Wait – did he just say had served under Lt. Calley?
The Aged Relative and I had stopped at a diner somewhere in western Virginia (not to be confused with West Virginia, which is a different state) to get some food and break up my long drive. I stepped out to wash my hands, and when I returned, I saw that the A.R. had struck up a conversation with the older couple sitting next to us, as old Appalachians do.
“He’s been telling me a better way to get to Winston-Salem,” she told me.
I saw the man was wearing a veteran’s cap with the designation for an infantry brigade, and made a note to thank him for his service to the nation. It’s not much, and I truly am thankful for the men and women who have served.
The A.R. continued to talk with the couple, and they told us about the town — which was lovely — and the various places you could stay. It was a nice town. Somehow, though, he started talking about his time in service.
He had been in the Vietname War as an infantryman. He told us about how disgusted he was when his return flight landed in Seattle, how protesters were there with the chants of “baby killers!” and other things. He told us he had been in the 20th infantry brigade, and had been in the Company but had been in the hospital when it all went down.
I’ll be honest: at this point I really didn’t know what he was talking about.
Then he made it clear.
“Lt. Calley was scapegoated!”
I’m sitting there, trying not to look like I had heard what I had heard. I’m not old enough to have been alive when this happened, and the first I heard of it was on a PBS-aired documentary (most likely the award-winning 1989 Yorkshire Television production, Fours House In My Lai). It described, as Ron Ridenhour wrote to members of congress, that “something rather dark and bloody did indeed occur sometime in March, 1968 in a village called ‘Pinkville’ in the Republic of Viet Nam.”
Today, this is known in the U.S. as the My Lai massacre at the village of S?n M?, which US forces called “Pinkville”, on 16 March 1960.
Lt. William Calley was convicted of murdering 23 Vietnamese civilians. (His sentence was commuted by President Nixon.)
Our dining companion was not just a veteran, but a man who had served under Calley in Vietnam. Had he not been in hospital, he would have been in the attack on S?n M?.
But he wasn’t. He was just a guy who had served with these guys. And apparently years later, still needed to justify being their friend and comrade.
It was the rest of his Company who attacked S?n M? with the order to, as Wikipedia puts it, “burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy food supplies, and destroy and/or poison the wells.” Where US forces killed somewhere between 347 and 504 civilians, including the aged, women, and children, and infants; committed at least 20 rapes (according the Lt General William Peers’s report on the massacre); and committed various other atrocities (again, according to the Peers report).
And our new friend across the aisle was a member of C Company.
It was clear from the aged relative’s responses that she had no idea what he was talking about. He said a few more things about how the higher-ups blamed it all on Calley when it was they who gave the orders — “He was just following orders!” — and his wife and I were then able to steer the conversation to other topics.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to do. My head was swimming. They were finished with their dinner, and so said their goodbyes and started for the door. I thanked him for his service, like I do all service men and women.
I fnished my dinner and we got back on the back highways home. I drove the hours back to the AR’s house, then another hour and a half back to mine. I kept turning it over in my head. When I finally got back home, late that night, I looked up the Wikipedia article on the My Lai Massacre / Massacre at S?n M?.
There’s a lot of lessons from the My Lai Massacre, none of them happy.