On the morning of March 16, 1968, William L. Calley Jr., a 24-year-old Army lieutenant, woke up in Vietnam and prepared for an attack that would end in a slaughter.
He gathered his ammunition, his rifle and a cartridge belt. Then he and his fellow platoon members headed in helicopters for the hamlets of My Lai in the eastern part of South Vietnam. As his chopper hovered five feet above the ground, Calley jumped out and laid down fire before entering the village. There, he and other soldiers began massacring unarmed civilians.
“The fear: nearly everyone had it. And everyone had to destroy it: My Lai, the source of it,” Calley said of that moment in his 1971 memoir, “Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story.” “And everyone moved into My Lai firing automatic. And went rapidly, and the GIs shot people rapidly. Or grenaded them. Or just bayoneted them: to stab, to throw someone aside, to go on.”
Despite a lengthy coverup, Calley was eventually charged, court-martialed at Fort Benning, Ga., convicted of murdering at least 22 people and sentenced in 1971 to life in prison. But President Richard Nixon intervened on his behalf, sparing him from severe penalty. Nixon refused to allow Calley’s transfer to the prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., then sprung him from Fort Benning’s stockade and ordered him placed under house arrest at his apartment on base. The president also announced he would personally review Calley’s case before any sentence took effect.
Prosecutor Aubrey M. Daniel was so livid that he wrote a letter to Nixon blasting his decision.
“Sir: It is very difficult for me to know where to begin this letter as I am not accustomed to writing letters of protest,” he said in his statement. “I have been particularly shocked and dismayed at your decision to intervene in these proceedings in the midst of public clamor. . . . Your intervention has, in my opinion, damaged the military judicial system and lessened any respect it may have gained as a result of the proceedings. . . . I would expect the President of the United States . . . would stand fully behind the law of this land on a moral issue which is so clear and about which there can be no compromise.”
As Calley appealed, the military justice system reduced his sentence to 20 years, then 10. By late 1974, he was free on bail. Two years later, he was paroled. In all, he spent just a few months behind bars at Fort Leavenworth.
Now, President Trump is considering granting pardons to servicemen accused of war crimes in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The New York Times reported on May 18 that the president planned to issue them over Memorial Day weekend. But Trump backed away from the plan Friday, acknowledging that pardoning men accused or convicted of war crimes is “a little bit controversial” and needed more consideration.
Military veterans and some Republicans have condemned Trump’s interest in pardoning Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, who is charged with shooting unarmed civilians and killing a teenage Islamic State detainee in Iraq, then holding his reenlistment ceremony with the corpse; Nicholas A. Slatten, a former Blackwater security contractor convicted of first-degree murder for his role in killing an unarmed civilian in Iraq in 2007; a group of Marine Corps snipers charged with urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters; and Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, who faces a murder charge in the death of a suspected Taliban bomb maker.
Trump already has pardoned Michael Behenna, an Army Ranger who served five years after he stripped an al-Qaeda detainee naked, interrogated him, then shot him to death in the middle of the Iraqi desert in 2008.
On Twitter, the president also called Golsteyn a “military hero” and ordered Gallagher to “less restrictive confinement” in “honor of his past service to our Country” as he awaits trial.
However, in 1971, when Nixon intervened in Calley’s case, the commander in chief’s actions appeared to contradict his earlier leanings.
In 1969, shortly after Calley was charged, Nixon released a statement calling the My Lai Massacre “a direct violation” of U.S. military policy, “abhorrent to the conscience of all the American people.” The perpetrators, he said, would be “dealt with in accordance with the strict rules of military justice.”
Later that year, he doubled down, saying “under no circumstances” was the atrocity justified.
But by the time of Calley’s conviction, public sentiment had tilted so much in his favor that Nixon had to make a huge pivot; he could not afford to risk alienating himself from Calley, whose cause was uniting the left and the right.
Veterans and supporters of the Vietnam War believed Calley was simply carrying out orders and doing all he could to protect himself and the country. American Legion posts, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups organized rallies demanding presidential clemency.
In Oklahoma, a 20-car rush-hour parade carried signs that read, “Free Calley!”
“Calley’s name became a rallying cry for some hawkish soldiers, and one artillery battalion painted across one of its big guns the legend, ‘Calley’s Avenger,’” wrote New York Times journalist Richard Hammer in his 1971 book, “The Court-Martial of Lt. Calley.”
The left had his back, too, including the pediatrician Benjamin Spock, who himself beat back criminal charges that he conspired with others to persuade men to violate their draft orders. After Nixon ordered Calley released from the stockade at Fort Benning, Spock denounced his conviction: “[I]t’s too bad that one man is being made to pay for the brutality of the whole war.”
A song, “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” sold 200,000 copies. One passage goes like this: “My name is William Calley, I’m a soldier of this land/ I’ve tried to do my duty and to gain the upper hand/ But they’ve made me out a villain, they have stamped me with a brand/ As we go marching on/ I’m just another soldier from the shores of U.S.A./ Forgotten on the battlefield 10,000 miles away.”
Perhaps more than anything, people felt sorry for Calley. How was it that so many Vietnamese civilians could be slaughtered — at least 504 were killed — but only one person convicted of playing a direct role in the killings?
Eleven other men were charged with murder, maiming or assault with the intent to commit murder, but their cases were abandoned before trial or they were acquitted. To many, Calley was no villain. In fact, according to polls at the time of his conviction, a majority of Americans regarded him as a scapegoat.
“We as a nation cannot wipe away this blemish from the national conscience by finding one man guilty,” Sen. Frank Moss (D-Utah) and Rep. Richard Fulton (D-Tenn.) said at the time, according to Hammer’s book. “We all share the guilt.”
So who was this man who would go down as one of America’s worst war criminals?
Calley was born in June 1943, the second oldest of four children and the only boy. He grew up in a middle-class household in Miami, where his father, a World War II Navy veteran, ran a company that sold heavy construction equipment.
In school, he performed poorly and was caught cheating in seventh grade. He dropped out of his high school, joined the Florida Military Academy in Fort Lauderdale, but quit before transferring to another military academy in Georgia. He quit that academy, too, before finally settling on Miami Edison Senior High School. He graduated in 1962, ranking 666th out of 731 students.
That fall, he enrolled at Palm Beach Junior College and worked side gigs as a busboy, dishwasher, bellman, short-order cook and carwash attendant, according to Hammer’s book. At school, he flunked most of his courses. He tried to enlist in the Army in 1964, but was rejected.
He worked as a railway switchman and then as an insurance investigator. He was in San Francisco when he received word that his draft board in Miami was looking for him. He enlisted instead.
His Army superiors, apparently impressed with his military school experience, believed he should attend Officer Candidate School (OCS). In March 1967, he was sent to Fort Benning, where — again — he graduated near the bottom of his class. Calley deployed to Vietnam as a member of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade and a platoon leader in Charlie Company.
“One thing at OCS was nobody said, ‘Now, there will be innocent civilians there,’” Calley wrote in his memoir. “It was drummed into us, ‘Be sharp! On guard! As soon as you think these people won’t kill you, ZAP! In combat, you haven’t friends! You have enemies!’ Over and over at OCS we heard this and I told myself, I’ll act as if I’m never secure. As if everyone in Vietnam would do me in. As if everyone’s bad.”
After additional training in Hawaii, Calley and his fellow soldiers took a Pan Am flight to Vietnam, landing on Dec. 1, 1967. Three and a half months later, Calley and his comrades would open fire on My Lai.
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