My Lai and Lockerbie Reconsidered
If you recall what actually happened at My Lai, Calley's more-than-forty-years-late apology cannot help but ring hollow. Not only were more than 500 defenseless civilians slaughtered by Calley and some of the 100 troops who stormed the village on March 16, 1968, but women and girls were brutally raped, bodies were horrifically mutilated, homes set aflame, animals tortured and killed, the local water supply fouled, and the village razed to the ground. Some of the civilians were killed in their bomb shelters, others when they tried to leave them. Women holding infants were gunned down. Others, gathered together, threw themselves on top of their children as they were sprayed with automatic rifle fire. Children, even babies, were executed at close range. Many were slaughtered in an irrigation ditch.
For his part in the bloodbath, Calley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. As it happened, he spent only three days in a military stockade before President Richard Nixon intervened and had him returned to his "bachelor apartment," where he enjoyed regular visits from a girlfriend, built gas-powered model airplanes, and kept a small menagerie of pets. By late 1974, Calley was a free man. He subsequently went on the college lecture circuit (making $2,000 an appearance), married the daughter of a jeweler in Columbus, Georgia, and worked at the jewelry store for many years without hue or cry from fellow Americans among whom he lived. All that time he stayed silent and, despite ample opportunity, offered no apologies.
Still, Calley's belated remorse evidences a sense of responsibility that his superiors--from his company commander Capt. Ernest Medina to his commander-in-chief President Lyndon Johnson--never had the moral fiber to shoulder. Recently, in considering the life and death of Johnson's Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who repudiated his wartime justifications for the conflict decades later ("We were wrong, terribly wrong."), Jonathan Schell asked:
"[H]ow many public figures of his importance have ever expressed any regret at all for their mistakes and follies and crimes? As the decades of the twentieth century rolled by, the heaps of corpses towered, ever higher, up to the skies, and now they pile up again in the new century, but how many of those in high office who have made these things happen have ever said, 'I made a mistake,' or 'I was terribly wrong,' or shed a tear over their actions? I come up with: one, Robert McNamara."
Because the United States failed to take responsibility for the massive scale of civilian slaughter and suffering inflicted in Southeast Asia in the war years, and because McNamara's contrition arrived decades late, he never became the public face of slaughter in Vietnam, even though he, like other top US civilian officials and military commanders of that time, bore an exponentially greater responsibility for the bloodshed in that country than the low-ranking Calley.
Butchery in the Mekong Delta
A few weeks after McNamara's death, Julian Ewell, a top Army general who served in two important command roles in Vietnam, also passed away. For years, the specter of atrocity had swirled around him, but only among a select community of veterans and Vietnam War historians. In 1971, Newsweek magazine's Kevin Buckley and Alex Shimkin conducted a wide-ranging investigation of Ewell's crowning achievement, a six-month operation in the Mekong Delta code-named Speedy Express, and found evidence of the widespread slaughter of civilians. "The horror was worse than My Lai," one American official told Buckley. "But...the civilian casualties came in dribbles and were pieced out over a long time. And most of them were inflicted from the air and at night. Also, they were sanctioned by the command's insistence on high body counts."
As word of the impending Newsweek article spread, John Paul Vann, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who was by then the third-most-powerful American serving in Vietnam, and his deputy, Colonel David Farnham, met in Washington with Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland. At that meeting, Vann told Westmoreland that Ewell's troops had wantonly killed civilians in order to boost the body count--the number of enemy dead that served as the primary indicator of success in the field--and so further the general's reputation and career. According to Farnham, Vann said Speedy Express was, in effect, "many My Lais."
A Pentagon-level cover-up and Newsweek's desire not to upset the Nixon administration in the wake of the My Lai revelations kept the full results of the meticulous investigation by Buckley and Shimkin bottled up. The publication of a severely truncated version of their article allowed the Pentagon to ride out the coverage without being forced to convene a large-scale official inquiry of the sort which followed public disclosure of the My Lai massacre. Only last year did some of the reporting that Newsweek suppressed, as well as new evidence of the slaughter and the cover-up, appear in a piece of mine in The Nation and only in the wake of Ewell's death was it mentioned in the Washington Post that a long-secret official Army report, commissioned in response to Buckley and Shimkin's investigation, concluded:
"[W]hile there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was in fact substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000)."
A year after the eviscerated Buckley-Shimkin piece was published, Ewell retired from the Army. Colonel Farnham believed that the general was prematurely pushed out due to continuing Army fears of a scandal. If true, it was the only act approaching official censure that he apparently ever experienced, far less punishment than that meted out to al-Megrahi, or even Calley. Yet Ewell was responsible for the deaths of markedly more civilians. Needless to say, Ewell's civilian slaughter never garnered significant TV coverage, nor did any US president ever express outrage over it, or begrudge the general his military benefits, let alone the ability to spend time with his family. In fact, in October, following a memorial service, Julian Ewell will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.