Throwback Thursday: The Cover-up of the My Lai Massacre



In November 1969 I was studying for an accounting exam — I would quit the class the next day. My classmates urged me to see the quarter out; my grades were so low I brought down the grading curve. I hated numbers and columns, addition and subtraction, the life of calculation. Translating ancient Sumerian from faded stone slabs would have been easier for me. I lit up a nice fat joint that had been waiting patiently for me in the crux of my open accounting book. I slammed the book shut for the last time and heaved it in the trash, sat back and tuned in on the transistor radio on my bedside table, intending to space out on some fine, crappy AM music. Instead, a news bulletin came wobbling across the universe, frenetic static filling the space around me. I learned then, to my horror and disbelief, about the My Lai Massacre. Hate is legislated.

Trading in Violence

Some things always come back to haunt you. You’re not immune. The longer you hold it in, the harder it is to let go, the harder you fall. No matter how you manage to tune it out, it tunes back in on you. With a vengeance. All your obsessing changes little. If nothing is done about that which happened, except to offer condolences and prayers, then it will surely happen again and again. My Lai burns inside me like a heap of tires smoldering for months. All the violence perpetrated by those who trade in hate continues to hunt me down.

Into Obscurity

In this age of internet and fast news cycles, we consume stories like ghoulish addicts stuck on crack. Stories of gun violence, war, beheadings — the list goes on and on. Our thirst for violence runs unabated until we become numb. We get onto the next thing without taking care of that which came before. We are on a never-ending treadmill that speeds up as we run faster, trying to escape the darkness.

Events like My Lai seem to happen all the time now. Back then we didn’t have the constant news cycle churning up every story that was happening around the globe. But it’s what is hidden underneath that is troubling — never written, much less spoken. History is populated with these shrouded stories, if you take the time to find them. There are many like My Lai that you’ve never heard of. My Lai could have been one of these and, if it had not been unearthed by Seymour Hersh, a New York Times reporter, we may never have heard of it. Even today, My Lai is rarely brought up. Too painful? No, it is too horrific and embarrassing. Amerika doesn’t do these things. No, of course not. Regardless, over time, it will surely fade as history fades. Into obscurity. It’s already happening.

The Cover-up

As I listened to the news coverage that day in my dorm room it struck me then, as it does now, that almost a whole a year and a half transpired after the events at My Lai before we got the word. This in itself is a travesty, not owning up to what happened. My Lai was an absolutely horrific act, the kind of atrocity that should live on in infamy, especially since it was perpetrated by the U.S. Army in an out-of-the-way place called My Lai in Vietnam during that infamous war. But of course, infamy, too, fades into obscurity and coverup, unless we glorify it by singing patriotic slogans of war that send some of us headlong into the violence for country and flag. Otherwise, infamy is short-lived.

Marching Against the Bomb

A few days later, after I heard the news report, I remembered that on the very day of the My Lai massacre, March 16, 1968, I was marching in downtown Denver, protesting the nuclear bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site. Yes, the madmen of the U.S. government were still lighting up those mega monster firecrackers underground in deep shafts (not deep enough). The tests vented radioactivity up and out of the shafts, into the atmosphere. But most didn’t think anything about it, except we hippies and crackpot environmentalists. Thinking back to the march and My Lai happening on the same day sent cold shivers up my spine. It still does to this day. Amerika has spent $32 million per hour on war since 2001. God knows how much it was back then.

We Are in the Hands of Fools

The Lottery for the Selective Service was fast approaching on the wings of doom. Only a few days away: December 1, 1969. So soon after I heard the news about My Lai. When you stop to think about it, you can’t believe something so outrageous could actually take place. My Lai and the lottery thrown so close together. Truth is stranger than fiction. Those of us with stakes in the game threw a party where we consumed vast amounts of beer and smoked pot and hash until we couldn’t stand on our own two feet. We squinted at a big black and white TV and witnessed a pretty woman dressed in white, who seemed to bleed into the background, reach into a shiny glass bowl and pick numbers. She then dramatically handed them to old white men dressed in crinkled gray suits who placed them on a board, announcing the numbers. If you got a low number, you were off to Vietnam. A high number in the hundreds you stayed home, put your feet up in front of the magic lantern and watched your buddies die in the jungles. Yeah, I got a low number. To think a bunch of aging white men could pick a number that was assigned to me by pure chance (fate, if you’re inclined to thinking like that) and spirit me away to some faraway place halfway around the world, put a rifle in my hands and order me to shoot other human beings.

The Lottery

The lottery and My Lai hung over me, my mind’s gears turning over like rusted crank shafts rubbing against one another. As the days wore on, I tried studying for finals a couple of weeks away — at least I didn’t have to worry about accounting — but my mind wasn’t in it. I was smoking more and drinking more, trying to forget and escape. The news updates of the massacre floored me, and I wondered what could possibly come next in the horrific bloodbath that was the Vietnam War.

Amerika’s Lie

For years I’d been protesting the war vociferously. How could I possibly go to the big fight in Southeast Asia when something like My Lai could happen? Even if I had never heard of My Lai, I still wouldn’t have gone. This made it worse, though. Made me more committed to fighting against the war, not in it. Up to that point I thought the good ole USA above that sort of thing. Yes, we went to war, but we didn’t commit war crimes. Did we? Oh, yeah. Amerika was no better than the many rogue countries that took the law into their own hands and killed indiscriminately. It’s Amerika’s Lie, Our Lie, My Lai.

William Calley

One soldier, an officer from Charlie Company, Second Lieutenant William Calley, was the only one who served jail time. He only served three and a half years of house arrest (yes, house arrest!) for his war crimes. No other soldier was prosecuted, even though many of them took part in the mass slaughter. Charlie Company butchered close to 500 Vietnamese women, men and children that day in the village of My Lai. Calley apologized, giving condolences and prayers. He is still alive, living somewhere in the homeland, happily married with one son. Hate is legislated.


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