William Calley, My Lai and Me
News that William Calley is remorseful about his actions at My Lai isn’t hard to believe. If I had that on my conscience, I would forever remember and regret it. Even so, I appreciate his apology for what his orders did to the villagers and the soldiers who carried out those orders. As always, Calley asserts that he was following orders but for the first time he acknowledges those orders were illegal and that could have been refused. Still, he carried them out and will never be able to erase that stain. He cannot change history but for the first time, has acknowledge his responsibility for the deaths and destruction at My Lai. If every veteran of every war did the same, there would be no more war.
Calley’s experience rings true in my own experience of Vietnam. These days I recall thinking, “just take your chance and get past it” and now realize that Vietnam will never be in the past for me. Like Calley, I followed orders that I could have legitimately refused: to accept induction and deployment as an infantryman. Refusing those orders carried consequences I was unwilling to face. So I took my chances, did what I was told and skated by. I followed orders. I did nothing illegal.
But the legal orders I followed still give me pause. I knew the war was wrong yet participated in the war, not just passively but as an active combatant. I fought against people whom I believed had the right to resist American intervention in their country. That’s the part that will never be past. I guess you can say I was young, scared, uncertain—all the things that cloud judgment—but I was also a college graduate who knew history, diplomacy and government well enough to see what was going on. The fact that I was lucky enough never to face the decision to kill another man changes nothing. I knowingly served in an unjustified, illegal war.
William Calley followed an illegal order and ordered his men to do the same. I followed legal orders to actively participate in an aggressive foreign intervention of questionable purpose, one that lengthened Vietnam’s civil war by two decades and expanded its violence exponentially. I will live with that forever. As the nuns used to say, it’s on my Permanent Record. About all I can say is that like William Calley, I am sorry.
That’s why you see me every at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Water Street in Olympia with my Veterans For Peace flag and why I have been an anti-war veteran ever since Vietnam. It gives meaning to my service. For some reason Americans will (sort of) listen to a veteran speaking against war than to someone who knew enough to honorably refuse to serve. Certainly one reason I was willing to serve was so I could speak out. For that reason, and the fact that I cannot forget, I will never stop speaking against war.
The story isn't getting much notice in the major media that I checked. Not the Washington Post, New York Times, Google News or Yahoo News. I found the AP story at MSNBC which is the same copy at NPR. NPR also has an interview with the man who arranged for Calley to speak publicly.