Dec 10, 2013
We ‘Support’ the Troops by Burdening Them More
Posted on Dec 2, 2009
By T.L. Caswell
In 1975 there was a television drama about his trial. He would write an as-told-to autobiography, and many books have dealt with his case and the events that seared the words My Lai into the American annals. It would not be a stretch to say that his name was among those most recognized across the country at the beginning of the 1970s.
After a string of rather complicated legal actions, Calley went free in 1974. He soon faded into obscurity, working at the Atlanta jewelry store of his father-in-law. It was not until Aug. 19 of this year—almost 35 years after he was released from custody—that he spoke out publicly, in person, about My Lai and how his feelings about it had evolved.
Recording Calley’s words at the Kiwanis meeting was Dick McMichael, a retired broadcast journalist who wrote the story on his personal blog and then in an Aug. 22 bylined article in Columbus’ Ledger-Enquirer. It was McMichael’s Ledger-Enquirer account that was widely quoted when international media got wind of what Calley had said.
The article in the small daily quickly got to the meat of the matter:
William Laws Calley was 24 years old on March 16, 1968, when he trudged into the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. Until then, the young Floridian had done little in his life that made him stand out, either positively or negatively.
Before he joined the Army he had attended a junior college, but his grades were bad and he dropped out. Eventually he enlisted in the Army, and after officer training at Fort Benning in Georgia he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. “Rusty” Calley—5 feet, 4 inches tall—was a leader of men by decree of the U.S. government.
Later, in an Army investigation, men who had been in Calley’s platoon said he was not liked and was seen as lacking common sense. Some even reported that there had been talk of “fragging” him (the term, derived from fragmentation grenade, came to mean killing a superior officer during the Vietnam War).
Exactly what happened at My Lai, and exactly why it happened, may never be known. What is known is that hundreds of Vietnamese villagers—perhaps as many as 504—died that day at the hands of troops from a land that prides itself on being the home of the good guys. In the forefront of slaughter were William Calley and at least part of his platoon. Most of the victims were women, children and elderly people. Some were raped or tortured in other ways.
Here’s one nauseating quote from an eyewitness questioned by Army investigators: “[One of the U.S. soldiers at My Lai] fired at [a baby] with a .45. He missed. We all laughed. He got up three or four feet closer and missed again. We laughed. Then he got up right on top and plugged him.”
Many Americans were surprised to see Calley and My Lai back in the news near the end of the first decade of the 21st century. After all, more than 12,000 days had passed since the last member of the American fighting force was removed from Vietnam, airlifted by helicopter from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on a spring day in 1975. A new generation of Americans has arisen since then, and today the nation has new worries—including, sadly, new wars.
Old film and video clips of Woodstock, the Kent State killings and Haight-Ashbury doings still are seen occasionally, but the milieu of the late 1960s and early ’70s is little known to many Americans born since then, and indeed is dimming in the memory of some of the folks who camped in the mud at Max Yasgur’s farm in New York state, or claimed they did. It was a time of passionate division over the Vietnam War and of confrontation about communism, an incendiary public debate whose embers still glow after four decades. The survivors of the anti-Red campaign of the 1960s and ’70s surely must be chagrined today when they look to the Far East and see the evil Communist Chinese playing banker to a U.S. whose faith in capitalism has been shaken by a series of near-catastrophic economic events. Another disconcerting object in their field of vision is Vietnam, a repository of American bones but also a nation that has metamorphosed in nearly stunning ways.
Today, Vietnam is a member of the United Nations and one of our trading partners. It had an average rise in gross domestic product of more than 7 percent annually from 2000 to 2007. The American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam has a chapter in Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon. Vietnam.com—“your official Vietnam travel guide”—offers, for a fee, to expose you to the delights of Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Hue.
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