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Calley’s Ghost


ISSUE:  Winter 2003

Bizarre as it may seem, an internet search for the name William Calley now leads you directly to his alumni association web page at Edison High School in Miami, Florida. The first thing you see is his graduation picture, class of 1962, in which he already wears the look of goofy vacuity made familiar during his army court-martial and brief period of public notoriety. There follows a short, upbeat paragraph about what he did in the years immediately after high school. Only then does the narrative turn to his involvement in the My Lai massacre and his subsequent prosecution for the mass murder of Vietnamese civilians. The tone is mildly sympathetic, although the narrative also provides links to a My Lai website giving an account of the incident based on testimony presented at trial. An illustration accompanies these paragraphs. It is the famous Alfred E. Neumann caricature of Calley in uniform from the cover of the National Lampoon. One finds it a measure of the casual horror involved that the site designers did not choose the equally famous Esquire cover photo in which he is shown with a lapful of cute Asian children. The National Lampoon illustration has the odd merit at least of looking very much like the graduation picture. The entry then concludes, as if the subject had really spent his life as an accountant or a plumbing contractor, with a brief account of his subsequent attempts to live anonymously in Columbus, Georgia as a manager of his father-in-law’s jewelry store.

Thus Miami Edison High School, his alma mater, preserves the memory of William L. Calley, Jr., the former U.S. Army second lieutenant who, on the morning of March 16, 1968, entered the village of My Lai 4 with a platoon of infantry and initiated the slaughter of between 400 and 500 Vietnamese civilians, using automatic weapons, grenades, knives, and bayonets. The killing rampage, eventually involving all three platoons of C Company, 1/20th Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, included countless individual acts of rape, torture, murder, and mutilation.

Let us be clear about what happened. A heavily armed combat unit of roughly 100 American soldiers in the space of a few hours killed between four and five times their number of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. Not a single Viet Cong soldier was found. One U.S. soldier was wounded, taken out by medical evacuation helicopter in the midst of the killing, after accidentally shooting himself in the foot while trying to clear a jammed .45 caliber pistol. The pistol had been borrowed by a squadmate to finish off a small boy he saw moving in a pile of wounded. He shot the boy in the neck. Bleeding heavily, the the child crawled to his feet and stumbled forward two or three steps trying to escape. As he fell, the G.I. with the .45 tried to shoot him again, jamming the weapon. He returned it disgustedly to the owner, who then managed to shoot himself while attending to the malfunction.

As in this instance, the Vietnamese victims of the massacre were nearly all women and children with a sprinkling of old men. Likewise, even as they died by the hundreds, they also died individually in astonishingly violent, painful, and terrifying ways. Some were herded into cowering groups and blown apart piece by piece with rounds from grenade launchers. Others were mowed down at point-blank range by machine gun and automatic weapons fire, with Calley personally involved in two such mass executions. Numerous women were raped and forced to perform oral sex. Then they were killed at close range and their bodies mutilated. One was beheaded. One was killed by rounds fired from an M-16 rifle after the barrel had been rammed up her vagina. A child, similar to the one described above, barely old enough to walk, tried to crawl out of a ditch where its mother had just been executed. Calley personally pushed it back down into the pile of bodies, shot it, and then returned to beating an old man he had been in the process of interrogating. When it was all done, the slaughter was even too immense for the body count sweepstakes that had become the measure of combat performance in Vietnam. The Division operations journal revised the figure of Vietnamese dead down to what was deemed a suitably modest 128 killed, with an alleged re-capture of three U.S. weapons from enemy hands thrown in as some idiotic stab at corroboration.

I honestly don’t remember when I first heard about My Lai. It is hard to imagine that I did not read something in Vietnam during late 1969, at the time of the first journalistic revelations, when I was an armored cavalry platoon leader in a separate light infantry brigade not unlike the three, including Calley’s, that had been slapped together to form the Americal. Down in III Corps, relatively near Saigon, we had at least intermittent access to Pacific Stars and Stripes. I’ve looked at the files for that paper, and the story seems to have been all over the place. On the other hand, when it came to national headlines, we didn’t talk about home as being back in the world for nothing. I remember finding out about the moon landing around two weeks after it happened. To this day, hearing about news events of 1969 strikes me as not unlike having been in a coma.

