies" as The Bad Guys for their entire lives. It's not like the military just takes them and turns the chosen enemy into dehumanized evil overnight, they have a whole lifetime of preparation to build on.
posted by DecemberBoy at 12:36 PM on March 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

I had a history prof who showed us parts of Four Hours in My Lai. He was an incredibly intelligent, soft-spoken, level-headed, and anti-war person who had been drafted and served in Vietnam. On the last day he brought in an audio tape of a firefight recorded from the pilot that was almost as disturbing as Varnado Simpson in his home in the first scene of the documentary (I know it gets worse, but I can never watch that man barely keep it together while he thinks about the past--by the time I saw it he had already committed suicide).

My Lai is an atrocity that someone in the government (and those responsible) should have paid for with an Old Testament magnitude, just like our and everyone else's current war and all others that will follow.

Personally, though, it's the fact that poverty-stricken kids on both sides of most any conflict, innocent and guilty or indoctrinated and not, die every goddamn day--that no one will ever be held accountable for--that makes it hard for me to sleep some nights.
posted by sleepy pete at 12:45 PM on March 15, 2008


I was in college when Hersh's reporting made the news; he's been my journalistic hero ever since, and I can't think of the events of that day in 1968 without choking with rage and humiliation (that people would do such a thing, that other people would lie about it and cover it up so doggedly because image is more important than truth). Thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 12:49 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, I forgot to add, if there is a god, I hope the deity blesses Seymour Hersh a thousand times over.

Or, what languagehat said.
posted by sleepy pete at 12:53 PM on March 15, 2008

Digby ran an excerpt from Rick Perelstein's "Nixonland" a while back. This'll boil yer blood:

The VFW's national commander Herbert Rainwater led the way: "There have been My Lais in every war. Now for the first time we have tried a soldier for performing his duty." A little Mormon boy in Utah, Timmy Poppleton, wrote his senator begging him to intervene: "I'm only eight years old, but I know that Lieut. Calley was defending our freedoms against Communism." ...

The American Legion post at Columbus, Georgia, home of Fort Benning, pitched in a promise they would raise $100,000 to help fund Calley's appeal "or die trying": "The real murderers are the demonstrators in Washington who disrupt traffic, tear up public property, who deface the American flag. Lieut. Calley is a hero. He's an all-American. He fought for us in a country where Communism is still trying to take over. We should be proud of him. We should elevate him to saint rather than jail him like a common criminal." ....

The White House had done its polling. 78 percent disagreed with Calley's conviction and sentence; 51 percent wanted him exonerated outright. Within 24 hours the White House got 100,000 telegrams, calls, and letters. They were 100 to one for Calley's release. Meanwhile the President's handling of Vietnam in general he was heading into Lyndon Johnson territory: 41 percent approval, 47 percent disapproval. On March 30 the White House alerted the media that on March 7 the President would go on TV to announce more troop cuts. Then they got to work exploiting Calley.

posted by kgasmart at 1:05 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

"I'm only eight years old, but I know that Lieut. Calley was defending our freedoms against Communism."

Doubleplusgood statement!

America has always been defending its freedoms against Communism Terrorism.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:17 PM on March 15, 2008

I am positive I remember an article in the Detroit Free Press Sunday magazine regarding a soldier, who was ordered by Calley to kill civilians. This soldier pulled his rifle, pointed it at Calley's stomach and refused. This soldier was Black and the article hinted that since he was a minority, it was easier for him to refuse an order and go against what the others were doing. I seem to remember that after the war, he opened his own Garage in Detroit. The Garage wasn't doing well and was very run down. I was probably 10 when I read this article and I've always remembered it. Does anyone know if my memories are true and what this man's name is?
posted by TorontoSandy at 1:24 PM on March 15, 2008

On the Media has an interesting interview with Hersh about the Massacre and his coverage of it.
posted by Bizurke at 1:25 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

AZ: There just doesn't seem to be any concern nowadays for civilian casualties of war....

I'm curious about the "nowadays" part of that. I wasn't alive during the war in Viet Nam, but I get the impression that there is increasing concern for civilian casualties.

I've never heard of any US soldiers tried for war crimes that occurred during WWII-- but we sure bombed the shit out of a bunch of civilians.

Were there zero civilian casualties in WWI? All I ever read about is the number of dead soldiers.

Nobody seemed to really care about the Philippines, save for Filipinos, of course.

Looking back further, I've never heard of ANY regret for civilian casualties of, say, the Crusades, and I find it hard to believe that there were none. Instead, it seems to me like the lives of the members of the military were considered more important than the lives of civilians.
posted by nathan v at 1:44 PM on March 15, 2008

I'm curious about the "nowadays" part of that. I wasn't alive during the war in Viet Nam, but I get the impression that there is increasing concern for civilian casualties.

I've never heard of any US soldiers tried for war crimes that occurred during WWII-- but we sure bombed the shit out of a bunch of civilians.

