As anyone following my twitter feed noticed, this is My Lai week as I prepare to write my first two dissertation chapters. I'll be trying to get the the first chapter on My Lai and the reactions of those present to the horrific events there on March 16, 1968, and part of my note-taking enterprise has been to tweet as I find interesting or important items in various books and documents. Yesterday's reactions to Seymour Hersh's 1970 Harper's Magazine article were quite positive, as were those to Captain Jordan J. Praust's 1970 Military Law Review article.
Also important to my preparations to write have been Rives M. Duncan's dissertation, "What went Right at My Lai: An Analysis of the Roles of "Habitus" and Character in Lawful Disobedience". Temple University seems to have been a veritable hotbed of My Lai scholarship during the 1990s, as one of yesterday's twitter responses from Pauline Kaurine revealed her dissertation "Agency and Character: A View of Action and Agency". Neither History per se, but provide some good tools for examining how people at My Lai reacted, and even raise questions for how we judge their actions. There's a definite conflict in interpretation between the two: Rives places the emphasis on individual, preexisting moral and professional mental frameworks, while Kaurine focuses on the nature of military character based on trust, honor, and oath-taking. I'm not quite sure how to resolve the conflict, but both dissertations have important contributions to the discussion of why different people acted in the way that they did at My Lai.
The ideas in both intersect with the usual suspects, and I'm not talking about Calley or Medina. Paul Meadlo seems to play a pivotal role in any discussion of what happened, as do Michael Bernhardt, Mike Terry, Gregory Olsen, Hugh Thompson, and Larry Colburn. Rives Duncan argues that the social setting of Charlie company helps explain why some soldiers killed, raped, and pillaged at My Lai, while others didn't. Duncan relies on Pierre Bourdieu's theories to explain why this happen, especially that of fields of power. The military structure of power and rank form the social topology that determines which agents are influential in the social field. The cultural capital of those agents also exerts influence on the social field - veteran combat soldiers, drill instructors, company commanders have more cultural capital to spend in influencing the social setting in which they operate, especially when dealing with inexperienced soldiers.
Duncan argues that social fields have their own mass and inertia, making them slow to change. Change in an established social field can be so slow that it is virtually unnoticed when it occurs. This is part of what happened in Vietnam - the values and norms of the soldiers changed as their experience of guerrilla war and untrustworthy leadership rubbed against the edges of the regular army's habitus. Problems arose in Vietnam partially because the values and norms of the soldiers changed, but the written codification of how they were expected to behave did not - the laws of war did not change to match the environment that soldiers found themselves in. Expected soldierly behavior in Vietnam changed from what the formal military culture indicated it should be.
The result was that the troops in Charlie Company who did not participate in atrocities at My Lai were the outliers, not the ones who engaged in rape and murder. Duncan believes that nonparticipants didn't due to various forms of isolation from the rest of Ernest Medina's troops that day. The isolation of nonparticipants was social, religious, geographic, and professional - these are the factors that Duncan argues led some soldiers not to participate in atrocities in My Lai. Unfortunately, nonparticipation in atrocities further separated those soldiers from the group, and may have put their lives in further jeopardy because they lost the trust and loyalty of their comrades. One example of this predates the massacre - according to his testimony before the Peers Commission, Dennis Bunning had used his large size to stop rapes several times before March 16, 1968, but other members of Charlie Company threatened to kill him if he continued.
Duncan identified several types of factors that lead soldiers to resist unlawful orders - personal factors, situational factors, and "other" factors. Personal factors include strong religious faith that instills a moral code so ingrained that is seems normal or natural to the individual. People act on these moral codes without conscious thought because they are practiced in real life, not just theories, to the point that they may be seen as just part of a society's values. Situational factors include where the person is when the illegal order is given, and how far the order deviates from normal acceptable practices. An order to kill unarmed women and children fits this category, as does being on the peripheries of the action (which might allow soldiers to resist an order without appearing to). Other factors that Duncan identified as being part of soldiers' resistance to unlawful orders included education, maturity, age, and experience in the military.
Some soldiers were able to fully or partially resist orders to shoot civilians at My Lai due to their location in the village - Bunning, Olsen, Carter, Maples, Dursi, and Bernhardt all benefited from their relative distance from Lt. Calley and their comrades who were shooting civilians. Chronological distance also helped some soldiers more easily avoid unlawful orders from Calley. Bernhardt and Partsch were delayed while they examined an ammunition box while the rest of 1st Platoon assaulted the village. When they did enter My Lai, Bernhardt did so with his rifle slung - he didn't actively resist orders to shoot, but was also not in a position to kill. Similarly, the delayed entry of 3rd Platoon kept it from participating in atrocities as much as 1st and 2nd platoons. Some members of 3rd Platoon were horrified by what they saw - Leonard Gonzalez notably vomited on encountering the bodies.
Other soldiers used tactics of avoidance, including leaving the group, shooting animals, or misunderstanding orders to resist at My Lai. Duncan reports that LaCross, Lee, and Pendleton shot only at livestock, which gave the appearance that they were participating in the slaughter, but kept them from shooting innocent civilians. Ronald Grzesik later claimed that he didn't understand what Calley meant when told to "finish off" a group of villagers that he was guarding. Others' , like Sergeant Isaiah Cowen simply wandered off. Gregory Olsen's M60 machine gun kept jamming, which allowed him to stop and move off to the flanks of his platoon to avoid killing.
