From: Lt.Col. Roger Reitmaier
On Sunday, March 18, as a part of a series reflecting on the tumultuous year of 1968, 50 years ago, an article in the Winona Daily News concerning an awful event that occurred during the Vietnam War was published. It concerned the My Lai (pronounced “me-lie”) Incident in which many women and children were killed by American soldiers. To quote from the article, “American troops killed scores of civilians. The massacre began when two Americans were killed and 10 were wounded by booby traps.” The implication is that the action occurred in retaliation for the Americans killed and injured. That implication is wrong. The attack on the village was a part of a planned operation. Faulty intelligence (G-2) led the battalion commander to conclude that there were only enemy combatants in the village and issued an order to wipe out the village. Our ethical American military is trained under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ): an unlawful order issued by a commanding officer must not be followed. At the crux of the problem was Lieutenant Calley, a weak, inexperienced officer, following to the tee the order of Captain Medina, his commanding officer, following the lead of the battalion commander to take out the village. When Lieutenant Calley’s platoon attacked he had to realize that there were not enemy combatants but women and children; at that point he should have ordered his men to stop the attack. Note I did not say “innocent” as a adjective before the word “women.” There were many Viet Cong women who were enemy combatants. However, when women and small children are seen together, you must not assume that they are combatants, especially when they are not armed.
The article leaves the strong impression that the American soldiers were cold-blooded murderers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to the above, “fog of war” played a huge role in the incident. (As a young lieutenant, having participated in 12 combat operations in the Vietnam War in ‘67-‘68, I know all about the fog of war.)
There were two problems/mistakes made by the command. First, rather than taking “intelligence” information as one piece of information in making a command decision, the lieutenant colonel battalion commander took the intell as gospel that there was nothing but enemy combatants in that village. Secondly, Captain Medina and Lieutenant Calley blindly followed that order rather than use good judgment and common sense to stop the action once they realized the intell was wrong.
I, like many of my fellow Vietnam veterans, am very tired of articles like this that demonize our American military of the Vietnam War. Seldom over the last 50 years have I seen positive media articles about the actions of our armed forces. The mistakes of that war in the early years (‘65-‘69) fall squarely on the shoulders of the civilian authority, namely President Johnson and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara.
Regarding the average individual fighting man in Vietnam, he was as competent, courageous, and dedicated as the average soldier of past wars, including “the greatest generation.”