William Calley and the ghosts of My Lai

Lieutenant William Calley Jr. became of central figure of My Lai
Lieutenant William Calley Jr. became the central figure of the My Lai massacre

Anyone old enough to remember the Vietnam War will recall the infamous My Lai massacre. It was a seminal event in the history of that war because of its effect on public support for U.S. involvement there. Millions of Americans who, until My Lai, had supported or wavered in their support for the war turned against it — so stunned were they by the atrocities committed by American troops.

The destruction of the village and the massacre of its Vietnamese inhabitants occurred on March 16, 1968. Although the official U.S. tally puts number of dead at 347, other estimates of the death toll exceed 500. Most were women, children and elderly people. Many were raped, tortured and mutilated. The soldier in charge of the U.S. Army platoon that invaded the village was Lieutenant William Calley Jr.

The events of My Lai may have escaped media and public attention entirely if not for the fact that several U.S. soldiers were so shocked and disturbed by the conduct of their own troops that they wrote letters to President Richard Nixon, the joint chiefs of staff, officials at the Pentagon and others about the incident. The horrors of the My Lai massacre surfaced publicly more than a year later, when, despite official secrecy about the letters, independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story on Nov. 12, 1969. In the months that followed, My Lai remained a major story in newspapers, radio and TV. Calley and more than two dozen of his men were charged, but only the lieutenant was eventually convicted. He was sentenced to life in prison, but served only three and a half years under house arrest in his quarters at Fort Benning, Ga.

Since then, Calley had remained silent about My Lai. Until yesterday.

At a Kiwanis Club in Columbus, Ga., he offered an apology. Read the Associated Press story here; the Telegraph story is here.

A footnote: The My Lai massacre occurred one month after Associated Press correspondent Peter Arnett filed a story, on Feb. 7, 1968, in which Arnett reported, “‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,’ a U.S. major says.” The town in question that day was a Vietnamese provincial capital, Ben Tre. Since then, this type of statement has become known as “Ben Tre logic.”

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