TIME: March 16, 1968, approximately 8 a.m.
PLACE: A clearing, evidently a community meeting area, just to the south of a hamlet (population: 700) of "hootches" - thatch-covered huts - and solid little redbrick homes, many with front porches, part of a larger settlement called by the GIs Pinkville, in a jungle area in Vietnam's third largest province, Quang Ngai.
CHARACTERS: Paul Meadlo, 21, a rangy private from New Goshen, Indiana, son of a coal-miner, married to a high-school girlfriend, father of a baby boy a little more than a year old; a good-natured guy who had been the Hoosier hayseed butt of his buddies: "Hey, Paul" - a passing water buffalo - "There's another cow!"
William L. Calley, Jr., 25, second lieutenant, a platoon leader, called "Rusty." He is only five feet, three inches tall. He flunked out of Palm Beach Junior College, in Florida; began smoking four packs a day, developed an ulcer; worked as bellhop, dishwasher, switchman; wandered westward, enlisted, somehow made it through Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. His captain calls him "Sweetheart." His men, having heard him say he was once a private dick, call him "Surfside 5 1/2." They think he often doesn't know where he is. "He couldn't read no darn map," one of them will say a year and a half later, when Calley has become world famous, "and a compass would confuse him ass."
SITUATION: Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, has been in Vietnam three months. Morale is at crunch level. The men never seem to see the enemy. Gooks are all hostile. Even kids can throw grenades. Several buddies have been killed by mines. Just two days ago Sergeant George Cox was killed, and four others were injured, two at the cost of both legs, by a booby-trapped 155-mm. artillery round. The company was very upset by that - coming in from the patrol they kicked a woman to death who was working in a field. Cox's funeral was yesterday. Right after it the captain promised a mission for today - dismantling a hamlet in Pinkville where the 48th Viet Cong Battalion had been sheltering - that would give them a chance for revenge; when they left that place, "nothing would be walking, growing, or crawling." . . .
ACTION: Paul Meadlo is helping round up civilians, most of whom have been cooking breakfast outside their houses. There has been no enemy resistance. Some 40 to 50 villagers - elderly men, women, children, babies - have been assembled in the clearing. They have been wailing, "No VC! No VC!" Meadlo has been shouting at them to shut up and hunker down. They crouch.
CALLEY: "You know what to do with them, Meadlo, don't you?"
MEADLO: "Yes, sir."
Meadlo takes it for granted Calley meant he should stand watch over the villagers. He does.
A quarter of an hour later Calley returns.
CALLEY: "How come you haven't got rid of them yet?"
MEADLO: "I didn't think you wanted to kill them, just wanted us to guard them."
CALLEY: "No, I want them dead."
Calley steps back a few steps and starts shooting. He commands Meadlo to shoot. Meadlo empties four M-16 clips (17 rounds to a clip) . . .
Later, Ronald Grzesik, in charge of a first-platoon fire team, moving through the hamlet - there is general killing by now, grenades being thrown into hootches - comes on Meadlo. He is crouching, head in hands, sobbing. Grzesiik sits and asks what the matter is.
MEADLO: "Calley made me shoot people."
Grzesik tries to calm him . . .
Meadlo has rounded up seven or eight villagers. Someone hollers from beside a deep dry drainage ditch to bring them over there.He herds them. Now there are 70 or 75 people beside the ditch.
CALLEY: "Meadlo, we've got another job to do."
Calley starts pushing the people down into the ditch, and shooting. The villagers down there cry out and wave their arms. Women try to cover their babies with their bodies. Calley orders Meadlo to help . . .
The massacre at My Lai was a shock to the American people in 1968 only in the deepest recesses of the imagination, to which secret premises even then this horror had to be admitted as a possibility. The public knew nothing about My Lai for twenty months - a great irony of 1968 being that if harbored a cover-up that in its cool shamelessness might serve as a predictor of the Watergate game.Only in the fall of '69 did Americans know that somewhere between 109 villagers (U.S. Army figure in the charges against Calley) and 567 (figure given by surviving residents of the area) - Meadlo thought 370 - had been mass-killed that day.