After Vietnam I went to graduate school and spent four years doing a lot of books and solitude. Then I went on to my first job. I didn’t have a TV during the 70’s, nor did I read a newspaper regularly, so I missed most of the reports of the official inquiry conducted by a U.S. Army commission under Lieutenant General William G. Peers; of the court proceedings eventuating in the conviction of Calley, the acquittal of his company commander Ernest Medina, and the dropping of cases against all the other defendants charged with complicity in the massacre or subsequent cover-up, most notably the Brigade and Division Commanders, Colonel Oran K. Henderson and Major General Samuel W. Koster; and of the successive revisions of Calley’s sentence from life imprisonment to ten years to house arrest to parole—all of which in any case, as far as I can discern, were themselves swallowed up by the Cambodian and Laotian invasions, the 1972 Christmas bombing raids, the Paris Peace Talks, and then eventually Nixon and Watergate. It is only in the last year that I have felt myself impelled to start reading about it in detail. Maybe I thought that getting older and more generally accepting of experience and memory would help, not to mention having witnessed the dying throes of one century of blood and the beginning horrors of another. Maybe I thought that a career as a university researcher with a long interest in personal and cultural representations of the Vietnamese war would provide some kind of analytic or intellectual insulation. What I find instead, as myself a veteran of close combat in that war, even more than 30 years later, is that My Lai remains the Vietnam nightmare story worse than any human mind could invent. For all of us who knew the everyday war of the battalions and brigades, it is the visitation from which memory can never allow itself to find release, continuing to beggar every instinct of moral accountability, then or now.

II

It has been alleged that the massacre arose more or less spontaneously out of a collective psychological breakdown by a significant number of C Company soldiers, including both enlisted men and officers. Specifically, it has been yoked to rage over the deaths of several members of the company killed by an unseen enemy, the first shot by a sniper, another blown apart by a booby trap, with a memorial service for the most recent victim held on the day before the massacre and thus bearing direct connections to the tone of bloodthirsty vengeance that seems to have saturated a briefing by the company commander, Captain Ernest Medina, about the operation to be conducted at My Lai 4 for the next morning. This theory of collective psychological breakdown is frequently buttressed by an emphasis on the stress of the peculiar dangers of combat faced by American troops operating in Quang Ngai province: a maddeningly invisible military enemy, persistently evading detection, yet claiming victory day after day through U.S. victims of sniper rounds and mines and booby traps studding the landscape; and a likewise largely uncooperative and hostile civilian population, too fearful or hate-filled to yield up assistance or information, and in many cases probably complicit in the campaign of attrition.

Measure against this, however, the fact that the vast majority of American combatants in the field faced such circumstances of fear, frustration, and horror, in one combination or another, for up to a year, whereas the 11th Brigade, in contrast, had been in Vietnam for three months, deploying there as a unit from a training period in Hawaii. Further, Charlie Company had spent fully half of its early period in-country in various rear-area activities. This is to say that it had been in combat for six weeks. It had experienced its first American death a month earlier. As noted above, another had occurred just one day before the My Lai operation. In between, three men had been killed in a minefield incident. Over the period in question, a total of 28 had been wounded. Actual contacts with the enemy amounted to one or two at most. Meanwhile, however, for all its relative combat inexperience, it had already gotten into the habit of raping, torturing, and killing. On a prior operation, after a first platoon radio operator angrily threw an old man down a well, Calley himself shot the man in cold blood. The second platoon had already become known as accomplished rapists, with the platoon leader on at least one occasion allegedly a participant. Nor was the third platoon by March 16 apparently a stranger to brutality. On the morning of My Lai, its just-arrived lieutenant, a replacement officer, watched with horror as his new command moved through in the wake of the others finishing off anyone or anything that moved. “Is it always like this?” he is alleged to have asked.

My Lai was not just Calley and a handful of fellow renegades, then. At My Lai 4 alone, there were three platoons on the ground that morning, in excess of 100 armed infantrymen, with significant numbers of all three taking part in the slaughter over a period of several hours. Also present, and in the first two cases, actively torturing and killing people, were three commissioned officers. Furthermore, accompanying the third platoon was the commanding officer of the entire unit, Captain Ernest Medina. Throughout the day he responded evasively to radioed inquiries about civilian casualties with vague reports about a number possibly killed by supporting air and artillery strikes, but professing ignorance of the killing by the platoons. As to personal actions, he admitted only to the shooting, in instinctive self-defense as he described it, of one mortally wounded Vietnamese woman whose movement he caught out of his peripheral vision as his command group moved through the village. As to his briefing the night before, it is agreed that he actively talked up the impending mission to the company as a chance to get even for their dead and wounded buddies. Testimony was divided on whether he authorized in advance the killing of civilians. There is general agreement that, if he did not tell the soldiers of Company C to kill anyone they saw the next day, he gave them the firm impression that anyone they saw the next day could be considered the enemy and killed. One can debate endlessly, as did hordes of investigators and lawyers, over the fine legal points of such ambiguity in the message but not its results. It had primed a large number of men to commit mass murder.

