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My Lai . . . Me Lie?

John Rowland

Posted on March 27, 2018 13:56

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Sometimes, events touch on all of our humanity. The US recently ran by the 50-year anniversary of a rather painful chapter in its military history: The My Lai massacre.

On March 16, 1968, in the theater of the Vietnam War, a group of US Army soldiers massacred as many as 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians; mostly the elderly, women and children in a village called My Lai.

US Army officer Lt. William Calley was "convicted by court-martial" of murdering some of these civilians. He was ultimately exonerated, largely by the actions of a federal judge (Elliott).

Originally charged with premeditated murder, Calley claimed he was following the orders of Ernest Medina (Calley's supervisor) to "kill the enemy," which to Calley evidently meant everyone -- literally.

For those of us not actually there on the ground at the time, it's naturally easy to criticize these events from half a world away, 50 years later. But in the US soldiers' basic defense, being inserted smack-dab into the middle of what was essentially a hot civil war was a tough assignment indeed.

The American boys weren't fighting some group of insouciant foreign mercenaries; rather, many of their foes were home-grown enemies -- willing, devoted and determined to wage a desperate blood-and-soil fight to the death. Not to mention that at times, there was a very blurry line between what constituted civilians as opposed to the Viet Cong.

But Calley himself had some notable forces come to his defense, such as federal judge J. Robert Elliott, President Nixon, several state legislatures and a Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter.

Unfortunately, the US Army's initial reaction to My Lai was to lie and cover up shamefully.

In the end, this incident, and others which occurred in broader contexts (where US military personnel were the victims) tarnished the reputations of names like LBJ, McCain (Navy admiral), McNamara, and a young aspiring government careerist named Colin Powell.

Perhaps the My Lai episode could simply be classified as a part of that crazy syndrome usually associated with the Vietnam era in which "we had to destroy the village in order to save it." But when involved in the modern-day business of killing, one risks committing war crimes and violating the Geneva Conventions over things like collective punishment.

On August 19, 2009, in an apparent spirit of reconciliation, William Calley issued a public apology:

     "There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My 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 ... If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a 2nd Lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess."

Irrespective of one's political views on the Vietnam War, most reasonable people of humanity can agree that My Lai was a very unfortunate thing to happen.

Mistakes were definitely made; hopefully, many lessons were learned.

John Rowland

Posted on March 27, 2018 13:56

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Source: Al Jazeera

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