The Centurion: Conversations with a Mỹ Lai Massacrist

Christopher Elliott
22 min readDec 2, 2019

** CONTENT WARNING: Graphic descriptions of murder and sexual violence **

A burning “hootch”. (Photo: US Army Mỹ Lai Report)

Kenneth Hodges, 73, is a Vietnam veteran from Brewton, a rural town in southern Georgia.

A man of mostly quiet ways, his life today follows something of a loosely-scheduled routine — a dressage of tasks to be completed between moments of boredom. Mornings are slow, evenings he attends a spiritual group and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays — as has been his habit for the last thirty-nine years — he loads the household garbage into the back of his pickup truck and drives the lonely mile from the family farmhouse to the county recycling centre down the road.

For the most part, when driving the highway he knows best, he follows the rules. Trundling past row crops of cotton, corn and peanuts, he stays in his lane, stops at all the red signals, and pulls over promptly when he sees flashing blue lights in any of his three rear-view mirrors.

Sometimes however, he slips. Usually, it’s speed related. A few miles-per-hour here, a few miles-per-hour there. Nothing unconscionable.

At his worst though, he’s been known to drink behind the wheel. On one occasion, between his first and second tours of Vietnam, he left Fort Hood for a thirty-day leave and drove from Texas to Georgia with a half-gallon of bourbon and a full case of beer in the front seat. He drank and drove the whole time, he says, an inebriated demi-traverse of the United States without so much as a driver’s license on his person. The recklessness aside, his luck held and nothing terrible befell him during the drive. Nor did anything terrible happen to anybody else. So, after his arrival in the Peach State, life carried on as ever.

Though the details of his great American road trip are unflattering, in Kenneth Hodges’ mind the cause of this errant behaviour is unclear. In his view, he’s been a law-abider his whole life.

“If I go to a nightclub, I don’t congregate outside,” he says. “I follow the dictates of those who are in charge. If the policeman says move on, I move on.”

The suggestion is clear. In Hodges’ analyses of his own actions, cause and effect is derived from superior authority — all of it ultimately traceable to God. Everything is pre-determined and he’s only ever done exactly what he was supposed to do, precisely as it was set out to be done. Nevertheless, the larvae in the darkest boroughs of his sub-conscious — the urge to drive while he drinks, for example — have occasionally wheedled their way into being over the years. “Drinking takes you to crazy places,” he ruminates.

The exact places — both topographic and psychologic — he visited behind the wheel on that drive across the American Southeast are unknown, though one can reasonably assume that his first tour of Vietnam was fresh on his mind as he hurtled past the row crops. The violence, the anger, the frustration. It was all very nearby in the summer of 1968.

Today, of course, his life is far remote from those memories of war. Geospatially, the farmland of southern Georgia couldn’t be further from the paddy fields of Quảng Ngãi province. Nor, for that matter, could his tri-weekly garbage run be any further from the moment in 1969 when, as a platoon sergeant in South Vietnam, he returned from an overnight patrol, was placed under armed guard and given 24 hours to process out and leave the country. The ensuing chain of events was apparently a surprise to Hodges at the time. Arriving stateside and reporting to Fort McPherson, he was read his rights under Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Contained within the general court marshal? Two separate charges. “One charge of murder. One charge of rape,” he says. Both of them relating to the massacre at Mỹ Lai.

Revisiting a War Crime, 50 Years On

Much has been written about the Mỹ Lai massacre. The mass killings in the drainage ditch on the south side of the village. The burning huts. The criminal callousness of Lieutenant William ‘Rusty’ Calley. The macroscopic summary of events has been revisited again and again by journalists, historians and moral philosophers the whole world over.

On the morning of March 16, 1968, three platoons of American soldiers from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment landed in a cluster of hamlets collectively referred to as Mỹ Lai.

Arriving just west of the Tu Cung hamlet at 7:30am, each platoon spread out — 1st Platoon headed east through the population centre, 2nd Platoon north to an outlying sub-hamlet called Binh Tay and the 3rd hanging back for “mop ups”. By lunchtime, between 374 and 504 civilians had been murdered.