But in March, 1968, the possibility was there in the back of the mind. By that time television had brought the frustration-inflamed wantonness of the harm we were doing in Vietnam into our every living room - the shit-eating grin of the GI holding his Zippo lighter up to the thatch of the hootch. Guilt; the threat of guilt. Paul Meadlo stepped on a mine the day after My Lai and lost a foot. He shouted at Calley that the Lord had made him pay for what he had done - and Calley would pay, some day, too. "I sent them a good boy," Mrs. Meadlo was to say in 1969, "and they made him a murderer."
What was so bad about My Lai? Hamlets were destroyed all the time. Slaughter was a condition of war. We had ploughed a nation of farms with bombs; autumned whole provinces of trees with defoliants. The VC didn't come at us with wings and harps. We were hardened; perhaps maddened. It was beginning to seem that this war might go on for generations; after My Lai, the grunts fo Charlie Company grimly joked: Might as well kill infants before they grow up and kill you!
The guilt of My Lai was that it was manual work - the killing of unarmed civilians by hand. Not from thousands of feet in the sky, or from a big gun miles away. But face to living face, close enough for human touch, giving direct audience to last pleas and throes.
And there was something else. We were reaching the point on the graph of the unconscious where the curves of sex and violence cross. After My Lai went public, Rusty Calley wrote himself a book, thus providing a predictor of another coming American phenomenon - as crooks ye shall make profits in your own land. Al the killing Calley blithely explained away in his book. But one thing, one thing only, really shocked him, as he repeatedly said:
"I went up to Meadlo and asked him, 'Do you know what you're to do with these people?'
"'Yes - '
"And right then, I saw a GI with one of these individuals: A Vietnamese girl. He had hold of her hair to keep holding her to her knees. He had a hand grenade (I was later told) to threaten her little baby with. He wanted [sex].
"I ran right over. 'Get on your goddamn pants!' I said. 'Get over here where you're supposed to be!'"
And so the meaning of My Lai - sneaking into the back of the mind long before My Lai was exposed - was one more crushing failure of our Dream: We were no better than anyone else. We might even be as bad as the Japs (rape of Naking) or the Nazis (Auschwitz, Warsaw).
Or, if that seemed an extravagance of self-blame, at least as bad as good Germans. When reporters went to New Goshen after the news was out, they found that the citizens weren't at all disturbed by the massacre. They didn't blame Meadlo. It was the war - an ugly war. "He had to obey orders," the townspeople said. The only thing they blamed Paul for was going on television with Mike Wallace and blabbing the whole story. As to that, Paul Meadlo blamed himself for not having demanded to be paid for the appearance. "I ain't talking to no one now unless they pay," he said. By this time he had two little children to support.
A notable exception - and certainly not the only one - to the widespread shrug that greeted My Lai was provided by Meadlo's father, the 67-year-old miner, who said, "If it had been me, I would have swung my rifle around and shot Calley instead - right between the goddamned eyes." Indeed, the U.S. Army was to drive home the ambiguous message of the massacre when it awarded a distinguished Flying Cross to Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, a helicopter pilot, for landing, holding Calley at bay, and rescuing 16 hamlet children. It was surely the first time in history an American soldier had been decorated fo training the guns of his command on his fellow countrymen, so that human life could go on.
Bobby Kennedy, emboldened by the McCarthy vote in New Hampshire, declares for the Presidency . . . Riots in Warsaw . . . Novotny ousted as Czech President . . . A gold rush in Paris; the metal takes off to a scandalous $43.36 an ounce; seven nations' bank chiefs meet in Washington to witness a marriage of prudence and greed - they install a double price system: an official rate of $35 an ounce for governments and a supply-and-demand flexible rate for speculators . . . Heavy fighting in Quang Tri Provinvce . . .