But even now the larger massacre story is incompletely told. There was also another full company of infantry on the ground elsewhere in the My Lai complex that morning, getting off helicopters within sound of Charlie Company’s rampage already in progress. B Company of the 1/20th, it was the second main component that day of Task Force Barker, commanded by a lieutenant colonel of that name who had been running it as an independent unit for several weeks. It too had gotten a briefing the night before similar to Medina’s from its commander, a captain named Michles, with the basic message that any Vietnamese encountered the next day could be considered the enemy; and it too, once on the ground, quickly began murdering large numbers of Vietnamese civilians. Claims have been made that its part of the massacre began with shooting at Vietnamese under the impression that the Charlie Company gunfire was part of an enemy attack. More certain is the fact that one of its platoons, after witnessing the death of nearby platoon leader and several of his men in a booby trap explosion, shortly undertook under the active direction of its own lieutenant, an additional campaign of murder, adding at least 100 more civilians to the day’s total. Ironically, then, it is in the lesser known mass murders at My Lai, that we come closest to any picture of collective psychological breakdown. On the other hand, testimony about the pre-mission briefing again suggests a unit being prepared to kill people on sight. “There was a general conception,” recalled Michles’ personal radio operator, “that we were going to destroy everything.”

If there was a “breakdown,” then, at My Lai, somehow it encompassed not just one but two full companies of infantry, commanded by captains, as part of a task force commanded by a lieutenant colonel, with substantial numbers of soldiers giving themselves over to the slaughtering of unarmed women, children, and old men during a period of several hours in which they did not receive a single round of enemy fire. Accordingly, the emphasis on mob identification and common outlawry here leads to a second major hypothesis frequently ventured about the My Lai massacre as largely attributable to a failure of leadership at every level from the platoon up to the division and back. This idea contains perhaps a greater amount of truth. But to understand it fully, one conversely has to go back and start in the ranks. One point everyone agrees on—in itself close to a death sentence for discipline in any unit facing combat—is that there seems to have been close to an absolute vacuum of traditional, professionalized non-commissioned officer leadership. Medina had a first sergeant with 18 years experience; but in accord with fairly common practice in Vietnam, he seems not to have been in the field. In contrast, the other NCOs with the platoons, few in number and relatively young and inexperienced, all seem to have partaken of the disastrously common unit mentality in a way that made them fairly indistinguishable from their enlisted counterparts. To be sure, the absence of experienced senior NCOs was a problem common to the Vietnam army by early 1968, particularly in the infantry, where professional cadres had already experienced the attrition of death, wounds, age, and multiple tours of service. Here, it proved uniquely catastrophic. For in the newly arrived 11th Infantry Brigade, not only were most of the handful of NCOs with the two companies unsure and untested; so were all the enlisted men. Much reproach was leveled at the time and later at an in-country replacement policy system in Vietnam whereby units were regularly filled out after losses and rotations by men totally new to combat, thrown into the field after minimal in-country training with the hope basically of surviving long enough to learn from their experienced squad and platoon mates. Here, ironically, that maligned system might have supplied at lest minimal leadership in the ranks, with a cohort sufficiently acquainted with the fears and frustrations of combat over a period of time to provide an example of experienced restraint. Instead, to a man, one of the least combat-ready formations imaginable for the kind of fighting generally encountered by the Americans throughout Vietnam was cast into arguably one of the most difficult areas of operation in the war.

As to the officers of the units involved on the ground, to a man they weren’t just bad. They were terrible. To be sure, Calley led the list. He was the laughing stock of Charlie Company. In the platoon, his men didn’t know whether to ignore him or kill him. He was an incompetent and a pariah, under attack from both above and below, who tried to mask his insecurities with unconvincing explosions of rage. The resultant buffoonery was further packaged back into the blustering and strutting often characteristic of the little man in the military, the proverbial shortround. Nor was any of this helped by the company commander’s unrelenting mockery of him in front of his men, who consistently heard him addressed as “young thing,” “sweetheart,” or “Lieutenant shithead.”

If Calley led the officer disaster list, however, it was just barely. In lieutenants, as already suggested above, Company C at large could count only degrees of bad. Meanwhile, the company commander, Captain Ernest Medina, compounded his officer-subordinates’ weaknesses by treating them all as incompetent fools and foils, while frequently buddying around with the enlisted men. A former enlisted soldier and NCO himself, he seems to have performed well in officer candidate school, and he had a good training record with the company in Hawaii. In Vietnam, however, he quickly reaped the consequences of running all three platoons like a ganglord. With their own lieutenants in charge, they invariably performed poorly. When all discipline vanished among the lead platoons during the first few minutes that morning in My Lai 4, it was an uncontrolled meltdown.

