William Calley is still alive. Who? Remember Second Lieutenant William Calley, the platoon leader in Vietnam, who, on March 16, 1968, swept into the little village of MyLai and murdered 500 civilians, mostly old people, women and children? That William Calley. After weeks in which two of his men had been killed by snipers and a bomb, but he had not had the opportunity to confront the enemy, who were lurking in a vast network of underground tunnels, The MyLai massacre was his response.
He lives on in two ways. Though convicted of 22 murders in 1971 and sentenced to life in prison, after three years under lax house arrest on military bases he was paroled in 1974. Now a chubby, 5’4”, Colonel Sanders goateed ex- jeweler, pushing 70 years and wearing a Stetson, he has been considered a respectable citizen. He has been giving paid lectures on his war experiences, and, after a broken marriage, lives in Atlanta, Georgia. When British reporters from the Daily Mail sought to interview him in 2007, he asked for — and didn’t get — $25,000. His friends say he has no remorse.
Second, his spirit lives in recent news stories from Iraq and Afghanistan — including, according to commentators, the tortures at Abu Ghraib and the November 19, 2005 party of Marines who murdered 24 civilians — including mothers, children, and an old man in a wheelchair — at Haditha. Only one man faced a capital charge; he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, was reduced in rank to private and set free.
Between January and March 2010 five soldiers in western Kandahar province allegedly formed a “kill team” which singled out innocent Afghan civilians to be killed for sport. I wrote about this in “Kill Zone” (11/8/10) and The New York Times Magazine has updated it in Luke Mogelson’s “A Beast in the Heart of Every Man” (5/1/11). Finally, The London Tablet (3/17/12), in Robert Fox’s “Why Good Men Go Bad,” has tried to address the questions that gnaw at us every time this happens. His essay is inspired by the case of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, 38, charged with 17 counts of murder, shooting and stabbing Afghan families in the night, a crime throwing the whole relationship between America and Afghanistan into question.
Why do they do this? What can we do about it? Each man’s ultimate motivation is a mystery, but certain themes keep coming back.
1. Bad leadership. A scrutiny of Calley’s record does not show him well suited to lead. According to Mogelson, in the 2010 Afghanistan case, where Afghan civilians were targeted for sport, both the platoon leader and his sergeant were considered weak leaders, “lacking confidence, self serving, focusing on wanting to be liked by the soldiers and failing to enforce standards, and not engaged in the platoon’s daily activities.” A majority of the third platoon was getting stoned several times a week. The local nationals who worked on the base were also getting high, and would supply drugs to troops in exchange for a porno mag. A new sergeant, Calvin Gibbs, 25, was a natural leader by certain standards, a poster for “GoArmy.com.” He just had “sinister hobbies” he brought over from Iraq: staging false encounters to provide an excuse to kill an innocent Afghan farm boy.
2. Stress. Deployed without rest for over a year, men become tired and disoriented. They question the value of the mission itself. Calley’s men, in spite of President Lyndon Johnson’s win their “hearts and minds” slogan, came to see every Vietnamese person as an enemy. At this stage in Afghanistan, in spite of our “nation building,” the native population see NATO forces as aliens, writes Fox, “inexplicably configured with goggles and helmets, and seemingly joined to their machines, tanks, and carriers, like robotic centaurs.” One commander stressed the need for “safety valves,” a time to let soldiers “let off steam.” Every four or five days he tried to allow alcohol in moderation to help the troops relax. One psychologist suggests that the Abu Ghraib staff went “feral” because of the inhuman living and work conditions and timetable. This was compounded by the American guards losing their sense of purpose and belief in the Iraq mission.
3. The mission. Although the American people were led to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, he didn’t. Meanwhile, many American troops in Iraq were lead to believe that Saddam Hussein had been responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center. Did the government lie in order to motivate soldiers? Mogelson’s article ends with the observation that this generation of Americans may have read about all the atrocities, but the American people don’t feel any personal responsibility for what has happened. Stjepan Metrovic, a sociologist who specializes in war crimes, excoriated the tendency of the army and to blame these crimes on “a few bad apples” or a “rogue platoon.” These acts “open a window onto the corroding conflicts themselves.”
Other questions remain. Nixon pardoned Calley because he thought was what the people wanted. To what extent have war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan not been punished because the silent public holds itself more responsible than it does the perpetrators of the crimes? I answer that both the leaders and the troops share full responsibility. Weak leaders are responsible for the crimes of those in their charge. But the sergeants and privates to witness and tolerate the killing of innocents, insofar as they have acted freely, must be punished. Bur one lesson must be learned: From Vietnam to today, these crimes tell us that our armies should not be there.
Editor’s note (March 21, 2019): The original version of this story said that Lieutenant Calley “was pardoned by President Nixon in 1974.” In 1971, Mr. Nixon did order the release of Mr. Calley from a military stockade while Mr. Calley appealed his conviction by a military court of premeditated murder and his life sentence, but he did not grant a pardon. Mr. Calley’s life sentence was reduced to 10 years by a military board, and he served a little more than three years in military quarters under house arrest (mostly at his apartment at Fort Benning) before Howard H. Callaway, the secretary of the Army, announced in November 1974 that he would be paroled after serving one-third of his sentence. Before that happened, he was released on bail when a Federal District Court judge overturned the murder conviction. In 1976, the Supreme Court let the conviction stand, but Mr. Calley was never returned to house arrest to serve the 10 days remaining before he would be technically eligible for parole.