I thought of this while reading a post at Popehat regarding the persuasively named “Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012.” OK, now say it 3 times, FAST.
Yet again, it is an attempt by Congress to do something that probably started with good intentions and ends with further proof that they are not skilled at evaluating 2nd and 3rd-order effects of laws.
The Popehat post does a good job of addressing the flaws of this act, and I have nothing to add.
Instead, I want to address humans. I want to address clusters of humans. I want to look at what they believe, and how they behave. I’ll do it with an anecdote. No punch line. No unified theme. Just a story.
I’m reminded of LT William Calley. Starting in 1992, his name has been mentioned in my presence several times a year for the last 20 years. From ethics classes to Law of War seminars to casual conversation, the lessons of My Lai were repeated again and again. Let’s start at the end, via Wikipedia:
After deliberating for 79 hours, the six-officer jury (five of whom had served in Vietnam) convicted him on March 29, 1971, of the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. On March 31, 1971, Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor at Fort Leavenworth, which includes the United States Disciplinary Barracks, the Department of Defense‘s only maximum security prison.
There you go. He was the Platoon Leader during the infamous My Lai Massacre. Of this horror, he was the poster child.
OK, let’s break it down.
Premeditated Murder x 22: Check
Life Imprisonment: Check
That makes sense, right? Plus, the individuals deciding the punishment were all senior officers in the Army. Five of them served in Vietnam. Per the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he was sentenced by the same jury that found him guilty.
While I’m decidedly on the defense side of the fence, the sentence makes sense, and the jury was certainly more informed than any of us will ever be.
In 1971, many were outraged, but not how you might expect.
Check this out:
Many in America were outraged by Calley’s sentence; Georgia’s governor Jimmy Carter instituted “American Fighting Man’s Day” and asked Georgians to drive for a week with their lights on. Indiana’s governor asked all state flags to be flown at half-staff for Calley, and Utah’s and Mississippi’s governors also disagreed with the verdict. The Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, New Jersey, and South Carolina legislatures requested clemency for Calley. Alabama’s governor George Wallace visited Calley in the stockade and requested that Nixon pardon him.
After the conviction, the White House received over 5000 telegrams; the ratio was 100 to 1 in favor of leniency. In a telephone survey of the American public, 79% disagreed with the verdict, 81% believed that the life sentence Calley had received was too stern, and 69% believed Calley had been made a scapegoat.
How would you feel if officials from throughout your state came to the aid and support of someone who did the same thing today in Iraq or Afghanistan? Remember, the 6 men who sentenced Calley were all senior officers, all had previously served as Lieutenants in their younger days, and 5/6 of them were combat veterans. They deliberated a long time and based their decision, presumably, on both the facts, any and all aggravation, mitigation, and extenuation while juxtaposing the whole shebang upon their own experiences as junior officers.
Immediately after the sentencing, President Nixon ordered Calley from confinement in the Disciplinary Barracks to house arrest. He remained there for about 3.5 years until, after a messy Habeas fight, he was released, a free man.
From there, he remained in Columbus, Georgia where he worked in a jewelry store.
Attending the Infantry Officer Basic Course in 1996, my fellow-Second-Lieutenant-classmates and I endured many ethics classes mentioning the My Lai Massacre. After all, we were all preparing to be platoon leaders just like Calley was. The massacre was a subject rich with talking points and lessons.
My instructors, however, took it a step further. They called one of Calley’s jurors to speak to our class. Long since retired, the Lieutenant Colonel started his lecture abruptly.
Listen Lieutenants. I want to make one thing clear, William Calley is a convicted MUR-DER-ER!
He smacked the podium with his large hand for each syllable in the word murderer. While I’m sure he understood his role in teaching a valuable ethics lesson to us noobs, it became clear that this crusty, retired officer was releasing years of anger, frustration, and bewilderment on the 120 butter-bars in the lecture hall that day.
The fact that Calley, on that July 1996 hot, Georgia day remained a free man chapped the Lieutenant Colonel’s ass.
His lecture continued for approximately 45 minutes. Each time he said murder or murderer, he smacked the podium in honor of each syllable.
I’ve taken many lessons away from that lecture. While one of those rules is “don’t lecture angry,” I think he pulled-it-off. It was effective, strong, and I remembered it.
So, when you are wondering why individuals and groups do things today that, to you, make no logical, ethical, or legal sense, look to our history. Look to1971 and the collective leaders of Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, South Carolina, Utah, Indiana, New Jersey, and Georgia. Look to the actions of George Wallace, Jimmy Carter, and Richard Nixon. Richard won reelection as president handily. Jimmy won a few years later. They did this by gaining support from lotsa people.
What makes you think that our collective perceptions and beliefs are more superior now?