III

We know less about Company B, except to say that the commander, Michles, on the basis of the parallel mission briefings and the subsequent conduct of the unit on the ground, seems to have been of Medina’s sort. It was also, since joining Task Force Barker, a unit with a history of brutality. This was the testimony of another captain, the commander of the third unit initially assigned to the ad hoc formation, A Company, 1/20th, who a month before My Lai had found himself alarmed by Medina’s loose discipline and of Michles’ tendency to fire indiscriminately at Vietnamese as a way of getting body count. A West Pointer, by his own accounting considered “uptight” by his troops, amidst the endless “dirty” war of sniping and booby traps waged by the enemy, as commander of A Company he insisted on strict rules of engagement and restrained the unit from abusing Vietnamese in search of information or as a way of venting their fear and anger. Accordingly, he testified, in contrast to Medina and Michles, he got a reputation for “not looking after his men.” In Barker’s eyes, he also got a reputation for hesitation and uncooperativeness, with a result that A Company became increasingly distanced from the task force core operations. For his pains, the third captain got a bullet in the back during a firefight in mid-February. The general assumption was that one of his own soldiers shot him. Whatever the caliber of his leadership or the manner of his wounding, any veteran of A company who was alive a month later must surely reverence their brief association with him. When Barker planned and executed the new task force mission for March 16, he was at pains to make sure the less than reliable Company A was left behind.

In fact, then, we know now the only thing differentiating the two companies present at My Lai by the end of the killing on March 16 was the sheer volume of the murders committed by the runaway Calley platoon. What prevents us from knowing too much more is that the C Company killings were so egregious that “the other massacre,” as it came to be called, never really got much attention even after later investigations brought it to light. Michles was killed a few months later in a helicopter crash. Also killed, as it happened, was Barker, by then promoted to command of a full battalion, who had chosen the former B Company commander to serve him as his intelligence officer.

As for that higher-ranking officer, remembered now to history for commanding the infamous task force bearing his name, at the time of My Lai he was an unassigned lieutenant colonel trying to make good in a war where literally hundreds of counterparts of the same rank were scrambling to get command time with official line battalions, let alone odd, off-the-wall formations like this. In gaining such an assignment, he seems to have enjoyed the particular favor of the Americal Division Commander, a two-star general named Samuel Koster, with the 1/20th infantry elements of the task force—more than half the battalion—summarily snatched from the official unit commander, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin Beers, who was reduced to operating with one line company and a recon-heavy weapons unit. Barker quickly seems to have created his own war as well, suddenly racking up body counts that became the envy of the division. On the afternoon before My Lai, he too had met with his staff and subordinates, including, most crucially, the two ground company commanders, for a briefing about their newest mission. Again, there is no evidence that his exhortations to “neutralize” the objective included authorization to kill any Vietnamese in sight. Notably, however, at this particular meeting, information provided by the task force intelligence officer included an assurance that all civilians would be out of My Lai by seven o’clock in the morning, obviously allowing the two captains actually conducting the ground assault to infer—and presumably to convey the inference to their troops—that anyone left there should be considered the military enemy. As to approval of the mission from his immediate superior in the chain of command, Barker could not have been more sure of the support of the new brigade commander, a full colonel named Oran K. Henderson. He had in fact flown personally to Task Force Barker headquarters that day and had honored the briefing group with a prefatory pep talk, urging increased aggressiveness in closing with the enemy and destroying his capacity to operate any longer as a military threat. By gross mischance, he had taken command of the brigade a few hours earlier, determined to prove himself worthy of the division commander’s confidence in the high-level command assignment that during three years’ previous service in Vietnam he had been frustratingly denied.

Meanwhile, Koster, a Major General, ran his division—itself in existence as a unit for only five months—as if it had a traditional, well-established identification and command structure like that of veteran Vietnam counterparts such as the 1st Infantry, the 25th Infantry, the 101st Airborne, or the First Air Cav, when the Americal—with the name itself resurrected from World War II Pacific lore—was in fact a field expedient, a grab bag, as noted earlier, parading as a fusion, of three separate, light infantry brigades, all of them rushed into existence for service in Vietnam and themselves of uneven, disparate leadership and experience. An ambitious careerist, with a great opinion of his aptitude for Olympian overviews, on one hand he seems to have run a headquarters operating at an unusual distance from subordinate commands. On the other hand, when he felt like it—most disastrously in the case of Task Force Barker—he too fractured the chain of command to facilitate personal projects, overleaping the conventional brigade structure to allow Barker independent command, as the task force organization took Medina and Michles out of the traditional battalion command structure, as Medina in particular seems to have taken his lieutenants out of the traditional company command organization, and so forth down the line to the rampaging mob of rapists and murderers on the ground.

