Lt. William Calley stood before a Kiwanis Club meeting the other day and apologized for the My Lai massacre [also: 1, 2]. Reading the article, I take it as a sincere apology and a real expression of regret, though I understand how the prosecutor who tried Calley felt, too:
William George Eckhardt, the chief prosecutor in the My Lai cases, said Friday he was unaware of Calley ever apologizing before. Eckhardt said that when he first heard the news, “I just sort of cringed.” ”It’s hard to apologize for murdering so many people,” said Eckhardt, now a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “But at least there’s an acknowledgment of responsibility.”
And while I would have liked to hear a more unequivocal statement from Calley, I have to say I appreciate his long silence and the modest setting for his first public discussion (since his trial) of his actions at My Lai. He should no go back to being quiet, as silence from him is the only adequate response. Two things: In order to live with myself, I have to believe in the possibility of redemption, of turning away from evil, in others; also, he was in fact a scapegoat: Colin Powell, Captain Ernest Medina, and others were equally responsible for the murders of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. This second point does not lessen Lt. Calley’s responsibility, but it puts it in context. So, I accept his apology, at least provisionally. The effects of his actions continue to ripple outward through the histories of both Vietnam and the US and, paradoxically, out of evil some understanding can emerge.
But what I really wonder about is that “standing ovation” the Kiwanis gave the aging William Calley. What was that about? When I was in high school, before the My Lai massacre, some of us graduating seniors were given dinner by the local Kiwanis and then lectured by a congressman about our duty to be “patriotic,” which was framed in terms of supporting the Vietnam war. I got up and left. (I didn’t wait for the standing ovation.) Were the Kiwanis who listened to Calley applauding his courage for admitting he committed murder in their service? That seems unlikely to me. Were they subtly applauding the murder, excusing it? Perhaps that is too harsh a judgement. I suspect they were applauding their own sense of relief: Well, that’s finally behind us. Maybe William Calley believes he can put it behind him and in a sense he can, by keeping quiet and doing good. To the Kiwanis, I’d say: Don’t let yourselves off the hook so easily. Lt. Calley served in your army — in our army — and he acted in our names; so, while, yes, the event is behind us, it is still there. The murdered are still murdered. Going forward, that is what we bear.