My Lai Fifty Years On

Photo by Ronald L. Haeberle | CC BY 2.0

Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.

— Primo Levy

On March 17th, 1968, The New York Times ran a brief front page lede headed, “G.I.s’ in Pincer Movement Kill 128 in Daylong Battle;” the action took place the previous day roughly eight miles from Quang Ngai City, a provincial capital in the northern coastal quadrant of South Vietnam.  Heavy artillery and helicopter gunships had been “called in to pound the North Vietnamese soldiers.”  By three in the afternoon the battle had ceased, and “the remaining North Vietnamese had slipped out and fled.”  The American side lost only two killed and several wounded.  The article, datelined Saigon, had no byline.  Its source was an “American military command’s communique,” a virtual press release hurried into print and unfiltered by additional digging.

Several days later a more superficially factual telling of this seemingly crushing blow to the enemy was featured in Southern Cross, the weekly newsletter of the Americal Division in whose ‘area of operation’ the ‘day long battle’ had been fought.  It was described by Army reporter Jay Roberts, who had been there, as “an attack on a Vietcong stronghold,” not an encounter with North Vietnamese regulars as the Times had misconstrued it.  However, Roberts’ article…

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