Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The My Lai archives, the guilt and the rotten chain of command, to division level

I didn’t know until recently that the Library of Congress had digitalized tens of thousands of pages of the Army’s investigation of the My Lai massacre of March 1968. Having it all on-line-including 32 volumes of testimony given to investigative commission run by Lt. Gen. William Peers–is helpful, but the real wonder is its searchability. ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I didn't know until recently that the Library of Congress had digitalized tens of thousands of pages of the Army's investigation of the My Lai massacre of March 1968. Having it all on-line-including 32 volumes of testimony given to investigative commission run by Lt. Gen. William Peers--is helpful, but the real wonder is its searchability. (And a big BD thanks also to Texas Tech for putting on line a bunch of stuff-for example, here is MACV's near-contemporaneous summary of the Tet Offensive.)

On the downside, going through all this stuff is no way to get a book written.

I've been reading My Lai materials for about four weeks now. I haven't said much about the incident on my blog. The more I learn about it, the worse the whole event seems. It is pretty awful stuff. Just reading the documents sometimes gives me a headache. I am amazed that the Americal Division's entire chain of command didn't wind up doing hard time at the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth. From what I have read, they should have. I mean, this battalion had a platoon with a reputation for being into raping Vietnamese villagers while on patrol-including the platoon leader. (Btw, it wasn't Calley's platoon.) If I were re-doing my list of the worst generals in American history, I'd add to it the Americal's commander, Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster, who brought more disgrace to the uniform than any general since Benedict Arnold. He should have done time.

I didn’t know until recently that the Library of Congress had digitalized tens of thousands of pages of the Army’s investigation of the My Lai massacre of March 1968. Having it all on-line-including 32 volumes of testimony given to investigative commission run by Lt. Gen. William Peers–is helpful, but the real wonder is its searchability. (And a big BD thanks also to Texas Tech for putting on line a bunch of stuff-for example, here is MACV’s near-contemporaneous summary of the Tet Offensive.)

On the downside, going through all this stuff is no way to get a book written.

I’ve been reading My Lai materials for about four weeks now. I haven’t said much about the incident on my blog. The more I learn about it, the worse the whole event seems. It is pretty awful stuff. Just reading the documents sometimes gives me a headache. I am amazed that the Americal Division’s entire chain of command didn’t wind up doing hard time at the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth. From what I have read, they should have. I mean, this battalion had a platoon with a reputation for being into raping Vietnamese villagers while on patrol-including the platoon leader. (Btw, it wasn’t Calley’s platoon.) If I were re-doing my list of the worst generals in American history, I’d add to it the Americal’s commander, Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster, who brought more disgrace to the uniform than any general since Benedict Arnold. He should have done time.

The two bright lights in the situation are Gen. Peers and, to my surprise, Gen. William Westmoreland, who was Army chief of staff and who shielded Peers from White House pressure to curtail the investigation. Though of course it was a lot of Westmoreland’s lousy decisions on personnel policy in 1964-1968 that helped hollow out the Army and so create the rotten chain of command that presided over My Lai.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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