Was William Calley a Scapegoat?

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.

Gary 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.