we must revisit such terrible episodes in the Army’s history, however painful; remembering My Lai may help us avoid repeating it elsewhere.
From March 16-19, 1968, U.S. Army troops killed at least 175 noncombatants at My Lai, South Vietnam (the precise number will likely remain unknown but some estimates range above 400 dead).[i] The stain of My Lai was compounded by the professional disgrace of many Army Officers’ ensuing attempts to cover-up or ignore the nature and scope of the massacre. It would be a travesty to ignore what happened, or to fail to learn from it. Instead, we must revisit such terrible episodes in the Army’s history, however painful; remembering My Lai may help us avoid repeating it elsewhere. The massacre and and its aftermath require that we reflect on what happened so that we can shape the Army for the better and sustain the hard-earned trust of the American people.
Incredibly, the general public knew nothing of My Lai for over a year. In March 1969, Vietnam veteran Ronald Ridenhour brought the atrocity to light and pressed for an investigation. Ridenhour, a former private, who was by that time out of the Army and back in the United States, wrote a letter about what he had heard about My Lai to several Congressional and military leaders. The letter caused the Army to open an official investigation led by Lieutenant General William Peers. However, only after Seymour Hersh reported on the massacre in a November 1969 newspaper article did it receive broad attention. Redemptive acts such as the intervention of U.S. Army Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, the heroic helicopter pilot who stopped other Americans from killing more villagers that day, or Ridenhour’s brave inducement to public scrutiny of the massacre cannot obscure the individual and institutional dishonor that My Lai represents.
The massacre at My Lai occurred about six weeks after the start of the Communists’ Tet Offensive. The Tet attacks shook South Vietnam and surprised many Americans even though the communists’ gambit failed to defeat U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. On 16 March, American units swept into the area around My Lai expecting heavy enemy contact in territory generally understood to be sympathetic to the enemy. Soon after their insertion, U.S. Army forces encountered explosive mines or traps that killed one soldier and wounded several more. There were also claims of return fire at a few points during the morning, although official reports in the aftermath noted limited evidence of enemy combat action. For instance, the official report of the day’s actions noted only three weapons found in conjunction with a reported enemy body count of 128. Later evidence pointed to unjustified killings, rapes, and other atrocities committed against unarmed children, women, and old men. Despite charges being recommended against 27 individuals, only six courts martial convened, with a single conviction: that of Lieutenant William Calley, a platoon leader.
Yet many breakdowns in professionalism went beyond individual failings. The Army as an institution had deficiencies in training, leadership, assignment policies, cultural understanding, and mission awareness that all contributed to the context within which the massacre took place.
We know that war is, at its very heart, a human event that taps into dangerous passions. Many armies over the course of history have been unrestrained in their violence against noncombatants caught in the midst of war.
The necessity of subordinating military violence to the goals and aspirations of the society that a military serves is a critical dimension of war. Strategists such as Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and others recognized the necessary subordination of war to policy; however, it is important to note that for the United States, policy aims include an adherence to values that preclude many techniques of warfare common in other eras and to other polities.
The central challenge of the U.S. Army profession is to meet our society’s security needs effectively, but always in a manner consistent with American values such as the respect for individuals’ “unalienable” rights and the rule of law. These values apply to the ends, ways, and means of war. What we confront with My Lai is a major failure to meet just war standards within war. Criminal prosecution is certainly appropriate for the individuals who violate military codes and who break the laws of armed conflict. Events that exhibit a more systematic, extensive, and group character, such as those surrounding My Lai, also reflect a breakdown in the profession’s ability to police its own, punish criminal behavior, and work to mitigate or to prevent such moral failures.
War can bring out the worst in humanity. Professionalization, and the ethic it brings to motivate both unit and individual discipline, is a means to mitigate the worst human impulses. Professions provide critical goods for society. A profession is defined by a body of expert knowledge, often abstract, that, when applied effectively in certain jurisdictions of practice, supplies a service society needs to flourish. There is an inherent fiduciary, or trust, relationship that is thus established between the profession and the society. The U.S. military defines itself as a profession. For the Army, the body of professional knowledge is military expertise in warfare and the attainment of national security for the United States, with jurisdictions of practice that include major combat operations, stability operations, strategic deterrence, homeland security, and, internally, the development of expert knowledge and the development of professionals. The army must also maintain a bureaucracy to sustain coherence and effectiveness in a very large organization with many people and diverse responsibilities. But oftentimes bureaucracies, in their procedures, rules, and cookie-cutter management approaches, are an impediment to professionalism.
