My Lai again?

Posted: Jun 11, 2006 12:05 AM
We hope day by day that the facts will become plain as to what occurred at Haditha in November. But this isn't happening. What we have is a story the components of which are pieces perpetually on the move. Starting at the bloody end, we read that 24 Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. Marines in blood lust, the Marines reacting to the killing of a beloved member of their unit by a roadside bomb. Fiddle with the words above, and you can compose narratives for just about every story that has gone out.

It is illuminating that there is this confusion having to do with the facts. "Illuminating" is less than "reassuring." Somebody killed those Iraqi civilians, including women and children.

But memory is aroused, and we turn to Facts on File for April 7, 1971. It recounts in some detail the aftermath of the court-martial of Lt. William L. Calley Jr., who was in command of the platoon in Vietnam that slaughtered dozens, perhaps hundreds, of civilians in the little village of My Lai, bringing on the greatest crisis of military morale since World War II.

The court-martial began two years after Richard Nixon had been elected president, at the height of the national self-examination on the question whether we had been correct to send troops to Vietnam in the first place. The news of what seemed to be cold-blooded murder was arresting, gripping the American conscience as if by testicular strength, demanding to know how to square the American deed in Vietnam with the American ideals that sent us to Vietnam.

And yet there was such immediate dismay over the court-martial verdict that the Pentagon sent out a "white paper" explaining what had been done. To begin with, the United States' subscription to the Geneva Convention required courts-martial against the 13 defendants, i.e., soldiers concerning whom there was evidence that they had engaged in knowingly firing at civilians, or had ordered others to do so.

Charges were dismissed against 10 of the 13 on the grounds that there was not enough direct evidence. Three went to trial, and two of them were acquitted. Only Lt. Calley was convicted. "In the case of Lt. Calley," the report said, "we had an overwhelming body of evidence."

What then happened has no parallel in U.S. history.

Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment, dismissal from the Army, and forfeiture of pay and privileges. That set off pandemonium.

  • Vice President Spiro Agnew criticized the entire proceeding on the grounds that military operations "are not subject to Monday morning quarterback judgments."

  • Attorney General John Mitchell said, "Personally, I have a great deal of concern about the total picture as it relates not only to (Calley) but to others."

  • Indiana Gov. Edgar D. Whitcomb, a decorated World War II veteran, ordered all state flags flown at half-staff to protest the verdict.

  • Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia proclaimed April 5 "American Fighting Man's Day," and urged Georgia motorists to drive all week with their headlights on.

  • Gov. Calvin L. Rampton of Utah regarded the verdict as "inappropriate and the sentence as excessive."

  • Gov. George Wallace actually went to Fort Benning to converse with Calley. Wallace said he did not criticize the Army for the court-martial but believed that Nixon should grant Calley a full pardon.

    Which ... Tricky Dick just about did. He asserted authority over the proceedings, on the grounds that as commander in chief, he had ultimate responsibility for convening courts-martial. He then said that he would review the court's findings, and meanwhile Lt. Calley could stay at Fort Benning and return to his base apartment, with a single guard.

    President Nixon said that he would need to give much thought to a final determination, once the military appeal process had run its course, if he was "still in office at that time." That was said in April 1971, with the next election 19 months away. Mr. Nixon, the diplomat, was exercising his skill with the voters. He wanted a good long time to "weigh" the Calley case. The Army prosecutor, Capt. Aubrey M. Daniel III, was feverishly resentful. He had presented evidence of the premeditated murder of those South Vietnamese civilians ...

    Is the American public refusing to believe the story of what allegedly happened at Haditha? On the grounds that Americans simply could not be guilty of such acts? Surely what happened reflected not base instincts, but chaos and anarchy?

    In a brilliant essay in National Review, Christopher Levenick of the American Enterprise Institute reviews "My Battle of Algiers," by Ted Morgan, recalling the bestiality of that wretched war. And yet French soldiers who committed torture routinely went on to successful careers. "Indeed," writes Levenick, "it is not uncommon to learn that such men are capable of living out the rest of their lives without any sense of guilt for their actions. It remains a basic truth of human nature that a uniform is all that many men need to dissociate themselves from the evil they commit."