Commentary: Regrets for My Lai massacre decades late

Lt. William Calley arrives for his court martial in 1971 at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Lt. William Calley arrives for his court martial in 1971 at Fort Benning, Georgia. Columbus Ledger-Enquirer / MCT

Former Lt. Rusty Calley has finally spoken about the My Lai Massacre in terms of his remorse for the deaths of between 300 and 400 unarmed Vietnamese villagers who were slaughtered on one terrible day in March, 1968, 41 years ago, and his remorse for the ruined lives of American soldiers he and others ordered to do the killing.

The slaughter in a poor, sandy village complex south of Chu Lai and just off Highway One was originally covered up by officers at every level in the 11th Brigade and the parent Americal Division. The coverup came undone when an Army photographer took his photos and story to a budding muckraker named Seymour Hersh.

Of 27 soldiers and officers charged in the murders and subsequent coverup, only Lt. Calley was convicted. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Richard Nixon was in the White House at the time, overseeing the deaths in combat in Vietnam of another 30,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese after he had been elected on a promise to end the war in South Vietnam.

There was a feeling afoot in the country, among Nixon's "Silent Majority," that Calley was being made a scapegoat. Nixon and his men stoked those flames, and the president first ordered Calley into comfortable house arrest at his quarters on Fort Benning, Ga., and then commuted his sentence.

Calley had done only three years in his apartment.

Any zeal for the prosecution of the other accused evaporated in the political climate of the time, although the Army's Peers Commission had done an admirable job of picking apart the coverup and laying out the truth of what had happened on that terrible day in a village full of old men, women and children in the Vietnamese countryside.

The others on the ground that day, including Calley's company commander, Capt. Ernest Medina, skated on the charges. Medina was judged not guilty in his court martial. Calley's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Frank Barker who presided over the operation from a lofty perch in his command helicopter 3,000 feet overhead, ironically had died when that helicopter crashed some months after the massacre.

The only real heroes at My Lai were the crew of a Huey helicopter piloted by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, who saw what was happening on low passes over the area and several times landed his helicopter between the Americans and clusters of terrified villagers.

Thompson at one point had his machine gunner cover the Americans while Thompson told their commander he would kill him and them if they didn't back off.

For his actions at My Lai and for reporting indiscriminate mass killing of non-combatants to his chain of command, Thompson was treated like a pariah and a traitor. A decade ago his heroism was rewarded with an award of the Soldier's Medal, a special medal for life-saving. Thompson died three years ago at age 62.

Former Lt. Calley, a poster boy for what happens when the military lowers its standards to fill the ranks during wartime, for decades was a fixture in the business community in Columbus, Ga., outside the gates of Fort Benning. For years he ran a jewelry shop inherited from his father-in-law. He recently moved to Atlanta.

After decades of refusing all requests for interviews, Calley this month accepted an invitation to speak to a Kiwanis Club in Columbus, Ohio, and there confessed to daily feeling "remorse" over his actions and their consequences.

It is, like former Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara's belated revelation that he was wrong about Vietnam and knew he was wrong at the time, too little far too late.

No stale tears four decades later can erase the image of little children's bodies, obscenely posed atop the heaps of mothers and grandmothers in that ditch in Vietnam. Or the evidence that some of the women and young girls were raped by the rampaging soldiers before they were executed.

My best friend, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Hal Moore, has said often that if Lt. Calley's commander, Lt. Col. Barker, had been on the ground with his troops instead of swooping by at 3,000 feet in his helicopter the My Lai Massacre would never have happened.

In this case I am afraid that a "sorry" near the end of a comfortable life just doesn't cut it, Lt. Calley. I doubt it will buy much leeway on Judgment Day either.