Befitting its status as the leader of the free world, the United States has often sought to bring those individuals guilty of war crimes to justice. The most famous example is the series of trials held in Nuremberg, Germany following World War II. American lawyers prosecuted Nazi leaders and concentration camp guards for the mass murder of Jews and others who died under their brutal hand. When asked how they could commit such atrocities, the accused often replied they were just following orders. There is a clear distinction, not just a fine line, however, between obeying lawful orders and using them to justify heinous acts. All combatants, whether friend or foe, must be held accountable when the rules of war are violated. This was most clearly demonstrated by an atrocity that occurred at the height of the Vietnam War. In March 1968 a young army officer from Florida led a brutal action against Vietnamese inhabitants, and he later claimed he had received such instructions from his superiors. As all came to know, he willingly sacrificed the moral code that traditionally guided U.S. servicemen. His name was William Calley. This is the story of how he engaged in one of the most notorious massacres in American history and was prosecuted by his own country.
For a man later convicted of multiple counts of murder, William Calley enjoyed a rather unremarkable early life. He was born in Miami, Florida in June 1943 to a father who operated a heavy construction company. Along with his three sisters, William grew up in an upper-middle class Miami suburb, but he later admitted he did not acclimate well to such a life. His claims were reinforced by his poor academic performance. He failed 7th grade for cheating and was suspended after arguing with a teacher. Hoping to instill more discipline, his parents enrolled him in the Florida Military Academy and the Georgia Military Academy, where he temporarily improved, before returning to Miami’s Edison High School for his last two years. His grades started to slip as he paid more attention to his social life than to his studies. This was apparent at graduation where he ranked 666 out of 731. He briefly attended Palm Beach Junior College, but once again, he showed little academic promise. He received two Cs, one D and failed the rest. Convinced college was not for him, he dropped out, and with little choice available, he entered the labor force.
In the years following his departure from college, William Calley’s inability to hold a job led him to the U.S. Army. Before that, however, he found work as a hotel bellhop, a short-order cook and even a car wash worker but soon grew tired of such menial work. In 1964 he joined the Florida East Coast Railroad as a switchman and later as a freight train conductor. Unfortunately, tardiness, failure to complete paperwork, and inattention to detail led to his departure. Seeking a fresh start, he traveled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he investigated claims on houses and automobiles on behalf of insurance companies. He also served as a freelance agent and chased claims across the country, even venturing into Mexico. He soon realized, however, he did not possess the mental acuity to track down those hiding from him, so he left for San Francisco. It was there he found a draft notice waiting for him. Calley was greatly surprised at the news since he had already tried to enlist in the Army but had failed his physical examination due to tone-deafness. Upon asking why he was being called up, he learned the country was so desperate for soldiers it was calling up those previously disqualified as physically and mentally incapable. He was then told he could enlist and thereby preempt conscription. William readily signed the enlistment papers and was inducted into the United States Army.
Although he showed himself a poor soldier, Calley climbed methodically through the ranks due to the Army’s critical need for manpower. After eight weeks of basic training, he was assigned to the Adjutant General’s Corps as a clerk. It was actually a role he excelled at, and had he stayed in such a position, he may well have had a safe and solid career. But by early 1967 with the Vietnam War in full swing, senior Army officials found traditional sources for junior officers, notably the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and college ROTC programs, were unable to meet the rising demand for field officers. This shortage led desperate commanders to select individuals, qualified or not, to undergo training in the Army’s Officer Candidate School (OCS). One of those selected was William Calley after his superiors learned of his stint in military school as a teenager. He reported to the Infantry School at Fort Benning in March for twenty-six weeks of rigorous training. Despite his instructors’ best efforts, he demonstrated a lack of command ability and a marked ineptness using maps and compasses. Still, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in September 1967 and assigned to Company C of the 20th Infantry. He joined the company in Hawaii just before it shipped out for Vietnam.
In December 1967 Calley and the rest of “Charlie Company” landed in South Vietnam, and the lieutenant quickly realized he had joined a struggle unlike any conflict Americans had previously fought. The main difference was the enemy hid in plain sight, often appearing as farmers or otherwise innocent citizens. It became nearly impossible to differentiate “bad” Vietnamese from “good” ones. More unsettling was that the enemy fighters were not always men. Vietnamese women and children proved just as dangerous despite their innocent façade. There were stories of children blowing American soldiers up with grenades or inflicting bodily harm by giving GI’s Coke cans filled with ground up glass. In these circumstances, Calley began to disregard instructions to treat civilians and prisoners according to the Geneva Convention. He found most inhabitants of southern Quang Ngai Province, where he was stationed, supported the Vietcong, Communist guerrilla fighters allied with North Vietnam, and consequently, he began to view all Vietnamese men, women and children as hostile. Calley first demonstrated a loss of humanity when he said that killing Vietnamese children saved future American lives. With this attitude, he could now justify, at least to himself, the actions he was about to take against the Vietnamese populace.
