A scrupulous history of one of the darkest moments in American military history.
On March 16, 1968, troops from the United States Army entered a series of villages in South Vietnam, and what ensued has been called the “My Lai Massacre,” one of the most shameful events in the history of U.S. foreign affairs. Although the numbers remain in dispute, perhaps the most reliable indicate 504 dead, more than half of whom were under 20 years of age. The slaughter served no larger strategic or tactical purpose. It was murder in cold blood, and an out-of-his-depth 24-year-old soldier, William Calley, who was guilty of an array of crimes against humanity that day, would serve as the focal point of the criminal investigations that followed. Calley would be found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. This book is part of the publisher’s Pivotal Moments in American History series, and the events of My Lai—indeed, all of 1968—certainly fit. “My Lai was a turning point for so many reasons,” writes Jones (Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations, 2010, etc.), “not least for the ways in which it tarnished the image many Americans had of their soldiers, and that the soldiers had of themselves.” The story of that day did not emerge, however, until 1969, primarily due to the investigative journalism of Seymour Hersh, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on My Lai. Jones is a versatile historian—his work has ranged from the nation’s founding era to the modern U.S.—and here, he successfully accomplishes two tasks: first, he provides as comprehensive a history of My Lai as we are likely to see for some time. Second, he thoughtfully probes the myriad ways that the My Lai story has been told.
Jones succeeds on all counts in a book that, due to its subject matter, is not pleasant to read but is powerful and important.