The U.S. Army’s Infantry School at Fort Benning tries to teach officers right from wrong.
As a combat veteran of Vietnam, I am haunted by two particular places of memory, places in jarring juxtaposition—with one as hallowed and memory-laden as the other is shameful and nearly surreal. The first is a memorial to a general killed in action with my unit in Vietnam more than 35 years ago. The other is a place of commerce where Vietnam’s famous war criminal, William Calley, a former lieutenant who was court-martialed and convicted of murdering 22 civilians in Vietnam, spent most of those same years as a prosperous businessman.
Both places are in Columbus, Ga. If the U.S. Army had a holy city, it would be Columbus, the “Home of the Infantry.” The Infantry School at Fort Benning is where the modern U.S. Army was born. In the years after World War I, a forward-looking commandant named George Marshall, having learned the requirements of 20th-century mass warfare, came here to set up a curriculum to educate a new generation of officers. It is also the place where Marshall is said to have compiled a blackbook, a roster of officers whom he marked for future positions of leadership at the highest levels of command authority. Along with Dwight Eisenhower and Mark Clark, he singled out Omar Bradley and Joseph J. Stilwell, who had served at Benning as instructors and developers of the infantry curriculum. Among students, he noticed younger leaders, including J. Lawton Collins, Matthew Ridgway and Maxwell Taylor.
Later, Fort Benning became a center of training for parachute infantry warfare, the birthplace of new formations that evolved into the great World War II airborne divisions, the 82nd and the 101st. After World War II, the post became the permanent home of the airborne school, the ranger school, and the infantry officer basic and career courses. Helicopter air-mobility was developed here, with the experimental 11th Air Assault Division, eventually renamed and sent to Vietnam in 1965 as the First Air Cavalry. Later, additional units, including my own—the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, expressly configured and trained for operations in Vietnam—were also deployed from here. In the decades following Vietnam, through operations in Grenada, Haiti, Panama, and elsewhere, Fort Benning gained prominence as home base of the Ranger Regiment, and allied Special Operations units. And from the Persian Gulf War up through current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has been the hub of training and deployment for combat operations.
On the base at a building called Bradley Hall, once the main hospital for the wounded returning from World War II and Korea, is the Infantry Museum, depicting through displays, artifacts and memorabilia the history of the U.S. Army foot soldier from the colonial wars to the present. The heart of memory for me is on the third floor, where a reception and reading area has been established in honor of Brig. Gen. William R. Bond, a former commander of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade and the only general officer killed by enemy fire on the ground in Vietnam. Presiding over the room is a handsome, well-executed portrait of the general in jungle combat uniform, as he looked at the time of his death.
It is certainly a good likeness. I was among the last people to see him alive. He was wearing just such a set of jungle fatigues and carrying a rifle around 2 o’clock on the afternoon of April 1, 1970. Shortly afterward, on a sweep of enemy ambush positions about 150 feet from where I was standing, Bond was shot in the chest and killed. I remember talking to him that day as if it were this afternoon. He had flown in by helicopter to take charge of a battle that had been raging off and on all day. Several platoons from my unit had gotten pinned down in a big ambush, with a killing zone several hundred meters long, manned by a Main Force Viet Cong regiment in heavily fortified bunkers. An early morning artillery convoy had received the first attack. They had barely avoided being completely overrun and annihilated. As new forces entered the battle area—an armored cavalry unit organic to the brigade, in which I served as executive officer—they too took heavy casualties, with tanks and armored personnel carriers burning all over the place. Although by noon the situation seemed to be stabilizing, by midafternoon nothing much had improved. After nonstop fire from artillery, helicopter gunships and jet airstrikes, it was a locked battle. During a break in the fire missions, the general decided to land. In retrospect, I know what he was trying to do: rally us, get us moving again, expand the perimeter and break out of the killing zone. Once on the ground, he gave an order to make a dismounted sweep of the bunkers to our front. As the troops began to move, he joined them and moved forward toward his death. He was in his third month of command in Vietnam when he died on a dusty road near Tanh Linh, III Corps Tactical Zone, Vietnam—on a stretch the troops had already taken to calling Ambush Alley.
