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The Lessons of My Lai:

A Review of Michal Belknap's The Vietnam War on Trial


Friday, Feb. 28, 2003

The Vietnam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley

Slightly more than three years after he and the men under his command rampaged through a small Vietnamese village known as My Lai, Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr. was sentenced by a court-martial to life in prison. "He's been crucified," shouted someone from outside the courtroom, reacting to the verdict. "He should get a medal."

Having been convicted of the premeditated murder of twenty-two Vietnamese civilians, including a two-year-old boy, Lt. Calley seemed an unlikely hero. But popular outrage at his trial and conviction lent him formidable national stature. He, rather than the civilians he had killed, seemed a representative victim of the Vietnam war.

Calley was a scapegoat, many thought: a young infantry officer made to bear the ugly consequences of wrongheaded and immoral decisions made by the country's civilian and military leaders. But in the end, due in large part to popular pressure, Calley's punishment was hardly exemplary. His sentence was reduced, and reduced again, and finally, in 1974, a year and a half after the last American ground troops left Vietnam, Calley was released. Having spent nearly three years confined to his army apartment while appealing his conviction, he ended up serving only a few months in military prison.

Why did the My Lai massacre occur, who was to blame, and how well were its subsequent legal and political repercussions handled? The lessons of My Lai warrant scrutiny, especially now. With the United States once again on the brink of a divisive war, it is an appropriate time to consider the role of law in armed conflict and, more specifically, the fundamental question of civilian casualties.

Body Counts: The Main Measure of Success

As the title of his book suggests, Belknap characterizes the court-martial of Lieutenant Calley as a political trial. It was, in his opinion, not just a trial of one man's actions, but "of the army that fought the Vietnam War and ultimately of the war itself."

His review of the war provides ample evidence to suggest that the My Lai massacre was no horrific aberration. Atrocities were common in Vietnam, and were committed by both sides. My Lai may have been unusual in that so many civilians were killed in a single incident, but what was most unusual about it was its investigation and prosecution.

Both the nature of the war and the way in which it was waged led to high civilian casualties. Under the search-and-destroy strategy imposed by U.S. General William Westmoreland, capturing enemy terrain was not the primary goal of combat; instead, the body count was the main measure of success. "The mission," Belknap says bluntly, "was simply to kill people."

Vietnamese peasants and enemy soldiers could be difficult to distinguish. The Vietcong did not wear military uniforms, and, with much of the country turned into a combat zone, they were found in the same places as civilians. Their views of the Vietnamese frequently tainted by racism, many American soldiers came to hate all "gooks."

Under these conditions, the default rule was to see Vietnamese as combatants. Once the person was dead, no one was likely to contradict the assessment. Nor did commanding officers care. As one soldier told Belknap: "If it's dead and Vietnamese, it's VC."

An accurate count of Vietnamese civilian dead will never be known. But according to the estimates that Belknap cites, civilian casualties ran from an estimated 100,000 in 1965 to 300,000 in 1968.

500 Killed in Four Hours on March 16, 1968

1968 was the year of the My Lai massacre. As with civilian casualties generally, the true number of people killed at My Lai is not known with perfect certainty. What is known is that the numbers were high, and the process of killing these people was horrifically brutal.

It all happened in a matter of hours on the morning of March 16. When Charlie Company, the unit in which Calley was an officer, attacked My Lai, it was an undefended village full of old men, women, and children. By the time the company left - after shooting, raping, and mutilating its way through the population - it was a ghost town. Indeed, nearly two years after the massacre, the army investigative team that visited My Lai found that it was "for all practical purposes . . . a dead village."

Belknap's account of the war's overall problems does not make him any less critical of Calley himself. As he makes very clear, Calley actively directed the My Lai massacre. Although later convicted of the murder of at least twenty-two civilians, Calley is believed to have slaughtered more than 100 of them. He was responsible for killing more people than anyone else at My Lai that day.

Cover-Up and Political Maneuvering

The devastation of My Lai is only the starting point for the longer saga described in Belknap's book, which brings the resulting investigation, prosecution, and political maneuvering into sharp and compelling detail. Amazingly, given the number and severity of the atrocities committed, My Lai could have easily gone unnoticed. The cover-up of the massacre was, as the book's preface notes, "almost as shocking as the carnage itself."

No one had an interest in exposing the truth about what had happened, least of all the country's military and political leaders.

Yet there are, Belknap emphasizes, a few heroes in the My Lai story: those who fought to bring the facts to light. They include helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who witnessed the slaughter and tried to save civilians' lives, and who later filed a written after-action report detailing what he had seen; soldier Ron Ridenhour, who heard the story of My Lai from friends who had participated in the massacre, and who made it his personal mission to generate an official investigation; and freelance journalist Seymour Hersh, who broke the story in newspapers across the country.

Vietnam belongs to the past, and William Calley is now a balding jeweler in Ohio. But as the country again readies itself for war, these past lessons should be examined and understood.

Joanne Mariner is a FindLaw columnist and human rights attorney.

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