My Lai Massacre Details: How The U.S. Became War Criminals During The Vietnam War

By | March 14, 2020

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An American soldier fans the flames. (Ronald Haeberle, 1968)

Have you ever wondered why Vietnam veterans are regarded as "baby killers" by certain political factions? It was because of the My Lai massacre, which was so horrific that it literally changed the way we teach war. In barest detail, a company of American soldiers killed 504 unarmed civilians—including over 170 children, 17 pregnant women, and 56 infants—in the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. The massacre and subsequent cover-up deepened the bitter divide between doves and hawks on American soil.

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An American soldier firing his M16 rifle during the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968 in My Lai, South Vietnam. ( Ronald S. Haeberle/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)

Who Was Involved In The My Lai Massacre?

A group called Task Force Barker, named after Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker, was given the job of flushing out the Viet Cong from the area around My Lai in an effort to gain the upper hand after the Tet offensive. Formed in January 1968, it consisted of three rifle companies from the 11th Brigade, including 100 men from Charlie Company and another 100 from Bravo Company. The 11th Brigade commander, Colonel Oran K. Henderson, reportedly told his officers to "go in there aggressively, close with the enemy, and wipe them out for good," while the aforementioned Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker urged his men to "burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy food supplies, and destroy the wells." To cap all this off, at the briefing the night before, Captain Ernest Medina assured his men that civilians would have left and anyone remaining was likely a V.C. member or sympathizer. Former Private 1st Class from Second Platoon Dennis Bunning phrased Medina's game plan this way:

"We’re going to get even with them for all the losses we've had. We're going in there, we're killing everything that's alive. We're throwing the bodies down the wells, we're burning the villages, and we're wiping them off of the map.”

Though perhaps too violent to be called a pep talk, Charlie Company certainly needed one. They were already down 28 men due to death or injury. Those who were left could reasonably be called "boys"—the group's average age was only 20 years old. Ron Haeberle, whose photographs would rock the world once the operation's cover was blown, was only 28. Lieutenant William Calley, who was ultimately the only one convicted, was even younger—just 24 years old—when he became notorious for the number of unarmed civilians he had slain and the extent of his actions.