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Robert Lowell

Women, children,
babies, cows, cats

Easier questions to cut your teeth on!

Lorraine Knickelbein
Grens High School
Updated: 4 March 2014
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Sonmy or Son My is a district in Vietnam which is divided into four villages, My Lai being one of them. "Pinkville" refers to a military description of the My Lai area.

In March 1968, American soldiers embarked on a "search and destroy" mission to uncover communist fighters, or "Vietcong" as they were known.

The American troops were landed by helicopter. Within three hours, between 350 and 500 Vietnamese civilians were killed in cold blood.

Hand grenades were thrown into civilian homes and the fleeing people were bayoneted. Others were grouped and executed by machine gun.

Victims were also beaten and tortured, and bodies were mutilated. Women and young girls were gang raped. Everything was burned, including houses, crops and livestock.

There was, however, no enemy fire and no Vietcong communist fighters were found. The soldiers were told to keep quiet about the incident.

Nevertheless, many soldiers did eventually speak out. The My Lai massacre thereupon caused a public outcry and led to a turning-point in American public opinion about the war.

This poem reflects the horrors of war, the deaths of innocents, the guilt at having participated and the loss of values.

The poet also conveys the bitterness and anger felt by the soldiers, using the style of an actual conversation, filled with the soldiers' jargon.


Robert Lowell was born in the eastern United States city of Boston in 1917. He attended Harvard University for about two years before transferring to Kenyon College where he graduated in 1940.

He suffered from bi-polar disease -- which has been described as a mental disorder that is characterised by periods of mania and depression.

He volunteered for military service during World War II but he was deeply shocked by the Allied bombing of German cities, with so many civilian deaths. He thereupon became a conscientious objector, for which he was jailed for several months and then had to do community service.

He later became an outspoken critic of American involvement in the Vietnam War. To highlight his opposition to this war, he even publicly refused President Lyndon Johnson's personal invitation to a prestigious Arts Festival held at the White House.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"It was at My Lai or Sonmy or something."
  • What does the poet convey when the soldier says "or something"? Is the soldier simply ignorant of geography or is it more to this? (4)

[Need help?]

"There'd be nothing standing."
  • What do these words this tell us about the soldiers' orders? (2)

[Need help?]

In your own words, explain what is meant by "we hopped the choppers". (2)

[Need help?]

Did the soldier shoot the lady? Give a reason for your answer. (3)

[Need help?]

Explain in your own words how the soldier feels at the end of the poem. (2)

[Need help?]

Look carefully at the title of the poem and then at the line, "standing, women, children, babies, cows, cats . . .".
  • Read the following sentence and choose the missing words from the list below: "These words tell us that the army commanders feel . . . . the massacre."

    A. guilty about
    B. responsible for
    C. indifference towards (1)

[Need help?]

"When I turned her."
  • At what stage would the soldier have turned her? (1)

[Need help?]

"I remember . . . as we was coming up upon one area
in Pinkville, a man with a gun . . . running this lady . . . "
  • Who would the "man with a gun" have been? Explain your answer. (3)

[Need help?]

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See also:
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