Bond came by the old infantrymen’s ways through a career of carrying a rifle and leading. Born in Portland, Maine, he went to the University of Maryland, where after undergraduate study and one year of law school, he enlisted in the Army. Rising quickly to the rank of staff sergeant, he was selected for Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Knox, Ky. Commissioned there as a second lieutenant, he was chosen for training with the new parachute infantry at Fort Benning. In 1942 he jumped into Sicily with the 82nd Airborne Division. He then volunteered for the Rangers, commanded by Colonel William Darby, and landed with them at Salerno. He went in again with the Rangers at Anzio, where he was wounded while fighting with the 1st Battalion at Cisterna. When they got overrun, he was too badly injured to be taken out and became a prisoner of war at a camp in Poland. As the German forces retreated in the East, Bond escaped and joined a Russian reconnaissance unit. At the end, he was marching back across Europe toward the American Army.
My second outpost of memory is in bizarre variance from the first. Four or five miles away at a major intersection of the interstate spur connecting Columbus with the main entrance to the post, in a shopping center called the Cross Town Mall, is the V.V. Vick jewelry store. There, for many years, enjoying a successful career as store manager after marrying the founder’s younger daughter, was William L. Calley, Vietnam’s notorious war criminal. Fort Benning is where he trained as a soldier and later went through infantry OCS. It is also where, after his participation in the My Lai massacre of over 300 unarmed Vietnamese civilian noncombatants in 1968, he was returned for trial, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Until his sentence was commuted by President Richard Nixon, he served out 3l⁄2 years on the post under house arrest.
For Americans who remember My Lai as the signature event of the Vietnam War, Calley may personify the failure of American combat discipline and leadership. He had to be recycled through officers’ training, and he barely made it the second time. He seemed to be in well over his head. Once commissioned, he elicited no respect from those with whom he served and was not much liked by those with whom he worked. His commander in Vietnam, Captain Ernest Medina, was in the habit of mocking and belittling him in front of his men. In the field he had trouble reading maps, was bad with a compass, and seemed to make poor tactical judgments. He came across as angry, loud, and excitable. It seemed that there was just something about him that rubbed people the wrong way. His role at My Lai and removal from command may have saved his life. In Vietnam, officers who could not command the respect of their troops sometimes were the recipients of “friendly fire.”
After deliberating for more than 10 days, a military jury found Calley guilty of premeditated murder of 22 My Lai villagers. Before assessment of punishment by the jury, Calley was allowed to speak to them. “Yesterday you stripped me of all my honor,” he said. “Please, by your actions that you take here today, don’t strip future soldiers of their honor—I beg you.” After seven more hours of deliberation, the jury sentenced Calley to life at hard labor. He was transferred to the U.S. military penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. On April 1, 1971, at the order of President Nixon, he was released from prison pending appeal. Within a few days he was returned to Fort Benning, where he was placed under house arrest. A series of legal actions followed. On August 20, the convening authority of the original court-martial, the commanding officer of Fort Benning, reduced Calley’s sentence to 20 years. Later the secretary of the Army, in a separate clemency action, commuted confinement to 10 years. On May 3, 1974, President Nixon notified the secretary that he had reviewed the case and would take no further action in the matter.
During the period of review, about 3l⁄2 years, Calley lived in bachelor officers’ housing at Fort Benning, basically in what the military calls confinement to quarters. Meanwhile, in separate actions Calley advanced a February 1974 petition in federal district court for habeas corpus, which was granted in September, along with an order for immediate release. The court found that Calley’s trial had been prejudiced by pretrial publicity, denial of subpoenas of certain defense witnesses, refusal of the House of Representatives to release testimony taken in executive session of its My Lai investigation, and inadequate notice of the charges. After a series of findings and counterfindings President Nixon once more intervened, commuting the sentence to time served. Calley was paroled in November 1974.
The dominant image of Calley in these years projected him as something of a scapegoat. He was the only participant in the My Lai massacre ever convicted. He stayed in Columbus after his release, where his life took a turn for the better. He began dating and eventually married the daughter of a local jeweler who had a reputation as a respectable, self-made businessman. Calley became a branch manager in a store the family had opened in 1969 in a new shopping center. The location was considered something of a risk, but it prospered under the management of son-in-law Calley, described in an 1983 article as its most popular salesman.
One finds the jewelry store tucked away in a nondescript, dying midtown shopping center. With empty stores on both sides, it sits near a Subway sandwich shop, a Chuck-E-Cheese Pizza, an Athlete’s Foot shoe store and a Books-a-Million. Sitting back in a dark corner, with its fake brickwork and carriage lanterns, it looks on the outside like some kind of 1960s mausoleum. Inside, the store is low, dark, almost cavernous. There are empty parking spaces everywhere in the lot. Calley himself, after more than three decades, is now reportedly separated from his wife, no longer involved in the business, living with his son in Atlanta.
