Fifty years ago this month, on March 16, 1968, two companies of US Army troops belonging to the Americal Division entered the My Lai and My Khe hamlets of Son My village, in Quang Ngai province, and killed 504 Vietnamese civilians—overwhelmingly women, children, and old men—in cold blood. The national press and political elites have long learned to treat the massacre as a tragedy that did not reflect official US policy. And ever since the Peers Commission report on My Lai was finally released to the public in November 1974 (the completed report had been transmitted to the Army chief of staff in March 1970), the press and public have believed that the commission, led by Lieut. Gen. William Peers, not only revealed the extent of the massacre but exposed the cover-up, implicating officers all the way up to the commander of the Americal Division, Gen. Samuel Koster.
But what the press and public have never understood is that the Peers Commission was involved in an even bigger cover-up: It exonerated the commander of US forces in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, from any responsibility for My Lai, despite the fact that the policy Westmoreland conveyed to his subordinates was to treat civilians who remained in long-term Vietnamese Communist, or Viet Cong (VC), base areas like My Lai as enemy combatants.
The reason that Peers covered up the responsibility of Westmoreland for My Lai, moreover—as an aide to Peers on the commission staff told this writer—is that Peers was hoping to get a plum command assignment after completing the investigation, and Westmoreland, who had by then been promoted to Army chief of staff, had enormous influence over the decision to grant that assignment.
The Peers Commission learned from the testimony of squad leaders who were briefed on the mission in the hamlet that day that the company commanders had told them that they were to consider civilians as the enemy. As one squad leader, Sgt. Charles West, recalled, company commander Capt. Ernest Medina told squad leaders that the village “consisted only of North Vietnamese army, Vietcong, and VC families” and “the order was to destroy Mylai and everything in it.” Another squad leader who attended Medina’s briefing also recalled that Medina had told the company that My Lai was a “suspected VC stronghold and that he had orders to kill everybody that was in that village.” A second company commander, Capt. Earl Michles, conveyed the same message to squad leaders.
That testimony led the Peers investigation to the parent unit, the 500-man strike force called Task Force Barker, commanded by Lieut. Col. Frank Barker. The commission concluded, “The orders that were issued through the TF Barker chain of command conveyed an understanding to a significant number of soldiers in C Company that only the enemy remained in the operational area and that the enemy was to be destroyed.”
It would have been an explicit, punishable war crime to state in a directive or in an official briefing to the commanders of Task Force Barker that they were to consider those civilians as no different from combatants and therefore subject to killing. But the Peers Commission concluded that the orders had “conveyed an understanding” of such a policy, allowing the unit commanders to draw the obvious inference about how to treat the civilian population there.