Remembering My Lai in the year of Calley’s apology

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, certainly not a happy memory—in fact , the opposite of that—but one well worth stopping to ponder. On this day in 1968, during the Vietnam War, the massacre was carried out by United States troops.  Under the direction of Lt. William L. Calley Jr., a unit of the army tortured, sexually abused, and massacred more than 500 residents of the village.  When the incident became public knowledge in the following year, it spread outrage around the world and significantly increased U.S. opposition to involvement in Vietnam.  As you may know, William Calley, the only soldier held legally accountable for the event, made his first public apology in August of last year, to a Kiwanis Club in Georgia.  He said, “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai.” Click here to read the New York Times article on his apology.

To mark today, I’d like to offer some UNC Press books that may help more fully understand, think about, and recontextualize our involvement in Vietnam and its continuing presence in our consciousness.  So today I offer you the opportunity that good books always give—the chance to read, rethink, and build greater understandings, to build new meaning from the potentially meaningless tragedy.


In Not a Gentleman’s War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War, Ron Milam examines the lives and actions of the much-maligned junior officer. Conventional wisdom holds that the junior officer in Vietnam was a no-talent, poorly trained, unmotivated soldier typified by Lt. William Calley. Drawing on oral histories, after-action reports, diaries, letters, and other archival sources, Ron Milam debunks this view, demonstrating that most of the lieutenants who served in combat performed their duties well and effectively, serving with great skill, dedication, and commitment to the men they led. Milam’s narrative provides a vivid, on-the-ground portrait of what the platoon leader faced: training his men, keeping racial tensions at bay, and preventing alcohol and drug abuse, all in a war without fronts. Yet despite these obstacles, junior officers performed admirably, as documented by field reports and evaluations of their superior officers. Read Milam’s guest post on the Calley apology (from August 2009).

The materials gathered by Michael Hunt in A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives remind readers that the conflict touched the lives of many people in a wide range of social and political situations and spanned a good deal more time than the decade of direct U.S. combat. Indeed, the U.S. war was but one phase in a string of conflicts that varied significantly in character and geography. Michael Hunt brings together the views of the conflict’s disparate players–from Communist leaders, Vietnamese peasants, Saigon loyalists, and North Vietnamese soldiers to U.S. policymakers, soldiers, and critics of the war. By allowing the participants to speak, this volume encourages readers to formulate their own historically grounded understanding of the events in Vietnam.

A few more about the Vietnam conflict, our thinking about war in the 20th century, and war’s lasting effects on us all:

Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War by Michael J. Allen

Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture between World War I and the Vietnam Era by Patricia Appelbaum

The Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era by Andrew Huebner

Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War by Michael S. Foley

Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950 by Mark Philip Bradley

Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War by Edwin E. Moïse

From People’s War to People’s Rule: Insurgency, Intervention, and the Lessons of Vietnam by Timothy J. Lomperis

Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam by Christian G. Appy