Friday, August 28, 2009

My Lai Haunts the Lieutenant

NY Times

Editorial

The nation has finally heard a note of personal regret from William Calley 38 years after he became the sole American soldier convicted in the My Lai massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians.

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Mr. Calley, a former lieutenant who now is a 66-year-old graybeard, told the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, Ga. His appearance this month came after decades of no comment. “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families,” said Mr. Calley, who was defended as a dutiful soldier by many when the slaughter was disclosed.

His remarks are an important reminder for a nation again at war of the considerable risks to honor and truth that can undermine troops caught in the frustrations and fears of the battlefront. The slaughter was conducted in March 1968 by platoons of American soldiers who shot and abused more than 300 victims — mainly women, children and elderly peasants — in a murderous frenzy.

After an 18-month cover-up, the story was broken by Seymour Hersh, the relentless reporter who pried truth firsthand from Mr. Calley and other perpetrators. The massacre sparked world outrage and helped unravel support for the Vietnam War, but it left still-gaping holes in the need for full justice up the military chain of command.

“I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer,” an American mother told Mr. Hersh of the guilt haunting My Lai veterans. There was small comfort in pleading they had to follow orders and shoot victims fleeing for their lives and cowering in an irrigation pit. Twenty-six soldiers eventually were charged, but only Mr. Calley was convicted. Ranking brass separately accused in the cover-up were acquitted.

Mr. Calley endures as a classic scapegoat. He was sentenced to life in prison. But as the nation polarized and he was lionized in a jingoistic pop song, he was ordered transferred by President Richard Nixon to house arrest at a comfortable apartment. His sentence was eventually reduced, and he served three years. “I am very sorry,” Mr. Calley told the Kiwanis, stirring the ghosts of a horrific episode the nation dare not forget.

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