The Calley Apology: What Does It Mean?

We welcome a guest post today from historian and Vietnam veteran Ron Milam, author of Not a Gentleman’s War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War. In his book, Milam debunks the view of the junior officer typified by Lt. William Calley of My Lai infamy, demonstrating instead that most of the lieutenants who served in combat performed their duties well and effectively, serving with great skill, dedication, and commitment to the men they led. Ten days ago, for the first time since his court martial and 1971 conviction on 22 counts of murder for the My Lai massacre, Lt. Calley offered a public apology for his actions. Below is Milam’s response to the news.–ellen

Now that several days have passed since the story broke about former Lt. Calley’s apology for his role in the 1968 My Lai massacre, we can now reflect on what this story means to a world that may have forgotten the Vietnam War. Unless you are a scholar of that war, as I am, or a veteran of that war, as I am, or unless you are over the age of 55, the story might not mean much to you. The history books tell us that on March 16, 1968, C Company of the 1st Battalion of the 20th Infantry Regiment of the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal) entered the hamlet of My Lai (4) in Quang Nghai Province, in South Vietnam and in a period of four hours, conducted a military operation that resulted in the deaths of between 400 and 500 noncombatants. Most of the dead were women, children, babies, and old men. Only one American was wounded, either by accident or by a self-inflicted gunshot. Lt. Calley was the only soldier convicted for his role in the massacre, and he was sentenced to life in prison, later to be commuted by President Nixon. He served approximately three years on house arrest.

The response to this news has been predictable. Those who remember the war, or have studied it, and believe that it was the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, are sometimes referred to as orthodox historians, and they tend to sympathize with Calley and do not believe he needs to apologize. He was, as they believe, just following orders, albeit unlawful orders. Their mantra would be that if Calley needs to apologize for his behavior, then all of us who served should also apologize as we were all guilty of either inappropriate behavior at a minimum, or perhaps even war crimes.

For those who believe the Vietnam War was a noble cause, sometimes referred to as revisionist historians, Calley’s apology is seen as too little, too late because to them he represented the worst of those who served, and brought shame to those who served honorably.

Perhaps neither of these attitudes are based on factual information about Calley’s role at My Lai, but are typical of the strong divide between orthodox and revisionist historians: they each tend to take these positions because they know how the other side will respond. Not being in either “camp,” and having just published a book, Not a Gentleman’s War: an Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War, which deals extensively with Calley and My Lai, I want to respond to both groups.

First, Calley is often called a scapegoat. Calley did not “suffer the blame for others” as he was the only one in the hamlet who had the authority, over the 1st platoon, and who could have kept the killing from happening. Lt. Brooks, the platoon leader of the 2nd platoon, could have acted similarly but he was not prosecuted for his actions since he was killed as a result of stepping on a land mine a few weeks after the My Lai massacre.

Second, no killings took place by members of Calley’s platoon until he fired the first shots into a group of properly collected noncombatants who were being searched and secured by the platoon. His men were looking to him at that moment for leadership, and he failed the test.

Third, there is no record of a soldier in Vietnam having ever been prosecuted for refusing to obey an unlawful order. Since that standard had been set at Nuremburg after World War II, it had been taught to Calley and to all of us who had earned commissions as officers from West Point, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School (OCS). Either Calley didn’t believe the order to be unlawful, or he was afraid to challenge his commander, Captain Ernest Medina, for fear of punishment. All he had to do was tell his superior, who was not in the hamlet, that there were no armed inhabitants, that there were no men of fighting age, and that the hamlet had been secured. That conversation apparently never took place as Calley started executing women, children, and babies.

Another common theme of the revisionists is that Calley was representative of the poor quality soldier that made up the U.S. army and even the junior officer corps, as a result of the army lowering its standards to meet its manpower needs. This myth was perpetuated even by General William Westmoreland, although liaison teams from Ft. Benning reported positive evaluations of junior officers during their semiannual trips to the theater.

While it is true that Calley had tried to enlist in 1964 and had been rejected because of a punctured eardrum, he received his draft notice in 1966 and then enlisted to be a clerk. His scores on tests met the minimum requirement for acceptance into OCS at Ft. Benning, Georgia. The army had not lowered its standards to allow Calley and all like him to become candidates for commissions. These standards stayed the same throughout the war. And the attrition rate for OCS remained relatively constant at 30%, the highest of any other school. The army was doing its best to make certain that they were providing the best leaders possible since the lives of Americans would be at stake in a combat situation.

That Calley’s superiors and his peers in OCS did not recognize his leadership deficiencies is a tragedy, but we must recognize the burden that had been placed on the army to “ramp up” its program to supply officers to meet the needs of the build-up in forces in Vietnam. But the standards did not change. The “bad apple” did get through – one out of 35,000 who completed the program between 1965 and 1970.

So Calley’s apology does not resonate well with those of us who served, because for many he became the “poster boy” for junior officers. Based upon my research and experience, most of us were not like him and he should not be excused in any way for his illegal, unlawful actions. Perhaps he needs to issue his apology to those most affected, as was suggested by Pham Thanh Cong, curator of the museum and memorial at My Lai. Or to the family of CWO Hugh Thompson, who landed his chopper and confronted Calley at My Lai and threatened to kill Americans if the slaughter continued. An apology to those people might mean more than it does to the rest of the world.

Ron Milam
Texas Tech University