A week ago, two convicted mass murderers leaped back into public consciousness as news coverage of their stories briefly intersected. One was freed from prison, continuing to proclaim his innocence, and his release was vehemently denounced in the United States as were the well-wishers who welcomed him home. The other expressed his contrition, after almost 35 years living in his country in a state of freedom, and few commented.
When Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the Libyan sentenced in 2001 to 27 years in prison for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, was released from incarceration by the Scottish government on “compassionate grounds,” a furor erupted. On August 22nd, ABC World News with Charles Gibson featured a segment on outrage over the Libyan’s release. It was aired shortly before a report on an apology offered by William Calley, who, in 1971 as a young lieutenant, was sentenced to life in prison for the massacre of civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai.
After al-Megrahi, who served eight years in prison, arrived home to a hero’s welcome in Libya, officials in Washington expressed their dismay. To White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, it was “outrageous and disgusting”; to President Barack Obama, “highly objectionable.” Calley, who admitted at trial to killing Vietnamese civilians personally, but served only three years of house arrest following an intervention by President Richard Nixon, received a standing ovation from the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, Georgia, the city where he lived for years following the war. (He now resides in Atlanta.) For him, there was no such uproar, and no one, apparently, thought to ask either Gibbs or the president for comment, despite the eerie confluence of the two men and their fates.
Part of the difference in treatment was certainly the passage of time and Calley’s contrition, however many decades delayed, regarding the infamous massacre of more than 500 civilians. “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” the Vietnam veteran told his audience. “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.” For his part, al-Megrahi, now dying of cancer, accepted that relatives of the 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing “have hatred for me. It’s natural to behave like this… They believe I’m guilty, which in reality I’m not. One day the truth won’t be hiding as it is now. We have an Arab saying: ‘The truth never dies.'”
Calley was charged in the deaths of more than 100 civilians and convicted in the murder of 22 in one village, while al-Megrahi was convicted of the murder of 270 civilians aboard one airplane. Almost everyone, it seems, found it perverse, outrageous, or “gross and callous” that the Scottish government allowed a convicted mass murderer to return to a homeland where he was greeted with open arms. No one seemingly thought it odd that another mass murderer had lived freely in his home country for so long. The families of the Lockerbie victims were widely interviewed. As the Calley story broke, no American reporter apparently thought it worth the bother to look for the families of the My Lai victims, let alone ask them what they thought of the apology of the long-free officer who had presided over, and personally taken part in the killing of, their loved ones.
Whatever the official response to al-Megrahi, the lack of comment on Calley underscores a longstanding American aversion to facing what the U.S. did to Vietnam and its people during a war that ended more than 30 years ago. Since then, one cover-up of mass murder after another has unraveled and bubbled into view. These have included the mass killing of civilians in the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong by future senator Bob Kerrey and the SEAL team he led (exposed by the New York Times Magazine and CBS News in 2001); a long series of atrocities (including murders, torture, and mutilations) involving the deaths of hundreds of noncombatants largely committed in Quang Ngai Province (where My Lai is also located) by an elite U.S. unit, the Tiger Force (exposed by the Toledo Blade in 2003); seven massacres, 78 other attacks on noncombatants, and 141 instances of torture, among other atrocities (exposed by the Los Angeles Times in 2006); a massacre of civilians by U.S. Marines in Quang Nam Province’s Le Bac hamlet (exposed in In These Times magazine in 2008); and the slaughter of thousands of Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta during Operation Speedy Express (exposed in The Nation magazine, also in 2008). Over the last decade, long suppressed horrors from Vietnam have been piling up, indicating not only that My Lai, horrific and iconic as it may have been, was no isolated incident, but that many American veterans have long lived with memories not unlike those of William Calley.