Professionals are also responsible for regulating the use of their expertise, and professions use internal mechanisms for sanctioning professional transgressions. Doctors can be banned from practicing medicine by their medical associations, and lawyers can be disbarred by their respective bar associations. In My Lai and its aftermath, the Army suffered a professional breakdown on a huge scale. Fifty years later, we can look to many important improvements in how we understand what a profession is, how we have strengthened professional standards, and how we have helped create institutional conditions that should render such events less likely. But professionalism is something attained and thereafter retained only with diligent stewardship.
In Vietnam, the Army experienced a marked deterioration of professionalism that contributed to the events at My Lai. The problems of junior officers, NCOs, and draftee soldiers with limited training suggest very tenuous professionalization of the force. Yet this breakdown of professionalism was clear not only in the commission of the act, but also in the institutional dishonesty that followed it.
Army leadership at the time recognized there was a problem. In April 1970, the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Westmoreland, instigated an important Study on Military Professionalism (SMP) that was undertaken at the U.S. Army War College and published 30 June 1970. Although General Westmoreland didn’t mention My Lai explicitly, in ordering the report he wrote, “Several unfavorable events occurring within the Army during the past few years have been a matter of grave concern to me. These have served to focus attention on the state of discipline, integrity, morality, ethics, and professionalism in the Army.” The study identified many of the features of de-professionalization that permeated the Army. The study cataloged examples of ‘zero defects’ mentality; ‘ticket punching;’ overemphasis on measurable results (a prominent feature of bureaucracies) such as body counts, training activities, and maintenance statistics; inadequate training; careerism; and many other indicators of, in particular, an Army officer corps often more interested in individual advancement than in mission effectiveness and soldier well-being. Moreover, indicators of trust for the senior ranks of the Army were low. The problems within the Army were compounded by the lack of trust society evinced towards national leadership in general, to include Army leaders.
War can bring out the worst in humanity. Professionalization … is a means to mitigate the worst human impulses.
The Army has made many improvements since Vietnam to mitigate the professionalism problems that emerged during the Vietnam War. Among those salient to addressing issues raised by My Lai, the Army increased emphasis on the education and training of all soldiers on the law of war. The role of the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) was expanded to include the placement of JAG officers down to brigade level and, in many sensitive operations, down to battalion level. The shift to an all-volunteer force gave the Army greater control over the soldiers and officers selected for service. The introduction of central selection boards for battalion and brigade command slating has helped to mitigate some of the more personalized and capricious aspects of key leadership assignments. The Army has also made major improvements to the scope, quantity, and quality of non-commissioned officers’ training and education.
The post-Cold War draw-down was undertaken in a way to try to avoid actions that could hollow out the force and create great risk for the Army’s ability to fight when next called upon. The rallying cry of “No more Task Force Smiths” (to avoid “first battle” calamities symbolized by the first major U.S. Army battle in the Korean War) was explicitly focused on maintaining high levels of readiness and attendant professionalism. The modest draw-down of the 1990s (in historical terms) did well to sustain readiness for major regional combat contingencies.
But by the end of the 1990s, there was rumbling again about the depth of professionalism within the Army. Among others, Retired Lieutenant General Walter Ulmer, one of the leaders of the 1970 professionalism study, helped lead a study at the Center for Strategic and International Studies about Army culture and professionalism that was published in 2000. The study found tension between bureaucracy and professionalism that warranted further attention.
Dr. Don Snider, a three-tour veteran of Vietnam, along with Dr. Gayle Watkins, both at the United States Military Academy, led a team of military and civilian academics and practitioners who analyzed, diagnosed, and made recommendations to strengthen the Army profession. The Future of the Army Profession studies, published as an edited volume in 2002 with a second edition in 2005, provided a broad-ranging response to concerns raised in the 1990s. Since then, many of the studies’ insights about the key elements of the Army profession have been incorporated into policy, doctrine, education, and training, prominently in The Army (Army Doctrinal Publication 1), in The Profession (Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 1) and the creation of the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic at West Point.
