Seymour Hersh breaks the story of My Lai (1969)

On November 12th 1969 the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, after interviewing William Calley, broke the story of the killing of civilians at My Lai. The following story appeared in a St Louis daily newspaper:

“William L Calley Jr., 26 years old, is a mild-mannered, boyish-looking Vietnam combat veteran with the nickname “Rusty”. The Army is completing an investigation of charges that he deliberately murdered at least 109 Vietnamese civilians in a search-and-destroy mission in March 1968 in a Viet Cong stronghold known as “Pinkville”.

Calley has formally been charged with six specifications of mass murder. Each specification cites a number of dead, adding up to the 109 total, and charges that Calley did “with premeditation murder… Oriental human beings, whose names and sex are unknown, by shooting them with a rifle”.

The Army calls it murder; Calley, his counsel and others associated with the incident describe it as a case of carrying out orders.

“Pinkville” has become a widely known code word among the military in a case that many officers and some Congressmen believe will become far more controversial than the recent murder charges against eight Green Berets. Army investigation teams spent nearly one year studying the incident before filing charges against Calley, a platoon leader of the Eleventh Brigade of the American Division at the time of the killings.

Calley was formally charged on or about September 6th 1969, in the multiple deaths, just a few days before he was due to be released from active service.

Calley has since hired a prominent civilian attorney, former Judge George W. Latimer of the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, and is now awaiting a military determination of whether the evidence justifies a general court-martial Pentagon officials describe the present stage of the case as the equivalent of a civilian grand jury proceeding. Calley, meanwhile, is being detained at Fort Benning, where his movements are sharply restricted. Even his exact location on the base is secret; neither the provost marshal nor the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division knows where he is being held.

The Army has refused to comment on the case “in order not to prejudice the continuing investigation and rights of the accused”. Similarly, Calley – although agreeing to an interview – refused to discuss in detail what happened on March 16th 1968.

However, many other officers and civilian officials, some angered by Calley’s action and others angry that charges of murder were filed in the case, talked freely in interviews at Fort Benning and Washington.

These facts are not in dispute:

The Pinkville area, about six miles northeast of Quang Ngai, had been a Viet Cong fortress since the Vietnam war began. In early February 1968, a company of the Eleventh Brigade, as part of Task Force Barker, pushed through the area and was severely shot up.

Calley’s platoon suffered casualties. After the Communist Tet offensive in February 1968, a larger assault was mounted, again with high casualties and little success. A third attack was quickly mounted and it was successful.

The Army claimed 128 Viet Cong were killed. Many civilians also were killed in the operation. The area was a free fire zone from which all non-Viet Cong residents had been urged, by leaflet, to flee. Such zones are common throughout Vietnam. One man who took part in the mission with Calley said that in the earlier two attacks “we were really shot up”.

“Every time we got hit it was from the rear,” he said. “So the third time in there the order came down to go in and make sure no one was behind… We were told to just clear the area. It was a typical combat assault formation. We came in hot, with a cover of artillery in front of us, came down the line and destroyed the village. There are always some civilian casualties in a combat operation. He isn’t guilty of murder.”

The order to clear the area was relayed from the battalion commander to the company commander to Calley, the source said. Calley’s attorney said in an interview: “This is one case that should never have been brought. Whatever killing there was was in a firefight in connection with the operation. You can’t afford to guess whether a civilian is a Viet Cong or not. Either they shoot you or you shoot them.”

“This case is going to be important – to what standard do you hold a combat officer in carrying out a mission? There are two instances where murder is acceptable to anybody: where it is excusable and where it is justified. If Calley did shoot anybody because of the tactical situation or while in a firefight, it was either excusable or justifiable.”

Adding to the complexity of the case is the fact that investigators from the Army inspector general’s office, which conducted the bulk of the investigation, considered filing charges against at least six other men involved in the action March 16th.

A Fort Benning infantry officer has found that the facts of the case justify Calley’s trial by general court-martial on charges of premeditated murder…

Calley’s friends in the officer corps at Fort Benning, many of them West Point graduates, are indignant. However, knowing the high stakes of the case, they express their outrage in private.

“They’re using this as a Goddamned example”, one officer complained. “He’s a good soldier. He followed orders. There weren’t any friendlies in the village. The orders were to shoot anything that moved.”

Another officer said “It could happen to any of us. He has killed and has seen a lot of killing. ..Killing becomes nothing in Vietnam. He knew that there were civilians there, but he also knew that there were VC among them.”

A third officer, also familiar with the case, said: “There’s this question—I think anyone who goes to (Viet) Nam asks it. What’s a civilian? Someone who works for us at day and puts on Viet Cong pyjamas at night?”

There is another side of the Calley case – one that the Army cannot yet disclose. Interviews have brought out the fact that the investigation into the Pinkville affair was initiated six months after the incident, only after some of the men who served under Calley complained. The Army has photographs purported to be of the incident, although these have not been introduced as evidence in the case, and may not be.

“They simply shot up this village and (Calley) was the leader of it”, said one Washington source. “When one guy refused to do it, Calley took the rifle away and did the shooting himself.”

Asked about this, Calley refused to comment.

One Pentagon officer discussing the case tapped his knee with his hand and remarked, “Some of those kids he shot were this high. I don’t think they were Viet Cong. Do you?”

None of the men interviewed about the incident denied that women and children were shot. A source of amazement among all those interviewed was that the story had yet to reach the press…

As for Calley, he is smoking four packs of cigarettes daily and getting out of shape. He is five foot three, slender, with expressionless grey eyes and thinning brown hair. He seems slightly bewildered and hurt by the charges against him. He says he wants nothing more than to be cleared and return to the Army.

“I know this sounds funny”, he said in an interview, “but I like the Army… and I don’t want to do anything to hurt it”.