Mỹ Lai. 16 March 1968.

Kenneth Hodges was a member of 2nd Platoon — a sergeant in command of six soldiers — and the charges eventually laid against him reflected this field seniority.

In the end however, neither the rape nor the murder allegations went to trial — both were dismissed for lack of evidence. Of course, it’s not as if there was no evidence to justify a military trial. Indeed, in some respects, the reasons for the dismissal are unclear. Where the murder charge is concerned, Hodges agrees that he personally killed two unarmed Vietnamese with two consecutive well-aimed shots in the paddy fields outside Tu Cung. He has publicly admitted to this.

Similarly, where the rape charge is concerned, Private First Class Leonard Gonzales and Private Dennis Bunning both witnessed Hodges forcing a young girl into a hut where he allegedly violated her. Although PFC Gonzales did not actually see penetration take place, according to Private Bunning’s eyewitness account, Hodges forced the girl onto the floor after which “the sergeant’s head and the top of his body were visible [through the doorway] as he rocked back and forth”. A few minutes later, another soldier, Specialist James McBreen, would witness the same woman emerging from the hut, naked from the waist down.

For the most part, the testimony is unequivocal and this was not the only rape allegation levelled against Hodges. During a later incident involving multiple perpetrators, a thirty-eight-year-old woman named Nguyen Thi Cuong was forced to strip naked before being sodomized, raped and shot in the arm. Hodges was allegedly among the rapists. As Howard Jones writes in his definitive history of Mỹ Lai: “There were at least two gang rapes in Binh Tay… perhaps both of them involving a sergeant, Kenneth Hodges, and eight subordinates”.

Immediately after Mỹ Lai, Hodges disavowed knowledge of the slaughter. But his denials to investigators notwithstanding, that the evidentiary value of Bunning’s, Gonzales’ and McBreen’s testimony was never taken seriously raises legitimate questions about the Army’s handling of the case.

As Gary Solis, a Georgetown law professor and former Marine Judge advocate recently argued — the sexual assault charges at Mỹ Lai were dropped “because [the Army] didn’t want the American public to know the full extent of the criminality exhibited by US personnel… that was the reason why not a single rape charge went to trial — why sexual mutilation charges were not even considered.”

In setting out to speak with Kenneth Hodges, I of course knew some of this history — including what had happened in the judicial proceedings. I knew what Mỹ Lai had come to mean in the public’s memory.

The moral nadir of the war in Vietnam. The ordinary American boy’s unbridled capacity for barbarism. The grim spectre of inhumane possibility when structures of universal morality cease to matter.

I also knew that in spite of all the blood and ink spilled over the events of March 16, 1968, the courts martial had never reckoned with the complete catalogue of crimes. But for the 22 victims covered by William Calley’s presidentially-commuted conviction, where the US military justice system is concerned it is as if the Mỹ Lai massacre — a historical moment summatively comprising gang-rape and the mass murder of hundreds — never happened.

Moreover, where Hodges was specifically concerned, I knew that he still felt no remorse.

“I feel that we did not violate any moral standards,” he’d told a British TV journalist when asked if his squad had behaved morally at Mỹ Lai.

The villagers were all “VietCong or VietCong sympathizers,” he opined in another interview for a PBS documentary. “Maybe some see it differently. That’s the way I see it.”

Brazen, I’d thought as I watched these clips. But also strangely forthright.

“Dear Kenneth,” I wrote him. I was writing a story. “Let me know if you would be available to talk. Best, Chris”.

A short delay followed. And then: “Dear Christopher,” he wrote back. “I would welcome the opportunity to talk to you. Call me at this #.”

For a day or so I stewed on Hodges’ well-known willingness to talk, still undecided about rehashing these horrors with somebody I knew I’d struggle to relate to.

When I did reach out however, he replied immediately — as if he’d been waiting by the keyboard. “OK Christopher, that will be great.”

