The Army lawyer who dissected the Calley trial testimony deconstructs the mythology that still swirls around the massacre and the man who unleashed it.
The small hamlet the village of Song My in South Vietnam’s Quang Ngai , part of Province, was often referred to as “Pinkville” by the American soldiers because of its reddish-pink color on the topographic maps. However, because of the events that occurred there on March 16, 1968, the name of this typical hamlet, My Lai, would forever come to represent the worst of America’s efforts in Vietnam. Some 40 years later, while the “who” and “what” of My Lai are little disputed, the “why” and “how” remain clouded and open to interpretation.
On March 16, 1968, a platoon led by 2nd Lt. William Laws Calley Jr. killed a large group—some say 20, some say 100, some say 500—of unarmed old men, women and children in a horrific display of inhuman conduct that soon became known as the My Lai Massacre. It has now been 40 years since Calley led his 1st Platoon through the village of My Lai. Yet even today, the images of what happened there continue to signify a certain darkness in the human spirit that can be unleashed in wartime.
The year 1968 stood out for its tumult and violence in Vietnam and America. On April 3, 1968, I was studying at the University of Notre Dame, excited about Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s upcoming campaign stop to speak and shake hands with students there.
The day after RFK’s visit, Martin Luther King would be assassinated. And only two months later, Bobby Kennedy himself was assassinated. The riots and violence that swept across American cities following King’s assassination led into the student protests and riots that were building up against the Vietnam War, as political activism marched through the country and frequently descended into violence.
If 1968 was a frustrating and violent year within the United States, it was even more so in Vietnam, as the Tet Offensive marked what would become the turning point in the war. Begun on January 31, 1968, this massive offensive by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong generated the most widespread fighting of the war, inflicting substantial casualties on the American and South Vietnamese ground forces and a stinging psychological shock to the American public. Even though it was a tactical disaster for the Communists, for most Americans and many of the country’s leaders, hope for a military victory evaporated.
The trauma of the surprise Tet Offensive was the backdrop and perhaps the motivation for the events that transpired at My Lai in March 1968. The combat operation undertaken by Task Force Barker was designed to root out and destroy the Viet Cong 48th Battalion and any supporting units that were believed to be in the area surrounding My Lai.
On the morning of March 16, Charlie Company, consisting of three rifle platoons and one mortar platoon, was transported in two helicopter lifts from Landing Zone Dottie near Chu Lai to the western perimeter of the My Lai hamlet. Lieutenant Calley, 24 years old, was in command of the 1st Platoon. It arrived at about 0730 hours and, once in combat formation, started to sweep the village.
As the Americans entered the village, they did not encounter an armed enemy as expected. Instead, they saw unarmed, unresisting old men, women, children and babies, most of whom were eating breakfast and sitting in their huts. Initially, the personnel of Charlie Company followed the standard operating procedure of Task Force Barker and started to gather the villagers to detain and interrogate them to see if they were Viet Cong.
The My Lai villagers were herded into two groups, one ending up at a trail on the south side of the hamlet and the other held near an irrigation ditch on the east side. Private First Class Paul D. Meadlo, a member of Lieutenant Calley’s platoon, was assigned the task of guarding the 20- 40 people at the trail. Calley had approached Meadlo and told him to take care of this group, and Meadlo assured him that he would.
When Calley returned a short time later, he yelled to Meadlo, “How come they’re not dead? I want them dead,” or some words to that effect. Whatever his exact language, the meaning of his words was crystal clear. To make sure his men understood, Calley put his M-16 on automatic and started firing into the group standing together at the trail.
Calley then ordered Meadlo and Pfc Dennis Conti to get on line and fire at them. Meadlo initially followed this order and fired about three magazines of ammunition into the group. But, shaken by the images of his own acts, Meadlo turned to Conti and tried to give him his weapon, saying that he could not do it anymore. Conti rejected the overture and testified later that he told Meadlo that he was “not going to do it. Let Lieutenant Calley do it.” Conti added that he then saw only a few kids left standing. “Lieutenant Calley fired on them and killed them one by one.”
Calley then took Meadlo to the other group of villagers that had been herded alongside the irrigation ditch on the east side of the village and told him,“We have another job to do.” Calley and his platoon used their weapons to push the old men, women and children into the ditch. The villagers were crying and yelling as they knelt and squatted in the ditch.
Calley ordered, “Start firing!” and Meadlo and Calley began shooting into the ditch. About 10-15 magazines of ammunition were fired into the group of people huddled together. Meadlo was crying, and started yelling at Pfc James J. Dursi, another 1st Platoon member. Calley ordered Dursi to start shooting, but Dursi refused. Calley also ordered Pfc Robert Maples, the platoon machine gunner, to fire his weapon, but Maples refused. Finally, Calley told Pfc Ronald D. Grzesik, another 1st Platoon member, to “finish them off,” but Grzesik refused.