James Dursi took a greater risk by refusing a direct order from Calley to open fire, saying that he was willing to go to jail over it. He led his team away from the lieutenant to avoid getting caught up in the action. Robert Maples similarly refused to use his M60 on a line of villagers that Calley wanted killed, ultimately dropping the weapon, which Calley seized and used anyway, and event corroborated by Mike Terry. Bunning, who had earlier stopped rapes in progress, refused his squad leader's order to open fire, and found himself moved to guard the flank like Olsen.
These acts of resistance are primarily passive or negative in nature - the men involved did little to stop their fellows from murdering or raping the residents of My Lai. Only Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson answered the call of duty to put a halt to the killing in My Lai. After numerous attempts to contact the ground forces and complaints to other helicopters that were recorded in Duc Pho and Cu Chi, Thompson landed his scout helicopter and confronted Calley, ordering his door gunner and crew chief to open fire if American troops moved to kill more civilians. Beyond this, Thompson entered a bunker to retrieve women and children hiding there to save them from grenades, and waded into a ditch with Larry Colburn to rescue a small child. Thompson even cajoled the crews of the helicopter gunships over My Lai to land and evacuated some of the wounded. Not satisfied with this, he filed a formal complaint with his superior officers, coming close to insubordination while doing so, and discussed the massacre with 11th Brigade chaplain Captain Carl Cresswell.
Duncan argues that individual habitus overrode any military training for the men that resisted participating in Charlie Company's acts in My Lai, saying that it took great courage for any soldier to disobey a direct order in combat. Paul Meadlo, one of the more interesting figures of the massacre and its aftermath is an example of those whose character led them to follow authority above other considerations. His initial response at My Lai was to
gather and guard civilian prisoners and play with the children to keep
them occupied - he believed that this seemingly normal procedure was
what Calley had intended. As a result, Meadlo was surprised when
ordered to kill the villagers that he was guarding. As the day
progressed, he said he didn't want anything to do with the killing, but
Calley pressed him to do it. Shooting civilians when ordered to by Calley until overwhelmed by the horror of it, Meadlo still had a distinct sense of morals, as evidenced in his candid television interviews, in which he was matter of fact and didn't shirk responsibility for his role in the massacre. He testified that his understanding was that if he disobeyed orders in combat, he could be summarily executed, or jailed at hard labor. Meadlo also contended that based on his interactions with veteran soldiers, his understanding of the war in Vietnam was that permissible behavior was different in guerrilla wars because everyone could be the enemy.
Gregory Olsen, Mike Terry, Hugh Thompson, and Michael Bernhardt also stand out as soldiers whose individual characters played a large role in their actions at My Lai. Olsen and Terry were devout Mormons, and used to being seen as different as a result. Duncan contends that religion was a determining factor in both Olsen's behavior and how people viewed him. Mormons grew up living in a culture that was generally opposed to them, but adhered to their faith anyway. That experience gave Olsen and Terry practice in taking a stand for their own values. Olsen had previously expressed his concerns about the morals and disciplines of his comrades when they abused captives, and acted to avoid the carnage in My Lai. He later testified that he saw no plausible way to report violations of the Geneva Conventions during the attack.
Terry was devout enough that he refused to use profanity even when quoting others under oath. He was quite willing to be considered different, and other soldiers remember him as prone to questioning everything in order to understand the purpose of what he was told to do. At My Lai, Terry made a gut-wrenching decision to kill severely wounded civilians who had no hope of receiving medical aid, and was tormented by that decision afterward. In this case, a soldier technically violated the laws of war, but made what he believed was the most moral choice in a bad situation by acting to alleviate pain and suffering.
Religious motives are also frequently assigned to Hugh Thompson, who was a Baptist in the process of studying to become a confirmed Episcopalian. Even before My Lai, Thompson was seen as a pilot who was willing to aggressively fly to fight the enemy, but would only fire if he saw a weapon and had a clear shot. Coming from the deep South, Thompson was sometimes described as being racially prejudiced, but still acting like a professional. These attributes were accompanied by an almost idealistic view of the American character - he reportedly said that he couldn't abide what happened at My Lai because Americans were supposed to be the "good guys", and didn't do those sorts of things.
Like Paul Meadlo, Michael Bernhardt represents another outlier. He was alienated from Charlie Company from the beginning, joining the group after it had been together for awhile. Bernhardt later testified that he just didn't understand the motivations of his comrades in the company, who were described as average soldiers, or grunts. They were a group quite different from his own experience - he had attended LaSalle Military Academy, and attended summer training conducted by Green Berets, and received LRRP training before joining Charlie Company. Bernhardt was a STRAC soldier - he did things by the book, and believed that the purpose of the war was not just to kill the enemy, but to induce them to stop fighting. He saw My Lai as having no strategic purpose, and being counter-productive because it would push Vietnamese to support the communists.