Lies & Denials

Calling Kenneth Hodges at his hometown in Brewton, I found that it was a perfectly personable human being who answered — a first impression that did not surprise me. It was now well-established that Mỹ Lai had been the work of ordinary men, not monsters.

“Call me Kenneth. ‘Mr Hodges’ is dead and gone,” he said — the ‘e’ of ‘dead’ and the ‘o’ of ‘gone’ gliding as diphthongs atop a Southern drawl.

On the other end of the line was an unassuming Georgia man, not a brilliant psychopath. An aging veteran marking time in retirement, not a criminal mastermind so skilled at artifice that he could make you love him. A liar yes but not an unusual liar, nor a very good one.

Indeed, it was immediately clear that the lies he told were only those he needed to tell in order that he could live with himself. For example, when the Army finally moved to discharge Hodges (administratively, as a catch-all convenience for “substandard conduct at Mỹ Lai”), he pushed back through the court system, appealing what he perceived as an unfair dismissal. In Hodges’ words: “I took it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States… but I lost.”

It wasn’t true, I would quickly learn. Hodges’ appeal made it only as far as the 5th Circuit. In his own mind though, the gravitas of a supreme intervention from a supreme body made for good effect.

Hodges went on, describing the orders that Captain Medina had issued to the company on the morning of the massacre. “The order was to kill and destroy everything in the village,” he said. “The chickens. The pigs. Throw them in the well water. Pollute the well water. Cut down the banana trees and destroy the hootches after searching ‘em.”

And the villagers? “Everyone in the village was either VietCong or VietCong sympathizers,” he repeated the line he’d given to many interviewing journalists. For Hodges, the innate guilt of the villagers had been a given — their deaths guaranteed the moment he and his men had boarded those helicopters.

In defending his actions to me, Hodges claims to have told US Army investigators that Captain Medina issued orders to kill women and children — including in an interview with General William Peers, the head of the Pentagon’s inquiry into Mỹ Lai.

“But General Peers did not like my answer,” Hodges cinematically recalls. “He jumped up and beat on the table and said ‘dammit Sergeant I asked you a question’ and I come up on the other side and I said ‘dammit general I answered your question… I was not ordered to kill women and children. The order was to kill everything that was there.

Over the phone, I registered Hodges’ vivid tale with a heavy dose of skepticism. The version of Medina’s orders that Hodges claims to have relayed to General Peers did not match the sworn testimony he had provided to the Army inquiry in 1969.

“We were to go in and seek out [VC sympathizers] and more less find these personnel out. And that was it,” he had told Army investigators in publicly-available records.

“We were told that we would have National Police along with us and… that they were going to question them… I don’t know what would have taken place after that… a ‘mama-san’ [a Vietnamese female], if she looked like she was hiding something, we were to take her over to the National Police and have him search her.”

In the transcript, the Army interrogators had pressed Hodges on Captain Medina’s exact words: “did you receive any instructions to destroy all the bunkers, burn all the hootches [military term for hut or shelter], destroy all the crops and kill all the livestock?” he was asked.

“I was given no instruction as to that, no, sir,” was Hodges’ recorded reply.

“Sergeant, were any of your people given the job of cutting down corn or other food supplies?” he was asked later in the testimony.

“No, sir.”

“How about shooting livestock?”

“No sir.”

These glaring discrepancies aside, I was interested in the motivations behind the lies, not in fact-checking each and every lie. For my own part, I believed that Hodges believed that the innocents killed were all “sympathizers” and that this was the “general consensus” within Charlie Company at the time. (Of course, it was conveniently unclear how the colloquial term “sympathizer” related to the Geneva Convention-enshrined “combatant” concept, about which, Hodges acknowledged, “there was some training”). I also believed that it was possible that Captain Medina had ordered the massacre, as some of the history written about Mỹ Lai suggests.

