American troops landed in Vietnam in the spring of 1965; that was probably the biggest mistake the United States of America have made in its 200 plus years of existence. As a result, the country’s concern turned towards, next to the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, mostly in favor of it, but some against it. For the first time ever, America saw daily reports, footage, broadcasts on television of the “reality” of the war. The images presented at first, along with some carefully prepared lies that a tense government conjured up gave a frictional society the impression that American presence in Vietnam was appropriate, and that we would come out as heroes (Almond) The lies were the “truth” as the people saw it. Then eventually, reports and images began showing up that showed the inhumane actions, cruelty, violence, and the absolute truth of what was really going on in Vietnam. In reality, it was a blood bath (Almond).
When the truth of the extremity and the reality of the war broke ground and reached the public eye, society’s realization of the truth collided head-on into the government’s world of lies, and all hell broke loose. The people’s opinion began drifting non-stop against the war, as opposed to their previous pro-war attitude. There were anti-war demonstrations and peace movements (Almond) that shut down colleges, and sometimes towns across the country. Then one day, as the media was delivering their daily recurrences of the horror that was Vietnam, reports of a massacre in a village designated as My Lai 4 came up. Following these reports and some “thorough” investigation came the indictment of Lt. William Calley, the man slated responsible for the event, along with that indictment came charges of murder. The trial and crime helped bring the reality of the war to the people. It struck the major interests and concerns of the people at the time (Almond), and because of this, it is only appropriate to say that the court-martial of Lt. William Calley for his role in My Lai is the trial of the 1970s.
On September 5, 1969, Lieutenant William Calley was formally charged with the responsibility of the murder of over 100 Vietnamese civilians (Linder) that took place on March 16, 1968. The exact details of the events that took place that day in March vary from source to source, depending on the point of view the information is based on. The troops of Charlie Company attacked at 7:30 am on March 16, and by noon, the killing was finished, and so was My Lai. The architecture was in rubbles and the all of the civilians, short nine that were lucky enough to get picked up by helicopter pilot Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson and flown to a nearby army hospital (Linder), were either dead or dying.
Official Army reports of the operation were far from the truth. The reports stated that 128 enemy were killed, and one American was injured. In reality, though, as many as 500 civilians were killed that day, and the American that was injured intentionally shot himself in the foot (Linder). Another interesting statistic that came out of the report was that only three rifles and 10 hand grenades were recovered or seized from the sight (background.html). One would think that if troops would be that successful in wiping out the enemy in such a situation, there would be a lot more artillery recovery.
To add even more of a twist to this event would be to say that there wasn’t really a motive behind the massacre. It would be safer to say that there were two mission objectives. Charlie Company lost nearly one-third of their troops in two months after run-ins with a minefield in February and similar booby traps on March 14 (Linder). The soldiers’ morale was next to non-existent, until Captain Medina stepped in. On the night of March 15, he eagerly briefed the remaining troops on a new mission dubbed Task Force Barker. The basis behind the mission was on the belief that a Viet Cong battalion was holding up in My Lai, and C. Company was to go in there and eliminate the VC. The soldiers were excited to finally get a chance to fight the enemy face-to-face (background.html). The two objectives the soldiers had set forth for the mission were to avenge the lives of the soldiers lost over the past months, and meet the Army’s demand for “body count,” which was what the commanders in Saigon Washington used to evaluate the war’s progress (background.html). If only they would have paid as close attention to how badly we had suffered as they did to the enemy’s losses.
Shortly following a huge cover up of the massacre came a huge investigation. And following that investigation came the trial of Lt. William Calley. Prosecutor Aubrey Daniel’s opening statement set the stage for the trial, telling the jury of Calley’s role in My Lai, and of such events where Calley was killing people here, throwing children there, and shooting everyone. The prosecution’s case was built “methodically” by Daniel (Linder). At first, they presented evidence in an attempt to place Calley at the scene of a shooting, while not calling a single witness.
Then, the prosecution’s witnesses began showing up. Soldiers that were present at My Lai testified against Calley, giving “accurate” details, if they can even be called that, of the events that took place. The testimonies were damaging to Calley’s defense, especially that of the prosecution’s final witness, Paul Meadlo. Meadlo was promised immunity from military prosecution in return for his testimony (Linder). His testimony was the same as the others, giving out information, memories, details, what have you. The difference was that he was giving his testimony in a monotone, emotionless voice, and went a little bit more in depth.
The defense’s strategy took two paths. One was to suggest, giving the fact that he was in the middle of a war, should not be found guilty of premeditated murder. The second was the suggestion that they were just following orders. The defense’s case was weak and short. The fate of Lt. Calley was in the hands of the jury, now.
William Calley had no criminal background. He dropped out of college and joined the army in July 1966. He started out as a filing clerk, but was eventually sent to Ft. Benning, Ga. for training as an infantry Lieutenant (background.html). He attended an Officer Candidate School for six moths, graduated, and shipped to Hawaii. There, he met Capt. Ernest Medina of Charlie Company, joined the ranks, and was in Vietnam at the end of 1967. The rest is just history.
After 13 days of deliberation, the jury presented the verdict. Calley was found guilty for the deaths of 22 civilians after 79 hours and 58 minutes. (NY Times). He was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. But after just three days of prison life, President Nixon insisted that Calley be shipped back to Georgia and serve his sentence under house arrest. His sentence was later reduced to 20 years, the 10 years shortly after. Then, on November 9, 1974 he was released on bond. A year later, the entire thing would be completely thrown out by the District Court, and Calley would be paroled. (mylaichron.html)
What is historically significant about the decision was, first, the amount of time it took the jury to deliberate; it was the longest in the military court system’s history (NY Times). Secondly, Calley was originally sentenced to life imprisonment, and 3 + years later was released on bond, and put on parole. Why was he even found guilty to begin with? Was it worth it? 3 + years of his life were wasted because of, can we say it . stupidity. If they knew in the beginning it was going to end up like that 3 years later, he never would have been found guilty, or at least not given that extreme of a sentence.
What’s changed today as a result of the madness that was the My Lai massacre and the trial of Calley? Calley is a very lucky man. If his life sentence remained intact, who knows what he would be doing right now? But he got released, and now his life is completely different than what it looked like in 1971. He manages a Jewelry store outside of Fort Benning that is owned by his wife’s father. As far as the country is concerned, many things have changed in 30 years. Many changes were not related to the trial, but one that stands out is that the massacre and trial forced accounting, by the military and by the nation, about the way soldiers were taught to fight (aftermath.html). As a result of the massacre and the entire war in general, the values of war have been completely re-evaluated. Maybe the USA has learned its lesson, and maybe it hasn’t. Let’s just hope the opportunity never arouses for us to truly find out.