Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line


At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions


Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists


‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam


‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6

Rusty Calley: His Follies and Fortunes

The Courtmartial of Lieutenant Calley by Charles Hammer Coward, McCann and Geoghehan 396 pp. $7.95

By Garrett Epps

Rusty Calley has evoked unpleasant responses from almost all elements of American society: professional members of the silent majority have organized to make him a hero, professional liberals have propagandized to turn him into a leper, the military has contrived to blame him for conceiving, organizing, and carrying out the assault on My Lai 4 almost single-handedly, the President has intervened to make political hay.

At first glance, the most distressing response has been the enshrinement of Calley as a hero: the "Free Calley" rallies, buttons, and bumperstickers, the pro-Calley songs, the flimsy Calley magazines. But the response of most liberal media has been at least as wrongheaded: journals such as Time (always the most reliable index of what mistakes the country's liberal center is making) have from the start portrayed Calley as a half-mad, sub-normal robot, a kill-crazed misfit who took out all the frustrations of a life of failure and rejection on the people of one South Vietnamese hamlet. News accounts have played up Calley's lack of command ability, his feelings of inferiority, the supposed unfitness of his whole platoon. The campaign to make Calley into stupid sub-human reached its absurd climax three weeks ago in an essay by William Styron in the New York Times Book Review in which Styron compares Calley to Eichmann, and with this smug analogy, casts the full blame on him for what happened at My Lai.

But the people, as we have noted, are not impressed: thousands have rallied to his defense, and many who haven't--those who do not support the proto-fascist pro war movement led by Carl MacIntyre and George Wallace--still feel that Calley has gotten a raw deal, and that his courtmartial was not a good idea. It is the children of the poor and of the lower middle class who fight the war, die in it, and bear its scars; the people who sympathize with Calley do so, in large part, because they have known men who have been faced with decisions like Calley's.

In fact, it seems that everyone but the liberal center understands that the Vietnam war is massacre and senseless slaughter: that what happened at My Lai was a product of many decisions and historical forces, and that, whatever Calley's contribution, it was small indeed, compared with what had gone before.

The My Lai massacre became part of our national psyche by a number of coincidences: that one honest man--Ron Ridenhour--was troubled enough by reports of what had happened there to write letters and make speeches calling for an investigation: that a courageous and unbelievably persistent reporter--Seymour Hersh--was enterprising enough to see what a three-paragraph press release from the Army might mean and to devote more than a year of his life to tracking down that meaning: that an Army photographer had saved color photographs of the killing which could burn the truth of the reports into our national mind. It was a fluke of history, really, which turned the operation by Company C, First Battalion, Third Infantry on March 16, 1968 from a routine operation into the symbol of the war for millions of people here and broad.

But the elevation of My Lai from routine to scandal to archetype took a decision from the nation, its press and its people. And the massacre became important because it was a human act, one committed by individual human beings with M-16s, bayonets, and grenade launchers, confronting a group of Vietnamese on the ground. Horror though it was, the massacre was more palatable than the real horror of the war, which is the mechanization of slaughter, the progressive removal of any elements of the human will from the act of killing. To confront Charlie Company was to confront a group of men who had been faced with decisions and made them badly: to confront the B-52 and the electronic battlefield was to realize that America had institutionalized war almost to the point that no individual could change it in any detail.

And so, to millions, Calley became slaughter, the American way of war. He was the last, enfeebled exemplar of the tradition of George Armstrong Custer and the other missionaries who civilized North America, Hawaii, and the Philippines by killing as many of the original tenants as it took to keep them quiet. That he was not of heroic stature--that one could be, at most, ambivalent about him--fit in with the antiheroic age in which we seemed to be trapped.

And the powers that had created My Lai gladly left Calley to symbolize their way of war. The Army which fights with nauseating gas, white phosphorus, napalm, fragmentation bombs, and dum-dum bullets tried and convicted Calley. Medina was acquitted, Koster was reprimanded, Henderson will get off: Johnson, Rostow, Bundy, and MacNamara are above suspicion. In the center is Rusty Calley. He did it. He did it all.

