War Atrocities and the Law

January 7, 1970

Report Outline
Violation of Laws of War in Viet Nam
Efforts to Reduce Wartime Outrages
Short- and Long-Range Impact of Songmy

Violation of Laws of War in Viet Nam

When the alleged massacre of noncombatants by American soldiers in Viet Nam in March 1968 was finally brought to public attention a year and one-half later, it focused world attention on the frailty of any coating of humaneness that may be thrown over the bestiality of war. On various occasions in the course of the Viet Nam conflict, as in earlier wars, troops on both sides have violated prohibitions against killing or mistreating innocent civilians. But published accounts of what happened at a hamlet in Songmy village called Mylai—the apparently deliberate shooting- of groups of men, women and children—disturbed the conscience of America. The coming courts-martial of an Army officer accused of murdering move than 100 civilians at Mylai, and of a staff sergeant on charges of assault with intent to commit murder, raise basic questions of policy and morality—especially for the many Americans who expect the representatives of their government to observe the highest ethical principles.

It may be said that what reportedly was done at Songmy was contrary to U. S. government policy. This distinguishes the affair from genocidal actions of the Nazis of the Third Reich and from North Viet Nam's execution of civilians at Hue in February 1968. Nevertheless, the incident seems to represent another act in the repetitious tragedy of this country's participation in war—a drama of high-mindedness marred by callousness or futility. Historians no longer are as confident as they once were that the War of 1812 promoted freedom of the seas, that the Civil War was inevitable, that the Mexican and Spanish-American wars were justified, that World War I was fought to save democracy, or that dropping of the A-bomb on Japanese cities in World War II was necessary. Songmy may further erode already dwindling confidence in the righteousness of American involvement in the war in Viet Nam.

Songmy, a cluster of nine hamlets located about 300 miles northeast of Saigon, came under control of the Vietcong in 1964. American soldiers stationed at Landing Field Dottie, just northwest of Songmy, commonly referred to the village as Pinkville. In the early months of 1968, booby traps and mines placed around the village, presumably with the knowledge of the inhabitants, killed a number of Americans.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Vietnam War
Feb. 18, 2000  Legacy of the Vietnam War
Dec. 03, 1993  U.S.-Vietnam Relations
Mar. 18, 1988  Vietnam: Unified, Independent and Poor
Jul. 06, 1984  Agent Orange: The Continuing Debate
Nov. 04, 1983  MIAs: Decade of Frustration
Mar. 11, 1983  Vietnam War Reconsidered
Oct. 21, 1977  Vietnam Veterans: Continuing Readjustment
Jan. 18, 1974  Vietnam Aftermath
Feb. 21, 1973  Vietnam Veterans
Jun. 09, 1971  Prospects for Democracy in South Vietnam
May 06, 1970  Cambodia and Laos: the Widening War
Jan. 07, 1970  War Atrocities and the Law
Jul. 02, 1969  Resolution of Conflicts
Apr. 17, 1968  Reconstruction in South Vietnam
Aug. 23, 1967  Political Evolution in South Viet Nam
Jan. 11, 1967  Rural Pacification in South Viet Nam
May 26, 1965  Political Instability in South Viet Nam
Mar. 25, 1964  Neutralization in Southeast Asia
Apr. 17, 1963  Task in South Viet Nam
Jun. 14, 1961  Guerrilla Warfare
May 17, 1961  Threatened Viet Nam
Sep. 23, 1959  Menaced Laos
Cold War
Conflicts in Asia
Global Issues
War and Conflict