For anyone who remembers how quickly any combat action in Vietnam from the squad level up could turn into a command and communications nightmare both on the ground and above, there can be little surprise at how the hot-wired arrangement of March 16 began acting itself out with grim predictability as the slaughter got started. Echelons of helicopters hovered above the battlefield, with a progression of officers—the task force executive officer, the task force commander, the brigade commander—micromanaging in the air above, demanding reports, shouting orders, insuring in the customary squad-leader-in-the-sky fashion that command radio frequencies would be filled with confused and frequently conflicting information. The killing of civilians was a repeated subject of radio traffic, with Barker landing in one case to engage Medina in a shouted argument on the topic. As is known to readers of the historical literature, in another instance a heroic helicopter pilot from an aviation unit flying in support of the operation, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson also reported over the air about what clearly looked to him like a massacre, actually landing at one point to rescue wounded Vietnamese and threatening to have his door gunners open fire on U.S. soldiers if they continued trying to kill unarmed people. Meanwhile, over the infantry channels, from the platoon and company level up to brigade and division and then back down again, confusion locked in like a firewall so that truthful reporting could be avoided and responsibility, then and later, suitably befuddled. Some perfunctory inquiries were made at the brigade and division level about civilian casualties. Flying over Medina’s position as he returned to division headquarters on the night of March 16, Koster, taking the unusual step for a division commander of radioing an individual company commander on the ground, tried to draw him out on precise numbers of civilian casualties. Medina stuck to his earlier story of 20 or 25 mistakenly killed by air and artillery support. Koster replied: “that seems about right.” A day or so later, Henderson was also on the ground as C Company returned to brigade base camp, anxiously walking to and fro and questioning individual soldiers getting off helicopters about any unusual killing of civilians. Thompson, the helicopter pilot, registered an official protest about one of the killings he had witnessed. It went through the aviation chain of command. By this time, at brigade and division level, the “investigation” had retooled itself as a cover-up. Thompson’s account duly arrived nowhere.

IV

If anything, the days and months following My Lai saw its primary command participants actively prospering in the Army rewards system. As noted, at the time of their deaths three months later, Barker had been given a battalion of his own, and Michles, the B Company commander, had been selected to join him as his intelligence officer. Medina was sent back to Fort Benning for the Infantry officer’s career course, a necessary step toward promotion to major. Calley eventually went on to other duties, actually being allowed to extend his combat tour for assignments including, of all things, a civil affairs staff position and some long-range patrol duty—the latter usually reserved for only the most expert and reliable field soldiers. Henderson joined the headquarters staff at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, pending his assignment to the faculty of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. And for his Americal duty, Koster was rewarded by his superiors with the prize position of superintendent of West Point, in the tradition of McArthur, Westmoreland, and others, almost a sure preliminary to ultimate selection as chief of staff.

This picture of actual reward for atrocity and cover-up of war crime leads us to the largest supposition frequently ventured about the massacre and its continuing moral centrality to American memory of the Vietnamese war: that, despite its astonishing and horrifying magnitude, it was in a many ways a microcosm, an abstract or epitome, of the American way of war in Vietnam. And in many ways, one must admit, this may be the one that comes closest to the truth: that, attempting to fight a guerrilla war, in which an indigenous enemy continuously hid itself among a civilian population of dubious loyalty to a U.S. supported government, the employment of massive firepower, including the indiscriminate use of artillery and air strikes, coupled with the policy of body count as measure of combat success, had ultimately led to a My Lai over a trail of years in which every day in the war yielded a record of civilian deaths ranging from the individual to the many. Stories were openly reported in the press about high-ranking officers going “gook-hunting” in their command helicopters; about pilots and door gunners shooting people on the ground because they tried to run; about commanders electing to destroy villages in order to “save” them. It is the rare personal narrative of the war that does not involve some particular moment of confrontation with an awareness of the sufferings and deaths of civilians. Likewise, almost every Vietnam novel seems to contain a core of atrocity—some distinct, specifiable scene of horror: a rape; a murder; the torture of prisoners; or turning them over to the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN, which was the moral equivalent. To be sure, all throughout the war, no matter what the area of operations, Americans in combat tried to honor rules of engagement, in many cases even to rescue civilians, sometimes paying with their bodies and their lives for the effort. The fact remains that, according to what now seem to be reliable figures, of the possibly 4 million North and South Vietnamese who died in the war, at least one million were South Vietnamese civilians—killed at the rate of 100,000 per year.

