My Lai changed the way we view war, for awhile

Ronald L. Haeberle | AP, Life magazine

Back in the day when our Vietnam experience made the United States skittish about going to war, this date in 1968 is a big reason why.

On March 16, 1968, United States troops massacred the village of My Lai — about 300 people, mostly women and children.

The massacre was covered up for more than a year until Ronald Ridenhour, a young GI, sent this letter to several government officials, urging an investigation.

The other two companies that made up the task force cordoned off the village so that “Charlie” Company could move through to destroy the structures and kill the inhabitants. Any villagers who ran from Charlie Company were stopped by the encircling companies.

I asked “Butch” several times if all the people were killed. He said that he thought they were men, women and children. He recalled seeing a small boy, about three or four years old, standing by the trail with a gunshot wound in one arm. The boy was clutching his wounded arm with his other hand, while blood trickled between his fingers.

He was staring around himself in shock and disbelief at what he saw. “He just stood there with big eyes staring around like he didn’t understand; he didn’t believe was happening. Then the captain’s RTO (radio operator) put a burst of 16 (M-16 rifle) fire into him.”

It was so bad, Gruver said, that one of the men in his squad shot himself in the foot in order to be medivaced out of the area so that he would not have to participate in the slaughter. Although he had not seen it, Gruver had been told by people he considered trustworthy that one of the company’s officers, 2nd Lieutenant Kally (this spelling may be incorrect) had rounded up several groups of villagers (each group consisting of a minimum of 20 persons of both sexes and all ages).

According to the story, Kally then machine-gunned each group. Gruver estimated that the population of the village had been 300 to 400 people and that very few, if any, escaped.

Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader, was sentenced to life in prison in 1971. He was pardoned by Richard Nixon three years later. He served four months.

Of 26 soldiers charged in the massacre, he was the only one convicted.

He apologized in 2009.

Related: By making war, US unleashed mass rape (The Boston Globe).