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A 66-year old American finally apologised last week for his pivotal role in a 41-year old war crime. An embarrassing time to remind people of the affair suggests Steve Beauchampé

On March 21st 1968 Lieutenant William Calley ordered a search and destroy mission against the South Vietnamese hamlet of Son My, near the village of My Lai, after US intelligence indicated that Viet Cong soldiers were taking refuge there. Testimony revealed that Calley had ordered the killing of everyone in the hamlet, resulting in the slaughter by US troops of up to 500 civilians. Most were women, children, infants and the elderly, the working age males being employed in nearby fields.

The terror and trauma that the victims endured is unimaginable. For many death will not have come quickly; they will have seen and heard its approach, they will have watched as their loved ones were systematically killed, their community ripped to shreds by merciless and vengeful invaders. Some were raped, others survived but suffered physical and psychological injuries.

On March 31st 1971, following conviction at a courts-martial, Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labour. Of the 26 other officers and soldiers charged over the killings and subsequent cover-up, none was convicted. On April 1st 1971 President Nixon ordered Calley transferred to house arrest. On September 25th 1974, following various appeals and an act of clemency, Calley was released as a free man, although he had been on bail since February of that year. He had served just 3½ years, in his quarters at Fort Benning.

The My Lai massacre as it became known is one of the most notorious and shameful chapters in US military history. It was carried out by a platoon of soldiers and many believe it to be the direct consequence of the policies and orders of more senior commanders than Calley. Few doubt that it was the only (or first) mass killing of innocent civilians by US troops during the Vietnam war.

Last week Calley, now 66, speaking to a meeting of the Kiwanis Club, a US-based global voluntary organisation, publicly apologised for the first time for his role in the murders. I do not know if he was paid for his appearance, but in 2007, Calley agreed to speak with the Daily Mail about the massacre but only on condition that they paid him $25,000 (which they did not).

William Calley was not suffering from a terminal disease when he was released and the views of his victims’ relatives and those who survived the barbaric attacks he oversaw were not taken into account by those who determined the leniency of his punishment. Calley’s involvement in the genocide of Son My is not in question, yet upon his release many feted him as a martyr, a patriot, claiming he had been made a scapegoat and was simply following orders.

So think on all this as the US government protests the compassionate release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi.


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