Last night, on the SBS documentary, The Vietnam War, we were reminded of the Mỹ Lai Massacre which was the Vietnam War mass killing of between 347 and 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. It was committed by U.S. Army soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd American Infantry Division. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.
Twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offences, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, was convicted.
Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was originally given a life sentence, but served only three and a half years under house arrest.
There appears to be little doubt that this was not an isolated incident but the American military (and American public) had no appetite for uncovering any other incidents such as this one.
Calley continued to maintain that he was simply “following orders.” Is this enough of an excuse? Can a soldier refuse an order to kill unarmed civilians in a situation like this? If Calley is right, where does the chain of command end?
And was Calley any more or less guilty than the pilot who was flying the aeroplane that dropped the napalm that would have undoubtedly wiped out many more villages and their inhabitants.
The program also covered the The Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970 when the Ohio National Guard fired on college students protesting against the Vietnam war and the invasion of Cambodia.
Some of the students had been protesting while others had simply been walking to class. As a result, four students were dead and 10 were wounded. Public opinion was deeply divided. Across campuses in the US, 4 million students protested but the parents of the dead students received hate mail condemning the students as communists.
Civil and legal actions against the guardsmen failed. After all, they were only following orders. Who was responsible in this situation? The officer who gives the order to fire? The bureaucrat who decides that the guardsmen should be allowed to carry live ammunition? The students and the visiting radicals who were part of escalating tensions over a number of days?
Certainly, I remember at the time thinking that singling out Lieutenant William Calley Jr seemed to be patiently absurd, despite the horror of what he had done as an individual, he was only one of many and stopping the war seemed to be far better solution than putting Calley in jail.
It would seem that deep divisions existed within American society long before Donald Trump came along.