The My Lai Courts-Martial: Questions for Discussion
by Doug Linder

1. Should we apply legal rules to incidents arising out of warfare?  What is the purpose of developing and applying such rules?  Have such rules changed the nature of warfare, or prevented more or worse wartime atrocities from occurring?

2. What should the rules of warfare be with respect to treatment of civilians?  Who should be considered a civilian (or a non-combatant)?  Should there be special rules governing the treatment of women or children?

3. What is the defense of superior orders?  Why have such a defense?  When should the defense be available?  What should be done in the case of ambiguous orders or when oral commands contradict written directives?  Must the belief  that a superior order is lawful be reasonable?  Should different standards apply to privates than to persons higher up the chain of command?  What should a soldier do when he is given an order that he thinks is unlawful?

4. How do you explain what happened at My Lai?  What can be done to prevent such tragedies from happening again?  What does My Lai teach us about the nature of evil?  Was Calley evil, or was he a more-or-less “normal person in abnormal circumstances”?  Would Calley have acted differently had he received more training in the rules of warfare?

5. Was Calley simply following orders?  What had he been told?  What did he reasonably infer?  Did he believe that his superiors were aware of his orders?  Did he try to hide his actions from his superiors?

6. If Calley had been ordered to “waste” civilians, was he obligated to disobey such an order because it was clearly illegal?

7. When Medina said that he gave no order to kill the residents of My Lai, was he being completely truthful?  Was Medina aware of what was happening at My Lai when there was still time to do something about it?  Should sins of omission be treated the same as sins of commission?

8. Which was worse—the massacre or the cover-up?

9. What relevance was it that atrocities had been committed against U.S. servicemen in the area in the days immediately preceding the My Lai operation?

10. Were there any heroes at My Lai?  What makes a hero able to act heroically?  How can we make more people likely to act heroically?

11. Was justice done in the court martial of Calley?  In the court martial of Captain Medina?

12. How much influence did politics and politicians have on the outcomes?  Should we try harder to insulate courts martial from political influence?

13. What role did the media play in exposing the My Lai massacre and explaining its significance?

14. What was the public reaction to these courts martial?  How do you explain this reaction?

15. What is the lasting significance of My Lai?  Did it substantially change public attitudes toward the Viet Nam War?  Has it changed how we prepare our soldiers for war?

16.  What comparisons can you draw between My Lai and the prisoner torture and abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq?  What are some of the key differences?  Who was most responsible for what happened at Abu Ghraib?  Does Abu Graib, as well as incidents involving the rape and killing of civilians in Iraq, suggest that we haven't learned well the lessons of My Lai?  What needs to be done to prevent these gross affronts to human dignity during the stress of war?   (For information from Wikipedia on the Abu Graib scandal, click Abu Graib Torture.)

My Lai Courts-Martial Homepage