It was about this time that Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., on an observation mission in the area, landed nearby in his light observation helicopter and confronted Calley. Undaunted, Calley returned to his platoon and scoffed at Thompson’s criticisms, telling his men, “He don’t like the way I’m running the show, but I’m the boss here.”
After the killings at the ditch were over, Calley and his radio-telephone operator, Private Charles Sledge, walked to the north end of the ditch where they discovered a middle-aged Vietnamese man dressed in white robes, who appeared to be a priest. Calley asked the man several times whether he was a Viet Cong, and the man responded, “No Viec.” Despite that denial, Calley struck the man in the mouth with the butt of his rifle. The man fell back and gestured for mercy. No mercy. Calley took his M-16 and at point-blank range blew half of the man’s head away.
In a little while, Calley then came across a small Vietnamese child, about 2 years old. Calley grabbed the child by the arm and slung the infant a distance of four or five feet into the ditch. He then aimed his M- 16 at the child and fired. Even with a break for lunch at the perimeter of the hamlet, the sweep and destruction of the My Lai village and the majority of its inhabitants took just over four hours.
At the time in 1968, the events at My Lai came and went virtual- ly without notice by almost everyone in Vietnam and in the United States. In fact it was not until December 5, 1969, that Lieutenant Calley appeared on the cover of Time magazine and the general public was introduced to My Lai and its horrifying images.
During those intervening 20 months, anecdotes and rumors about My Lai slowly percolated throughout Vietnam as they passed from soldier to soldier, and from division to division. One of the soldiers who heard those stories and rumors was a combat infantryman named Ron Ridenour.
Ridenour brought the stories and rumors back to the United States with him. After he was discharged, he wrote a letter on March 29, 1969, to President Richard Nixon, the State Department, the Pentagon and numerous members of Congress. Ridenour’s letter described how Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, had destroyed a village and massacred its inhabitants, including men, women and children.
That letter was forwarded by General William C. Westmoreland to the Army Inspector General, who immediately launched an investigation. Enough of the stories were confirmed to have the matter referred to the convening authority at Fort Benning, Ga., which was requested to have its legal staff review the evidence to determine whether a courtmartial should be convened. It did, and on September 5, 1969, formal charges were filed against Calley, and his release from active duty was put on indefinite hold.
The court-martial trial began on November 17, 1970. There was never any doubt that the prosecution, led by a young Captain Aubrey Daniel, was well prepared for this case. Daniel methodically and very effectively presented the avalanche of evidence that investigators had collected about My Lai, finishing the government’s case with the dramatic testimony of Paul Meadlo, who recounted the horrific details in an almost emotionless manner. As I look back, perhaps Meadlo’s lack of emotion reflected a numbness that had scarred over his memory of his own acts and the acts of others at My Lai.
Calley’s civilian defense lawyer was George Latimer, a Salt Lake City lawyer who had previously served on the Utah Supreme Court and on the United States Court of Military Appeals. That background suggested a wealth of military law experience, but as the trial and appeal unfolded, it seemed to many that Latimer’s best experience was behind him.
After hearing all the evidence, on March 29, 1971, the court-martial panel found Calley guilty of premeditated murder of no fewer than 20 people. Two days later, he was sentenced to confinement for life at the Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. After its review, the convening authority at Fort Benning reduced the period of confinement to 20 years.
Calley appealed his conviction and sentence to the Army Court of Military Review, where he was represented again by Latimer and Captain J. Houston Gordon. I was assigned, along with Captains Bob Roth and Doug Deitchler and Lt. Col. Ron Holdaway, to represent the Army in his appeal. This extraordinary assignment included the tasks of writing the legal brief and presenting the oral argument before the military appellate courts.
Following my graduation from Notre Dame Law School and from the Judge Advocate General’s School in Charlottesville, Va., I had been assigned to the Government Appellate Division in Washington, D.C. Ironically, I received my direct commission as a captain on September 5, 1969, the same day charges were formally filed against Lieutenant Calley.
The transcript for the court-martial trial filled a four-drawer file cabinet and represented a mountain of evidence from myriad sources. The assignment gave me a unique opportunity to consider the testimony and evidence in a more analytical manner, a luxury not often afforded trial counsel who may be engulfed in the dynamics of the trial—the testimony of the witnesses, the rulings of the military judge and the evidentiary issues. That was particularly important in this case because the trial started almost two years after the events, and, as in any event, different human beings will recall different details, especially in a highly chaotic event.
The assignment also gave me an opportunity to measure the facts in the trial transcript against the cloth of popular opinion and political rhetoric. There were and still are a number of popular theories about what happened at My Lai and whether anyone was or should be culpable— popular theories that often overwhelm the real facts. Access to the sworn testimony at trial and a review of the evidentiary exhibits gave me an extraordinary advantage in judging what was myth and what was reality.