When the owner of the store died in 2006, an article in the Columbus paper summarized his life and career—a husband and father, a conservative business owner, a churchgoer, a member of civic organizations. Mentioned at the end of the article were the marriages of Vick’s two daughters, including that of Penny to William L. Calley. “Calley,” the entry concluded, “was a former U.S. Army lieutenant court-martialed in 1971 [sic] My Lai massacre of 22 civilians in Vietnam. He now runs the Columbus store.” The family didn’t like that last part at all, a newspaper staff member says. They thought the My Lai part had no place in the obituary.
At the store, according to the newspaper staffer, people just got to thinking of Calley over the years as the nice little salesman who helped Grandma pick out a wristwatch. But he was always on the alert, disappearing into the back when anybody who looked like a writer or reporter came sniffing around. The Calley house was on a street not far from the store in a residential district near the Columbus Country Club. With friends and acquaintances, Calley reverted to his boyhood nickname, Rusty. Nonetheless, when a son was born in 1980, he was proudly named William L. Calley III. The boy went by his middle name.
A local reporter said he had once actually confronted Calley in the store about his silence on My Lai. Calley gave him the impression of being somebody who wasn’t dumb about how he had managed to manipulate the media into treating him like some kind of celebrity recluse, as if a jewelry store in Columbus could be regarded as the sanctuary of a Howard Hughes.
Thus within miles of each other exist two deeply American places that speak the complex legacy of the Vietnam War. Both can still be visited today. The Infantry Museum—although a fund drive is underway to build it new quarters—still occupies its home of three decades, on the edge of a large lawn called the Field of Sacrifice.
For me, the impression of all this, even after so many years, remains one of complete disconnect. The general seems to embody then and now everything that was great about the greatest generation. Ask anybody about what Army units they’ve heard of, and they’ll say the 82nd or 101st Airborne. Ask any Ranger today, and they know about Cisterna, the way every Marine knows about Chesty Puller. Ask any Redcatcher, and they know who General Bond was, how he spent the last afternoon of his life, on the ground, in combat, against a large, heavily armed enemy force, with his soldiers. In contrast, Calley, and his role in the actions that day in My Lai, seems to represent everything that was wrong about the Vietnam War: a lieutenant who probably should have not been an officer, paired with a captain who took orders unquestioningly from an inexperienced brigade commander who stood by while the task force leader took his instructions directly from a fast-track major general. On the ground, an undisciplined handful of squads and individual soldiers acted out the bloody rage of a totally frustrated and demoralized division. And what some of the men did in that unit was every bit as bad as the books say it was: atrocities that include the murder of old men, young women, and children.
What was left for me to do or see in Columbus to make sense of any of this? Around noon, some kind of strange magnetic attraction, just curiosity perhaps, makes me think I may find some kind of new understanding at least in talking with people involved in the current war, people who now know something of the combat I was once involved in at the platoon, company and battalion level. The idea leads me to a third location, this one on the main post area of Fort Benning, completely at the center of things. It is a huge, forbidding structure, called Infantry Hall but known around the fort and among townspeople as Building Four. Building Four is the home of the Infantry School. As institutional architecture goes, even for a connoisseur of 20thcentury horrors, it is exactly the kind of utterly dispiriting monolith that would be despised at a big engineering school in the Midwest. A huge yellow brick box, covering acres, it is easily the size of eight or 10 Wal-Marts, just baking there in the summer Georgia sun. At the main entrance, the moment is briefly redeemed by the famous “Follow Me” statue of the infantryman. Inside, though, the bleakness continues, endless dark terrazzo floors, concrete block walls, banks of metal-framed windows that don’t open, steel doors leading to classrooms, labyrinthine hallways leading into warrens of offices and rooms filled with partitions and cubicles.
At the same time, just when you get inside, oddly you stop noticing anything about the building at all. You completely forget it. You see the people. Moving about, talking, almost electric with energy, there are young officers and NCOs all over the place. One sees no formal uniforms of the sort we used to call class A. People are dressed in a variety of combat fatigues. Some wear the dark jungle uniform, many the desert version, others the new general-purpose, multiservice design you see on Army, Air Force and Marine personnel.
