My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War
by William Thomas Allison, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012
Do we really need yet another book on the infamous My Lai massacre? Hasn’t the story of that horrifying incident that took place on March 16, 1968, in a small village in Vietnam’s Quang Ngai Province been told repeatedly and in detail in print, in documentary films and television specials for decades?
According to William Thomas Allison, a history professor at Georgia Southern University, another telling of the complete story of the killing of as many as 500 defenseless Vietnamese men, women and children by a company of Americal Division troops that day is needed in the second decade of the 21st century. The reason, he says, has to do with teaching today’s students about the Vietnam War.
“As the Vietnam generation begins to fade, so too does the collective memory of the Vietnam War and My Lai,” Allison writes. “Recent generations may have learned of My Lai, perhaps from a brief paragraph in anAmerican history textbook, but increasingly, it seems, students in history classrooms have not.”So Allison wrote this book, he says, to provide students “a concise but thorough overview of the context, events, legacies, and principal sources” about My Lai,“in the hope of making them aware so that they, too, will remember.”
Allison is as good as his word. He has produced an accurate look at the state of the Vietnam War during its height in March of 1968 and a compact but thorough recounting of what transpired before, during and after the My Lai massacre. There’s nothing new here; Allison uses well-trod primary and secondary sources to give us this overview.
That said, the book contains a very good account of the My Lai story. For the most part Allison sticks to the facts, but he also offers some analysis, especially in recounting the tactics of the lawyers on both sides of the courts-martial of William Calley and Ernest Medina.
Allison also addresses the hotly debated question of whether My Lai was business as usual for U.S. troops in Vietnam or an aberrant occurrence. Many people “believed, or wanted to believe, that My Lai had been an aberration,” Allison writes. Then he notes that recently declassified Pentagon records contain accounts of official investigations of more than 300 alleged American atrocities in the war. “These charges ranged from individual acts of assault and murder to massacres,” Allison notes, “although none anywhere near approaching the scale of My Lai.”
This would seem to indicate that Allison believes My Lai was an aberration. He goes on to say, however, that the new evidence gives“some credence”to those who contend that My Lai was a predictable result of the American way of war in general and the American way of war in Vietnam in particular.
Allison concludes that we’ll probably never know exactly why the Americal troops ran amok at My Lai. No “single thing caused My Lai,”Allison says,“just as no single thing caused the more recent atrocities committed by American military personnel in the Middle East.”
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.