The beginning of September also marks the beginning of one of the most famous trials in American history. On September 6, 1969, Lt. William L. Calley Jr. was charged with the murder of 109 South Vietnamese civilians in what is known as the My Lai Massacre.
This was an incredibly complex case as it pitted what many felt were the “rules of war” or the acceptability of wartime murder against the everyday morality of preserving and protecting the lives of innocent civilians. Vietnam was a brutal engagement and even those close to it were divided on where the line fell in this case.
The simplest retelling of the facts are that on March 16, 1968, Calley and members of his platoon attacked an area code named “Pinkville” in Southern Vietnam, which was considered a Viet Cong stronghold.
Whether Viet Cong were present during the attack or whether it was just an attack on civilians including children is hotly contested. The incident and trial were covered by freelance reporter Seymour Hersh, who won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.
Calley was accused of killing 109 himself, but a total of between 200 and 500 people were believed to have been killed during the massacre.
One of Calley’s fellow platoon members, Paul Meadlo, who was also under investigation, gave a very open interview to Hersh, clearly laying out that while they believed they were under orders to kill the villagers, they were also seeking revenge for the deaths of American soldiers.
In that article, Meadlo’s mother made the famous statement, “I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer.”
According to Calley’s Wikipedia page, the two military prosecutors in the trial struggled with the unwillingness of many soldiers to testify against Calley. Nevertheless, Calley was ultimately convicted. President Richard Nixon, however, intervened and he was quickly paroled and freed prompting the prosecutor, Aubrey M. Daniel III, to write a letter to Nixon condemning his interference. President Donald Trump briefly toyed with the idea of pardoning Calley, but ultimately left if alone.
The news reporting at the time reported many officers defending Calley saying that other servicemen had killed civilians and that in Vietnam, you never really knew who was Viet Cong and who was not. On the other hand, people from Calley’s own platoon complained and reported the incident, which shows that even those on the ground found the situation questionable.
Vietnam veterans spoke of the dehumanization of the Vietnamese people that occurred over uninterrupted months of fighting in harsh, jungle conditions, and of the equally brutal murders of Americans.
In the end, the results show that there was no answer. Calley was convicted, Calley was forgiven. Calley went on to marry, write a book about the experience, become a gemologist and a realtor. He is now 80 and presumably lives in Florida.
In 2009, according to his Wikipedia page, Calley apologized for the incident.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in Mỹ Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
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