Milwaukee County War Memorial

March Offers a Tale of Two Militaries

In U.S. military history, the month of March includes two of our most notable events: the ending of the Battle of the Alamo and the My Lai Massacre.

After a period of almost two weeks of resisting Mexican General Santana Anna’s army, on March 6, 1836, the Alamo finally fell. Yet, through the effort of these amazing troops they held off the Mexican Army for 13 days which gave General Sam Houston time to raise his own army. These troops would eventually win the freedom of Texas and change America forever.

The battle for the Alamo emphasizes the exceptional courage of the frontiersmen, who knew their days were numbered yet stood their ground for a cause greater than themselves. Of all the courageous acts in our military history, few stand out quite like the battle for the Alamo.

On the other side of this spectrum is the My Lai incident. On March 16, 1968, a company of American Army infantry entered the hamlet of My Lai in South Vietnam with orders to “seek and destroy” the Vietcong (VC) battalion that had been creating havoc on U.S. troops. The company level leaders were informed that the villagers were sympathetic to the VC and would likely offer resistance to our troops. As the soldiers entered the village and began searching each hut, they found no VC. Frustrated by their lack of success and still reeling from the loss of more than 20 of their friends and colleagues in recent days (soon after the Tet Offensive), the soldiers began taking deadly action against the civilians.  The final death toll was never established, varying from 200 to 500.  A courageous American helicopter pilot, who was watching this action from the sky, is credited with landing his aircraft between the soldiers and their targets and ending the rampage.

For the next year the military covered up the incident until the truth eventually surfaced. Twenty five officials were later charged. The officer in charge at the platoon level that day was Lt. William Calley. He was charged with the deaths of 22 Vietnamese civilians. Years later, when the American people demanded his release because he was simply “a scapegoat” in this tragic incident, President Richard Nixon paroled him. Lt. Calley had served three years of his 10 year sentence.

Those who have studied this matter think the soldiers’ errors in judgment were due to extreme stress, fear, frustration, anger, and “the fog of war.”  What we should remember is that our military leaders made changes to our training and our tactics in order to prevent such a recurrence. As they should have.

As I considered March and military history, I could change the title of the Charles Dicken’s novel A Tale of Two Cities to A Tale of Two Militaries; however, the opening line would remain the same …

“It was the best of times; It was the worst of times.” 

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