Early on March 16, 1968, a company of soldiers in the United States Army’s Americal Division were dropped in by helicopter for an assault against a hamlet known as My Lai 4, in the bitterly contested province of Quang Ngai, on the northeastern coast of South Vietnam. A hundred G.I.s and officers stormed the hamlet in military textbook style, advancing by platoons; the troops expected to engage the Vietcong Local Force 48th Battalion — one of the enemy’s most successful units — but instead they found women, children, and old men, many of them still cooking their breakfast rice over outdoor fires.
During the next few hours, the civilians were murdered. Many were rounded up in small groups and shot, others were flung into a drainage ditch at one edge of the hamlet and shot, and many more were shot at random in or near their homes. Some of the younger women and girls were raped and then murdered.
After the shootings, the G.I.s systematically burned each home, destroyed the livestock and food, and fouled the area’s drinking supplies. None of this was officially told by Charlie Company to its task-force headquarters; instead, a claim that a hundred and twenty-eight Vietcong were killed and three weapons were captured eventually emerged from the task force and worked its way up to the highest American headquarters, in Saigon.
There it was reported to the world’s press as a significant victory.