American Carnage

WILLIAM CALLEY’S EARLY CHILDHOOD, in a wealthy neighborhood of Miami, was uneventful. He was short—five foot three—and came to weigh around 130 pounds. Because he had reddish hair, he was given the nickname Rusty. He got into trouble, in the normal way of teenagers, but never with drugs or violence. He had friends. Things took a turn for the worse: diabetes afflicted his father, cancer his mother. The family business (construction) failed; they moved from Miami to their vacation home in North Carolina. Calley returned to Miami to complete high school. He graduated at the bottom of his class. He failed junior college his first year. The army rejected him because of hearing problems. He became, in no particular order, insurance-claims investigator, railroad conductor, salesman, cook, car washer, dishwasher, bellhop.

But there are second acts in American lives. In 1966, Calley was in San Francisco, searching for a job, when a letter from the draft board arrived, ordering him back to Miami. He began the drive home. His car broke down in New Mexico. Facing an army officer in Albuquerque, he asked what his recourse was. In a catch-22, the army agreed not to draft him if he enlisted. He enlisted.

Two years later, on March 16, 1968, he led a platoon of members of Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd Americal Infantry Division of the US Army, into the Vietnamese village of Son My. In one of Son My’s hamlets, My Lai 4, his soldiers murdered what is believed to be more than five hundred civilians: men, women, children, infants, the elderly, the infirm. They killed livestock. They gang-raped what may have been dozens of women before killing them. There is no proof of their having killed a single soldier of the National Liberation Front or the North Vietnamese Army.

It would take Calley a year to be formally charged with premeditated murder, and three years to come before a military courtroom in Fort Benning, Georgia. The charges were that he had killed at least thirty civilians on a trail below My Lai 4, at least seventy civilians at a ditch on the eastern edge of the village, and two others near the ditch, including a man in white who was possibly a monk. Witnesses at the trial accused Calley of other murders he had not even been charged with.

One psychiatrist, Dr. Wilbur Hamman, testified that Calley did not understand himself to have murdered or ordered the killing of anyone. He admitted ordering one of his soldiers to “waste” the Vietnamese, but this did not mean killing them. “We never use kill,” Calley told Hamman. “We don’t use that word. Kill refers to our teachings that we are brought up with ever since childhood— Thou shalt not kill. If you use the word kill with the troops, it causes a very negative emotional reaction, so you use the word waste, to get rid of, to destroy.” Hamman concluded that Calley “did not conceive of these acts as killing but as destroying, and I am using killing in the sense of killing a human being as opposed to destroying an enemy.” Calley, he said, “lacked the capacity to have will, to consciously conceive that act.”

After he was found guilty of the premeditated murder of at least twenty-two civilians, Calley rose to speak:

If I have committed a crime, the only crime that I’ve committed is in judgment of my values. Apparently I valued my troops’ lives more than I did that of the enemy. When my troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel, that I couldn’t touch—that nobody in the military system ever described them as anything other than Communism. They [the army] didn’t give it a race, they didn’t give it a sex, they didn’t give it an age. They never let me believe it was just a philosophy in a man’s mind. That was my enemy out there. And when it became between me and that enemy, I had to value the lives of my troops—and I feel that was the only crime I have committed.

Fifty years after the acts Calley participated in and partly led, we are aware—though Americans were aware then, too—that he was not alone. As Howard Jones’s My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness recounts with excruciating fastidiousness, there were dozens of others with him capable of immense cruelty. According to the accounts of fellow soldiers, Calley’s commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, is reported to have given the order to “kill everything that moves.” He appears to have believed—premeditated, perhaps—that the village was full of National Liberation Front soldiers, and that to make distinctions was an unaffordable nicety. There was another massacre at nearby My Khe, where upward of eighty civilians were killed in part of the same operation. When reports of the massacres at Son My threatened to become public, a number of soldiers participated in a cover-up, which might have proved successful were it not for the reporting of Seymour Hersh, whose stories on the killings in My Lai brought them to national attention.

American soldier stoking burning houses during the My Lai massacre, March 16, 1968, My Lai, South Vietnam. Ronald L. Haeberle.
American soldier stoking burning houses during the My Lai massacre, March 16, 1968, My Lai, South Vietnam. Ronald L. Haeberle.

