My Lai and Lockerbie Reconsidered
Chain of Command
In his recent remarks, William Calley emphasized that he was following orders at My Lai, a point on which he has never wavered. The Army's investigation into My Lai involved forty-five members of Medina's company, including Calley, suspected of atrocities. In a second investigation, 30 individuals were looked into for covering up what happened in the village by "omissions or commissions." Twenty-eight of them were officers, two of them generals, and as a group they stood accused of a total of 224 offenses. Calley, however, was the sole person convicted of an offense in connection with My Lai. Even he ultimately evaded any substantive punishment for his crimes.
While an opportunity was squandered during the Vietnam era, Calley's apology and the response to al-Megrahi's release offer another chance for some essential soul-searching in the United States. In considering Calley's decades-late contrition, Americans might ask why a double-standard exists when it comes to official outrage over mass murder. It might also be worth asking why some individuals, like a former Libyan intelligence officer or, in rare instances, a low-ranking US infantry officer, are made to bear so much blame for major crimes whose responsibility obviously reached far above them; and why officers up the chain of command, and war managers--in Washington or Tripoli--escape punishment for the civilian blood on their hands. Unfortunately, this opportunity will almost certainly be squandered as well.
Similarly, it's unlikely that Americans will seriously contemplate just how so many lived beside Calley for so long, without seeking justice--as would be second nature in the case of a similarly horrific crime committed by an officer serving a hostile power elsewhere. Yet he and fellow American officers from Donald Reh (implicated in the deaths of nineteen civilians--mostly women and children--during a February 1968 massacre) to Bob Kerrey have gone about their lives without so much as being tried by court martial, let alone serving prison time as did al-Megrahi.
In the immediate wake of Calley's contrition, it wasn't a reporter from the American media but from Agence France Presse (AFP) who thought to check on how Vietnamese survivors or relatives of those massacred at My Lai might react. When an AFP reporter spoke to Pham Thanh Cong, who saw his mother and brothers killed in the My Lai massacre (and now runs a small museum at the village) and asked what he thought of Calley's apology, he responded, "Maybe he has now repented for his crimes and his mistakes committed more than forty years ago." Maybe.
Today, some of Calley's cohorts, the mostly anonymous others who perpetrated their own horrors in Southeast Asia and never faced even a modicum of justice for their crimes, go about their lives in American cities and suburbs. (Others, who have committed unpunished offenses in the Global War on Terror, are still on active duty.) As a result, the outrage over what happened to the only man convicted of the terrorist act against Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, has a strikingly hollow ring.
A failure to demand an honest accounting of the suffering the United States caused the Vietnamese people and a willingness to ignore ample evidence of widespread slaughter remains a lasting legacy of the Vietnam War. So does a desire to reduce all discussion of US atrocities in Southeast Asia to the massacre at My Lai, with William Calley bearing the burden--not just for his crimes but for all US crimes there. And it will remain so until the American people do what their military and civilian leadership have failed to do for more than forty years: take responsibility for the misery the US inflicted in Southeast Asia.