At the reception desk, a couple of young OCS candidates spring to their feet to help me with directions. An NCO at the desk takes over with that kind of “these young officer types get stupider every year” voice I remember so well and tells me what I want to know, which is how to find some instructors in tactics, operations, current command-and-control doctrine and the like. On my way to the elevators, I take the initiative and talk to several young captains with combat patches from a variety of major units, who say they are in the career course. They are smart, polite, humorous in a young-officer kind of way, but also thoughtful and quite articulate. They talk with pride about their units and the commanders they have worked with.
In the elevator I meet a chaplain who tells me he knows exactly the guy I want to talk to. He is a lieutenant colonel who currently oversees the curriculum and instruction for the infantry officers’ basic and career courses and also some transition seminars for majors and lieutenant colonels about to assume battalion command. The colonel has himself commanded a battalion of the 1st Battalion/22nd Infantry of the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq, the chaplain tells me. His unit went in as part of the big-unit war and then took up security operations in Tikrit, where they took part in the capture of Saddam Hussein. When I get to the colonel’s office, he is just finishing up a conversation with a Scots major, on exchange from the British army. He says he will be glad to talk with me and asks if he can buy me a cup of coffee down at the snack bar.
The colonel’s name is Steve Russell. We get our coffee, and our conversation winds up taking an hour and a half. He is everything one might imagine of a young officer. In his late 30s or early 40s, he has a young, alert face and a lean, trim, athletic build, a runner’s frame. He is friendly in a way that makes you comfortable to be around him immediately. His hair is cropped but cut like mine, civilian style, combed with a part. No white sidewalls, high and tight. It does have one distinctive feature: Unlike mine, it is completely gray.
We talk and talk, covering miles and years and generations. He tells me how things in Iraq went overnight from the big-unit phase of the war, which took about three days, to a security mission. How it turned into security operations, how eventually it became a lot like my war in Vietnam—a war of the OP (observation post) and LP (listening post) of the patrol, sweep, cordon, raid and ambush, of the daytime search and clear and the night defensive position. He praises his soldiers and tells me how it bothers him so deeply that nobody at home much cares what they are doing except their friends and families, that nobody in the country has any understanding of sacrifice. But he also tells me not to feel sorry for them. They may be the kinds of young people who couldn’t find jobs or wanted money for an education, but he reminds me that these enlistees are now nearly all post-9/11. They have a distinct attitude of—and this is the exact word he uses—“selflessness.”
A lot of days when I read the casualty lists, I see my war: A lot of American kids dying out on the ass end of nowhere for next to nothing. They try to observe rules of engagement that often wind up getting them wounded or killed. Meanwhile we continue killing the hell out of Iraqis in ways that the expression “collateral damage” just won’t cover. In fact, I tell Colonel Russell, I have written two angry essays about many of these things, one called “Top Gun and the Tank Driver,” about an accident of war that killed an American on the same day the president of the United States was prancing around in a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier, and the other, titled “The Best and the Brightest, Only Dumber,” about the White House and Pentagon fire-eaters. He says he can relate to the first one. He is amused by the conceit of the second but tells me he has actually worked with a lot of the Washington REMFs I have caricatured. He says that some may be in fact pretty much the people I think they are, but I am mistaken about some of the others, who are far more complicated and thoughtful than I make them out to be. As to his own participation in a political war, he refers me to Grant’s Memoirs. He reminds me that Grant thought the Mexican War was dead wrong from the start and said so. An imperial land grab if there ever was one, he said, ranking right up there with the Southern war of secession in its utter moral misguidedness. But as a serving officer, he knew his professional obligations under a constitutional system of civilian authority. Once the leadership of the country is committed to a war, the soldier’s job is to get on with it and get it done. The colonel makes it clear to me that it’s the only view for a professional soldier to take and stay anywhere close to sane. Unless there is some egregious abuse of lawful, constitutional authority, the military commander’s job is to accomplish a mission and make a war end. The oath he has taken as an officer, he reminds me, is not to the president or the Congress or any other person or body, a king, a dictator, a presidium, a revolutionary council. It is an oath to the Constitution they take, to a form of government, separation of powers, checks and balances and a body politic, ultimate military power by law conferred on and resting in the hands of elected officials. And they all know that. Further, we are far beyond talking about any kind of “good soldier” or “I was only taking orders” defense here. Every single one of these people can tell you the difference between a lawful an unlawful order. And they all know what a soldier is supposed to do in the event of such a difference. The oath the soldier has taken is to uphold the U.S. Constitution. If there has been constitutional abuse of power, there are clear legal and constitutional means of remedying such abuse.
