Two Mass Murderers, Two Very Different Stories and Much Hypocrisy
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Whatever the official response to al-Megrahi, the lack of comment on Calley underscores a longstanding American aversion to facing what the U.S. did to Vietnam and its people during a war that ended more than 30 years ago. Since then, one cover-up of mass murder after another has unraveled and bubbled into view. These have included the mass killing of civilians in the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong by future senator Bob Kerrey and the SEAL team he led (exposed by the New York Times Magazine and CBS News in 2001); a long series of atrocities (including murders, torture, and mutilations) involving the deaths of hundreds of noncombatants largely committed in Quang Ngai Province (where My Lai is also located) by an elite U.S. unit, the Tiger Force (exposed by the Toledo Blade in 2003); seven massacres, 78 other attacks on noncombatants, and 141 instances of torture, among other atrocities (exposed by the Los Angeles Times in 2006); a massacre of civilians by U.S. Marines in Quang Nam Province's Le Bac hamlet (exposed in In These Times magazine in 2008); and the slaughter of thousands of Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta during Operation Speedy Express (exposed in The Nation magazine, also in 2008). Over the last decade, long suppressed horrors from Vietnam have been piling up, indicating not only that My Lai, horrific and iconic as it may have been, was no isolated incident, but that many American veterans have long lived with memories not unlike those of William Calley.
If you recall what actually happened at My Lai, Calley's more-than-40-years-late apology cannot help but ring hollow. Not only were more than 500 defenseless civilians slaughtered by Calley and some of the 100 troops who stormed the village on March 16, 1968, but women and girls were brutally raped, bodies were horrifically mutilated, homes set aflame, animals tortured and killed, the local water supply fouled, and the village razed to the ground. Some of the civilians were killed in their bomb shelters, others when they tried to leave them. Women holding infants were gunned down. Others, gathered together, threw themselves on top of their children as they were sprayed with automatic rifle fire. Children, even babies, were executed at close range. Many were slaughtered in an irrigation ditch.
For his part in the bloodbath, Calley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. As it happened, he spent only three days in a military stockade before President Richard Nixon intervened and had him returned to his "bachelor apartment," where he enjoyed regular visits from a girlfriend, built gas-powered model airplanes, and kept a small menagerie of pets. By late 1974, Calley was a free man. He subsequently went on the college lecture circuit (making $2,000 an appearance), married the daughter of a jeweler in Columbus, Georgia, and worked at the jewelry store for many years without hue or cry from fellow Americans among whom he lived. All that time he stayed silent and, despite ample opportunity, offered no apologies.
Still, Calley's belated remorse evidences a sense of responsibility that his superiors -- from his company commander Capt. Ernest Medina to his commander-in-chief President Lyndon Johnson -- never had the moral fiber to shoulder. Recently, in considering the life and death of Johnson's Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who repudiated his wartime justifications for the conflict decades later ("We were wrong, terribly wrong."), Jonathan Schell asked:
"[H]ow many public figures of his importance have ever expressed any regret at all for their mistakes and follies and crimes? As the decades of the twentieth century rolled by, the heaps of corpses towered, ever higher, up to the skies, and now they pile up again in the new century, but how many of those in high office who have made these things happen have ever said, 'I made a mistake,' or 'I was terribly wrong,' or shed a tear over their actions? I come up with: one, Robert McNamara."
Because the United States failed to take responsibility for the massive scale of civilian slaughter and suffering inflicted in Southeast Asia in the war years, and because McNamara's contrition arrived decades late, he never became the public face of slaughter in Vietnam, even though he, like other top U.S. civilian officials and military commanders of that time, bore an exponentially greater responsibility for the bloodshed in that country than the low-ranking Calley.