As legal assignments go, the Calley appeal was a mammoth project, with many important legal issues set against a background of intense national political and social attention. As the oral argument date drew near, the media focused its attention more brightly on the Calley case. Bob Schieffer was the Pentagon correspondent for CBS News at the time, and he was always extraordinarily respectful and objective in his questions and TV reports. There also was a continuing presence of Jack Taylor, investigative reporter from The Daily Okla homan, who often seemed more interested in presenting Calley’s defenses and championing his cause for his readership.
Calley’s life sentence, which had been ap proved by the Army Court of Military Review and by the United States Court of Military Appeals on March 31, 1971, was later reduced. In 1974 Secretary of the Army Howard Callaway shortened the period of confinement to 10 years.
As it turned out, Calley served very little time. Immediately upon his conviction, he was put in the stockade at Fort Benning, but three days later, President Richard M. Nixon intervened and put him under house arrest at Fort Benning until all of his appeals were exhausted. It was not until 1974 that he was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, where he served just over four months as a clerk-typist before being paroled by the Army.
When he was released, Calley moved to Columbus, Ga. In 1976 he married Penny Vick. Today, he manages the V.V. Vick jewelry store that he inherited from his father-in-law. To this day, he refuses all interview requests and pointedly declines to talk about My Lai or even Vietnam.
Looking back at My Lai 40 years later, I think about five enduring observations and lessons about the case and its impact on war and military justice:
—The evidence at trial was conclusive beyond a reasonable doubt that Lieutenant Calley deserved to be court-martialed and punished for his actions at My Lai.
—The sworn testimony always seemed to be overwhelmed by a popular perception—perhaps media-driven—that Calley was a victim who was bravely serving his country and was just defending himself if he shot anyone because he was being met with hostile fire in an enemy village.
—There was an erroneous but lingering belief that since he was the only person convicted in connection with the My Lai massacre, Calley must have been a scapegoat.
—The common-sense conduct of the enlisted men at My Lai that day is a good measure of Calley’s conduct at My Lai.
—There is an enduring risk that one or more incidents like My Lai will recur in other “nonconventional” wars.
Those observations and lessons are based on my reading and evaluation of the trial transcript. Indeed, from the outset, William Calley had support from people who viewed him as bravely serving his country and acting within his scope of military duty. Whether this factual firestorm was fueled intentionally or unintentionally, many members of the public seemed to believe that Calley was just doing what any other American soldier would do if he was ordered to sweep through a village and root out the enemy.
These Calley supporters may have envisioned themselves as leading troops through a village that was infested with enemy soldiers who were shooting at them through slits in their bamboo huts, setting booby traps along the trails, and lighting incinerating fires. For many Calley defenders, it is easy to put themselves into that position and conclude that their image reflects the reality of what happened at My Lai.
When you add to that image the other popular theory—that Lieu – tenant Calley was just following orders from the company commander, Captain Ernest Medina, and that Medina was simply following the operations order given to Task Force Barker—it can be easy to conclude that Calley should bear no responsibility for simply doing his job as a soldier. This view is bolstered by life and individual experience in the military. The entire military structure is based on a very strict chain of command, with everyone trained to follow the orders of their superiors.
However, entrenched in military law is the principle that an order is not justified and should not be obeyed if it is such that “a man of ordinary sense and understanding” would have known that it was illegal. This principle is a part of every soldier’s training and is critical in analyzing Calley’s actions vis-à-vis his enlisted soldiers. Calley claims that Medina ordered him to “waste” the Vietnamese who were huddled at the trail and in the ditch. Yet when Calley gave that same order to his enlisted men, they refused to follow it. These enlisted people were men of ordinary sense and understanding. They knew that such an order was illegal and did not obey it.
The popular perception that Calley was simply following orders, although supported by his own testimony, was severely undercut by the other sworn testimony at trial. When I first read the trial transcript I was struck by how much the sworn testimony differed from that popular image. To me, the transcript always established beyond a reasonable doubt that this was not a soldier confused in the fog of war who, whether out of fear or confusion, was shooting wildly or even randomly as the platoon swept through the village.
Rather, this was a soldier who herded old men, women and children into two groups, one group ending up on the trail at the south end of My Lai and the other group in the drainage ditch on the east side. After these groups were corralled and, indeed, after these groups had been under guard by his troops, Calley ordered that they be killed.
When some members of his platoon refused to shoot, he shot the villagers himself, even grabbing one of the machine guns to expedite the killings. While the media reported estimates of as many as 500 dead, and while estimates in the trial testimony had a wide range of numbers, the court-martial panel seemed well within its charge when it concluded that Calley was personally responsible for “not less than 20” deaths.
