Was William Calley a Scapegoat?

CalleyAfter 40 years, 2nd Lt. William Calley is back in the news. For many years now the young lieutenant convicted in 1971 of the murder of 22 Vietnamese villagers at My Lai has been regarded as a scapegoat. A recent New York Times editorial raised the stakes, calling him a “classic scapegoat.”

The occasion of the editorial was a speech this past August that Calley gave at a Kiwanis Club gathering in Columbus, Georgia. Calley told his audience that “not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai.” He added,” I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers who were involved and their families. I am very sorry.” It was his first public apology for his actions that day in March 1968.

The belated apology is all to Calley’s credit, but he was not a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who has been assigned blame for another’s actions. Calley committed murder at My Lai and ordered his men to do the same. He herded a group of women and children into a confined area near a culvert. There they sat — prisoners, effectively — awaiting their fate. Some of his men refused his order. Others did not.

It’s important to recall what actually happened that morning. Calley’s unit had been ordered into My Lai in helicopter assault on March 16, 1968. They had been told the landing zone would be “hot,” that they would be opposed by the 48th Viet Cong Local Force Battalion. But the landing zone was “cold.” There were no Viet Cong. No one was shooting back.

My-Lai_1The murders at My Lai were not the impetuous acts of nervous soldiers but systematic massacre. By one report, the killings at the culvert took an hour and required one soldier to reload his M-16 several times. An M-16 clip holds 18 to 20 rounds.

There were other atrocities in Vietnam, but nothing else like My Lai, nothing on such a scale, nothing comparable to the deliberate daylight killing at close range of women, children and old men. It was then and remains one of the most disgraceful days in the history of the U.S. Army. Calley was not the only one who should have been held accountable that day, but the Army’s failure to effectively prosecute those others does not mitigate his guilt nor the guilt of those who followed his orders.

One member of his audience in Georgia clearly understood military law, asking, according to the press report, if obeying an unlawful order was not itself an unlawful act. Calley responded: “I believe that is true. 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.” A clumsy but honest answer. It must be said, however, that the orders of his company commander, Capt. Ernest Medina, were never legally established. Medina was found not guilty.

Both Calley and his questioner had it right. An order to deliberately kill unarmed and unresisting villagers, if there was such an order — is illegal, an order that soldiers and Marines are not only permitted to disobey, but have a duty to disobey. In fairness, it should be added that this principle was not widely taught during the time of Vietnam. But should you have to teach soldiers that the deliberate killing of infants, children and women who pose no threat, at point-blank range, is wrong?

My-Lai_2What would it have taken to stop the massacre? There is a simple answer: a morally competent officer willing to tell his superiors that Army intelligence was wrong again, there were no armed Viet Cong there, and willing to order a cease fire! The tragedy and dishonor of My Lai, contrary to the moral certainties of the Times, rests principally on company-grade officers — lieutenants and captains.

Yes, there is blame that reaches higher — ambiguous orders, cover-ups. I can already hear the dissent. It was an atrocity-producing war, that is the way we fought the war, body counts, every dead Vietnamese is a dead Viet Cong. There is an ugly underlying truth here, but it is not the whole truth, and even if it were it would not be exculpatory. To repudiate individual responsibility flies in the face of long-held values, the values earlier affirmed at Nuremberg.

Gary-KulikWilliam Calley was guilty of murder. He was no scapegoat.

Gary Kulik

Gary Kulik, the former editor of American Quarterly, is a veteran of the Vietnam war and a writer for the History News Service. His “War Stories: Swift Boaters, Winter Soldiers, and False Atrocity Tales” will be published this fall.

Originally published by History News Service. Republished with permission.

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  1. says

    “Wie viel Ungerechtigkeit verzerrt die Züge der Demokratie, die Amerika der Welt zum Vorbild anbietet?”, rätselte “Time” 1969, und der “New Yorker” stellte fest: “Wenn wir uns daran gewöhnen, dergleichen hinzunehmen, gibt es nichts mehr, was wir nicht hinnehmen.”

    “How much injustice distorted the features of democracy that America offers as a model to the world” puzzled the “Time” in 1969, and the “New Yorker” noted: “If we get accustomed to accept things like this, then there is nothing left which we do not accept.”

    • says

      “How much injustice distorted the features of democracy that America offers as a model to the world” puzzled the “Time” in 1969, and the “New Yorker” noted: “If we get accustomed to accept things like this, then there is nothing left which we do not accept.”