For all this, we still struggle hopelessly to comprehend what a particular unit of American soldiers did to a particular population of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai village complex on March 16, 1968. Indeed, we do so to the degree that one would be almost relieved to find in it some dreadful convergence of the fates, everything that was wrong with the American conduct of the war somehow achieving critical mass in one concentrated horror. One version of the story would then go like this: frustrated and enraged by the deaths and mutilations of comrades by sniper bullets and booby-traps, an ill-disciplined, trigger-happy task force of two infantry companies from probably the worst brigade of the worst division in Vietnam, is given a mission where they are led to believe they will finally get revenge on the unseen enemy. One, going in by air assault amidst preparatory air and artillery strikes, by gross mischance is spearheaded by a platoon led by the worst lieutenant in the army; by equally gross mischance; the other, landing a short distance away, immediately loses an officer and several men to yet another booby trap. Encountering in both cases no enemy, but only the usual sullen civilians, significant numbers of soldiers snap, going wild with torturing, raping, and killing on a scale that even the most inspired anti-war activist could not have dreamed.

But there is also a parallel version equally proximate, markedly cynical, and, if possible, even more ghastly. That story would go like this: the newly formed Americal Division is given the mission of eliminating Viet Cong domination in Quang Ngai province, for decades a notorious Communist stronghold. The Division commander, a major general on the career fast track, understands that he has been given the opportunity to solve a problem that has defied his American predecessors and, for that matter, the French before them. Unfortunately, one of his brigades is making no progress toward the mission because of a civilian infestation problem of VC sympathizers in a crucial cluster of hamlets. He finds a possible solution under his nose in a task force he has previously authorized as an operational command for a favorite younger officer—a protege with an already endearing trait of combining flashy results with dubious methods. Although fairly inexperienced, elements of the new command have been posting significant body count, albeit with a notable absence of enemy weapons and materiel recovered on the battlefield. The clear implication must be, then, that Barker has imbued his unit with an attitude of killing fairly indiscriminately, on the basis that “mistakes” can always be added to body count. Accordingly, the general realizes he has probably found just the people to take care of the infestation problem—”neutralization” is the operative term—with substantial confidence that whatever they do will never be questioned, let alone investigated.

The problem with both of these stories is that they are the same story. One simply emphasizes a systemic “psychological” hypothesis, denying much command responsibility. Given a certain way of waging war, with a certain kind of unit, no matter who was in charge, something like this was bound to happen. The other does just the opposite, investing the butchering mob with the status of hapless pawns, scapegoats, even victims. As will be seen, both versions locked quickly into effect during subsequent investigations and the few legal proceedings that ever took place.

As to the cover up, just about the only response possible for someone with any knowledge of the infantry war in Vietnam is angry incredulity that anyone could have thought it would work. I lived in that world for a year, and I know. For every small unit commander on the ground, the chain of command on a given day really did operate through literal echelons of rank above the battlefield with radios blaring in every direction. Within minutes of possible combat, the air space above could be filled with helicopters, a major orbiting below a lieutenant colonel orbiting below a colonel orbiting below a general, with each on company and/or platoon radio frequencies contending for direction of captains, lieutenants, sergeants, and privates. The name of the war, particularly in the body count sweepstakes, was micromanagement. As to the men at the top of the immediate micromanagement combine that day, we know definitively that Henderson, Barker, Barker’s executive officer, and various artillery, aviation, and staff liaison officers were on station above the massacre area more or less continuously, jamming the air with their own radio transmissions and listening to those of others, not a few of them, it turns out, directly concerning civilian casualties. We do not know what Koster heard. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that everyone else from the division near a radio in the immediate vicinity could not not have heard about what was going on, listening on innumerable handsets and headsets or monitoring the speakers filling every command bunker and radio room within miles. There are a lot of things a person remembers about combat in Vietnam. One of the most unforgettable is the cacophonous rush, no matter really where one was or what one was doing at the time, of nonstop radio traffic. Especially in combat, everybody is trying to talk to everybody else. Everybody carrying an infantry radio on the ground or riding a tank or armored personnel carrier hears it; artillery support people hear it; helicopter pilots and door gunners hear it; tactical operations center headquarters duty officers, NCOs, and enlisted staff hear it; orderly room clerks hear it. One may surmise that hundreds of people heard something about what was happening at My Lai that morning while it was happening—including, most notably mentioned about the day in question by those interviewed afterward, something about Americans troops threatening to kill other American troops if they didn’t stop killing Vietnamese civilians.

