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William Calley

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.

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Beth Cioffoletti
10 years 4 months ago
"His friends say he has no remorse."

I clicked on the link and read more about the massacre and the man, who has been hailed by most Americans as patriotic soldier and martyr and gone on to live a "successful" life.

It reminds me of what Merton wrote about Adolf Eichman, that psychiatrists examined Eichmann and pronounced him perfectly sane, he was a well adjusted and and slept well.  That was what Merton found most disturbing - the well-adjustedness and sanity of true madness in a society that has lost its way.

Thanks for continuing to bring the issue of war to the table, Fr. Schroth.  I agree with Dave P's comment above - if the Bishops would would make the smallest effort in addressing this war madness, it could go a long way in restoring their credibility.

Carlos Orozco
10 years 4 months ago
On the issue of illegal warfare, I would like to do a little contrast between President Obama an President Eisenhower (the same man that in his farewell address to the American people warned of the dangers the military-industrial complex posed to its democrary).

In 1956, Israel, Great Britain and France jointly invaded Egypt in a war to secure the Suez Canal, after Egypt's president nationalized it. Eisenhower was outraged by the imperial invasion and the Soviets immediately took advantage of the situation to crackdown on dissenters of Eastern Europe. Eisenhower made use of diplomatic and economic threats that forced the three invading countries to retreat. It became evident that Great Britain and France had to adjust to their roles of second-rate powers.

Fastforward to 2011, France and Great Britain under cover from an U.N. no fly zone reolution over Libya, start a war whose purpose is to install Islamic radicals ("good al-Qaeda") in that country in exchange for control over the rich oil fields. Barack Obama doubts on the course to follow and is easy prey of the hawkish elements in Congress and within his administration. The laughable "Lead from Behind" doctrine is born. After Western drones bomb Gaddafi's escaping motorcade, islamists finish him off. The Secretary of State on learning of Gaddafis death explotes in joy: "We came, we saw, he died!". 

Carlos Orozco
10 years 4 months ago
Jim, please, stop the Santorum prep talk.

The American public has to break away from the propaganda in has been fed since 2001. Sadly, the majority of the population still believes the "we were attacked because of our wealth and freedom" farse used by war criminal George W. Bush. I've lost count on the number of instances of war crimes and cover-ups in the last ten years (Pat Tillman, Jessica Lynch, unexistent weaponds of mass destruction, Fallujah, prison porn, staged killings of civilians, etc).

Apart from the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the wars of "liberation", the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have to deal with the long-term effects of Depleted Uranium (DU) ammunitions used by the forces of "freedom" in the fraudulent War on Terror. American troops themselves suffer the consequences of such weapondry.

David Pasinski
10 years 4 months ago
"From Vietnam to today, these crimes tell us that our armies should not be there."


Have you seen any organized response - even from one bishop - about this atrocity or the war in general? There is no episcopal leadership to propel the faithful to look at these larger issues.

Contraception and partisan notions of "religious fredom"have all their attteniton.
Carlos Orozco
10 years 4 months ago
I agree with the previous two comments that the American bishops have been practically AWOL on condemning the 21st century neocon imperial wars. There is simply no excuse for such silence and is scandalous. However, it is shocking to me the only man in the world that could immediately command the return of the troops is saved any criticism from these same comments. Dave, the Constitution does not authorize the President to force the Church or individuals into paying for his eugenics agenda, directly or through gimmicks, but IT DOES GIVE HIM EXPRESS POWERS OVER THE ARMED FORCES AS COMMANDER IN CHIEF (Article 2 Section 2). 

The President's lack of leadership is slowly setting place for wars against Syria and Iran. Obama has disgraced himself to the point of accepting marching orders by the mad Netanyahu, and receiving in return only more time to justify himself to the American electorate on a decision that already has been made for him.
david power
10 years 4 months ago
Verily verily I say unto you let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.
500 ??Chicken feed to what Che Guevara killed.A grain of sand to what Castro did.Wait till Fr Scroth finds out the latter is still alive and never spent a day in jail after the slaughter.He will write up  a storm on selfrighteous ink.  
james belna
10 years 4 months ago
Fr Schroth takes an isolated incident of one rogue American soldier, juxtaposes it with an unrelated war crime from more than 40 years ago, and repeats the now-discredited lies about the Marines at Haditha in order to attack the moral character of the entire United States military.

Why does he do this? What can we do about it? Each man’s ultimate motivation is a mystery, but certain themes keep coming back.
1. Laziness. If Father Schroth really wants to make an argument against our nation’s continued involvement in Afghanistan, or to credibly accuse the military of war crimes, he ought to do a little more than simply recycle quotes from a couple of columnists who share his preconceived notions about how psychotic our soldiers are.
2. Lack of Perspective. The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq for almost a decade. Several hundred thousand soldiers have personally confronted an enemy that has no respect for the conventional rules of warfare. By contrast, our military has operated under strict rules of engagement that have placed them at great personal risk in order to minimize the potential to harm innocent civilians. There is no example in the history of the world of a more selfless, disciplined, and courageous fighting force. The case of Sgt Bales is remarkable precisely because it is such an anomaly – virtually every other allied soldier has conducted him or herself with exemplary honor under the most extreme circumstances.
3. Lack of Imagination. I am sure that Father Schroth fancies himself to be a peacemaker, and that we would have peace if we just decided not to fight in Afghanistan or anywhere else. He is welcome to this point of view, but it might be useful for him to meditate on the long-term prospects of peace if the United States and its allies peremptorily cede the fate of the rest of the world to the likes of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other assorted tyrants.
Stanley Kopacz
10 years 4 months ago
Any war of occupation that lasts as long as the Afghan war will eventually lead to the occupiers hating the occupied and vice versa.  The only reason for continuing this war is to prop up the self-delusions of politicians regarding saving face for our empire. Wars are horrible efforts only to be initiated in the face of imminent annihilation.  or so I see it.
Bob Baker
10 years 4 months ago
There are similarities between Vietnam and the Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts (notice I didn't say ''wars'' because only Congress can declare a war.
How to achieve the ultimate goals of the conflict are muddled by careerism (e.g., command time, promotions, etc).  Often, Washington inhibits the conduct of the conflict by inserting ridiculous constraints that often put U.S. troops in danger.  I notice that the article fails to mention Obama.  Having a commander-in-chief who was in the service is a good thing, but there are so few politicians (and, I daresay, priests) who have served their country in uniform - this would enable them to see through a lot of the nonsense and understand the conflict's realities.
Poor leadership. Unfortunately in the military this equates to military school attendance.  Leadership in the field doesn't really express itself until one gets onto the field.  How many managers (and, unfortunately, this is what many in the military are groomed for) shouldn't be managers in civilian life?  There is no reasonable reason to expect any difference in the military.  However, the military stresses the chain of command - when have you ever seen a general charged from something his troops have done?  Justice has never been applied equally in the military.
Not having a conventional battlefield brings not knowing who the enemy is into perspective, as well.  Men, women and children as potential combatants are a nightmare for troops to deal with.
Personally, I will never, ever forget being afraid of children in Vietnam.

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