Exploration 3D: Case Study: My Lai – What Went Wrong? What Went Right?

Intro

Exploration 3C introduced the subject of respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) during combat.

Exploration 3D presents a historical instance of soldiers committing a series of serious violations of IHL. Students examine this episode in the light of what they have learned in the preceding explorations. They trace what went wrong and what went right in applying the rules of IHL in this particular case. They study the various factors that may have played a part in the incident, the dilemmas the soldiers faced and their different responses to them.


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This course is three 45-min sessions.

Objectives

  • To learn about some of the factors that could lead to serious violations of IHL
  • To identify a range of dilemmas soldiers may face in making the ‘right’ choice on the battlefield
  • To recognize the differing responsibilities of commanding officers and ordinary soldiers for violations of IHL

Key Ideas

  • Distinguishing between civilians and military targets is fundamental in implementing IHL.
  • Commanders must not give, and ordinary soldiers must not obey, unlawful orders.
  • Respecting and ensuring respect for IHL is the obligation of all those involved in fighting.

Preparation

Prepare enough copies of the “Profile cards” and “What happened cards” so that each student has a pair of matching cards.

In the Methodology Guide review teaching methods 1 (Discussion), 3 (“No easy answers”), 4 (Using dilemmas), 6 (Using stories, photos and videos), 7 (Writing and reflecting) and 10 (Gathering stories and news) and workshop 7 (“Using case studies: My Lai: What went wrong? What went right?”).

Exploration

1

Being There | 15 minutes

Explain to students that this case study takes them back to 1968, to the thick of the war in Viet Nam.

Present “Attack on My Lai – Background,” and then conduct a discussion on it.

Possible questions:

  • At this point, what do you know about the soldiers in Charlie Company?
  • What do you know about their assignment for the next day?
  • What might have been these soldiers’ thoughts and feelings as they listened to the plans for the next day? Why?
  • Give every student one of the twelve “Profile cards” so that each of them can learn something about one of the soldiers described and his feelings on the night of 15 March in 1968. (Use “Immediate chain of command at My Lai” to help students understand the references in their “Profile cards.”)


    2

    How the Soldiers Prepared | 30 minutes

    Ask students to think about the night before the attack from the perspective of the soldiers on their “Profile cards.”

    Give them time to explore their sense of the situation in which these soldiers found themselves and to write down their responses to the two questions at the end of their cards.

    Then have each student discuss his or her ideas with a partner who has the same “Profile card.”

    After about ten minutes, conduct a discussion on the soldiers’ thoughts on the night before the attack on My Lai.

    Present the “Pocket card” that was given to all American soldiers in Viet Nam, and discuss its content and purpose.


    3

    How the Soldiers Coped |55 minutes

    Have students read “What happened at My Lai.”

    Then present the video What we did at My Lai.

    The video shows what happened at My Lai through the recollections of eight of the soldiers who were involved. Students will learn about how these soldiers regarded civilians, the impact on them of the orders they were given, the loss of self-control and the choices that the soldiers made. They will also hear how the soldiers were trained for combat (accompanied by pictures of soldiers being trained some 30 years later).

    After the viewing, explore what happened at My Lai and students’ reactions to it.

    Note: The video presents five themes. During each segment (theme), the participants reflect on what happened and their involvement in related events. (In the transcript, these five segments are marked by a row of dots.)

  • Training, (voice of Hodges)
  • Us, the enemy, and determining who the enemy is (Widmer, Bernhardt, Simpson)
  • Loss of self-control, moral confusion, meaning of orders (Bernhardt, Hodges, Widmer)
  • Choices soldiers made (Simpson, Widmer, Hodges, Stanley, Haeberle)
  • Bystanders (Thompson, Colburn, Haeberle)
  • Discuss:

  • The enormity of the tragedy for the victims;
  • The soldiers’ state of mind prior to the operation on 16 March;
  • The factors influencing the soldiers’ behaviour;
  • The difficulties in distinguishing between combatants and civilians;
  • The responsibilities of commanding officers;
  • The responsibilities of ordinary soldiers for their own actions;
  • How IHL and the instructions on the “Pocket card” relate to the operation at My Lai (its planning and its execution);
  • The effect of the tragedy on the soldiers themselves.
  • Note: If time allows, replay some segments for discussion. The transcript can be useful for reviewing what the men said about their experiences at My Lai.

    Distribute the “What happened cards.” Each student should receive the card that matches the “Profile card” that he or she was given earlier.

    Ask them to compare their answers to the questions on the “Profile cards” with what they now know from the video and the “What happened cards.”

    Possible questions:

  • Why do you think these soldiers did these terrible things? [For example, lack of proper military training in IHL, perceptions of the enemy, obeying orders, prior experiences as victims, peer pressure, thinking that 'the end justifies the means,' the information they were given that My Lai was a Viet Cong (VC) stronghold, assuming that VC mingled with civilians.]
  • Why did some soldiers refuse to take part in the massacre?
  • What difference, positive or negative, could a bystander make?
  • Why is obedience important while fighting a war?
  • Should soldiers follow even unlawful orders?
  • What do you think soldiers should do when they are uncertain whether the enemy before them is a civilian or a combatant?
  • How might the soldiers have been affected by what they did at My Lai?
  • How can tragedies like this one be prevented?

  • 4

    What Went Wrong? What Went Right? | 15 minutes

    Have students tell the class what the soldiers on their cards did. Make a list of these actions and display it where all can see.

    Then ask students to suggest which actions are examples of ‘what went right’ and which represent ‘what went wrong.’ Mark the former with + signs and the latter with – signs. Have students give reasons for their opinions.


    5

    What Should Happen Next? | 15 minutes

    Have students tell the class what the soldiers on their cards did. Make a list of these actions and display it where all can see.

    Then ask students to suggest which actions are examples of ‘what went right’ and which represent ‘what went wrong.’ Mark the former with + signs and the latter with – signs. Have students give reasons for their opinions.

    Ask students to read “What should happen next?” and to think about what the soldiers on their cards thought and felt on the night of 16 March 1968. Then have them write down their responses to the question on their “What happened cards.”

    Discuss:

  • What students wrote down
  • What they think soldiersand commanding officers should do and why
  • What they think about the responsibility of a soldier who follows unlawful orders
  • What they think aboutthe responsibility of a commanding officer who gives unlawful orders
  • What they think aboutthe responsibility of a commanding officer who knew or should have known that atrocities would be committed but failed to prevent them

  • 6

    Close | 5 minutes

    Present “A letter to reveal the truth,” and discuss the role of outsiders in uncovering the truth and in determining who was responsible and for what.

    Possible questions:

  • Who is responsible for reporting violations of IHL?
  • Why did Ron Ridenhour, a soldier who wasn’t even at My Lai, do what he did?