The relative truth-value of all these claims aside, I understood the context of Hodges’ account — including why, for example, he placed special emphasis on the claim that when they returned to base, Captain Medina demanded that everyone re-direct all questions about the killings to him. Jurisprudentially, and indeed morally, Hodges wanted to re-assign blame, an overture to what was known as “the superior orders defence” — the belief that one should not be held accountable for actions dictated from above, and derivations thereof.

The “Situationist” Perspective

According to this view, Hodges had only ever done what he was told to do, exactly as it was set out to be done. Thus, the apparently-rhetorical question: “If I go out on an operation how do I end up getting charged with murder [if] I’m following orders?“

Even though the judges at Nuremberg established that it was a soldier’s duty to disobey manifestly criminal orders, deflections to superior authority have some sympathy among behavioural psychologists — especially those belonging to what is called the “situationist” school of thought. Per the situationist view, war crimes committed by military personnel are best understood as the result of “an intrinsically pathological situation” instead of an underlying urge to hurt — as explains the actions of a serial killer.

By this reading, the obedience-demanding, group-conforming pressures of the military weaken a soldier’s capacity to make what would ordinarily be a moral decision. Soldiers will do as they are told, argue the situationists, and the drive to obey can be so strong as to supersede ordinary moral aversions, even as they relate to murder.

Experimentally, there is data to support the existence of a cognitive module for strong obedience in humans. In one famous experiment conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, test subjects in a “teacher” role were ordered to administer an electric shock on a “learner” subject every time a question was answered incorrectly (unbeknownst to the “teachers”, shocks weren’t actually applied). Despite predictions that only a few “teachers” would administer the shocks when ordered, Milgram’s tests revealed that nearly two-thirds of subjects were “fully obedient” to a command-and-control situation, continuing to apply the shocks even as the voltage went up. The results, wrote Milgram, suggested that “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process”.

The possibility of a strong obedience norm in an incident like Mỹ Lai is extremely unsettling, not least because of the questions it raises about diminished individual responsibility when a war crime is committed. If a young private on the belt-feeding end of a machine-gun is simply a slave to his situation, is he still responsible for his own actions? A sub-set of social and behavioural psychologists believe the answer to that question is “yes”.

Hodges himself had suggested this in an interview for the documentary Four Hours in Mỹ Lai: “If one of my soldiers had refused to shoot, I shudder to think… what I would have done.”

The experiments of the hardline situationists notwithstanding, the jagged, mismatched nature of the facts on the ground at Mỹ Lai — including the fact that not all soldiers killed, or the fact that not all soldiers raped — also seems to show that the “dark traits” of some individuals, deeply-nested in the sub-conscious though they may be, were still important in how the horror unfolded.

As the moral philosophers Jessica Wolfendale and Michael Talbert argue in War Crimes: Causes, Excuses, and Blame, excusing military personnel on the basis of situational pressures alone is “unacceptably exculpating” because such explanations cannot account for “the smile problem… the difficulty in accounting for the varying degrees of enthusiasm that perpetrators display for their tasks”. Where some of the soldiers at Mỹ Lai had outwardly refused to join in the slaughter, others participated with exuberance. In talking to Hodges for example, I knew he was among this latter category. I knew this because he’d told me so.

“What were your thoughts when Medina issued you those orders?” I asked of the alleged command to ‘search and destroy’ everyone in the village.

“We had never got an order to ‘search and destroy’,” Hodges replied. “So we were excited to say the least.”

Excited (adjective): “very happy and enthusiastic because something good is going to happen”. The word twanged through the phone line as he said it, hanging in the air like the sound of a broken string. Indeed, the more I spoke with Sergeant Kenneth Hodges about his actions at Mỹ Lai, the easier it was for me to imagine him as a smiling “centurion”, gleefully discharging his duties on the firing line.

“Were there people killed under similar circumstances by your platoon as by Calley’s platoon?” I asked him of 2nd Platoon’s north-easterly sweep through Binh Tay as away and to the south, 2nd Lieutenant William Calley’s platoon was famously shooting villagers in ditches.

