Lessons from My Lai & The Extras

Time magazine cover asks *Who Shares The Guilt?* above an image of William Calley Jr.

Time Magazine Cover illustration of Lt. William Calley Jr.

A version of this post was originally published at LP in 2007

on 16th March, 1968, there was a massacre at My Lai, where US soldiers under the command of Lt. William Calley slaughtered the inhabitants of a small Vietnamese village without regard to their noncombatant status.

A helicopter gunship crew commanded by Hugh Thompson Jr. heroically put themselves in danger’s way to save threatened villagers, and also accepted the risk of court-martial when, following Thompson’s commands, they threatened to shoot their fellow US servicemen unless they stopped the slaughter. They then went on to report and testify against their murderous fellow soldiers.

Chief My Lai prosecutor William Eckhardt described how Thompson responded to what he found when he put his helicopter down: “[Thompson] put his guns on Americans, said he would shoot them if they shot another Vietnamese, had his people wade in the ditch in gore to their knees, to their hips, took out children, took them to the hospital…flew back [to headquarters], standing in front of people, tears rolling down his cheeks, pounding on the table saying, ‘Notice, notice, notice’…then had the courage to testify time after time after time.”

As I wrote in 2006:

After the event, Thompson was pilloried for threating to kill American soldiers while Calley was lauded as a strong leader who successfully neutralised a credible threat, to use the depersonalised military lingo. It took years for the truth to come out, and even then only Calley and a few others were court-martialled, even though all indications were that a long chain of command condoning the massacre had existed. Calley and others did what their commanders were careful not to directly order although they made their approbation clear: kill, kill, kill whether they are VietCong or not. Some men who took part later acknowledged that they knew it was wrong but “went along” through group loyalty and fear of the consequences of standing apart.

Thirty years after the massacre, Hugh Thompson was finally awarded the Soldier’s Medal, “for bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy”, the closest that the US Army has come to openly acknowledging that there was no military justification for the slaughter at My Lai.

Thompson rejected any imputation that his bravery was unique, taking pains to laud one of the soldiers on the ground, who when threatened with death by his platoon-mates if he didn’t take part in the slaughter, shot his own foot off rather than kill civilians in cold blood. Not having a helicopter, that man had fewer options and no ability to save others as Thompson could, so he mutilated himself for life as the only option he could see to save his own life while not taking other’s lives.

Let’s just emphasis one line there: Some men who took part later acknowledged that they knew it was wrong but “went along” through group loyalty and fear of the consequences of standing apart.

At My Lai, the soldiers under Calley’s command who didn’t gleefully acquiesce (as some did) can be justified in considering that they were in danger of injury and even death if they did not go along with the slaughter. Naturally, wanting to live rather than die, men who would not otherwise have slaughtered killed with a heavy heart. Now, bear with me while I wrench away from blood and death to everyday blokes and “banter”, but what justifies the common voluntary male subjection to the homosocial phenomenon whereby men who don’t “go along” with “the blokes” are ostracised? Why is that ostracism such a strong tool in so many male relationships, especially amongst groups of men who are not close friends, or who may not even know each others’ names?

Watching Ricky Gervais’ Extras: Sir Ian McKellen episode a few nights ago, I was struck by Andy Millman’s absolute terror that men whom he hadn’t seen since school, whom he hadn’t cared for even then, and whom he had no intention of seeing again if he could possibly help it, might judge him as less than fully masculine. Andy was willing to deny his entire career path and professional reputation within that career in order that those old schoolmates would not think he was homosexual, or even tolerant of homosexuals. That’s homosociality in a nutshell.

In the context of that episode, the problem was “going along” with homophobia. But in society we often see “going along” with vandalism, “going along” with violence, “going along” with rape, etc etc. How is it that the implicit homosocial threat of ostracism so very very effective? Obviously the fear of ostracism for unmanliness is deeply ingrained at an early age. How is that done? How can parents who don’t want to perpetuate the worst aspects of blind homosocial bonding guard against it?

One of the benefits of having a son on the autistic spectrum is that he simply doesn’t perceive these emotional undercurrents in the fellowship of his peers. Or should I say he never used to. Because he’s high-functioning and now in his teens is learning to compensate well for his autistic disadvantages, he’s starting to dimly perceive that these weird expectations are swirling around.

I’d certainly rather him be a Thompson than a Calley, and in our household the events of My Lai are marked annually. (I hasten to say I make it clear that I don’t expect my children to feel they should emulate the extraordinary heroism of Thompson at My Lai itself, but certainly I expect them to follow the example of Thompson’s unswerving integrity during the years that followed as he continued to pursue justice for the perpetration of the atrocity.)

What can people generally be doing to raise young men (and women too) to be Thompsons instead of Calleys? To at least not be Andy Millmans? To be willing to take a stand against injustice in favour of integrity? Where do we start?