If you recall what actually happened at My Lai, Calley’s more-than-40-years-late apology cannot help but ring hollow. Not only were more than 500 defenseless civilians slaughtered by Calley and some of the 100 troops who stormed the village on March 16, 1968, but women and girls were brutally raped, bodies were horrifically mutilated, homes set aflame, animals tortured and killed, the local water supply fouled, and the village razed to the ground. Some of the civilians were killed in their bomb shelters, others when they tried to leave them. Women holding infants were gunned down. Others, gathered together, threw themselves on top of their children as they were sprayed with automatic rifle fire. Children, even babies, were executed at close range. Many were slaughtered in an irrigation ditch.
For his part in the bloodbath, Calley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. As it happened, he spent only three days in a military stockade before President Richard Nixon intervened and had him returned to his “bachelor apartment,” where he enjoyed regular visits from a girlfriend, built gas-powered model airplanes, and kept a small menagerie of pets. By late 1974, Calley was a free man. He subsequently went on the college lecture circuit (making $2,000 an appearance), married the daughter of a jeweler in Columbus, Georgia, and worked at the jewelry store for many years without hue or cry from fellow Americans among whom he lived. All that time he stayed silent and, despite ample opportunity, offered no apologies.
Still, Calley’s belated remorse evidences a sense of responsibility that his superiors — from his company commander Capt. Ernest Medina to his commander-in-chief President Lyndon Johnson — never had the moral fiber to shoulder. Recently, in considering the life and death of Johnson’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who repudiated his wartime justifications for the conflict decades later (“We were wrong, terribly wrong.”), Jonathan Schell asked:
“[H]ow many public figures of his importance have ever expressed any regret at all for their mistakes and follies and crimes? As the decades of the twentieth century rolled by, the heaps of corpses towered, ever higher, up to the skies, and now they pile up again in the new century, but how many of those in high office who have made these things happen have ever said, ‘I made a mistake,’ or ‘I was terribly wrong,’ or shed a tear over their actions? I come up with: one, Robert McNamara.”
Because the United States failed to take responsibility for the massive scale of civilian slaughter and suffering inflicted in Southeast Asia in the war years, and because McNamara’s contrition arrived decades late, he never became the public face of slaughter in Vietnam, even though he, like other top U.S. civilian officials and military commanders of that time, bore an exponentially greater responsibility for the bloodshed in that country than the low-ranking Calley.
Butchery in the Mekong Delta
A few weeks after McNamara’s death, Julian Ewell, a top Army general who served in two important command roles in Vietnam, also passed away. For years, the specter of atrocity had swirled around him, but only among a select community of veterans and Vietnam War historians. In 1971, Newsweek magazine’s Kevin Buckley and Alex Shimkin conducted a wide-ranging investigation of Ewell’s crowning achievement, a six-month operation in the Mekong Delta code-named Speedy Express, and found evidence of the widespread slaughter of civilians. “The horror was worse than My Lai,” one American official told Buckley. “But… the civilian casualties came in dribbles and were pieced out over a long time. And most of them were inflicted from the air and at night. Also, they were sanctioned by the command’s insistence on high body counts.”
As word of the impending Newsweek article spread, John Paul Vann, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who was by then the third-most-powerful American serving in Vietnam, and his deputy, Colonel David Farnham, met in Washington with Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland. At that meeting, Vann told Westmoreland that Ewell’s troops had wantonly killed civilians in order to boost the body count — the number of enemy dead that served as the primary indicator of success in the field — and so further the general’s reputation and career. According to Farnham, Vann said Speedy Express was, in effect, “many My Lais.”
A Pentagon-level cover-up and Newsweek’s desire not to upset the Nixon administration in the wake of the My Lai revelations kept the full results of the meticulous investigation by Buckley and Shimkin bottled up. The publication of a severely truncated version of their article allowed the Pentagon to ride out the coverage without being forced to convene a large-scale official inquiry of the sort which followed public disclosure of the My Lai massacre. Only last year did some of the reporting that Newsweek suppressed, as well as new evidence of the slaughter and the cover-up, appear in a piece of mine in The Nation and only in the wake of Ewell’s death was it mentioned in the Washington Post that a long-secret official Army report, commissioned in response to Buckley and Shimkin’s investigation, concluded:
“[W]hile there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was in fact substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000).”
