Forty-one years after leading his Army unit in the massacre of between 300 to 500 unarmed old men, women, children and babies in the Vietnamese village of My Lai, the former Lieutenant William Calley spoke publicly for the first time about the killings.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” he said. “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
Several years ago, pursuing the project I discussed here recently, I managed to reach Calley on the phone. Brusque, but not rude, he made it clear that there would be no interview. He left open the possibility that that could change. If it did, he’d call.
I didn’t expect he’d ever talk to me or any other journalist, so, I was surprised Friday when I read that he had done an interview of sorts – answering questions at his local Kiwanis club and from the lone reporter invited, last Wednesday.
What are we to make of Calley’s contrition?
Online comments at the local newspaper’s website are mostly sympathetic:
“Thank you, Mr. Calley, for having served us.”
“It’s not appropriate to judge anyone involved.”
“This guy was wrong. But his point is valid that he was following orders.”
There we go: “Just following orders.”
It was only a matter of time before someone brought that out. As Chris Rock said in a different context, “That train’s never late!”
Dick McMichael, the one reporter at the Kiwanis talk, pressed Calley on this point. McMichael writes:
“When asked if obeying an unlawful order was not itself an unlawful act, he said, ‘I believe that is true. If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them – foolishly, I guess.”
Here’s an account, based on court documents, of how the destruction of My Lai began, written by Doug Linder, a professor of constitutional law who has taught and written extensively about My Lai:
By 8 a.m., Calley’s platoon had crossed the plaza on the town’s southern edge and entered the village. They encountered families cooking rice in front of their homes. The men began their usual search-and-destroy task of pulling people from homes, interrogating them, and searching for VC. Soon the killing began. The first victim was a man stabbed in the back with a bayonet. Then a middle-aged man was picked up, thrown down a well, and a grenade lobbed in after him. A group of fifteen to twenty mostly older women were gathered around a temple, kneeling and praying. They were all executed with shots to the back of their heads. Eighty or so villagers were taken from their homes and herded to the plaza area.
Photo by Ronald L. Haeberle, US Army
What happened next is recounted by soldier Paul Meadlo, testifying at Calley’s court marshal. Here, he’s being questioned by Captain Aubrey Daniels, lead prosecutor in the case.
A: [Calley] came up to me and he said, You know what to do with them, Meadlo, and I assumed he wanted me to guard them. That’s what I did.
Q: What were the people doing?
A: They were just standing there….
A: [Calley] said, How come they’re not dead?” I said, I didn’t know we were supposed to kill them.” He said, I want them dead.” He backed off twenty or thirty feet and started shooting into the people — the Viet Cong — shooting automatic. He was beside me. He burned four or five magazines. I burned off a few, about there. I helped shoot ‘em.
Q: What were the people doing after you shot them?
A: They were lying down.
Q: Why were they lying down?
A: They was mortally wounded.
Q: How were you feeling at that time?
A: I was mortally upset, scared, because of the briefing we had the day before.
Q: Were you crying?
A: I imagine I was….
Q: Were there any Vietnamese there?
A: Yes, there was Viet Cong there. About seventy-five to a hundred, standing outside the ravine….
A: Then Lieutenant Calley said to me, We’ve got another job to do, Meadlo”.
Q: What happened then?
A: He started shoving them off and shooting them in the ravine.
Q: How many times did he shoot?
A: I can’t remember.
Q: Did you shoot?
A: Yes. I shot the Viet Cong. he ordered me to help kill people. I started shoving them off and shooting.
Q: How long did you fire?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Did you change magazines?
Q: Did Lieutenant Calley change magazines?
Q: How many times did he change magazines?
A: Ten to fifteen times.
Q: How many bullets in a magazine?
A: Twenty, normally.
Q: How was Lieutenant Calley armed?
A: He had a M-16.
Q: What were the people doing after you and Lieutenant Calley shot them?
A: The people were just lying there, with blood all over them.
Q: What was the condition of the people?
A: I can’t say what their condition was. I didn’t get down in the ditch and check them out.
Q: Were they wounded?
A: They had wounds in the head, in the body, in the chest, in the stomach.
Q: Where were you when you shot at those people?
A: We was standing on top of the ravine and shooting down.
Q: Did you miss?
A: On automatic? Yes.
Q: Did Lieutenant Calley miss?
A: On automatic? Yes.
Q: Was anyone still alive when you stopped firing?
A: I couldn’t tell whether they was mortally wounded. I didn’t check them out.
On March 29, 1971, the jury of six military officers found Calley guilty of multiple counts of premeditated murder. Calley was sentenced to life in prison.
But conservatives were outraged over Calley’s treatment and the convicted murderer became a right-wing cause. The national commander of the VFW fulminated, “There have been My Lais in every war. Now for the first time we have tried a soldier for performing his duty.”
In his indispensible book, Nixonland, Rick Perlstein describes how President Richard Nixon, catching the scent of a possible political advantage, took off in fast pursuit.
“On April 1 Nixon made the call to Admiral Thomas Moorer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (“That’s the one place where they say, ‘Yes, sir,’ instead of ‘Yes, but'”). The House of Representatives broke out in spontaneous applause at the news. And a man convicted by fellow army officers of slaughtering twenty-two civilians was released on his own recognizance to the splendiferous bachelor pad he had rented with the proceeds of his defense fund, as featured in the November 1970 Esquire, complete with padded bar, groovy paintings, and comely girlfriend, who along with a personal secretary and a mechanical letter-opener helped him answer some two thousand fan letters a day.”
