Monday, March 16, 2009

March 16, 2009

     Some anniversaries we remember fondly.  Not today's.  On this day in 1968, a platoon of the American Division, commanded by a lieutenant named William Calley, killed a great many unarmed Vietnamese civilians in a village called My Lai.
     It took time for the story to leak out.  An Army photographer, not a member of Calley's platoon, took some pictures we all, if we are old enough, remember--the bodies on a trail, the bodies in a ditch.  I can still hear Mike Wallace on CBS's "60 Minutes" asking Paul Meadlo, one of the soldiers, "You shot women? Yes. Children? Yes.. Babies? Yes."  It was a shocking interview;  the pictures were shocking pictures.  Calley was charged with the murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians.  The Vietnamese said as many as 500 may have died.
     Calley's court martial began in November 1970.   He testified, of course, in his own defense.  I remember him saying, "They were all the enemy, sir. They were all to be destroyed."  They weren't the enemy, of course, just poor, luckless civilians caught up in a war--like so many others, in so many other wars.
     Calley was convicted, finally--the only My Lai defendant who was.  Several governors, including Georgia's Jimmy Carter, protested;  several state legislatures did, too.   A poll showed most Americans disagreed with the verdict, though there's no doubt about what happened.  Many members of the platoon said they saw Calley shoot;  some joined him;  some refused.
     In the end Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment but President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence to timer served--about three years.  Calley vanished from public view, went to work in his father-in-law's jewelry store.
     What, if anything, did we learn from it all?   That wars, in the old 60s saying, are bad for children and other living things.  That Americans can be as brutal and senseless in wars as anybody else. 
     Wars ought to be a last resort. We're in two of them now, and I don't know that either was something we absolutely had to do.  World War II was, but it may have been the last one.  

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