Whatever went into the battalion, brigade, or division log that night, 1000 people thus knew their own version. And as to the G.I. information network itself, the one thing I can also say is this: soldiers wearing the patch of a particular unit know what is happening in that unit and what has previously happened in that unit; they hear about it and they talk about it; and they pass it on to the soldiers who come after them. One of the first things pointed out to me when I assumed command of my platoon was the hole in the gunshield from the rocket-propelled grenade that killed a predecessor of mine several lieutenants back in the battle for Saigon during Tet. That was more than a year earlier. The same people knew that the grunts who fought beside the troop in the Cholon race track that day had been the 3/7th Infantry. They could also tell me what was happening with the same battalion now even though it was detached and operating with the 9th Division down in the Delta. Soldiers know. Soldiers remember. And soldiers talk. It is no surprise to any veteran that it was a relatively low-ranking enlisted man, a Specialist Fourth Class from another unit in the Division, after hearing endless talk about what he called the “dark deeds” of task force Barker, who sent the letters that commenced the congressional investigation that in turn launched the army inquiry and judicial proceedings that made the My Lai massacre public knowledge. General Colin Powell alleges in his memoirs that, as the acting Americal Division G-3 in mid-1969—himself a hot young major plucked by the commanding general from a backwater assignment as executive officer of the notorious 1/20—it was he who first encountered mysterious investigators requesting access to divisional combat records for March 1968. He says that only when pointed queries led him back through the operations log for specific dates did the March 16 figure of 128 “jump out at him.” If that was true, all I can say is that he should have been talking to more of the Spec 4s and the PFCs. They would have known.

And so, with a massive new official investigation, this time headed by a lieutenant general and a staff of hundreds, did the history of massacre at My Lai run all the way up the chain of the command one last time and then all the way back down, with 14 officers initially charged. Absolutely providential for virtually everyone involved, of course, was the death of Barker in June 1968. Thereby both Koster and Henderson could claim successfully that others could be blamed for false reporting at the time of the massacre and self-protective coverup in the aftermath. Charges against middle level staff officers likewise could be passed off on the deceased colonel. The death of Michles in the same helicopter crash with Barker also took him out of the picture and further obscured whatever communications he had had with his subordinates and his role on the ground at My Lai 1. Barker’s death also protected Medina to some degree, although much evidence also existed to connect him with the much more widely publicized atrocities committed by Company C. Medina managed to get by for several reasons. First, he could say that he was only repeating Barker’s somewhat ambiguous instructions. Second, his long service as an NCO had trained him in a cardinal rule of reporting: once you have lied to a superior, do not change your story. The 20—25 “estimate” of civilians allegedly killed by air and artillery stuck. Most important for Medina was the legal and a public relations advantage he shared with all the other junior officers, NCOs, and enlisted men implicated in the murders. They all had Calley, despised and ridiculous, the lieutenant without a clue.

Of all the Americans involved in My Lai, only the feckless first platoon leader of Company C was convicted in court. Found guilty of the deaths of 19 Vietnamese, he spent roughly four years under house arrest. Along the way he found a kind of absurd celebrity. He became a hero of the diehard right, honored by patriotic organizations and a personal visit from George Wallace. He drove around in a white Mercedes provided by a supporter and had a brief go at the lecture circuit. There were human interest stories about his girlfriend and his gentle way with pets. There was the National Lampoon caricature, not to mention the truly appalling Esquire cover shot with the smiling Asiatic children. Eventually he was paroled by the president of the United States. The country let the lieutenant slide into domestic obscurity. For the most part, everyone fervently hoped that he would take the massacre along with him.

For a time, the general wish for amnesia was forestalled by the ongoing visibility of a substantial literature of investigation. This had begun with the journalistic inquiries of Seymour Hersh and others that had first brought the massacre to light and continued, with considerable media coverage, through the official investigation and trial phases. Hersh eventually wrote two major books, the first about the massacre and the second about the coverup. There followed the official findings of the Peers commission, with a text of 6500 pages. These were summarized, along with the history of the court martial proceedings and eventual disposition of individual cases, in a 1976 volume, The My Lai Massacre and Its Cover-Up: Beyond the Reach of Law? More than a decade then ensued, however, before an important 1992 text, Four Hours in My Lai, following from a BBC documentary shown in the U.S. in 1989, undertook a significant re-evaluation and updating of previous information. A symposium was held at Tulane University in 1994, followed by a 1998 volume of proceedings, entitled Facing My Lai, and involving major figures ranging from G.I. Ron Ridenour and journalist Seymour Hersh, who first brought the massacre to official attention, and the historians George Herring, Marilyn Young, and Harry Summers, Jr., to such seasoned authorities on the war as David Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest, and Robert Jay Lifton, who formulated the concept of traumatic stress disorder. Of particular interest to veterans in the latter connection were the reflections of the writer Tim O’Brien—himself a combat infantry veteran of the Americal Division in Quang Ngai province—who has dealt with My Lai extensively in his writing, including his most disturbing novel, In the Lake of the Woods. Uncannily prophetic of the subsequent revelations by medal-of-honor winner Robert Kerry’s that he had participated in a mission where civilians were murdered, it concerns the mysterious disappearance of a candidate for the U.S. Senate, an unhinged Vietnam veteran, who may or may not have brutally murdered his spouse and disposed of her corpse at a remote cabin in the North Woods, in the wake of his shattering election defeat. The mystery is deepened by the reason for his loss of the election: he has been revealed literally to have airbrushed his history, including his official army records, so as to eliminate evidence of his presence at the My Lai massacre.

