We can almost – almost – pity William Calley. To go down in history as a war criminal is bad enough, but to remembered as a stupid war criminal is even worse. Calley was like Lynndie England, the infamous leash-lady of Abu Ghraib. Both were dim bulbs who should never have been put into positions of authority where they could hurt others (Calley’s infantry platoon wanted to frag him for incompetence). But they were given authority and weapons by higher-ups who mostly escaped punishment.
My Lai was to Vietnam what Guantanamo is to Iraq. They are more than place names on a map. They are entire sentiments, entire arguments, expressed in a single word. My Lai was a little Vietnamese hamlet where Army Lt. William Calley was convicted of murdering approximately 500 Vietnamese civilians in the little Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai on March, 16, 1968. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but served only 3 1/2 years of house arrest at Fort Benning before the Army paroled him.
Last week, Calley apologized during a speech before the Kiwanis Club of Columbus, Ga. “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
Why the Kiwanis invited someone like Calley to speak, I don’t know. Was it a conservative middle finger at the Iraq war protestors? Why did Calley choose to apologize after all these years? Was it genuine remorse, or a 66-year-old man’s realization that he would behind a legacy as a killer?
I’ve never understood the cliché about the banality of evil. It is true that many extraordinary murderers, whether a Nazi like Adolf Eichmann or a college-dropout Army lieutenant like William Calley, appear shockingly ordinary in intelligence and personality. Yet there are lots of ordinary people in the world, and lots of stupid and nasty ones as well, yet most manage to avoid committing genocide or exterminating entire villages.
Calley claimed he was only following orders. But most rifle platoon commanders in Vietnam – and Afghanistan – went through their tours without shooting 500 civilians in cold blood. Calley was a soldier, but he was also a human being endowed with free will, and even under the rigor of military discipline, there is always a degree of choice. Calley made his.