Another popular belief that has endured for 40 years is that, since he was the only person convicted in connection with the My Lai massacre, Calley must have been a scapegoat for others and was therefore simply a “victim” who should not have been prosecuted at all.
While this theory may have been popular grist for the newspaper mills, it has always seemed to me to be more chaff than wheat or wisdom. The primary reason that others were not convicted is that the most culpable individuals had already been discharged from the military and therefore the military no longer had any jurisdiction over them. And, since these acts were committed outside of the United States, no court in the United States had any jurisdiction over their offenses. Vietnam, of course, would have had jurisdiction of the offenses, but would have had to request that the United States extradite these individuals, and there was not enough legal or political capital to even consider extradition.
Of those who were involved in My Lai and were still in the Army, there were efforts to prosecute, notably the indictment of Captain Medina. While people may always debate the role Medina played in the My Lai Massacre or the veracity of his testimony at his trial or at Calley’s trial, the courtmartial panel in Medina’s trial concluded that it was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he had committed any crime at My Lai. Our military justice system is just the same as our civilian justice system, and as a society we must live with our acquittals as well as our convictions.
While some people have always strongly believed that Calley should not have been prosecuted at all, there are others who take a contrary view. They point to his conviction for murdering at least 20 people, in contrast to his confinement in the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth for less than five months. Certainly there are objective facts that could cause people to argue that Calley got off lightly. There is plenty of evidence here to suggest that President Nixon was yielding to political expediency when, two days after Calley’s court-martial conviction, he issued an executive order that Calley’s incarceration be reduced to house arrest while his appeal was pending
As I have read the trial transcript and weighed the evidence against the actions of Calley at My Lai, I have always thought that the actions of the enlisted men under his control were a good measure of Calley’s actions. As the shootings continued that March morning, a number of the men in Calley’s platoon showed their common sense and their character by standing up to him and refusing to participate in the massacre. When Dennis Conti was urged to help with the shooting, he refused, saying: “If they are going to be killed, I am not going to do it. Let Lieutenant Calley do it.”
James Dursi, a rifleman in Calley’s platoon, was ordered by to fire at the villagers, but he also refused. Testifying at Calley’s court-martial, he said: “I couldn’t go through with it. These little defenseless men, women and kids!”
When Calley approached Robert Maples, the platoon machine gunner, and asked him for his weapon, Maples refused to give it to him and then left the vicinity to get away from the carnage. Calley later ordered Ronald Grzesik to “finish them off,” but Grzesik refused.
Indeed, while the transcript reflects that Private Meadlo and perhaps one or two others participated in the shooting, it clearly establishes that most of the enlisted men in Calley’s platoon refused to participate, including Conti, Dursi, Maples, Grzesik and Sergeant Leonard R. Gonzalez. Even Meadlo had broken down in tears while he was shooting, as he absorbed the inhumanity of his acts.
While reading the transcript 40 years ago, I thought the actions of these enlisted men were extraordinary. At the same time, I thought these were the very actions you would expect from soldiers in a war setting. Their actions reflected their training. These enlisted men were not lost in the fog of war or under a delusion that they were entitled to kill unarmed men, women and children. Their training, their common sense and their character all told them that when you have people, whether combatants or noncombatants, cordoned off and under guard, you do not “waste” them or shoot an M-16 or machine gun into their midst.
For the last four years we have been in a war in Iraq, an unconventional war that has spawned numerous references to My Lai as our soldiers of today face risks that in many ways are similar to those faced by Charlie Company as it swept through that small village in 1968. Our soldiers today are trying to root out an enemy who wears no uniform, may hide among and behind common villagers, and may be setting booby traps (IEDs) or sniping through slits in their adobe huts.
There have been a few isolated incidents in Iraq that have been compared to My Lai, such as the Abu Ghraib prison abuse cases or the killing of more than 20 civilians by a Marine squad as it cleared the area in Haditha after an IED explosion. None of those incidents took place in the same context as the killings at My Lai. Still, the very fact that they have been compared to My Lai illustrates both the potential that a My Lai may occur again, and the enduring legacy that My Lai has imposed on us as a society.
The events at My Lai and their treatment in the military justice system leave us with some very important legacies and responsibilities. The need for discipline in the military must be tempered with more effective training on the ab solute obligation to protect both noncombatants and combatants who are no longer a danger and are completely under control. In the long run, that tempered discipline, coupled with character and common sense, will protect our soldiers, and our nation, in the days and years ahead.
Merle F. Wilberding served in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps from 1969 to 1973. Today he is an adjunct professor at the University of Dayton School of Law and a practicing attorney. For further reading, see: Four Hours in My Lai, by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim; and The Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley, by Richard Hammer.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.