PERSPECTIVE: Remembering My Lai’s massacre 50 years later

In the Quang Ngai Province of Vietnam stands a monument to the victims of the My Lai Massacre of March 16, 1968, 50 years ago. It may be the only memorial in the world dedicated to the horrible actions of American soldiers, and serves as a stark reminder that even in the chaos and fog of war, American soldiers have an obligation to obey the rules of engagement, the rule of law, and, if nothing else, the rule of common sense.

This massacre took place just weeks after the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese inflicted great casualties throughout South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. As part of our counter-offensive, the Americal Division carried out a search and destroy mission through several My Lai hamlets. Early on the morning of the 16th, Lt. William L. Calley led his platoon through the hamlet and was met with no resistance, no enemy soldiers, and, indeed, virtually no men of military age. Despite this, the platoon literally searched and destroyed My Lai 4, burning the hooches and then gathering the villagers into two groups. During the next four to six hours (including a lunch break) the platoon “wasted” virtually all of the villagers, some 400 to 600 people.

The official post-op reports described only a mundane military operation with a typical high body count that went unchallenged in review. However, over the next year the facts of the massacre percolated throughout Vietnam and eventually burst into the news in the United States. After being prodded into an investigation, the Army instituted criminal charges against Calley. That prosecution produced a backlash in the United States. There was a very vocal group which supported Calley’s actions — including President Richard Nixon, who personally intervened to release him from the stockade and restrict him to “house arrest.”

Calley was eventually court-martialed and convicted of killing not less than 20 people. When that conviction was appealed to the Army Court of Military Review and the Court of Military Appeals (now known as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces), as a Captain in the JAG Corps I was assigned to represent the Army in upholding that conviction. In doing my research, I saw the actual facts were very different from what was asserted in much of the literature.

What was clear in the court-martial transcripts was that there were several soldiers in Calley’s platoon who refused to shoot unarmed old men, women and children as they were huddled in a ditch or were cowering on the trail. Another soldier, Pvt. Paul Meadlo, admitted shooting at them but he soon became physically ill and refused to continue. The transcript reflects that Calley continued shooting.

Calley eventually served only a year or two in confinement before being released. To his credit, he kept a low profile for more than 40 years, refusing to talk to reporters or make any statements. In 2009 he spoke to a Kiwanis Club in Columbus, Ga., and expressed great remorse. While his statement may not have provided any relief to the victims’ families, he did at last acknowledge responsibility for his actions.

Looking back at this massacre 50 years later, I continue to be guided by the rule of law and the rule of common sense, and continue to have great respect for those Army privates who refused to be part of this massacre. That continues to be the only good lesson from the My Lai Massacre.

Dayton attorney Merle Wilberding is a regular contributor.