Calley was found guilty of the charges laid against him. But whether he was uniquely guilty became a pressing national question that undermined the effect of his trial and threatened to return him to a state of innocence in the public mind. The fact was that his career as a baby killer and rapist in Vietnam was as unexceptional as his curtailed, mediocre early adulthood. Many saw themselves in him, or recognized what they had done in what he had. In the opening statement that Lt. William Crandell gave in the “Winter Soldier Investigation” in 1971, part of a series of testimonies by veterans, he indicated his and his fellow soldiers’ intent “to demonstrate that My Lai was no unusual occurrence, other than, perhaps, the number of victims killed all in one place, all at one time, all by one platoon of us.” Some commentators began to wonder whether something on the order of the Nuremberg trials could be held about American conduct in Vietnam. Others turned against the war—not because they doubted its mission, but because they imagined their sons being charged for what was official policy. According to this line of thinking, Calley was a scapegoat. The guilt was sublime; the culpable were too numerous to be pictured or named; the punishment could not be apportioned. Either everyone in America was guilty, or no one was.

“Has no one the compassion to pass judgment on William Calley?” asked Robert Lowell. “His atrocity is cleared by the President, public, polls, rank and file of the right and left. . . . In a century perhaps no one will widen an eye at massacre, and only scattered corpses express a last histrionic concern for death.” But national self—indictment could not be arrived at. America, of all countries, was not one that could excoriate itself. Nuremberg was instructive. Only after prolonged bombing of its civilian areas could Germany, in a state of submission, be held to account. The United States might lose the war in Vietnam, but it would not see the requisite condition—occupation of the United States by the people of Vietnam—that would produce the truth commission that so many desired. Though Calley received a life sentence, it was commuted by Richard Nixon. Ernest Medina faced trial in 1971 but was found not guilty. Mary McCarthy, who followed his trial for the New Yorker, remarked that she could “see no traces whatever of the crime either in Medina, joking and whispering with counsel” and noted his and his soldiers’ “defensive posture of unconcerned normality.” It turned out this was who Americans were—so who would cast the first stone?

The result of this abortive reckoning is that names pass in and out of the annals of US history, in ignominy one day, trailing clouds of glory the next. Murderers, con men, and thieves in one decade resurface as sterling public servants in another. In the middle of his book, Jones writes of one attempt by a soldier in 1968 to notify the Pentagon of atrocities in Vietnam. How were Americans supposed to win hearts and minds, the soldier wrote, when they “apparently for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves?” The officer tasked with responding to him was Major Colin Powell, like Calley a soldier in the Americal infantry division. “In direct refutation of this portrayal,” Powell wrote in his report, “is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” Jones notes that “Powell appeared to follow a scripted procedure in handling the case.” He was to “ignore, deny, or call whatever had happened a ‘field expedient’ and, if necessary, exonerate the army by finding a scapegoat.” Some forty years later, Powell, sitting before the United Nations, brandishing a vial that supposedly held anthrax, made the case that Iraq had not disposed of its weapons of mass destruction. We now know definitively that he lied baldly, but we might have remembered that his command of facts—or passion for denying them—had been an issue for forty years.

The mass atrocities in Vietnam were not the last ones the United States committed. Jones, in his conclusion, refers to the torture at Abu Ghraib prison in the Iraq war; he neglects the Haditha massacre, in which US marines murdered twenty-four Iraqi civilians after one of their company was killed by a roadside bomb. But we do not know the names of their company like we know Calley, and it is unlikely that we will have more of his kind to shape our image and understanding of the country’s proliferating wars. The lessons of Vietnam have been learned: death must come from above; the cover-up must be stronger; the war cannot be understood to exist. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, aerial bombing accounts for the chief source of civilian deaths. Last year, Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal’s invaluable reporting on the hidden costs of the air war against ISIS revealed that 103 US airstrikes in Iraq had produced least seventy-five civilian deaths—none of which were acknowledged by the coalition. The country has not been held to account.

Nikil Saval is a coeditor of n+1 and the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014).