  2. George Beach says

    I served in E company 51st Infantry Long Range Patrol,and G company Ranger 75th Infantry.Calley served initially as a platoon leader in E company 51st, Inf.(LRP) and later as executive officer.E/51st became G company Ranger 75th Inf. in Feb.69 and Calley was the executive officer with that unit until he was sent to the states to stand trial.I was a sergeant and had a very good relationship with most of the officers other then Calley.I never met an enlisted man that didn’t despise him.One of the young second Lt.’s told me that Lt.Calley constantly bragged about killing hundreds of people at My Lai and asked if I thought that he really had done that.I told the Lt. that I didn’t believe that he could have done that and that there was no way that he the army would have jailed him if he had.We were stunned when he got arrested several months later.I am ashamed that
    American politics let him get by with just a slap on the wrist more or less.He was guilty,he was proud of killing those people and he felt no remorse.I clearly recall him giving an order for us to get rid of 7 prisoners that we had captured on one occasion.We had requested an additional helicopter to for our extraction as we had captured 8 prisoners and were were told only to bring one in.He refused to request the additional helicopter and told us to get rid of 7 prisoners.We tied them to a tree and contacted a nearby infantry unit and gave them the location of where we left the prisoners.Rather then kill them.We didn’t inform Calley of what we had done with them so I am sure he assumed that we killed them.

    • says


      “We tied them to a tree and contacted a nearby infantry unit and gave them the location of where we left the prisoners.Rather then kill them.We didn’t inform Calley of what we had done with them so I am sure he assumed that we killed them.”

      Good for you. I was a footsoldier with the 9th Division in ’68 and ’69.

      — Dick

  3. steven Turrins says

    Guess, it was butchering time in My Lai that day for American soldiers. I am not surprised that ” The Butcher of My Lai” William Calley ,never came forward to apologize for the ghastly crimes carried out. America as whole has rarely owned up its crime, even as it blames everyone else for human rights violations.

  4. says

    Duc Tran Van
    Son My-Son Tinh-Quang Ngai-Viet Nam

    Dear : William Calley
    I’m Duc Tran Van, living here in Germany since 1983. Almost one month ago, I’ve read from your newspaper about “William Calley”. He said, he felt sorry about the “My Lai massacre”, where over 504 People killed.
    We are survivors from the “My Lai massacre” at March 16 1968 in Thap Canh.
    At this time, I was 7, my older sister 9 years old and my youngest sister 14 months. During the gunfire my mother protected me, and my little sister in her fall, by lying beneath us. When the gunfire ended, and the Americans were away, my mother told me to run away immediately.
    Despite her injuries in her leg and stomach, my mother has dragged herself to the street to see us running away. So she had to see her other two daughters lying dead on the other roadside. I ran away from this place, carrying my sister. At about 2km away, I heard a helicopter. I threw myself with my sister on the ground, and we played dead. The helicopter flew so low that I could clearly see the photographer. After the helicopter was gone, I ran with my sister again. Approximately 4 hours later, we arrived Son Hoi. Interrupted by repeatedly having to hide, every time a helicopter noise was heard, and also having rests from the strain of carrying my 14 months old sister.
    The next morning my older sister also arrived there. She survived the massacre by about 15 minutes of waiting under corpses in the rice field.
    Only in 1975, I find out that my mother, shortly after I ran away with my sister, was killed by headshot, through the press photograph of my mother in the “My Lai Memorial”. (As I previously said, this photo is exhibited there under a false identity)
    It was extremely hard in the following time for us to survive without parents and without any assistance.
    I want to write to Mr. William Calley! He must know what his actions did to our families! And what it has done to the village of My Lai, to murder 504 people, mothers, children and elderly people.
    For this few (only a handful) of survivors that continued to live, it was definitely very hard. Especially there were only some children and a few elderly people. A terse “apology”, after over 40 years for the total destruction, not only the people but also their homeland, is simply a disappointment!


    • smkyle2 says

      Duc Tran Van –

      Thank you for sharing this harrowing story. Your mother was a brave woman. She would be proud of you.

  5. Styeve Lamb says

    Lt. Calley was a scapegoat. higher ups did deserve punishment for issuing the orders, never the less he had an obligation to disobey those orders and he should have been executed under U.S. Military Law, or we should apologize to the Nazi’s and Tojo for executing them for war crimes.

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