Lt. William Calley at his My Lai Trial: “I Carried Out the Orders I Was Given”


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March 4, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 9

The good lieutenant Calley
By Lucian K. Truscott IV

FORT BENNING, Georgia — Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., was about to finish a nervous, demanding nine hours on the witness stand. Except for a relatively relaxed direct examination, it had not been easy for him. The last six of those nine hours he had spent under the blistering, spell-binding questioning of Captain Aubrey M. Daniel 3rd, the calculating young Army officer assigned to prosecute the trial.

Calley’s face was set in anticipation of the 20-some questions which would come from the jury. (In Army court martials, the jury, through the judge, is allowed to question any witness.) His left hand gripped the wooden arm of the witness chair, and even several rows back in the gallery you could see that his knuckles were white.

A curly lock of hair dangled down the forehead of the chubby, unsmiling lieutenant. He shifted from side to side in the chair and chewed on the forefinger of the hand which held the tiny microphone he had to speak into. Rusty Calley, still tense, but slightly relieved now that Daniel had ominously intoned “no further questions,” was not happy. He had just laid his life on the line in front of six grim-faced jurors, and now everyone in the room, including him, could see that at least three of them were less than satisfied with his testimony.

One, a major with two Silver Stars and four Purple Hearts he had won in Vietnam, was feverishly writing questions on a small steno-pad. He had maintained a scowl on his face throughout Calley’s testimony, and before he left the stand, would write more than 20 questions for the judge to ask. Another, an ancient moss-covered colonel who had seen combat in Korea and who had sat day after day in court staring straight in Calley’s direction, wrote a single, curt question. And the third, a captain with Vietnam decorations on his chest sitting at Calley’s elbow at the far end of the jury box, whose expression hadn’t changed once during his entire testimony, brusquely ripped off two notepads of questions.

In a minute the questions came quickly, if kindly, from Judge Reid Kennedy, the Army colonel whose understanding demeanor on the bench will surely win him lifetime recognition in judicial circles.

Q: “Did you ever exit My Lai on a North-South trial to the South?”

A: “No, sir.”

Q: “Did you have a Vietnamese interpreter with you at any time that day?”

A: “No, sir.”

Q: “Did you have any prisoners with you when you left My Lai 4?”

A: “I vaguely recall seeing a couple of them out in front of us as we moved out.”

Q: “Can you give the details of your order to your troops?”

A: “Yes, sir. I did not give them a full five-paragraph field order, sir. Just our order of march and some logistics.”

Q: “Where did you get the information about using civilians to clear minefields?”

A: “The morning before we lifted off, I got that information from Captain Medina, sir.”

Q: “Do you know whether or not at Task Force, Brigade, or Division level there was any control of the operation?”

A: “I don’t know, sir. I was down there on line and I only know I was controlled by my higher.”

The questions were brief, understated, and they dug deeply, intimately into the raw tactical aspects of Lieutenant Calley’s actions on March 16, 1998. Five officers on the jury saw action in Vietnam, and the sixth, the colonel, served in Korea. All are officers in the Infantry, and judging by the questions they asked, most of the men sitting on that jury considered their own experience in combat while listening to the testimony of Lieutenant Calley, and could hardly believe their ears. For the testimony he gave had to be, if only tacitly, a fine military description of a poorly controlled, incompetently run, chaotic and disastrous operation.

Don’t get me wrong. Rusty Calley, First Lieutenant of Infantry, did it up right. It was only between the lines that the real tragedy of My Lai came through in his testimony. The Infantry School would have been proud of him. His speech ran like pages out of the school’s field manuals. In fact, if you were to attend classes on the duties and responsibilities of the platoon leader and the half-day they give on the standing assault as a combat tactic, you could testify in Calley’s place, for the description he gave of March 16, 1968, could have been lifted verbatim from Army doctrine. All the jargon was there, machine-like, rattled off as if it were being spit from some legendary Army data-bank. And during his entire nine hours on the stand, Calley never once let on that anything he had done that morning might have been a mistake. In fact, answering a typically awkward question from his chief defense attorney, George W. Latimer, who is deaf and 70 years old, Calley said that he felt then, and “still do that I acted as I was directed — I carried out the orders I was given, and do not feel wrong in doing so.”

According to Calley, the operation was a “high speed assault” during which his platoon first laid down a “heavy base of suppressive fire.” They were firing on “targets of opportunity,” he said, and were also engaged in “reconnaissance by fire,” a practice authorized in free-fire zones wherein soldiers shoot up the countryside to flush out any “enemy” who might be hiding there. He further described the operation as “just a quick neutralization of the village,” saying that his platoon had the mission of “wasting, destroying” any enemy found there, while the third platoon would come through, search the village, and then “light it,” or burn it to the ground. Calley’s troops had their M-16s on “full automatic” at first, and then switched to “semi-automatic” in order to “effect well-placed fire from the shoulder.” Calley spent most of his time “zig-zagging behind the line, making sure my troops were on line,” he said. And each time he gave someone an order, he would “roger and move out.” Repeatedly he described individuals in the platoon as “a good troop.”