John Sack's book focuses on Calley the individual, and it helps to dispell some of the more comforting liberal myths about the man. If we can believe that Calley is sub-normal, retarded, and robotic, we can comfort ourselves that his decisions were aberrations and that we could never be led to be like him. Sack interviewed Calley on and off for more than a hundred days, and he has constructed this book out of fragments of Calley's own sentences. Sack says in his introduction that "I liked being with Lieutenant Calley. To me he seemed sensible, intelligent if intelligence lies in the life examined, sensitive, sincere...." Sack's editing of the transcript, however, does not make Calley come across as the bright, likeable fellow whom he, perhaps, intended to portray. Calley is confused, tentative, and reluctant to draw any conclusions, to accept or give blame for what happened at My Lai. But he is normal, as intelligent and humorous as the next fellow, and aware. At times, he is even appealing, as when he satirizes the reporters who pursue him, asking him to explain himself in twenty-second film clips: "Lieutenant Calley! Did you really kill all those women and children?" "Lieutenant Calley! How does it feel it kill women and children?" "Lieutenant Calley! Are you sorry you couldn't have killed more women and children?" "Lieutenant Calley! If you could go back to kill more women and children." Calley is, in short, the fellow next door, who made a massive wrong decision on at least one occasion, but made it for human reasons which he can understand, and, after a fashion, explain, though he is still not sure what to make of it.

Unfortunately, Calley is not eloquent enough--nor is the editing skillful enough--to allow the book to serve the only useful purpose it could have. Calley as an individual is not all that important in the story of the Vietnam war: but Sack's book could have helped us grapple with My Lai if it had more definitely killed the Calley mystique, and made it clear that Calley is wholly within the American experience. The book as it stands is still readily susceptible to willful misreadings such as that of Styron, who saw it as further evidence that Calley was a malevolent, unrepentant destroyer whose evil could be contained only by imprisonment. Calley, the individual, is much less singular than that.

What is the nature of what Calley did at My Lai on one specific day? To Calley--and to Sack, who wrote an earlier book, M, on the conduct of the American infantry during operations against the people of Vietnam--it is nothing exceptional. In the book, Calley states that when he was first called in and told that he was under investigation for his actions at My Lai, he thought that the Army was referring to an operation he had taken part in six months later. If we can believe him and Sack, what we have come to think of as The Massacre was just a typical day in the war.

Certainly many thousands of Vietnamese died from American actions on March 16, 1968--from bombs, defoliants, mines, aerial fire and artillery shelling: from mechanized attacks fully as monstrous and illegal as Calley's actions. But, as Hammer's book makes clear, the Army made every effort to consider Calley's actions as if they took place in a vacuum: as if Task Force Barker had taken off from a landing zone in a serene Vietnam to guide it, and only the Nuremberg principles to go by. The Army's prosecutor Capt. Aubrey Daniel, asked the judge early in the courtmartial, "We are presenting evidence at this time of a limited nature on one specific act of which Lieutenant Calley is charged. How is it relevant to bring in acts of misconduct by other people?" When this objection was overruled, he darkly warned. "The defense is going to broaden this whole thing. They want to bring in the acts of others, acts committed in different places, acts committed at different times, acts of a different nature, acts committed by different people."

In his pretentious but useful book, Hammer documents the failure of Calley's defense to discuss meaningfully any of the other circles of guilt which surround the hamlet of My Lai 4. Defense lawyers alternately argued that everyone else had done the same thing, that artillery and bombs had done the real killing, that Calley had been following orders that he believed to be lawful, that Calley really hadn't killed anybody, that Calley had killed people but that he was not responsible for his actions. Except for a few small victories (such as getting into the record the fact that every bullet fired by an M-16 is a dum-dum, and, as such, a war crime) they failed to spread the circle of guilt. Instead, through inadequate preparation and sloppy procedure, they underscored facts pointing to the only real indication of Calley's guilt: that other men at My Lai 4 had simply decided not to do what Calley did, even when ordered to do so. This guilt cannot be denied--faced with a rational, specific situation, and free to choose. Calley chose to murder. Other people may be guilty, but Calley cannot be wholly innocent.

But the court which affirmed this guilt was a curious one. The prosecutor, a brilliant young lawyer just starting his career, had never been to Vietnam. The jury, however, was wholly made up of high-ranking veterans of our criminal war, men who had been at home with free-fire zones, zippo squads, and search and destroy. That Calley was found guilty is certainly a sign that, influenced by an eloquent and implacable prosecutor, they decided that Calley had gone too far. But it was also a sign that they were under tremendous pressure to do something about the massacre, to show the American people that, though we might conduct a brutal war of aggression in violation of every principle of international law, we were still a nation which lived by laws and could not ignore evidence of crime. As Hammer says, "(The courtmartial) was, then, a show conducted for the world by Americans," a sop thrown to our conscience: "If, though, Calley were convicted, then at least a measure of blame would have been assessed and through his conviction there would be an acknowledgment, however small, that My Lai, and perhaps other, smaller My Lais, perhaps even the war itself, was indeed an unspeakable act."

Perhaps. And such is the tawdry relativism to which life in the United States has pushed us that we can neither approve Calley's imprisonment nor favor his release: for to him has been assigned a measure of real guilt, though he was tried under a law that was never observed and found guilty by a court of lunatics.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.