Categories: crisis, ethics & philosophy, history, social justice

Tags: , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. This is one of those posts where I have nothing useful to say, but just have to say something, if only to mark how great it is.

  2. the Milgram experiment and variations, and the Stanford prison experiment
    are what i reach for in this subject. (sorry for the Wikipedia links)
    these are brutal experiments that would not be cleared by any uni ethics committee now, tho some TV stations seem to enjoy re-staging variations.
    Where do we start? FWIW i start with Epicurus and his ideas about responsibility, personal and collective. the heros i wish to pass on to my children are mostly people who kicked against the tide, Wollstonecraft and Godwin, Simone d’B, Darwin and Woody Guthrie to name a few, always remembering the collective response of free thinkers when Dylan went electric.
    so yeah its complicated and as much as i wish to be a, and raise, ‘Thompsons’ i also hope i never have to find out, tho it is only seven years till High school starts, i should know by then, the bullying culture being what it is.

  3. Is this any different to just very strong peer group pressure? When the culture of the group is good it works to advantage – people conform and are less likely to do bad things. But when the culture is bad the reverse is true.

  4. thank you for bringing this issue up. i remember learning about this in my World Sociology class in university. yes, i wasn’t exposed to the real truth of these events until college.
    i dont have anything to add, but I think this is an extremely important issues and I’m happy to see people talking about it. I’m working on a project right now about America’s reluctance to memorialize tragedies in which Americans took part, and it’s disgusting how long it has taken the American government to speak the truth of what happened. and yet they still can’t fully admit it.

  5. also, extra points for incorporating Extras into the discussion!

  6. Great post tigtog, is something I think about a lot, too, in raising a son.
    I wish Flea’s post on her old blog, One Good Thing was still accessible so I could link to it here – do you remember her letter to her sons about the My Lai incident and intervening when you see sexual assault about to happen? Was effing fantastic (one of my favourite things ever written on the Internet) and so relevant to your post.

  7. I think about this subject an awful lot. In fact, I find it one of the crucial questions about what it is to be human.
    So I’ve just been reading Stanley Milgram’s book about his experiments Obedience to Authority, and I came across this curiosity. He only used one batch of female subjects for his major experiment in which the subjects were asked to inflict increasing levels of pain on a ‘victim’, the large majority of his subjects being men. He never tried using a female ‘victim’, but he speculates, “As victims they [women] would most likely generate more disobedience, for cultural norms militate against hurting women even more strongly than hurting men.” Of course we know that, while this is true in theory, in the real world the opposite is often true, and men frequently hurt women as soon as they are given any kind of social authorization (she’s his wife, she’s his girlfriend, she’s a prostitute, it’s a frat party/surf party/football tour) to go ahead and do so. I wonder if subsequent sociologists have commented on his naivety.

  8. I have attached a short story about an experience I had within 20 miles of My Lai in 1968. This is one of many bad experiences I had that year. We killed lots of unarmed people but it taught me who I am; Calley or Thompson.
    [Trigger Warning: linked material recounts witnessing of rape and later witnessing of rapists bragging ~moderator]

  9. Another instance of homosocial bullying here (TW for rape “joke”, which spoils an otherwise awe inspiring piece of writing.)

    Why is that ostracism such a strong tool in so many male relationships, especially amongst groups of men who are not close friends, or who may not even know each others’ names?

    Because this behaviour isn’t visible to society. Time and time again I read the factoid in articles and comments: “Girls are worse than boys, boys just hit each other and then forget about it, girls use social rejection and exclusion.” And so they reckon, for ever amen, despite the evidence. People see what they think they are going to see.

  10. Echoing Chris’ comment (#4). This is only a personal observation, but having grown up as a male, I find that boys just as much as girls will do anything to bring themselves (and one another) into harmony with their group. For most, acting independently is what has to be explained, demonstrated, learned and practised.
    Most boys (and girls?) also seem to have an emotional bias towards ideas that make them feel like part of a pattern, or larger whole. Many toxic traditions are very good at that, unfortunately, which IMO is one of the main reasons they survive.
    Perhaps Thompson was one of those rare individuals whose need to be true to their own thinking is naturally stronger than their need for harmony with others. Then again, perhaps he achieved that independence through hard work – that would be the more hopeful explanation!
    May I also add some belated praise for these very thoughtful Anzac Day posts – please don’t give up the good work!

  11. There’s a big load of theory about the formation of masculinity around hierarchies and the way that homosociality carefully keeps men in line. It’s particularly depressing to teach men such things, and have them nod and say ‘it’s true’ and watch the guilt mixed in with uncertainty and a bit of defensiveness in their eyes as I try to point out the injustices it often works to perpetuate.

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