When they reached the other side of the village, Calley got the order to form a “defensive perimeter,” something always done when the “objective” is “secured.” Was he directed to take any prisoners? “Yes.” And what was he to do with them? “I told Mitchell to hang on to some of the people in order to clear the minefields.” And how was this to be done? The “civilians,” as Calley referred to them several times, were to be marched in front of the advancing platoon through the minefield. If Calley had a “five-man front,” he would use five. If a 20-man front, he would use 20. “I would generally use no more than the number of people I had,” he admitted candidly. And the killings at My Lai? “It was no big deal, sir,” uttered a sober-faced and unflinching Calley.

With his description of the human minesweepers, Calley’s testimony took a turn which few people familiar with the trial would have predicted. Until last week, Calley had been more or less kindly disposed toward the Army, contending, as he was expected to, that he was only following orders which were in consonance with his Army training. But on the stand, Calley threw some powerful dirt on the faces of his superiors, bringing into question for the first time during the trial the Army’s conduct of the war in Vietnam in general.

Calley described the policy of human minesweepers as “understood” by everyone, a policy that was in daily use in areas such as My Lai, where there were “wall-to-wall mines.” And surprisingly, Calley went on to level a quiet, if unknowing, attack on the now well-worn body count. “Everyone knew that the Americal was a new division, and there was a lot of stress on body count,” he said. And what kind of body count, he was asked. “High body count, sir,” came the quick reply. “During the Tet offensive, it was very important so we could tell the people back home we were killing more of them than they were of us. At that time, anything dead went on your body count: VC, buffalo, pigs, cows…anything. If something was dead, you put it on your body count.”

…And it will not take much, those jurors surely know, to conclude that because the policies Calley followed were part of Army doctrine, as well as being “unwritten” and “understood,” many My Lais have occurred in Vietnam, and many more are sure to come.

So Rusty Calley, charged with the premeditated murder of “not less than 102 Vietnamese civilians” at My Lai on March 16, 1968, described his ostensibly well-executed combat assault on the morning of a day which is now almost three years in the past as a “firefight,” despite the fact he could not recall ever receiving enemy fire. (The only casualty suffered in Calley’s platoon that day was a man who shot himself in the foot.) He remained the “good lieutenant.” He maintained “good eye-contact” with his questioners and with the jury, a point which any instructor of the Infantry School will tell you is of paramount importance when engaged in convincing an audience. He described the chaos at My Lai, in righteous Infantry jargon, as if it were the “organized confusion” they teach you combat will be before you go to Vietnam. he admitted making no mistakes, and contended from the start to finish that everything he did was at the order of his company commander, Captain Ernest Medina, a man he remembers as “a fine officer and a fine commander — I am now and always will be very proud to have served under his command.” And finally, he told the jury how he was never reprimanded or criticized after My Lai, that soon after he was promoted, an that during an extended tour, he was assigned to be a civil affairs, or civilian liaison officer for another battalion operating just 10 miles north of the My Lai area. During that time, he worked peaceably with Vietnamese civilians every day.

The discipline of organized confusion. The loyalty of a subordinate to a superior. The duty to carry out one’s orders, automatically assuming they are legal, never questioning whether they are right or wrong. Those are principles any good military man would admire. Those are the principles which the Infantry School at Fort Benning attempts to inculcate in every officer assigned there. And those are the principles which taken completely literally, and followed to the logical extreme of human capability, result in the consummate product of a system which by its very design and stated purpose is bent on teaching men the best possible way to kill other men. Rusty Calley is that product.

Around the court building during Calley’s testimony, talk ran loose, uneasy, hung on nervous comic relief among the reporters. In the hallways, women spectators — the wives of attorneys, the judge, and the jurors — gathered in bridge party cliques and talked of the warm weather, the forsythias, the lady down the street and that long-haired kid of hers. Back in the courtroom a man was on trial for his life. And, they knew, too, things were not looking good for him. On the Army post known as Fort Benning, among Army people, the prospect of Lieutenant Calley being found guilty was not a welcome one. “A murderer in our midst?” the facial expressions would reflect. “Why if that’s true, then there’s a lot of murderers around here. Everyone knows that.”

And the lady sitting in front of me during Calley’s last day on the stand, trying to shut out the answers which rang of “gunships,” and “heavy bases of fire,” and “body counts,” and “orders,” was reading “The Valachi Papers,” a book about criminals and crimes that seem larger than life, more imaginary than real. On the witness stand, Lieutenant Calley was five feet four inches tall. And his testimony, believable or not, was harshly, cruelly real.

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