Two days later, Nixon announced that he would personally review the case and decide it for himself.
Outraged by Nixon’s politization of the military justice system, prosecutor Daniels sent his commander in chief an extraordinary letter.
Sir: It is very difficult for me to know where to begin this letter as I am not accustomed to writing letters of protest. I can only hope that I can find the words to convey to you my feelings as a United States citizen and as an attorney, who believes that respect for law is one of the fundamental bases upon which this nation is founded….
When the verdict was rendered, I was totally shocked and dismayed at the reaction of many people across the nation. Much of the adverse public reaction I can attribute to people who have acted emotionally and without being aware of the evidence that was presented and perhaps even the laws of this nation regulating the conduct of war.
These people have undoubtedly viewed Lieutenant Calley’s conviction simply as the conviction of an American officer for killing the enemy. Others, no doubt out of a sense of frustration, have seized upon the conviction as a means of protesting the war in Viet-Nam. I would prefer to believe that most of the public criticism has come from people who are not aware of the evidence as it was presented, or having followed it they have chosen not to believe it.
Certainly, no one wanted to believe what occurred at My Lai, including the officers who sat in judgment of Lieutenant Calley. To believe, however, that any large percentage of the population could believe the evidence which was presented and approve of the conduct of Lieutenant Calley would be as shocking to my conscience as the conduct itself, since I believe that we are still a civilized nation.
If such be the case, then the war in Viet-Nam has brutalized us more than I care to believe, and it must cease. How shocking it is if so many people across the nation have failed to see the moral issue which was involved in the trial of Lieutenant Calley– that it is unlawful for an American soldier to summarily execute unarmed and unresisting men, women, children, and babies.
But how much more appalling it is to see so many of the political leaders of the nation who have failed to see the moral issue, or, having seen it, to compromise it for political motive in the face of apparent public displeasure with the verdict…. [Emphasis added.]
In view of your previous statements concerning this matter, I have been particularly shocked and dismayed at your decision to intervene in these proceedings in the midst of the public clamor. Your decision can only have been prompted by the response of a vocal segment of our population who while no doubt acting in good faith, cannot be aware of the evidence which resulted in Lieutenant Calley’s conviction. Your intervention has, in my opinion, damaged the military judicial system and lessened any respect it may have gained as a result of the proceedings.
You have subjected a judicial system of this country to the criticism that it is subject to political influence, when it is a fundamental precept of our judicial system that the legal processes of this country must be kept free from any outside influences. What will be the impact of your decision upon the future trials, particularly those within the military?
Not only has respect for the legal process been weakened and the critics of the military judicial system been supported for their claims of command influence, the image of Lieutenant Calley, a man convicted of the premeditated murder of at least 22 unarmed and unresisting people, as a national hero has been enhanced, while at the same time support has been given to those people who have so unjustly criticized the six loyal and honorable officers who have done this country a great service by fulfilling their duties as jurors so admirably.
Have you considered those men in making your decisions? The men who since rendering their verdict have found themselves and their families the subject of vicious attacks upon their honor, integrity and loyalty to this nation.
It would seem to me to be more appropriate for you as the President to have said something in their behalf and to remind the nation of the purpose of our legal system and the respect it should command.
I would expect that the President of the United States, a man whom I believed should and would provide the moral leadership for this nation, would stand fully behind the law of this land on a moral issue which is so clear and about which there can be no compromise.
For this nation to condone the acts of Lieutenant Calley is to make us no better than our enemies and make any pleas by this nation for the humane treatment of our own prisoners meaningless…. [Emphasis added]
While in some respects what took place at My Lai has to be considered a tragic day in the history of our nation, how much more tragic would it have been for this country to have taken no action against those who were responsible.
That action was taken, but the greatest tragedy of all will be if political expediency dictates the compromise of such a fundamental moral principle as the inherent unlawfulness of the murder of innocent persons, making the action and the courage of six honorable men who served their country so well meaningless.
In August, Daniels’ fears were realized. Calley’s sentence was reduced to twenty years. In April 1974, just as the final act of the Watergate scandal was being played out, Calley’s sentence was again reduced, cut in half to ten years. In 1975, after serving just three and a half years, Calley was paroled.
Perhaps the most perceptive — and relevant — observation about My Lai was made back in 1970 by psychohistorian Robert J. Lifton, who had served as an Air Force psychiatrist in Asia in the early 1950s. Lifton had contributed a chapter to the book, War Crimes and the American Conscience.
My Lai epitomizes the Vietnam War, not only because every returning soldier can tell of similar incidents, if on a somewhat smaller scale, but also because it is an expression of the psychological state characteristic for Americans fighting that war. It illustrates the murderous progression of deception and self-deception — from political policy to military tactics to psychological aberration.
While transcribing Lifton’s quote just now, an image flashed in my mind. It took a moment to realize it wasn’t from My Lai, but from Abu Ghraib. I saw the photo of Spc. Sabrina Harman grinning and giving the thumbs-up sign, her pretty face only inches from the ice-covered corpse of a prisoner who had been tortured to death in a prison shower, by Americans whose leaders, having learned nothing from the tragedy of My Lai, had once again set our nation on that murderous progression that ends, inevitably, with images of the dead.
Osha Gray Davidson is a contributing blogger at Mother Jones and editor of The Phoenix Sun.