Was William Calley a Scapegoat?


Mr. Kulik, the former editor of American Quarterly, is a veteran of the Vietnam war and a writer for the History News Service. His "War Stories: Swift Boaters, Winter Soldiers, and False Atrocity Tales" will be published this fall. Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

After 40 years, 2nd Lt. William Calley is back in the news. For many years now the young lieutenant convicted in 1971 of the murder of 22 Vietnamese villagers at My Lai has been regarded as a scapegoat. A recent New York Times editorial raised the stakes, calling him a "classic scapegoat."

The occasion of the editorial was a speech this past August that Calley gave at a Kiwanis Club gathering in Columbus, Ga. Calley told his audience that "not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai." He added," I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers who were involved and their families. I am very sorry." It was his first public apology for his actions that day in March 1968.

The belated apology is all to Calley's credit, but he was not a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who has been assigned blame for another's actions. Calley committed murder at My Lai and ordered his men to do the same. He herded a group of women and children into a confined area near a culvert. There they sat -- prisoners, effectively -- awaiting their fate. Some of his men refused his order. Others did not.

It's important to recall what actually happened that morning. Calley's unit had been ordered into My Lai in helicopter assault on March 16, 1968. They had been told the landing zone would be "hot," that they would be opposed by the 48th Viet Cong Local Force Battalion. But the landing zone was "cold." There were no Viet Cong. No one was shooting back.

The murders at My Lai were not the impetuous acts of nervous soldiers but systematic massacre. By one report, the killings at the culvert took an hour and required one soldier to reload his M-16 several times. An M-16 clip holds 18 to 20 rounds.

There were other atrocities in Vietnam, but nothing else like My Lai, nothing on such a scale, nothing comparable to the deliberate daylight killing at close range of women, children and old men. It was then and remains one of the most disgraceful days in the history of the U.S. Army. Calley was not the only one who should have been held accountable that day, but the Army's failure to effectively prosecute those others does not mitigate his guilt nor the guilt of those who followed his orders.

One member of his audience in Georgia clearly understood military law, asking, according to the press report, if obeying an unlawful order was not itself an unlawful act. Calley responded: "I believe that is true. 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 second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them foolishly, I guess." A clumsy but honest answer. It must be said, however, that the orders of his company commander, Capt. Ernest Medina, were never legally established. Medina was found not guilty.

Both Calley and his questioner had it right. An order to deliberately kill unarmed and unresisting villagers, if there was such an order -- is illegal, an order that soldiers and Marines are not only permitted to disobey, but have a duty to disobey. In fairness, it should be added that this principle was not widely taught during the time of Vietnam. But should you have to teach soldiers that the deliberate killing of infants, children and women who pose no threat, at point-blank range, is wrong?

What would it have taken to stop the massacre? There is a simple answer: a morally competent officer willing to tell his superiors that Army intelligence was wrong again, there were no armed Viet Cong there, and willing to order a cease fire! The tragedy and dishonor of My Lai, contrary to the moral certainties of the Times, rests principally on company-grade officers -- lieutenants and captains.

Yes, there is blame that reaches higher -- ambiguous orders, cover-ups. I can already hear the dissent. It was an atrocity-producing war, that is the way we fought the war, body counts, every dead Vietnamese is a dead Viet Cong. There is an ugly underlying truth here, but it is not the whole truth, and even if it were it would not be exculpatory. To repudiate individual responsibility flies in the face of long-held values, the values earlier affirmed at Nuremberg.

William Calley was guilty of murder. He was no scapegoat.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Robert Lee Gaston - 9/30/2009

The old saying about the professional officer class is, “They will risk their lives at a drop of a hat, However, never depend on them risking their careers”. This is true to the point that there are few things any more beautiful than an old infantry colonel who knows he will not make general really go after a problem.

It was true that the lieutenant was poorly trained. However, the same chain of command that failed to train him sent him into a situation he could not handle, and ducked any responsibility when the thing went public. They also failed to take any meaningful action during the period between the incident and its being disclosed.

That said, Calley still was responsible for what happened at My Lai, and should have been more severely punished. He was not a scapegoat.

Andre Van Mayer - 9/30/2009

I certainly wouldn't call Lt. Calley a scapegoat, but R.L. Gaston's comment (with which I do not disagree, btw) points to one reason he has been so considered. The West Pointers up the chain of command were so insistent that Calley was poorly trained, not one of them, as to give the appearance of a defensive deflection of responsibility onto the outsider.

Ken Ransom - 9/29/2009

Hugh Thompson Jr., a former U.S. Army
Early in the morning of March 16, 1968, helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr., door-gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta came upon U.S. ground troops killing Vietnamese civilians in and around the village of My Lai.

They landed the helicopter in the line of fire between American troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pointed their own guns at the U.S. soldiers to prevent more killings.

Sometimes we forget that there were were heroes there that day in 1968.

Robert Lee Gaston - 9/28/2009

No, he was just a poorly trained second lieutenant who lost control of himself and an infantry platoon.

Our army is now short thousands of officers. So, we can look forward to a similar incident in the future.

Nancy REYES - 9/27/2009

Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson saved many lives there by positioning his copter to stop the killing.

Calley is not a "Scapegoat". He is a liar.

And without putting the massacre into the context of both sides, you do no one a favor.

For example, the thousands of civilians massacred during the Tet offensive has never received publicity in the US...