My Lai

Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness

Howard Jones

Oxford University Press, New York, 2017, 504 pages

Book Review published on: September 15, 2017

Howard Jones’s My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness is a comprehensive, objective look at one of the most infamous episodes in American military history. My Lai is a story about the failure of leadership and the moral courage to see justice done. Written as part of the Oxford University Press “Pivotal Moments in American History Series,” Jones takes a straightforward approach to describing the sequence of events that lead to the massacre, the subsequent investigations, the cover-up, and the trials of the participants.

The challenge in any book about an incident such as My Lai is two-fold: first, the author must present a clear story from the multitude of confusing eyewitness accounts, and second, the author must be impartial. Jones does a superb job on both accounts. His goal was to provide an objective look at a story that spans from tactical operations in Vietnam to the White House, and Jones succeeds in offering a balanced account of the massacre and its aftermath. The author uses testimony from the various inquires and investigations to offer a clear narrative of the conflicting and often contradictory chain of events. Much of the controversy surrounding My Lai concerns what the different commanders said when issuing orders; the author navigates the different perspectives in a clear, concise manner. Jones has done extensive research, spending ten years combing through archives and resources and conducting interviews, including the often overlooked accounts of Vietnamese survivors.

As Jones tells the story, he addresses several pivotal topics associated with the massacre, including how it divided America, why no one was held accountable, and whether the Army covered it up. In addition, the chapter that many readers might find insightful is where Jones addresses the legacy of My Lai, putting events into perspective and offering lessons for the future. Jones makes a compelling case for why My Lai is a significant event in American history, forcing readers to confront the larger legal and moral issues such as whether My Lai was an aberration or an inevitable consequence of combat.

Despite discussing an event fifty years old, the book offers lessons for military operations today where service members wrestle with many of the same dilemmas: Who is the enemy and who is not? What constitutes a combatant? How do you measure victory? This book should be read by everyone, whether in the military or not, to understand the pressures and ethical dilemmas faced when fighting a war. For this reason, I highly recommend this book to all readers for its applicability and insights.

Book Review written by: Robert J. Rielly, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas