My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness

On the morning of March 16, 1968, U.S. Army soldiers killed between 347 and 504 unarmed men, women, children and infants in the villages of My Lai and My Khe in South Vietnam. The story of how these young Americans perpetrated what became known as the My Lai Massacre is one of disastrous leadership, an emotional boiling point, personal acts of inhuman savagery and a few noble deeds committed amid a hurricane of hate. In My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness, Howard Jones (Mutiny on the Amistad, The Bay of Pigs) gives a decisive account of this pivotal trauma in the Vietnam War.

Charlie Company, 1st Battalion of the 23rd Infantry (Americal) Division, was in Vietnam for three months before the massacre. They operated in an area designated Pinkville for its strong Viet Cong presence. By mid-March, the company had suffered 28 casualties from booby traps and mines without seeing a single enemy combatant. Their anger and frustration was channeled by their superior officers into an operation that would "clear" the Viet Cong from Pinkville once and for all. They were told, repeatedly, that the villages in the area (including My Lai) would be emptied of civilians on the morning of the mission, that anyone still there was a VC or VC sympathizer.

Charlie Company, led by Lieutenant William Calley Jr., found My Lai full of civilians. Jones tracks the massacre in excruciating detail as Charlie Company and several other units under the command of Captain Ernest Medina gather these civilians into large groups before gunning them down at point-blank range--among other atrocities. The resulting attempted cover-up, exposure and courts-martial make for equally gut-wrenching but necessary reading. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer

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