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From a public relations standpoint, My Lai serves as one of the most damaging occurrences of the last century for the U.S.A. Almost anything related to the event, from the actual attack, to the following cover up, paints the U.S.A. in a negative light. Because of the nature of the events of March 16th, My Lai received widespread coverage, such as the cover of LIFE magazine, to mention only one. The world, not only the U.S.A., heard vivid details emerge as the trials of many of the men involved progressed. One of those trials was that of Lt. William Calley, perhaps the man deemed most responsible, by some at least, of the murder of over 400 unarmed civilians.
The trial of Lt. Calley was one which received much publicity, both during, and after it took place. Because Calley was in charge of troops present that fateful day, he is usually seen as instrumental in the event s taking place. The progression of his trial paints a clearer view of what exactly happened March 16th, and who was directly responsible. In the long run, despite the overwhelming mass of evidence, Lt. Calley has not faced what many see as justice . The following deals with the procession of the trial, which should show just how drastically the system failed to find any one person responsible enough to punish severely.
Of the cases against troops at My Lai, the strongest was that held against Calley. On November 12th of 1970, the prosecution opened its case against Calley. Held in Fort Benning, Georgia, the trial began with prosecutor Aubrey Daniel s opening statement. I want you to know My Lai 4. I want to put you there. Daniel s job was to convince the jury of six officers that Calley was indeed responsible for My Lai.
The case held by the prosecution was built up methodically. For several days, much grisly evidence accumulated, but none of it placed Calley at the scene of any of the actual shootings. One of the early witnesses was Ronald Haeberle, an army photographer who was present that day, camera in hand. Hugh Thomson, My Lai s hero, was also questioned. The defence, in its cross examination, accomplished fairly little, despite attempting to undermine Haeberle s credibility, and by questioning Thompson s heroics . Logically, Haeberle s credibility is irrelevant in regards to his biggest evidential input, the photographs. According to Richard Hammer, the author of The Court Martial of Lt. Calley, the attempt to devalue Thompson backfired.
The following days of the trial saw the more incriminating witnesses come to the fore. Robert Maples, of Calley s Platoon, testified that he saw Calley at the drainage ditch, firing into the people below. Maples also said that he was ordered by Calley to also fire on the civilians, but refused to do so. Another soldier, Dennis Conti, testified that he was ordered to round up civilians and bring them back to Calley. Conti then testified that Calley ordered him to bring the people to their knees, tightly grouped, so as to make sure they couldn t run. Minutes later machine gun fire sounded. Conti later said that soldier Paul Meadlo, who was firing with Calley, later broke down and cried.
Meadlo, the final prosecution witness, was also the most anticipated. He had been assured immunity from military prosecution in exchange for his testimony. Earlier, Meadlo was called to the stand, but refused to answer questions regarding March 16th, claiming the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate him self. When Meadlo limped to the stand a second time (he lost a foot to a land mine shortly after my Lai), he agreed to answer questions. He told the jury that he was left with a large group of mostly women and children, just south of the hamlet. Meadlo testified that Calley said, You know what I want you to do with them . Meadlo testified that he thought Calley wanted him to guard the people, and explained what happened upon Calley s return a few minutes later. Calley was surprised that the people were still alive. He backed away about thirty feet and opened fire on the gathered. Meadlo said that at this point he joined in. When Meadlo was asked about the events at the drainage ditch, he explained that he saw Calley firing about 300 rounds into the ditch. Upon completion of the Meadlo questioning, the prosecution rested.
The defence, meanwhile, was based on two main ideas. One was that concerning the stress of combat, and the fear of being killed at any time. It was defence attorney Latimer s reasoning that these factors impaired Calley s judgement to the point that he should not be convicted of premeditated murder. Latimer used psychiatrist Albert Laverne to back up the argument. The second major strategy was that Calley was following orders, and that Medina ordered civilians found at My Lai to be killed. This argument pointed to Medina as the chief responsible.
William Calley himself took the stand. He explained that he did not remember any training regarding the Geneva Convention, but he did remember that disobeying orders was a crime. Calley testified that Medina had pointed that there would be no civilians in My Lai, only the enemy. He even said that Medina called him during the assault, and asked him why the civilians weren t wasted yet. Calley admitted to firing into the ditch, but claimed that he did so only because others were doing it upon his arrival. Calley testified, I felt then, and I still do, that I acted as directed, I carried out my orders, and I did not feel wrong in doing so.
Captain Medina took the stand. He, in turn, contradicted Calley s testimony directly. He said that when he was asked, at the prior briefing, whether the men should kill women and children, he replied, We don t kill women and children. Use common sense. Upon conclusion of his testimony, Medina saluted the judge and walked past Calley, without so much as a glance.
Defence attorney George Latimer argued in his closing arguments that Medina was lying about giving the order not to kill civilians. He claimed that Medina knew exactly what was going on in the village, and that the army was attempting to make Calley a scapegoat. Aubrey Daniel, meanwhile, asked the jurors who would speak out for the children at my Lai. He pointed to the fact that Calley took an oath not to kill innocent women and children. He painted the jurors as the conscience of the army.
With the cases complete, it was time for the jury to decide the fate of Calley. After a 13-day deliberation session, the longest in court martial history, the jury returned its verdict. Calley was found guilty of all charges. After hearing arguments on the subject of sentencing, jury head Col. Clifford Ford announced the sentence. Calley was to be confined at hard labour for the length of your natural life; to be dismissed from the service; to forfeit all pay and allowances.
The initial sentence seems appropriate, just, even, but what transpired following the trial changed this. Opinion polls showed vast disapproval amongst Americans in regards to the verdict. Only days after beginning his sentence in the stockade, Calley was moved, by President Nixon s order, to house arrest arrangements. Nixon also announced that he would personally review the sentence. Prosecutor Daniel was furious, and even wrote a letter to Nixon, in which he explained that, the greatest tragedy of all will be if political expediency dictates the compromise of such fundamental moral principle as the inherent unlawfulness of the murder of innocent people . Despite such strong opinions, the army announced on November 9th of 1974 that Calley would be paroled. In 1976, Calley married, and now lives in Columbus, Georgia, where he operates a jewellery store.
The government reaction may have led some to believe that maybe My Lai was unimportant, irrelevant. The events at My Lai did, however, have a powerful impact on public opinion. Following the Calley verdict, the Harris Poll reported for the first time that a majority of Americans opposed the effort in Vietnam. While the trial may not have brought about justice for Calley, it began the process of American de involvement. Politics, which had decided the length of the Calley sentence, also dictated the end of the intervention.
Bilton, Michael and Sim, Kevin. Four Hours in My Lai. New York: Viking, 1992.
Everrett, Arthur and Johnson, Kethryn and Rosenthal, Harry F. Calley. New
York: Dell, 1971.
French, Peter A. Individual and Collective Responsibility: Massacre at My Lai.
Cambridge: Schenkman, 1972.
Hammer, Richard. The Court Martial of Lt. Calley. New York: Coward-McCann,
Hammer, Richard. One Morning in the War: The Tragedy at Son My. New
York: Coward-McCann, 1970.
Hersh, Seymour. Cover-Up. New York: Random House, 1972.
Tiede, Tom. Calley: Soldier or Killer? New York: Pinnacle, 1971.
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