Carol Becker: Forty Years Later Calley Speaks Up

Roundup: Talking About History

[Carol Becker is dean of faculty at Columbia University School of the Arts. She is the author of numerous articles and several books. This essay is adapted from a chapter in her new book, "Thinking in Place: Art, Action, and Cultural Production" (Paradigm Press, November 2009).]

On August 19, 2009, former Army Lt. William Calley spoke to a Kiwanis Club meeting in Greater Columbus, Georgia, and for the first time publicly admitted his regret for his role in the My Lai massacre. "There is not a day that goes by, " he said, "when 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."

For those of us who grew up in the intensity of the 1960's and in the pain of the Vietnam War, this long-awaited admission stirred deep emotion. Calley had always been symbolic of the brutality of those times and of the cover-up of horrific acts by individuals and the US government. He also represented the country's polarization between those who opposed the war and those who turned men like Calley into heroes. That he could finally say how desperately painful his life has been since that horrific event has allowed us all to continue a process of disclosure and healing that is still necessary, forty years later, if we are to recover from that war. Vietnam the war has never really ended for those in the US who grew to adulthood in its shadow, because of the depth of denial. We, as a nation, have not been able to say: "This should not have occurred." As a result, we continue to engage in other fabricated wars and to create new generations of soldiers and civilians on all sides of these conflicts who cannot recover from the trauma of what they have experienced.

In 2002, along with two other colleagues, I took graduate and undergraduate art students to Vietnam to study the war. It was a trip for the next generation, for whom those events - the memories of their parents and the US - were not known to them at all. This is an abbreviated retelling of that journey.

On March 16, 1968, the men of the 11th Brigade entered the village of My Lai, which they called Pinkville, and brutally murdered 504 Vietnamese civilians. This "search and destroy" mission (Gen. William Westmoreland's strategy of "flushing out" the Vietcong from their countryside "safe havens") soon transformed into a bloody massacre: "The killings took place, part maniacally, part methodically, over a period of about four hours," write Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim in "Four Hours in My Lai," their chilling account of what happened on that day.[1] Several women were gang-raped and killed with unconscionable brutality. Infants were blasted with machine-gun fire. The troops, whose average age was just twenty, were known as Charlie Company. They were under the leadership of Lt. William Calley - a name that became synonymous with the nightmare of the war. He took his orders from Capt. Ernest Medina, who received his commands from even higher up. Those names still have not been spoken.

Lieutenant Calley was said to have forced a group of 100 to 170 villagers into a ditch and, without hesitation, slaughtered them all himself. Because of the nature of the war and the US Army's philosophy of killing "Vietcong in such large numbers that they could not be replaced,"[2] because of the pressure on unit commanders to produce enemy corpses, because it was so difficult for US soldiers to "see the enemy" waging this guerrilla war, and because US soldiers were being blown up constantly by land mines planted by this unseen enemy, "it is not surprising that some men acquired a contempt for human life and a predilection for taking it," observe Bilton and Sim. "In this sense," they continue, "My Lai was not an aberration of the war, but its apotheosis."[3]

This event was one of the turning points in US citizens' perceptions of the extreme brutality of the war. American soldiers had entered an unarmed village firing, killing everyone and everything alive: women, old men, children, babies and animals. They then torched each house and all the vegetation surrounding the village. Even though it was clear within minutes of the attack that there were no Vietcong in the village, that no one was armed and no one was returning fire, US soldiers, having been told it was a Vietcong stronghold and that they were "to destroy everything in sight," did not desist from that directive...

... Among less-fortunate Vietnam veterans there have been many suicides, murders and men incapacitated for civilian life whose tragic situations are traced to their involvement in My Lai. "The massacre had become a matter for individual conscience alone," write Bilton and Sim.[6] Those who set the policies and gave the orders, and the country that engaged in this war, have retained their psychic freedom, while those who followed the orders laid out by others, and were thus driven to horrific acts, live under a weight of guilt they cannot abide. Some of these individuals continue to suffer for their actions every day and will do so for the rest of their lives.

By journeying to such a place as My Lai, it was our hope to develop our own form of absolution. Bilton and Sim write, "National Consciousness consists of what is allowed to be forgotten as much as by what is remembered."[7] The philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes: "Human beings are human in so far as they bear witness to the inhuman."[8]

Although Lieutenant Calley, considered a hero by some, waited forty years to speak, his admission of pain and guilt should not be forgotten. As other soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan decimated in body and spirit, we are reminded once again that too many soldiers are thrown into too much horror at too young an age, to ever recover from what they have lost, seen, and done. This damage affecting many generations can only stop when we as a nation finally understand what war does. Ultimately all are victims caught in its unsustainable inhumanity.

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