What is the appropriate punishment for murdering 504 innocent men, women and children? Death penalty? Life in prison? House arrest? If you answered house arrest than you win a cookie. Only one man received punishment for the slaughter of innocents at My Lai village in Vietnam on the morning of March 16, 1968. His punishment was 3 and a half years of house arrest. Many are now comparing the Haditha killings in Iraq with the massacre at My Lai. If the comparison holds then once again war criminals will escape unpunished. I for one hope that in the case of Haditha there will be justice where there was none in My Lai.
Now let me tell you the story of what happened one morning in a village in Vietnam…
On the evening of March 15, 1968, Captain Ernest Medina informed the men of Charlie Company that their orders were to destroy the village of My Lai the next morning. Medina said that there would be no women and children in the village at the time and they were likely to find the 48th Battalion of the Viet Cong in the village. Their mission would be to destroy the enemy, kill the livestock, poison the wells and set fire to My Lai.
On the morning of March 16, 1968 shortly before 8 a.m. helicopters carrying the men of Charlie Company landed just outside the village of My Lai. By 8 a.m. the first platoon of Charlie Company commanded by 24-year-old Lt. William Calley entered My Lai. The platoon began their search and destroy mission and found that the only people left in the village were old men, women and children. No one of fighting age was left in the village. The orgy of killing began. A man was stabbed in the back with a bayonet. Another man was thrown down a well and a grenade followed. Fifteen to twenty older women were gathered together and shot in the back of their heads. Eighty people were herded together in the village plaza and mowed down by Lt. Calley and a soldier named Paul Meadlo. Young children and babies were shot. Little girls’ breasts were fondled. An army photographer named Ronald Haeberle arrived in My Lai as the third platoon of Charlie Company moved in. He photographed and witnessed about 30 GIs kill about 100 civilians.
Lt. William Calley gathered about 80 civilians near a drainage ditch on the edge of the village. Calley ordered his platoon to throw the old men, women and children into the ditch. Most of his men refused but 3 or 4 obeyed. Calley ordered his men to shoot the civilians in the ditch. Some refused and some obeyed. Calley joined the soldiers in slaughtering the civilians in the ditch. One 2-year-old child tried to escape and ran toward the village. Calley grabbed the child, threw him into the ditch, and shot him.
Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thomson was piloting a helicopter above My Lai and saw the horror unfolding below. He landed his helicopter near the ditch and put himself between Calley and the civilians. He instructed his crew chief to gun down the Americans if they opened fire on the civilians again. Thomson managed to evacuate 10 civilians, including 5 children and a baby who was still clinging to her dead mother.
By noon the carnage was over.
Hugh Thomson filed a complaint alleging numerous war crimes at My Lai. The complaint went nowhere. The official Army version was that 128 enemy were killed and 20 civilians were inadvertently killed. However, word started to spread about the massacre from the GIs of Charlie Company. Some GIs of Charlie Company talked to a soldier named Ronald Ridenhour. Ridenhour decided to send a letter about the My Lai massacre to President Nixon, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department and some members of Congress. Almost all of his letters were ignored. One recipient of the letter, Representative Morris Udall, urged a full investigation of Ridenhour’s allegations.
Eventually the Army charged 26 enlisted men and officers, including Lt. Calley and Captain Medina, with crimes related to the My Lai massacre. The charges against 25 enlisted men and officers would eventually be dropped. In March 1971 Lt. Calley was convicted by a military court martial of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison. Two days later, however, President Richard Nixon ordered Calley released from prison and confined to house arrest instead. On November 9, 1974 the Secretary of the Army paroled Calley and he was released from house arrest. In total, Lt. William Calley, the only man ever punished for the My Lai massacre, spent 3 and one half years under house arrest.
The oldest human being murdered at My Lai was 82 years old and the youngest was 1 year old. Lt. Calley spent a little under 3 days under house arrest for each civilian murdered at My Lai. President Nixon called the My Lai massacre "an isolated incident."
The public sentiment in the United States was overwhelmingly against the conviction of Lt. Calley. According to an opinion poll conducted for President Nixon on April 1, 1971, 79% said that the sentence of life imprisonment for Lt. Calley was "too harsh".
However, the My Lai massacre eventually caused the public to sour on the Vietnam War. Support for the war rapidly dissipated after the horrors of My Lai seeped into the American consciousness.
The lessons of My Lai are still relevant today. We learned at My Lai that soldiers are capable of and sometime do commit atrocities during war. We learned that even in the bleakest of times, and perhaps because of them, heroes emerge. We learned that war crimes sometimes go unpunished even when the evidence is overwhelming. We learned that political expediency can trump justice when a President wishes it.
After My Lai the expectation is not great that if the soldiers involved in the Haditha killings are found guilty that they will be given anything more than a slap on the wrist. There was plenty of public outrage and international outrage after My Lai, but the punishment did not come close to matching the magnitude of the crime. There is likely to be public outrage over Haditha, but public outrage is not enough.
This time justice must be served. For the victims, for the American people, and for the sake of humanity. Otherwise massacres like My Lai and Haditha will continue to occur and the guilty will continue to go unpunished. The lesson will continue to be that our ideals state that we do not do these things but our actions tolerate these atrocities with a wink and a nod.