Whitewashing War Crimes Has Become the American Way
by Maj. Danny Sjursen Jun 06, 2019 Opinion | TD originals
Just after dawn on March 16, 1968, a company of U.S. Army infantrymen, led by Capt. Ernest Medina and spearheaded by Lt. William Calley, entered the small hamlet of My Lai in Quang Ngai province, South Vietnam. The villagers, mostly women and children, had no idea what was coming that day. If they had, they’d have fled.
Despite facing zero resistance and finding only a few weapons, Calley ordered his men to execute the entire population. In all, some 500 Vietnamese civilians were executed, including more than 350 women, children and babies. Other senior leaders in the chain of command had advised the soldiers of Charlie Company that all people in the village should be considered either Viet Cong or VC supporters. Medina and Calley were ordered to destroy the village. They did so with brutal precision and savagery.
The Army covered up the massacre for more than a year, until journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story in November 1969. Now obliged to conduct a public investigation into what was no doubt a major war crime, the Army’s investigating officer recommended that no fewer than 28 officers be charged in the killings and subsequent cover-up. Medina, Calley and most other participants in the slaughter chose to plead—just as Nazi soldiers had—that they were only following orders.
That may well have been true. Still, military regulations—then and now—oblige a soldier or officer not to follow illegal or immoral orders. Nonetheless, in subsequent trials, all but one of the defendants were acquitted by sympathetic juries. Only Calley, the ringleader, received a life sentence. On appeal, that sentence was reduced to 20 years; later, President Richard Nixon ordered Calley transferred to house arrest at his quarters in Fort Benning, Ga., until finally, the lieutenant was paroled in 1974.
More than 500 innocent Vietnamese lives were apparently worth naught but three years and a stint of cushy house arrest for a single Army lieutenant. No colonels or generals were held seriously accountable. This is typical; the burden of responsibility generally flows downhill, and junior leaders are left holding the proverbial bag. A staggering 77% of Americans polled felt that Calley was scapegoated; a popular song supportive of the defendant, titled “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” was even released. It included such absurd lyrics as:
My name is William Calley, I’m a soldier of this land
I’ve tried to do my duty and to gain the upper hand
But they’ve made me out a villain, they have stamped me with a brand.
I got to thinking about this, the worst (reported) American massacre in the criminal Vietnam War, when California Rep. Duncan Hunter recently defended a Navy SEAL, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who was accused of committing murder and other horrific crimes during a 2004 tour in Afghanistan. According to reports, President Donald Trump is considering a pardon for Gallagher and other convicted war criminals from the so-called war on terror. This would be, to say the least, a morally reprehensible act (emphasis ours), one likely to encourage more American servicemen to abuse their power and break internationally recognized rules of war. That the story has garnered so little attention is a tragedy of the first order.