Vietnamese Village of My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968
This essay will discuss the events that took place on March 16, 1968 in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. We will explore the days prior to the massacre and what role obedience played in the actions of the soldiers. We will explain the results and concepts learned in experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the Perils of Obedience.
We will investigate why these experiments are crucial to the understanding why these men executed hundreds of unarmed civilians.
The My Lai Massacre
Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to. Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living, and it is only the person dwelling in isolation who is not forced to respond, with defiance or submission, to the commands of others. For many people, obedience is a deeply ingrained behavior tendency, indeed a potent impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct." (Milgram)
These are the words that Stanley Milgram wrote in the Perils of Obedience. The events that took place on March 16, 1968 in the village of My Lai certainly proved the validity of Milgram's words. On this day in the South Vietnamese district of Son My the men of Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, American Division entered the village of My Lai. The killing and maiming of many soldiers that were carrying out missions in the area characterized the weeks and days prior to their entry into the village. (My Lai Massacre)
The disconcerted troops, who were under the command of Lt. William Calley, entered the village ready to engage in warfare with the Vietcong. The troops were part of a search and destroy" mission, which soon became the massacre of over 300 unarmed civilians, which included children, women, and the elderly. Lt. Calley ordered the men to enter the village firing, in spite of the fact that there were no reports of opposing fire. (My Lai Massacre)
According to eyewitness reports offered after the event, several old men were bayoneted, praying women and children were shot in the back of the head, and at least one girl was raped, and then killed. For his part, Calley was said to have rounded up a group of the villagers, ordered them into a ditch, and mowed them down in a fury of machine gun fire. (My Lai Massacre)
Reports of the Massacre did not reach the United States until November of 1969. As the details of the massacre reached the American public questions arose concerning the behavior of American soldiers in Vietnam. A military commission investigating the My Lai massacre found that there were large issues involving leadership failure, discipline, and morale among the Army's fighting units. (My Lai Massacre)
The military commission also found that as the war developed, many of the career soldiers had been rotated out or retired and many were dead. In their places were many draftees who were not fit to lead on the battlefield. Officials in the Military blamed discrimination in the draft policy for the slim talent pool from which they were forced to draw leaders. Many of these official believed that if the educated middle class were a part of that pool, a man like Lt. William Calley's with poor emotional and intellectual stature would never have been issuing the orders that led to the massacre. (My Lai Massacre)
The questions concerning the leadership ability of Calley and others were of the utmost concern but so was the idea that grown men could inflict so much pain on other human beings and ignore their own conscience simply because they were ordered to do so. This leads us to explore the experiments and concepts that Milgram discusses in the Perils of Obedience.
This first of the experiments involved studying how much pain a civilian citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to do so by an experimental scientist. Milgram explains that during the experiment "stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not." (Milgram)
The basic design of the experiment was to involve two people one of them is chosen a "teacher" and the other a "learner." The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with testing the effects of punishment on learning. The learner was brought into a room, seated in a miniature electric chair with his arms strapped to prevent too much movement, and an electrode was then attached to his wrist. The learner was told that he would be read a lists of simple word pairs, and that he will then be tested on his ability to remember the second word of a pair when he hears the first one again. The learner was then told that whenever an error was made he would receive electric shocks of increasing intensity.
The teacher is set down in front of a large shock generator and is told to shock the learner whenever an error was made. The shock generator was clearly marked and contained voltage ranging from 14 volts to 450 volts. The teachers could see and hear the discomfort of the learners when they were being shocked.(Milgram)
Prior to the start of the experiments Milgram sought predictions about the outcome of the experiment from college students, middle class adults, psychiatrists, graduate students and faculty members that worked in the behavioral sciences. All of the predictions from the various people asserted that most of the subjects would decline to obey the experimenter. Milgram writes, "the psychiatrist, predicted that most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts, when the victim makes his first explicit demand to be freed. They expected that only 4% would reach 300 volts, and that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board." (Milgram)
Contrary to these predictions Milgram found that the adults had a tremendous willingness to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority.
Milgram notes that, "Of the forty subjects in the first experiment, twenty-five obeyed the orders of the experimenter to the end, punishing the victim until they reached the most potent shock available on the generator." (Milgram)
Milgram came to the following conclusion about this experiment,
One theoretical interpretation of this behavior holds that all people harbor deeply aggressive instincts continually pressing for expression, and that the experiment provides institutional justification for the release of these impulses. According to this view, if a person is placed in a situation in which he has complete power over another individual, whom he may punish as much as he likes, all that is sadistic and bestial in man comes to the fore. The impulse to shock the victim is seen to flow from the potent aggressive tendencies, which are part of the motivational life of the individual, and the experiment, because it provides social legitimacy, simply opens the door to their expression." (Milgram)
This conclusion drawn by Milgram could explain a lot about the events that took place on March 16, 1968 in the village of My Lai. One would conclude that given the circumstances the soldiers that acted upon the commands of the superior officer were releasing their aggressive impulses. Furthermore, the fact that they were at war with the Viet Cong justified their actions and the fact that they were killing women, children and the elderly was of no consequence.
Milgram needed to confirm that his conclusion was correct so he conduct another study. In a slightly different experiment the teachers were told that they could give the learners whatever level of shock voltage that they thought necessary. The average shock used during this experiment was less than 60 volts, which was lower than the point at which the victim displayed the first signs of discomfort. Three of the forty subjects did not go farther than the lowest level of shock, twenty-eight went no higher than 75 volts, and thirty-eight did not go further than the first loud protest at 150 volts, however two of the teachers dispensed up to 325 and 450 volts.
The overall result of this experiment was that the great majority of teachers administered low, painless, shock levels when the choice of whether to inflict pain was overtly up to them. (Milgram)
This led Milgram to conclude once and for all that when most people "who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation -- an impression of his duties as a subject -- and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies." This is a stark contradiction to the conclusions made after the first experiment. This new conclusion would suggest that most of the soldiers that were involved in carrying out the massacre of My Lai did so simply because they were told to and not because it was instinctive. Thus one could conclude that…