The opening of official diplomatic relations between the United States and the Republic of Vietnam in the last decade has further helped to keep the memory of My Lai alive. The site itself, maintained by the Vietnamese government as a memorial, has become a kind of requisite station of the cross for everyone from returning veterans and journalists to travel writers. More importantly, new possibilities of historical reporting and documentation now include access to numerous Vietnamese accounts of the massacre, at last supplying in sorrowful detail individual names and life histories to go with those Life magazine photos of three decades ago. It may seem not the least of the grim moral mysteries of a massacre that took place almost 35 years ago, one is tempted to say, that individual Vietnamese turn out to have had names, faces, families, village histories while their excecutioners now fade further and further into old age and common cultural obloquy. At the same time, however, one must remember that such a particular idea of communing with the individual dead is also something very Vietnamese. We have no English word for xa, the Vietnamese term that comes closest to village. As Frances Fitzgerald revealed to us in Fire in the Lake, the nearest translation would be “the place where people come together to worship the spirits.”

As for the American lieutenant whose surname eventually became synonymous with the massacre, he is a short, fat, bald guy in his late 50’s. In a recent picture I’ve seen, he scuttles along like a little old man. I am told he now has a gray mustache. If he is the guy I saw in the picture, it must have the odd effect of some strange little theatrical disguise, something he puts on in the morning so no one will notice that he is really William Calley. For a long time, as I went through the months of reading and writing it took to produce a text I had decided to call “Calley’s Ghost,” I wrestled with a strange instinct that told me I would finally have to get closure on all this by tracking him down and finding him, probably at the V.V. Vick Jewelry Store, at the Cross Plaza Shopping Mall, in Columbus, Georgia, around three hours by car from where I live. It was just something I had to do, I kept telling myself. I had to go see and know that he existed, that I could actually look at him and remember after all these years that he was real. I had to see Calley and remember that the terrible things he and his platoon did, along with the rest of Task Force Barker, were real.

I did not do that. Perhaps it would have given a nice melodramatic bump to the connection between experience and memory here, an autobiographical moment at last conflating personal and cultural reflection. For just that reason, I saw the idea finally, I believe, for what it was: a waste. I did not have enough time left in the life that has been vouchsafed to me since I came home from Vietnam to spend even a day driving somewhere and stalking William Calley. More importantly, I did not have enough time left in my life to spend a single day away from my family, my friends, and my students, stalking William Calley.

My business was not with Calley, in any event. It was with Calley’s ghost. To put this another way, the person I was looking for was not William Calley. It was me. If I changed Calley from a specter into a person, so much the better. But what I was really trying to find was my way of facing it, this problem of Calley’s ghost that I finally share with every other Vietnam war veteran who once served in any kind of leadership role with a platoon or company-sized unit in combat. He is forever identified with us; and we are forever identified with him. We can say that he should never have been an officer; that he should never have been given responsibility for a platoon; that he should have received the most severe sentence possible under the law for his crimes; that he never should have been pardoned, let alone by Nixon of all people. Along with Vietnam combatants generally, although we probably do not say it, we also resent the fact that, in public memory, he and others participating in the massacre and the coverup are now considered more or less ordinary veterans—that, as far as anyone knows or cares after all these years, one of them could just as easily be one of us. That, however, is not the thought that really haunts us. The thought that haunts us forever, of course, is that we could once have been them, participants in a horror that now stands as a byword with Wounded Knee, Lidice, Babi Yar. For our sanity, we say no to that thought. We say no even to listening for the whisper that says we could have been part of such a thing. We try not to go back and feel for even the possibility of what Tim O’Brien calls “the sizzle in the blood.” It isn’t there, we say. It was never there, we tell ourselves: I know I was never, ever, while there, like that. Our parents, wives, children, aunts and uncles, friends and lovers, all want to believe this. We who served in combat want to believe this with all our hearts. Meanwhile, stalking death again, we find ourselves in our 50’s and 60’s beginning to get old, partaking of the general invisibility.

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George's picture
George · 3 years ago

I served in the infantry platoon of an Air Cavalry troop attached to the Americal division. I was in the My Lai village complex more than once. 

I remember being extracted from there once and taking fire as we flew over one of the villes and that being one of the few times I conciously hated the VC. The rest of the time they were just the dinks.

I think I know what the author was saying. Though it doesn't apply just to soldiers who fought in Vietnam. And that is if you're in combat long enough and often enough there's no telling what will happen. Enough said.

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