A year after the eviscerated Buckley-Shimkin piece was published, Ewell retired from the Army. Colonel Farnham believed that the general was prematurely pushed out due to continuing Army fears of a scandal. If true, it was the only act approaching official censure that he apparently ever experienced, far less punishment than that meted out to al-Megrahi, or even Calley. Yet Ewell was responsible for the deaths of markedly more civilians. Needless to say, Ewell’s civilian slaughter never garnered significant TV coverage, nor did any U.S. president ever express outrage over it, or begrudge the general his military benefits, let alone the ability to spend time with his family. In fact, in October, following a memorial service, Julian Ewell will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Chain of Command
In his recent remarks, William Calley emphasized that he was following orders at My Lai, a point on which he has never wavered. The Army’s investigation into My Lai involved 45 members of Medina’s company, including Calley, suspected of atrocities. In a second investigation, 30 individuals were looked into for covering up what happened in the village by “omissions or commissions.” Twenty-eight of them were officers, two of them generals, and as a group they stood accused of a total of 224 offenses. Calley, however, was the sole person convicted of an offense in connection with My Lai. Even he ultimately evaded any substantive punishment for his crimes.
While an opportunity was squandered during the Vietnam era, Calley’s apology and the response to al-Megrahi’s release offer another chance for some essential soul-searching in the United States. In considering Calley’s decades-late contrition, Americans might ask why a double-standard exists when it comes to official outrage over mass murder. It might also be worth asking why some individuals, like a former Libyan intelligence officer or, in rare instances, a low-ranking U.S. infantry officer, are made to bear so much blame for major crimes whose responsibility obviously reached far above them; and why officers up the chain of command, and war managers — in Washington or Tripoli — escape punishment for the civilian blood on their hands. Unfortunately, this opportunity will almost certainly be squandered as well.
Similarly, it’s unlikely that Americans will seriously contemplate just how so many lived beside Calley for so long, without seeking justice — as would be second nature in the case of a similarly horrific crime committed by an officer serving a hostile power elsewhere. Yet he and fellow American officers from Donald Reh (implicated in the deaths of 19 civilians — mostly women and children — during a February 1968 massacre) to Bob Kerrey have gone about their lives without so much as being tried by court martial, let alone serving prison time as did al-Megrahi.
In the immediate wake of Calley’s contrition, it wasn’t a reporter from the American media but from Agence France Presse (AFP) who thought to check on how Vietnamese survivors or relatives of those massacred at My Lai might react. When an AFP reporter spoke to Pham Thanh Cong, who saw his mother and brothers killed in the My Lai massacre (and now runs a small museum at the village) and asked what he thought of Calley’s apology, he responded, “Maybe he has now repented for his crimes and his mistakes committed more than 40 years ago.” Maybe.
Today, some of Calley’s cohorts, the mostly anonymous others who perpetrated their own horrors in Southeast Asia and never faced even a modicum of justice for their crimes, go about their lives in American cities and suburbs. (Others, who have committed unpunished offenses in the Global War on Terror, are still on active duty.) As a result, the outrage over what happened to the only man convicted of the terrorist act against Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, has a strikingly hollow ring.
A failure to demand an honest accounting of the suffering the United States caused the Vietnamese people and a willingness to ignore ample evidence of widespread slaughter remains a lasting legacy of the Vietnam War. So does a desire to reduce all discussion of U.S. atrocities in Southeast Asia to the massacre at My Lai, with William Calley bearing the burden — not just for his crimes but for all U.S. crimes there. And it will remain so until the American people do what their military and civilian leadership have failed to do for more than 40 years: take responsibility for the misery the U.S. inflicted in Southeast Asia.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the recent winner of a Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.