Tomorrow marks the grisly anniversary of one of the United States’ most shameful days. At dawn on the 16th March 1968 three platoons of US troops, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley arrived in the tiny Vietnamese village of My Lai. It was what the US called a ‘search and destroy mission’.
The actual amount of people massacred in My Lai as Calley and his troops moved through the village has never been fully established, but even the lowest estimate put it at 175, with figures rising to over 500. The My Lai memorial contains 504 names, ranging from babies to people in the eighties. What was never disputed was that the dead were overwhelmingly civilian, and women, children and the elderly. One Sergeant from the platoon later said he saw no-one who could have been possibly considered to have been military, and that the troops met no resistance as they moved through the village shooting indiscriminately.
An examination of the US justice system in the wake of My Lai doesn’t give much hope for the relatives of those killed last weekend in Afghanistan as the staff sergeant accused of the murder of 16 civilians, including women and children, is spirited out of the country.
A number of US soldiers were charged with the atrocities in My Lai… all of them were acquitted with the exception of Lt. William Calley. Despite his ‘Nuremberg Defence’ that he was only following orders, Calley was found guilty of the premeditated murder of 22 villagers, and felt the full weight of the US legal system. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but the day after his sentence he was, under the direct orders of President Richard Nixon, transferred to the US Army base at Fort Benning where actually served just over 3 years under house arrest before being released.
In 1974 Nixon awarded Calley a Presidential Pardon (something Nixon himself received later that year when Gerald Ford scratched his back over the Watergate scandal).
The soldier flown out of Afghanistan could be tried in the US and if found guilty be subject to the death penalty. For those grieving back in Kandahar, the message from My Lai is, don’t pin your hopes on justice from the US courts.