“Oh yes,” Hodges replied. “That was the order — kill and destroy everything that was in the village.”

“As a Sergeant were you issuing orders as well?” I asked. “Did you re-issue those orders?”

“Oh yes,” he replied. “I repeated those orders to soldiers who had questions.”

2nd Platoon was walking through the village “on line”, he said. “Like a giant police column.” There was no more than two arm’s distance between each soldier, he explained. As a sergeant in charge of a squad of six — it was his responsibility to issue fire control orders — verbal commands which harness the rate of fire of the squad’s heavy weapons.

“Just keep it on line,” he recalls of his exact words. “You don’t wanna get behind the others for safety reasons… let’s keep moving through the village and keep firing as you see ‘suspects’”.

Those “suspects”, it perhaps goes without saying, were unarmed Vietnamese, and contrasting as it did with his sworn testimony to the Peers Inquiry in 1969, legally this was new and incriminating information. Apart from the man he had shot in the paddy fields outside Binh Tay, Hodges had never confessed to other killings.

“The people were dead when we moved up into that area,” reads the transcript of Hodges’ original testimony to investigators. “I didn’t see anyone in my squad kill anybody… the [dead] that I saw, some of them that I saw was by possibly helicopter and 5-inch rocket and minigun fire”.

Despite these denials, it doesn’t seem like the investigators in 1969 believed him, even if at the time they were unable to relinquish a confession.

“Inside the subhamlet of Binh Tay, the 2nd Platoon continued the pattern of burning, killing and rapes,” concluded the Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident. “A group of Vietnamese women and children (approximately 10–20) were rounded up, brought to the southern end of Binh Tay, and made to squat in a circle. Several 40mm rounds from an M-79 grenade were fired into their midst”. Most of the dead, determined the military historian William Allison, were forced to strip naked before they were killed.

The seriousness of these crimes notwithstanding, for some reason, Hodges was finally telling partial truths. 2nd Platoon had fastidiously participated in the slaughter, he now agreed. And as a sergeant — a modern-day centurion issuing fire control orders on the battlefield — he also claimed that he was not merely obeying his superiors like “a good soldier” but also re-issuing those same killing orders to soldiers attempting to conscientiously object.

“Is this what’s supposed to be going on?” He recalls one of his men asking him.

“Yes,” he replied. “How many VietCong or VietCong sympathizers do you want to leave alive?”

The Army investigators seemed to have suspected that Hodges had had a decisive role in the kill chain, even without an admission of guilt. According to the Army’s report, when Private Bunning refused to partake in the initial killings in the fields outside the village, Hodges moved him “to the extreme left flank of the platoon”.

Bunning would later testify that “[Hodges] gave me hell for not shooting. And I gave him hell because I wasn’t going to”.

In his conversations with me, Hodges’ contempt for other on-scene conscientious objectors was also clear. When asked about Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who instructed his door gunner to fire on the 2nd Platoon massacrists if they killed any more civilians, Hodges disbursed the following: “if [the pilot] interfered with an operation that was going on he should have been shot down,” he told me. “That’s my feelings on it now.”

The operation, in Hodges’ view, was Captain Medina’s to run. It was therefore Captain Medina’s to end.

Leaving aside the obvious dissonance of placing the Mỹ Lai massacre at the feet of Captain Medina despite having issued murderous orders himself, for Hodges, the barbarous beauty of the superior orders defence lay in its seeming unimpeachability. If what happened at Mỹ Lai was a collective endeavour — the splenetic consequence of a chain of command inhumanly working together — then it was all too easy for each individual chain-link to unshackle from the burden of blame. The senior officers had killed nobody, the privates were just doing as they were told and the sergeants were merely repeater stations between the two. Therefore, any single chain-link could argue, no one was to blame — and it would be unfair for anyone to suggest otherwise.