Were there zero civilian casualties in WWI? All I ever read about is the number of dead soldiers.

Been reading/talking about this very thing in a history class I'm taking, and I'd recommend Niall Ferguson's "War of the World" - which talks about how the nature of war was almost completely redefined in the 20th century, from World War I where fewer than 20 percent of all casualties were civilians, to later conflicts where the vast majority of casualties were civilian and really were always intended to be civilian (take your pick, really - WWII, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, etc. etc.)
posted by kgasmart at 2:07 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

By a substantial 65% to 22%, the public shrugs off My Lai, reasoning that "incidents such as this are bound to happen in a war."

On the face of it the respondents are right; they correctly recognized that horrible things, including the systematic killing of civilians, commonly occurs in war. But they drew exactly the wrong conclusion from this fact. You don't shrug off massacres because they are relatively common in war, you recognize that because shit like this happens in war you only go to war under the most dire of circumstances, and never wage war aggressively.

It sure seems like Bushco drew the "oh well, shit happens" conclusion.
posted by Justinian at 2:17 PM on March 15, 2008

TorontoSandy, many soldiers refused to participate - in my readings and recollection, I think the numbers of participants ranged from about 15 to 30. One allegedly shot himself in the foot to be medvac-ed out. Another shot a mother and child and then refused to kill more. Michael Bernhardt, a sgt, totally refused to participate and after the event, was assigned especially dangerous duty, which he barely survived, He later was a key witness along with a photographer and the helicopter crew spearheaded by Thompson. You can read about Bernardt in the Ridenhour story. It must have taken unbelievable courage to refuse to obey supervisor orders and to go against your comrades in arms. A witness of terrible crimes is often at risk of becoming a victim.

Bizurke, thanks for the link to the Hersh interview. He sounds incredibly sympathetic to the individual soldiers. And this was indeed the real failing and crime of leadership, who made the order and the policy and who well knew what was going on. And, yes, as aldus_manutius links, that included Colin Powell. I blame the leadership.

I can understand how in the heat of battle, soldiers shoot innocent people, make mistakes, dehumanize, engage in terrible acts - fear, chaos, anger, adrenaline make this inevitable. But it is almost inconceivable to think how anyone could engage in carnage on such a scale - entering a village with no resistance, and then raping, cutting out tongues and cutting off limbs, shooting and bayoneting babies and the elderly and conducting 4 hours of massive close-quarter slaughter against unarmed people. Even if you were given an order to kill unarmed people and accepted that as part of war, would that allow you to accept rape and torture as being OK to do? Killing infants and toddlers? I can't get my head around that level of dehumanization at all.
posted by madamjujujive at 2:45 PM on March 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

You know, I always thougt that the reason that Colin Powel never ran for public office was that he had some awful military skeleton in his closet. I guess I was right. But Jimmy Carter? Say it ain't so!
posted by emd3737 at 5:35 PM on March 15, 2008

It is very painful for me to see photos of My Lai because it is not hard for me to see myself in the young and now at my age, the not so young victims. It is still harder when the faces of the children bear a resemblance to my children, now. But you know, I still feel bad for the soldiers. Why? Because, I, through my government have asked people to kill and take the weight of that killing. My government, its representatives, basically have failed in the most basic sense, of caring and care for those who do our killing and for those who are in the harm's way of that killing. We try with rhetorical tricks and with false world weariness to minimize or deny the impact of war, its consequences and even the causes ("let's not re-litigate the causes of the war".) But there is a weight, there is a cost that is real and exists beyond all the cognitive dissonance.

So I look at myself, in the mirror during the daylight and thinking at night when it is at last quiet, and know that I can kill. I hope that I would have the strength to know when I should take that weight and the cost, but I am not 18, sleep deprived, scared, surrounded by the foreign, dangerous weapons, and deadly boredom punctuated by rushes of fearful adrenalin but an older woman who potters around her gardening. I feel bad for everyone there at Pinkville, because they are me and mine, dead or close to dead inside.

Who do I not feel bad about? Well me, in the form of my government and its representatives, who with rhetoric and all the thousand cuts of moral ethical failures have people kill; take on all the weight of that killing and claim no responsibility when "mistakes have been made." or when the killers break under the weight that has been placed on them.
posted by jadepearl at 6:25 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

U.S. soldier returns to My Lai:

"Lawrence Colburn returned to My Lai and found hope at the site of one of the most notorious chapters of the Vietnam War. ... On the 40th anniversary of the massacre of up to 500 unarmed Vietnamese villagers, the former helicopter gunner was reunited Saturday with a young man he rescued from rampaging U.S. soldiers."
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:17 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Daniel Schorr discussed this on NPR this morning. When soldiers are surrounded by an unfamiliar culture, they begin to see everything as a threat.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:59 AM on March 16, 2008

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