My own analysis, including participation in the Future of the Army Profession project, suggests a dimension that requires particular attention. Complex missions like those the Army had in Vietnam, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq are especially challenging due to: extensive operations in close proximity to local populations; ambiguous situations of violence – and potential violence – among local factions; and due to the involvement of myriad outside participants. These circumstances challenge even the most professional armed forces to maintain the crucial balance between passion, primordial violence, enmity, and the play of chance, creativity and probability linked to policy logic and reason that governs success in war.
Forces that are focused and prepared for high-end conventional combat against similarly structured and prepared adversaries are often bedeviled by challenges outside that main portfolio. Stability operations, peacekeeping operations, counterinsurgencies and irregular warfare jurisdictions of practice challenge versions of professional expertise that are too narrowly defined. Dispersed forces operating in small groups and among local populations, particularly in complex terrain like mountains, jungles, and large urban areas, allow adversaries to gain proximity to U.S. forces that can negate powerful standoff engagement advantages and can create difficulties in targeting combatants without harming noncombatants.
The Army’s adjustments to challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other recent missions have been impressive. Yet its effectiveness in these missions may have been harmed by not being as prepared as it should have been right from the start. The Army should have been ready to exercise professional control over operations “among the people” and in urban settings that often require more discipline and professionalism than operations in large-scale conventional combat such as what the Army experienced in Desert Storm and in the opening weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
We have seen echoes of My Lai in despicable acts committed by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Examples include the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, Haditha killings in 2005, and “Kill Team” murders in Afghanistan. Although none of these incidents approaches the scale of havoc or institutional dysfunction surrounding My Lai, these incidents highlight the need for continued vigilance.
The underpinnings of success in any violent or potentially violent situation into which our Army is thrust are the training, expertise, discipline, and judgment of our soldiers, and in particular, of their leaders. At the U.S. Army War College, these insights have been incorporated as important threads within our curriculum. Our goal is to send out senior leaders who are more understanding of, and motivated by, the Army’s professional ethic, thereby strengthening the impetus toward professionalism in our units and away from inherent bureaucratic tendencies.
Our professional ethic must remain consistent with American values and high moral standards. The Army has made major improvements since the Vietnam War to refine our understanding of what it means to be a profession and to inculcate those values broadly throughout the army. We know this is an ongoing challenge that requires close attention to one of our most important jurisdictions of practice: the development of the future professionals. We must inculcate a praiseworthy ethic in the soldiers entrusted to us by American society to govern the use of coercive force or violence. We must remember our history, good and bad, so that we continue to learn, improve and do our best to avoid professional failures like My Lai.
[i] For the most thorough account of the events that day and the cover up, see the “Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident” 14 March 1970, commonly referred to as the Peers Commission report. For a good general treatment, see William Thomas Allison’s 2012 book, My Lai. For an excellent summary of the legal proceedings and outcomes, see the webcast presentation by Dr. Gary Solis, at CSIS on 15 March 2018. “The My Lai Massacre: History, Lessons, and Legacy: A panel discussion with historians and military law experts.”
Richard Lacquement is a retired U.S. Army Colonel, and the Dean of the School of Strategic Landpower at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Note: With minor modifications for clarity and context, this article is based on remarks that the author prepared and delivered for the “My Lai at 50” symposium hosted by the Army Judge Advocate General at the Pentagon on 16 March, 2018.
Photo: Unidentified Vietnamese women and children before being killed in the My Lai Massacre.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army/Ronald Haeberle, public domain.
Posts in the Anniversaries series:
- JUST BE GRATEFUL: THANKSGIVING, 1789
- REMEMBERING WORLD WAR I: A WHITEBOARD
- EXECUTIVE ORDER 9981 AT 70: WHAT INTEGRATION MEANS FOR TODAY’S MILITARY
- GRAHAM CLEARS THE DOORWAY
- EXECUTIVE ORDER 9981 AT 70: DESEGREGATING THE ARMED FORCES
- MY LAI: A STAIN ON THE U.S. ARMY
- WHY DO WE CELEBRATE ANNIVERSARIES?
- ERIN GO BRUSSELS: TREATY OF BRUSSELS AT 70
- THE TET OFFENSIVE: 50 YEARS LATER — A PODCAST
- AT THE NEXUS OF DIPLOMACY, DEVELOPMENT, AND DEFENSE — AFRICOM AT 10 YEARS (PART 3)