When the war criminal is one of us

There are war criminals and there are war criminals.

Today’s Associated Press report that a Nazi responsible for wiping out a village is living in Minneapolis has gotten well-deserved attention and it’s instigated a debate on the proper U.S. response to the revelation. We understandably are repulsed at the very notion that someone could slaughter innocent civilians.

That’s why I thought of another war criminal who is living a relatively good life in the United States today. He’s 70 years old. The United States found him, held him responsible, and then let him go.

Bodies of women and children lay in the road leading from the village of My Lai, South Vietnam following the massacre of civilians by members of the U. S . Army, in this March 1968 file photo. (AP Photo/Life Magazine, Ronald L. Haeberle, FILE, HO)

On March 16, 1968, an estimated 350-500 unarmed mostly-old men, and women and children were slaughtered under the guidance of Lt. William Calley.

Just as a reporter found the Nazi living in Minneapolis, it took Seymour Hersh to find Calley and expose his war crimes.

“They gather them in three ditches. Calley orders the – his young men to start shooting,” Hersch told NPR’s On the Media a few years ago. “One was Paul Medlow, and he shot and shot and shot. When they were all done they sat along the ditch and had their lunch. Don’t ask me how or why.

“And they heard a keening. And one of the mothers in the bottom of the ditch had tucked a boy underneath a two- or three-year-old boy, and he climbed up out of the bodies, full of everybody else’s blood, and began to run in a panic.

“Calley said to Medlow, Paul Medlow, this kid from southern Indiana, plug him. Medlow, one on one, couldn’t do it, although he’d fired maybe ten clips of 20 bullets each into the ditch. So Calley, with great derring-do, took his carbine, ran behind the kid and shot him in the back of the head. Everybody remembered that.”

Despite an initial coverup, the U.S. had no choice but to put him on trial. He was convicted of the premeditated murder of 22 civilians and sentenced to life in prison.

But people in the United States did not have the revulsion of the massacre that they did — and do — for other criminals. After the sentence, politicians, like then-Gov. Jimmy Carter, campaigned for his release.

This song sold 500,000 copies.

And finally, President Richard Nixon caved in to the public pressure and ordered Calley released from the Army stockade and placed under house arrest. His sentence was twice reduced and finally he was released from house arrest.

His total time served? Four months in the stockade.

Calley never granted any interviews after that. A British journalist had one scheduled, but he didn’t show up with the $25,000 Calley had demanded. It wasn’t until 2009 that Calley apologized. He did so as a free man before a local Kiwanis Club. Some relatives of the murdered civilians said they wish he’d apologized to them.

  • Nikki Tundel

    Thanks for writing this. Raises great points, subtly yet powerfully.

  • tboom

    Not the point of this post but related to My Lai, look up “Hugh Thompson, Jr.” on Wikipedia. I saw an interview with Mr. Thompson and one of his helicopter crew members. For all the horrible stuff that goes on, we’ll be okay so long as there are people like Thompson, Andreotta, and Colburn. I think we’d all like to
    believe we’d have the strength of character they demonstrated at My Lai.

  • kirsten zielinski

    you know that people didn’t give a crap that he killed them because they were not white.. they were vietnamese.. it makes me sick and i hope he rots in hell.. i hope he dies a horrible painful death and rots in hell. he is a pig..

  • cowboyally

    If you haven’t seen Calley’s Esquire cover in awhile, check out a story in The Atlantic about it, by Alex Hoyt. (It’s in an article about Andy Warhol). Creep-y. The photographer really gets it right.

    • Bob Collins

      link?

  • FarmGirlWithPitchfork

    I don’t like comparing one alleged war criminal with another.

  • J F Hanson

    Well written, Bob. And, the implications of the unstated comparisons is marvelous.