Friday, June 08, 2007

Remembering My Lai

The spectacular blog Lawyers, Guns, & Money has a recurring feature entitled "Worst American Birthdays." It runs on the birthdays of some of the more notorious people ever to disgrace our nation's stage. Normally, I don't pay it much attention, because normally they are either well-known villains (like John C. Calhoun) or more modern corrupt hacks.

But today, the focus was on Lt. William Calley, key player in the gruesome My Lai massacre. Here's how Pvt. Dennis Conti described the events at Calley's trial:
Lieutenant Calley came out and said, "Take care of these people." So we said, okay, so we stood there and watched them. He went away, then he came back and said, "I thought I told you to take care of these people." We said, "We are." He said, "I mean, kill them." I was a little stunned and I didn't know what to do. He said, "Come around this side. We'll get on line and we'll fire into them." I said, "No, I've got a grenade launcher. I'll watch the tree line." I stood behind them and they stood side by side. So they -- Calley and Meadlo -- got on line and fired directly into the people. There were bursts and single shots for two minutes. It was automatic. The people screamed and yelled and fell. I guess they tried to get up, too. They couldn't. That was it. They people were pretty well messed up. Lots of heads was shot off, pieces of heads and pieces of flesh flew off the sides and arms. They were all messed up. Meadlo fired a little bit and broke down. He was crying. He said he couldn't do any more. He couldn't kill anymore people. He couldn't fire into the people any more. He gave me his weapon into my hands. I said I wouldn't. "If they're going to be killed, I'm not going to do it. Let Lieutenant Calley do it," I told him. So I gave Meadlo back his weapon. At that time there was only a few kids still alive Lieutenant Calley killed them one-by-one. Then I saw a group of five women and six kids -- eleven in all -- going to a tree line. "Get 'em! Get 'em! Kill 'em!" Calley told me. I waited until they got to the line and fired off four or five grenades. I don't know what happened....

Sentenced to life in prison, President Richard Nixon quickly moved that his sentence be served as a house arrest, and--a scant three years after he was convicted of premeditated murder leading to the deaths of 504 innocent civilians--he was paroled and released from prison.

While we are on the subject of My Lai, we should also mention the name Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr.. A helicopter pilot, Johnson observed the massacre and intervened, attempting to save wounded Vietnamese and issuing orders to the officers on the scene (who outranked him) to stop the massacre. At one point, he had his gunners train their heavy machine guns on the American soldiers, with orders to shoot if the killing continued. His actions directly saved the lives of untold numbers of My Lai residents. Unfortunately, the survivors were relocated to another hamlet which was subsequently destroyed by South Vietnamese Air and Artillery bombardment.

Calley and Thompson represent the two extremes of America--the former, how low we can sink, the latter, how high we can soar. It is, of course, outrageous that a bona fide war criminal got away with serving three years of house arrest--a blot that almost (not quite) is as great a stain on America as the massacre itself. Lest we think that "we would never do such a thing," remember William Calley. Lest we think that we would be quick to punish the perpetrators, let us remember that the army covered up and attempted to white-wash the massacre for years, and remember that Calley, the only man convicted for this crime, served less than 5 months in prison for it.

And lest we despair that there are no men and women in our armed forces who would stand up to such brutal conduct, let us remember Hugh Thompson.

1 comment:

Flinger said...

Poignant and well written. It is the best possible argument against the initiation or continuation of any war -- you just dont fucking know whats going on on the ground.

Incidentally, I suspect historians will look back on the excesses of our era and find at least one Hugh Thompson within the Ashcroft FBI. The DOJ as a whole under Ashcroft was ambivalent to the radical changes in the structure of government, and it does not look to me that many of the agents were willing to overlook Abu Ghraib and other practices of torture and lawlessness.


Dissension within even the most rigidly partisan and ideological institutions is pervasive, and may well be the only check on leaders like our own.