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Two massacres: Kandahar and My Lai

March 14, 2012 |  5:30 am

My Lai
Whatever military justice ultimately delivers to the soldier accused of methodically killing 16 Afghan civilians, most of them women and children in their beds, the case says all the worst things about how a few -- or even one -- American soldier going rogue can wipe out not only blameless civilians but years of nuanced and carefully constructed foreign and military policy.

The one that came to mind was the My Lai massacre, the March 1968 incident in Vietnam where as many as 500 civilians -- mostly women, children and the elderly -- were massacred by U.S. soldiers, in an incident that ended up shaping the outcome of that war.

The reason it came to mind is because, some years ago, Times photographer Robert Chamberlin and I were traveling the country, interviewing people -- some of them just at random -- about the impact of the Vietnam War on the nation's culture and psyche.

We talked to dozens: an exec with Dow Chemical, the maker of napalm; a musically inclined Vermont dairy farmer who stamped out 45 records of his patriotic songs on a device on his kitchen table; a brother and sister we encountered at a picnic table alongside an Oklahoma highway -- siblings whose father was still missing in Vietnam.

And in Columbus, Ga., the city alongside the huge Army base of Ft. Benning, we went into a jewelry store. We wanted to talk to a man who managed the store for his in-laws. His name was William Calley, and he was a former lieutenant and the only soldier convicted, by a military jury, of the premeditated killings of 22 old men, women and children in My Lai in 1968. (As many as 500 civilians were killed by Calley and others in his unit, but of the other service members charged, only Calley was convicted.)

The My Lai massacre was one of those seminal incidents that changed public perception of the Vietnam War, like the 1972 image taken by my friend Nick Ut, of the Associated Press, of burned children running screaming down a road after they had been accidentally napalmed by the South Vietnamese.

I thought of Calley when I heard of Sunday night's killings of the sleeping Afghans. It was immediately and forcefully condemned by military and civilian leadership -- unlike My Lai, when military leaders initially commended Calley's unit and the U.S. leadership resisted the idea that the Calley unit had done anything wrong.

When the news of My Lai emerged, the servicemen who had intervened in the massacre, putting their helicopter between Calley's soldiers and the civilians, actually received death threats; mutilated animals were left on their doorsteps. Their fellow soldiers called them traitors, and the helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, said that a senior member of Congress remarked that "if anybody goes to jail in this My Lai stuff, it will be the helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson." It took decades for their courage to be officially honored.

The soldier in the Afghanistan killings could face the death penalty. Calley's sentence of life in prison at hard labor was whittled away, and he ended up serving under four years of house arrest. President Nixon issued a limited presidential pardon to Calley.

Americans initially thought Calley's conviction was wrong; Americans' revulsion at the shooting of the Afghan civilians has been, by contrast, almost universal.

Whether this incident has the power to change the course of the U.S. role in Afghanistan, as the My Lai killings did in Vietnam, is another matter.

Back in that Columbus jewelry store, I tried to ask Calley about the incident. Years later, the local paper reported, he told a Kiwanis group that he was "very sorry" about My Lai. To me, he just walked away.


Afghanistan on edge

To catch a Kony, cash won't cut it

Colombian rebels say they want to restart peace talks

--Patt Morrison

Photo: Bodies of women and children killed by U.S. troops near the village of My Lai, South Vietnam, in March 1968. Credit: Ronald L. Haeberle/Life Magazine, AP Photo

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