It required no great feat of moral reasoning to conclude that this was philosophically indefensible, even if this was Hodges’ firmly-held belief. As Wolfendale and Talbert argue, to say that we cannot blame soldiers for obeying criminal orders is to say that victims cannot blame their own aggressors for the outrages committed upon them — “a thoroughly unappealing conclusion”.

The Question of Responsibility

With the issue of blame in mind, there is little doubt that many things occurred in Mỹ Lai which the soldiers were explicitly told not to do — corpse mutilation chief among them. Oddly, Hodges agrees with this assessment — even though it seems to undermine the superior orders defence. “The Vietnamese were superstitious people,” Hodges explained. “So if you cut off a finger or cut off an ear, that person’s spirit did not go to heaven… none of this was sanctioned by our unit or any other unit”.

According to Hodges, it was also against the rules to pose for photographs with corpses — a practice that has recently been in the news following the well-publicized war crimes trial of a US Navy SEAL. In the latter case, Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher was controversially acquitted for the murder of a teenage ISIS fighter but convicted on a charge of posing for a gruesome photo with the boy’s corpse. Among the evidence was a text message from Gallagher — the image attached — in which he bragged “I got him [the teenager] with my hunting knife”.

“You don’t mutilate bodies, you don’t take pictures of enemy dead,” said Hodges of the orders he and the other soldiers of Charlie Company received in Vietnam. “And you don’t take those pictures and send them out to anyone.”

The on-scene rapes too, seemed to further nullify the superior orders defence. Hodges’ appeal to Medina’s authority aside, it was obvious that if the Binh Tay rapes had occurred as alleged, then the impulse to rape had come not from on high but as decided upon by the rapists themselves.

Hodges agreed with this assessment. “It would not have come from any orders,” he said. “[Rape] was just something that some soldiers chose to do on their own.”

Or, as the Army investigators concluded: “even after the order to stop the killing came the raping [in Binh Tay] continued.”

In one of the incidents allegedly involving Hodges, Private Dennis Bunning recalled: “I think that one of them started, and the other two got into the action all at the same time… a guy would just grab one of the girls there and in one or two incidents they shot the girls when they got done”.

Though he was evasive with some of the details, I asked Hodges if it was true that he had been seen in a hut with a woman at the moment of an alleged rape.

“As I was checking the village, following my men around, making sure that they were doing what they were supposed to be doing… yes,” he said. “I was in the hootch with the young woman. I was in several hootches with several women… and other Vietnamese”.

And the claims made against him? How did Hodges feel about the soldiers who had accused him of rape and murder? “They were just relating the fact that they saw things go on in the village. The things they did, the things they saw other people do… which is the same thing that I had done.”

The polarity, in moral terms, between conscientious objectors like Bunning and the rapists at Mỹ Lai could not have been more distinct.

Rape and America’s Vietnam War

With the cultural impact of #MeToo still reverberating in percussive waves across society, it’s worth considering how today’s reckoning with sexual violence might be extended to historically-distant battlefields where war crimes suspects are still alive.

The Binh Tay rapes, after all, were not isolated events. The Peers report is littered with geographically- and temporally-disinct gang-rape allegations — from Duc Pho to Co Lay.

According to whistleblower Ronald Ridenhour: “rape was not at all unusual… it was committed by a great many members of our forces… not a majority of the members of the companies, but too large a minority… the officers looked away if they could.”

Or, as Sergeant Michael Bernhardt put it: “if we were any distance from Highway 1, there wasn’t too much chance that the woman wouldn’t be raped… it was predictable. In other words, if I saw the woman, I’d say, ‘well it won’t be too long’”.

Or, in the words of Specialist Joseph Konwinski: “Honestly rape [was] such an everyday thing. It got to be such an everyday thing over there”.

More yet, many of these allegations, far from being general descriptions of an ill-defined cultural malaise are highly specific — with details of time, place and personage all attached. And yet, none of these crimes have ever been prosecuted.

One notorious member of Charlie Company, according to Ridenhour: “admitted to me himself that he had committed rape more than once… he said — he almost boasted about it — if he got horny, he wanted a little, he just picked out a likely little girl in a village and raped her… he told me that it wasn’t an uncommon event in his platoon”.

