Calley Revisited

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,[9] 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.[10] 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.[10] The ArkansasKansasTexasNew Jersey, and South Carolina legislatures requested clemency for Calley.[10] 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.[11] 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.[11]

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?


15 thoughts on “Calley Revisited

  1. I am not willing to assume a verdict was right merely because the system’s rules were followed correctly when it was given. Whom did Calley kill, and why does each side say he did it?

    • I’d tell you, but then you’d just say that you’re not going to assume that the verdict was right just because some jerkoff guy with a schlock-filled blog said so.

      So, then I’d tell you to check out Wikipedia for a summary, but then you’d just say that you’re not going to assume that the verdict was right just because some half-baked Wikipedia entry says so.

      So, then I’d tell you to check the references used to substantiate the Wikipedia entry, but then you’d just say that you’re not going to assume that the verdict was right just because some cherry-picked references say so.

      So, then I’d tell you to go find some books and other primary source material about it, but then you’d just say that you’re not going to assume that the verdict was right just because some glory-starved writers and traumatized ex-soldiers say so.

      I could tell you that there is never an excuse for killing defenseless children (or allowing it to happen under one’s command, along with other horrible crimes), but you could just say that I wasn’t there, and I don’t know what it is like to be under combat stress. On that basis, you’d say that my platitudes are hardly reason enough to assume the verdict was right.

      So, I’ll just say nothing and save you time that can be better spent watching “Nude Nuns with Big Guns” on Netflix.

      You’re welcome.

  2. “the Lieutenant Colonel started his lecture abruptly.

    Listen Lieutenants. I want to make one thing clear, William Calley is a convicted MUR-DER-ER!”

    Yes, the voice of authority. My understanding is that another colonel had called out the platoon the night before at 2 AM and had them stand at attention. He told them they were to kill everyone in the village. He had been a mortician in civilian life. The platoon had taken casualties approaching the village on foot apparently from female black clad female NVA, Relevant? When they helicoptered in, there was no resistance. Apparently the NVA had pulled out though a machine gun positioned outside the village prevented a counterattack. The platoon stood around. Calley raised his rifle and said he would kill anybody who didn’t start shooting. As the valedictory to historian John Keegan quotes in Volokh today, “Codifications of international law are a useful template for organizing the categories of a soldier’s duties. But, in the end, the culture relevant to respect for inter-national humanitarian law is not the culture of legality and the cult of lawyers, but instead it is the culture of the professional honour of soldiers, and what they are willing or not willing to do on the battlefield.” By the way, the colonel here was shortly shot from the sky in a helicopter, killed.

    • Uninformed female enemies shooting machine guns do give a plausible explanation for why uniformed women were killed.

      Perhaps not a “get out of jail free card” good explanation…but it makes some sense.

      …but how does this remotely justify killing children, the elderly, farm animals, and more?

      Yes, things grow a bit vague in the fog of war, but by the time you’re herding people into ditches then machine gunning them, “the fog of war” has been more than used up.

  3. “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea,” Mao Tse Tung, and ‘the opposing forces must not also so swim’ would be the unspoken corollary. Thus it was that time fused bombs would be attached to toddlers sent to walk to the Americans. In one village health exercise, we vaccinated the children of a village. Coming back a week later we found a pile of children’s arms, the vaccinated arms cut off. Our forces believed they tracked down the pith helmeted NVA officer who ordered this and killed him. Of course the NVA could also find out about us. We beat our breasts thinking we were (so potent) and the unpunished sinners. I wonder if the NVA didn’t have the above report as well and our colonel giving the order for the slaughter was tracked and killed by them. Both executions would then fit what Keegan called ‘the culture of the professional honour of soldiers, and what they are willing or not willing to do on the battlefield.’

  4. “…a pile of children’s arms, the vaccinated arms cut off.”

    Sure you did, Colonel Kurtz.

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