An American Atrocity:
The My Lai Massacre Concretized
in a Victim's Face
Some people think that the Japanese committed atrocities, that the Germans com-
mitted atrocities, that the Russians committed atrocities, but that the Americans
don't commit atrocities. Weil, this just isn't so. American troops are as capable as
any other of committing atrocities.'
—Robert Rheault, 1970, former commander of U.S. Special Forces, Vietnam
Few military operations have been documented as thoroughly as the My Lai massacre
during the Vietnam War. Documents from army investigations and congressional hear-
ings, court-martial transcripts, articles, books, and documentaries—all based on inter-
views with the soldiers who perpetrated it and the villagers who survived it—detail how
American soldiers murdered more than 500 unarmed women, children, and old men on
March 16, 1968.^
It might have been the most forgotten operation. The officers of Charlie Company
and their superiors in the Americal Division covered up the massacre, and it would have
remained buried, except for Spec. Ron Ridenhour, who learned of the event from friends
who participated. After his discharge from the army, Ridenhour reported the killings in a
letter to President Richard M. Nixon, several senators and representatives, and Pentagon
officials in March 1969. He quoted one sergeant who said, "They were slaughtering the
villagers like so many sheep."^
Despite Ridenhour's letter and the Investigations it launched, the massacre would
probably have made little public impact, had it not been for photographs taken by Sgt.
Ron Haeberle. (On that same day another company massacred at least ninety women
and children a mile away in My Khe—an atrocity few have heard of.) The publication
of Haeberle's photos in
magazines in late November and early December
1969 propelled the story to national and international attention.'*
Claude Cookman is an associate professor at Indiana University where he teaches the history of photography. He
was an army officet iti Vietnam when the My Lai massacre occurred.
Readers may contact Cookman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
' Grace Sevy, ed.
The American Experience in Vietnam: A Reader
(Norman, 1989), 129.
^ For an account of the events at My Lai and their aftermath, 1 relied on Michal R. Belknap,
The Vietnam War on
Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley
(Lawrence, 2002); Seymour M. Hersh,
Lai 4: A Report on the Massane and Its Afiermath (New York,
1970); James S. Olson and Randy
Rohens, My Lai: A
Brief History with Documents
(New York, 1998); W R. Peers,
The My Lai Inquiry
(New York, 1979); and Sevy, ed.,
American Experience in Vietnam.