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A Standing Ovation: My Lai Redux

He’s an unrepentant mass murderer who (if I grasp Son of Sam laws correctly) is free to cash in on his crimes, and it would not be at all surprising to see him make the talk show rounds before joining a back to the Vietnam war reality show. Or maybe he’ll become the darling of the vulgar Vietnam War reenactor set that’s been making noise and headlines lately.

New America Media – On August 20, 2009, former US Army Lt. William Calley, who ordered the March 16, 1968, My Lai massacre during the US Vietnam war, ended over 40 years of silence and apologized for his actions at a Kiwanis Club gathering in Columbus, Ga. For that he received a standing ovation. 

Nothing about any war can be taken at face value, but the basic fact of the My Lai incident is that Calley and his troops murdered 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians – men, women and children. He was the only one convicted for any of the murders (22, though charged with 109), and he has always claimed he was simply following orders, as if that would excuse him. It is possible he was scapegoated to shield higher ups from being forced to answer for a crime that was the result of a policy of genocide, but his actions were those of a willing psychopath. 

Sentenced to life, his punishment was converted to house arrest by President Richard Nixon, and he was free within three years. All other participants got off scot-free.

Calley claimed in his Kiwanis Club confession that, “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” but that hasn’t been his line over the years.

Less than two years earlier, according to an October 2007 article in the Daily Mail (an admittedly sensationalist UK tabloid), when reporters tracked him down in Atlanta for an interview about My Lai, he told them: “Meet me in the lobby of the nearest bank at opening time tomorrow, and give me a certified cheque for $25,000, then I’ll talk to you for precisely one hour.” They met him, but offered only questions instead of money, and he “scuttled away from the line of fire…an option the man who led the My Lai Massacre never afforded his innocent victims.” 

Well put, even for a tabloid, and more in keeping with the “Rusty” Calley of the My Lai crime we are (or should be) familiar with: the murdering lieutenant who rifle butted a monk praying over a sick old woman in the midst of the carnage, because he was not giving Calley the right answers, the shining lieutenant who then turned to a two year old crawling out of a ditch full of dead and dying villagers, picked it up by the leg, flung it back into the pit, shot it, turned back to the monk who was trying to explain there were no weapons or enemy troops in that village, killed him, and then, for good measure, killed the old woman, too. That was only a small part of what he did that day.

Calley has lived as a celebrity (however closeted and local) for four decades, and comfortably, surely enjoying more than a few drinks on the house, complete, no doubt, with back-slap, buddy-buddy banter about wasting gooks and the like. It goes without saying, he is not sorry – it would be silly to think he is – but, really, who cares? The question is: What’s he fishing for – book deal, movie deal, lecture tour? And what latest inanity are we going to see emerge in our tacky, Palinesque popular culture of screamer and birther idiots?

He’s an unrepentant mass murderer who (if I grasp Son of Sam laws correctly) is free to cash in on his crimes, and it would not be at all surprising to see him make the talk show rounds before joining a back to the Vietnam war reality show. Or maybe he’ll become the darling of the vulgar Vietnam War reenactor set that’s been making noise and headlines lately.

He’s an opportunist, and this moment, for whatever reason, strikes him as the most appropriate to step forth and apologize for something he has never regretted and was never punished for.

If the following expression of self-doubt, from the Associated Press story of his apology, is an actual quotation from his Kiwanis Club confession, Calley’s credibility is obvious: “‘If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess.” 

Right. I guess. 

George Evans, an award winning poet, writer and translator, has contributed political, cultural, and literary commentary and essays to numerous magazines and web sites internationally. His books include The New World and Sudden Dreams. He is a Vietnam veteran.

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