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1968 - Myth or Reality?

The Archive Hour - The My Lai Tapes

My Lai massacre This weekend, forty years ago exactly, as many as 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians were killed by US soldiers. It became known as the My Lai massacre and proved to be a turning point in the Vietnam War.

The Archive Hour, 8.00pm, Saturday 15 March 2008

  • The audio for this programme is no longer available

For a year after My Lai, the rapes and murders were covered up. Much of what we know thereafter came from the widely publicised court martial of Lt William Calley in 1970/71. He was the only man ever found guilty of any offences at My Lai. But the massacre was much more than the actions of a few rogue individual soldiers. It was carefully planned and a high body-count was the main aim.

Before Calley's trial, The US Army itself held its own investigation into the massacre. "The Peers Inquiry" heard evidence behind closed doors inside the Pentagon from December 1969 to March 1970.

*The inquiry recordings lay forgotten for nearly 40 years. Tonight, for the first time, you can hear the testimonies of those involved and the full extent of US Army activity on the ground on16th March 1968. You can also hear new interviews with soldiers who took part and with one of the members of the panel of the Peers Inquiry.

Over 14 weeks, Lt General William Peers and his panel took statements from 403 witnesses: soldiers, senior officers, chaplains, journalists and Vietnamese. The findings of the investigation were so uncomfortable for the US Military they were suppressed. Some 400 hours of tape were recorded - and classified. Until now.

The accounts are shocking:

"The first shot hit a baby in the head and I turned around and (was) sick" - one soldier. Another: "Most people in our company didn't consider the Vietnamese human…..A guy would just grab one of the girls there and ….they shot the girls when they got done."

The tapes of the Peers Inquiry prove that US soldiers raped and killed hundreds of civilians in not just one but three villages that day. They prove that two companies - not only the infamous Charlie Company - were involved. They show how badly trained and ignorant of the laws of war many of the young soldiers were. These tapes also prove that the orders "to leave nothing alive" came from senior officers.

The Peers Inquiry made key recommendations about the training of soldiers fighting insurgents and about the responsibility of leaders in wartime - issues with huge resonance today in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The programme is presented by American military journalist, Robert Hodierne, himself a journalist in Vietnam.

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