As 1967 turned into 1968, Calley’s animosity for Vietnamese citizens transformed into overt acts such as striking out at inhabitants. On January 30-31, 1968 Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers launched a massive assault — the Tet offensive — against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces all over South Vietnam. One of the targets was Charlie Company’s base camp. In the offensive’s aftermath, the company pursued and engaged the Vietcong’s 48th Battalion, but they faced heavy opposition as snipers inflicted numerous casualties, including Calley’s radioman. Efforts to find the snipers proved unsuccessful when villagers refused to divulge the enemy’s location. In late February Calley’s anger deepened after U.S. soldiers were killed when they stepped on land mines planted by the Vietcong during a routine mission. Like the rest of the company, he was outraged that nearby villagers neither warned the company of the mines nor showed sadness for the victims. Calley now believed “everyone there was VC [Vietcong].” Losing comrades led him and his troops to retaliate against those they perceived as the enemy. As they moved into new villages, soldiers abused inhabitants and refused to take prisoners. At one point, Calley killed an old farmer, even though the man was not VC. The worst was yet to come, however.
On March 16, 1968 Lieutenant William Calley and Charlie Company were ordered into the village of My Lai where it was believed remnants of the 48th Battalion were hiding. Captain Ernest Medina, the company commander, instructed Calley to expect strong resistance and to destroy the village, though he said nothing about killing noncombatants. The young lieutenant and his troops, however, chose to interpret these orders as not to take any prisoners. They saw the mission as a chance to avenge their losses. Even before setting foot on the ground, therefore, Calley’s platoon laid down withering helicopter fire on the villagers, many of whom had just sat down to breakfast. Just before 8:00 A.M. Charlie Company entered the village, and the soldiers split up to search for weapons and Vietcong fighters. Only a handful of weapons were found and there were no enemy forces. Despite orders to ignore civilians, the search quickly degenerated into a wholesale slaughter as soldiers released their long pent-up rage on the inhabitants. Men leveled their rifles and gunned down old men, women and children, some as they were fleeing the carnage. No one contributed more than Calley himself. Rather than try to restore calm, he joined his troops in rounding up prisoners at a trail junction before ordering all to be killed. He also participated in the mass execution of nearly one hundred civilians inside an irrigation canal. Seeing a two-year-old boy had climbed out of the ditch, he chased the toddler down, threw him back in, and shot him. Leaving the canal, he shot a woman attempting to surrender as well as an old man, reported to be a Buddhist monk. By the time the firing died down, over 500 civilians lay dead. Despite his belief he had merely done his duty, his actions that day would soon come to haunt Lieutenant Calley.
Despite efforts by Calley’s superiors, including company commander Captain Ernest Medina, to cover up what happened at My Lai, reports of the massacre soon began to filter out. In March 1969 the Inspector General’s office launched a full investigation into the atrocity, and word of Calley’s involvement spread like wildfire across the country. In September the newly promoted first lieutenant was charged with murder — specifically, violating Article 118 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). It was not until over a year later, November of 1970, that his court-martial convened at Fort Benning, Georgia. Over the course of several weeks, the prosecutor described how the village was undefended and how Calley ordered his men to “take care” of prisoners, meaning to kill them, even though none had resisted. Witnesses corroborated these explanations and detailed their own experiences, most of which featured Calley as the central character. With each testimony, the likelihood of Calley’s conviction increased. In February 1971 he took the stand in his own defense, but he claimed to have only killed a handful of civilians — and those only on Captain Medina’s directive. On cross-examination, however, he admitted to not discriminating among the Vietnamese since they “were all the enemy.” As the trial ended, the prosecutor observed that under American law and the rules of war Calley had brutally executed innocent people who had committed no crime, and he urged the jury members to affirm those laws by placing the blame where it belonged — on William Calley’s shoulders. On March 29, 1971 Calley was convicted of twenty-two premeditated murders and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Following his sentence, Calley was confined to Fort Benning’s bachelor officer quarters on President Richard Nixon’s authority until the U.S. Court of Military Appeals heard his case. In August 1971 the army reduced his sentence to twenty years imprisonment and ordered his dismissal from the army and forfeiture of all pay and allowances. He remained under house arrest for two years and was under constant guard whenever he left his apartment. In April 1973 the Court of Military Appeals ruled the evidence supported conviction and ordered the sentence to be immediately carried out. In early 1974 Secretary of the Army Howard Callaway agreed, with the proviso that Calley only serve ten years rather than twenty. When it was all said and done, Lieutenant William Calley served only seven months before being paroled in March 1974. Upon his release, he settled in Columbus, Georgia where he married and worked in his father-in-law’s jewelry shop. He is still alive, and likely just as controversial today as 45 years ago.
War is an extreme act, and it calls for extreme actions — none know that better than those who have actually seen combat. It is a risky thing to judge wartime conduct of the combatants from the safety of home where “civilized” behavior is easy. Nonetheless, there is a moral and legal code that must be upheld, particularly in a country such as the United States which pays heed to the rule of law. By his actions on March 16, 1968, Lieutenant William Calley violated his oath as an officer in the U.S. Army and sacrificed his principles, his morals and most definitely, his honor. As citizens of a free and just country, we must always require that those who serve uphold the high ideals and values upon which this nation was founded. If we do not, we, like Lieutenant Calley, will lose our way.