As he talks on about the nuts and bolts of command-and-control, tactics, readiness, I arrive at a stunning realization that the war he’s talking about is pretty much like mine—substitute jungle for streets, alleys, walls, ruined buildings—a war of the patrol, the sweep, the cordon, the observation and listening post, the night defensive position, the ambush. A war run by squad leaders, platoon leaders and company commanders. He says that is correct.
We talk about General Bond and whether or not he should have been on the ground with us. We talk about the Marines and Haditha, all the rumors of a massacre, another My Lai. We sort through the rumors swirling around, the news reports, the conflicting military versions. We agree how noncombatants will never understand the anger, fatigue and frustration, fragility of emotions, that in a given unit can lead to the breakdown of leadership or discipline that takes it over the edge. We also speculate that when it happens, one can nearly always go back and see how it has been preparing itself before the event, somewhere in the particular unit’s nervous system. We talk about the scoop incentives of investigative journalism and run that against what is going through the minds of officers who engage or acquiesce in false reporting—worried about their efficiency reports, unit morale, damage to the war effort or public opinion, they decide that dealing with the incident through unit channels is the least damaging response to the mission. We speculate on who will eventually be charged, tried, convicted. The patrol in question was commanded by a staff sergeant. A captain has been relieved. Will there be battalion-, brigade- and division-level indictments? Our deeply shared belief is that incidents like this are just totally aberrant among the myriad operations being conducted, with units going out every day and every night; that the Army and the Marines, especially today, adhere to a very high standard of conduct.
We wind up the conversation with his remembrances of the soldiers under his command. He talks about his confidence in his captains and lieutenants, in his NCOs and enlisted soldiers. This is the best army we have ever put in the field. Eventually, we will need not only to memorialize them but also to honor them. By this he means hear their stories. The latter has become something of a preoccupation with him, he says—to the point he is going to try to do something about it—and that something is what someone like me might least expect from an officer with a career of this distinction and a future this bright in the Army. If the war on terror goes on, as it surely will, somewhere he will get a brigade. The next time around, it will be a division or a corps. That’s how impressive this guy is. He is incredibly smart; logical; possessed of intellectual discernment; articulate and unapologetic for his complex ethical positions on military responsibility and discipline, duty to the country; impressively well read in history, literature, politics.
Then I discover that he is getting out. He is only 43, he says. In his master’s work at the U.S. Army War College, he has found a passion for history, and he is going to try a career as a writer. He’s made some of it, after all. He has a book planned. A tale of three cities: Kosovo, Kabul, Tikrit. I am stunned. This man is everything that is right and always has been right about the American professional officer corps. He is a soldier who understands that service is inseparable from ethical citizenship. I pull out of my pocket a note I wrote to myself at a filling station early that morning outside Montgomery. As I made the roughly three-hour drive from my home to Columbus, I had been thinking, with my coffee, while it was getting light, about the general and all the things he did in his life that led him to that dusty road outside Tanh Linh, Binh Thuan province, III Corps Tactical Zone, Vietnam. And about Calley and all the dreadful vectors of history that culminated in that one young lieutenant’s sad, misbegotten soul during four hours in My Lai. The note reads, “What happens when our lives put us at a certain place at a certain time and force us to make choices about being actors in history?”
There is another long silence. We look each other in the eye for a long time. Steve nods in a kind of agreement, with a final look that says, “If you ever find an answer let me know.” Our conversation winds down. I drive home. The next day, we swap e-mails. He sends me letters he wrote while commanding the 1/22 in Tikrit. On the question I have read from my slip of paper, neither of us has thrown the brilliant 40-yard pass, followed by the 60-yard touchdown run. As an old lieutenant who had the blessed fortune to survive a war and become a teacher and a writer, I feel affirmed. The mystery I have been chasing through the past has come back around to meet me in the present, in the person of this officer a generation and several wars down the line from me.
He is not the guy in the infantry statue. Nobody is. But he embodies the famous words at the base: “Follow me.” What he teaches is the hardest job in the Army. It is called carrying a rifle and leading. It involves passing on hard-won knowledge and ethical truths, ones that determine whether history records a soldier as a William R. Bond or a William L. Calley.
Philip Beidler is the author of Late Thoughts on an Old War: The Legacy of Vietnam and Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Retired from the U.S. Army, he now teaches in the English department at the University of Alabama, and writes essays and articles.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.