Understanding and reckoning with the sum total of the above testimony was a challenging task. At first, I assumed that the massacrists must have been led astray or collectively mentally-defective — or both — in some unseen but measurable way. If the men of Charlie Company were simply “an average cross-section of American society”, as Ken Burns put it in a recent documentary series, then the overall awfulness of the Vietnam War must hold at least some explanatory power. There was nothing uniquely evil in the psyche of the average American GI, I knew, so it followed that the events at Mỹ Lai were somehow traceable to an environmental cause.

At least in Hodges’ opinion, everything that happened in that village could be explained by the horrible pathos of the Vietnam War — the booby traps, the minefields, the seemingly-sympathetic villagers leaving rice out for the VietCong.

“It’s easy to sit back and analyse things and maybe even pass judgement if you were not there,” he told me. “If you have not been to Vietnam, out in the field, if you have never been in a war it’s easy for you to say ‘oh my God, how could you do this?’… [But] you really have to have been there”.

The “you had to be there” argument was certainly an argument I’d heard before. In some “fog of war” cases, it was even an argument I was willing to countenance. And yet, in his re-telling of the Mỹ Lai massacre, Hodges’ extreme situationism was so thoroughly antithetical to the common good that it demanded a rejoinder.

As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote of a similar defence evoked by Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal, at his trial in Jerusalem: “the argument that we cannot judge if we were not present and involved ourselves seems to convince everyone everywhere, although it seems obvious that if it were true neither the administration of justice nor the writing of history would ever be possible”.

Of course, the dismissal of Hodges’ charges in the Article 32 hearing means that legally he didn’t do any of it. Even if the whispers of history hold otherwise, Kenneth Hodges is, on paper, an innocent man.

Even so, if Hodges is right and Mỹ Lai unfolded precisely as Captain Medina ordered it to unfold, then in surrendering himself whole-bodily to the whims of his superiors, he, like Eichmann, had ceased to be “the principal legislator” of his own will. Prostrating himself before a captain’s rank, he had mortgaged his own humanity, leaving his conscience with no moral scruples to spare. The end result? A black-heartedness defined by absence, possessing “neither depth nor a demonic dimension” — as Arendt wrote of Eichmann.

The conclusion then, was obvious. If evil is nothing more than the absence of good, then the evil at Mỹ Lai didn’t require a great deal of explanation. What constitutes morally-appropriate decision-making can sometimes be culturally- and contextually-dependent. Undoubtedly, the Vietnam War was a morally-complex environment to exist in. But the immorality at Mỹ Lai was simple. The men of Charlie Company had simply ceased trying to be good. And so, inside the micro-culture they had constructed in Vietnam, “good” behaviour had simply ceased to be.

Hodges, therefore, was not “evil” as a theologian would see it. Evil, after all, was a phenomenon of absence — the end result of a hollowing-out process. Thus, the evil that had swept through Mỹ Lai had no malevolent personification, only the potential to manifest.

Perhaps this “absencing” had begun earlier in Hodges’ life — the dark matter reaching critical mass amongst the carnage of Binh Tay. The precise chronology was still unclear.

As for redemption, I supposed it was hypothetically possible. If the axiom that everyone is redeemable holds true, then the possibility of redemption for Kenneth Hodges had to be entertained.

I doubted the hole could be filled, but such predictions weren’t mine to make. Legally and morally, it was significant that Hodges was now willing to admit to some of what he had done. In the interim though, Kenneth would continue to live on the land he grew up on. The 100 acre lot once farmed by his father has since dwindled down to 10.

Unidentified Vietnamese Man. (Photo: US Army Mỹ Lai Report)


C. August Elliott is a Canadian-Australian anthropologist specializing in political violence and the microsociology of war crimes.



Christopher Elliott

C. August Elliott is a Canadian-Australian anthropologist specializing in political violence and the microsociology of war crimes.