Open Letter to Lt. Calley

[Lieutenant William Calley was the only person convicted as a result of the notorious “Mỹ Lai massacre” of March 16, 1968, when U.S. soldiers killed, mutilated and sexually assaulted between 300 and 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians. Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour, but on the day after his sentencing, President Richard Nixon ordered him removed to house arrest. He was paroled after three years and five months.]

Yours is now a cause célébre, and your name is known all over the world, as were the names of Dreyfus, Sacco and Vanzetti, Mooney, and the Rosenbergs. I don’t know whether you have heard of any of these people. Not many with your background have. But they are mentioned in history books, and perhaps you will be also; so you may want to know something about how your case is related to theirs.

In those causes célébres the friends and the enemies of the defendants lined up roughly according to whether people were of the Right or of the Left. By the Right I mean the people who identify with existing Power, and by the Left I mean those who identify with the victims of Power. Sacco and Vanzetti, Mooney, and the Rosenbergs were of the Left. Dreyfus was not, but he was a Jew, and in those days antisemitism was a political weapon of the Right. So Dreyfus, too, was defended by the Left, because he was a victim of entrenched power.

In your case, judging by newspaper reports, people who passionately defend you are predominantly of the Right. They identify with the power of the United States. This does not mean, of course, that those who condemned you are of the Left in that they sympathized with your victims. They too are of the Right, but their concern, so they say, was to preserve the “honor” of the military profession, whose image in their estimation you tarnished. Your defenders, on the other hand, feel as you do (judging by what you wrote in your Confession) that killing is what the army is for. And, in fact, you and your defenders are right. Killing is what the army is for. Further, if the United States is fighting a just war and if this war can be won only by killing a lot of people, if the army is for killing, and if you are of the army, then you did right and should be acclaimed as a hero, like any other big time killer.

The men who tried you presumed to distinguish between right killing and wrong killing. But modern war makes it more and more difficult to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate victims. When a war is waged against a whole people, as by the United States in Indo China, the distinction disappears altogether. For then every one of the people against whom the United States is waging war is an enemy, including old women and small children. So the military doesn’t really have a case against you. If what they are doing is right, then you were doing right, for you were doing what they were doing.

But if helpless people are not enemies, just helpless people, whom it is wrong to massacre, then what the United States army is doing is wrong; and if what its army is doing is wrong, then the United States is wrong. The Right cannot accept this conclusion, and so they must defend you. They will now be doing the things the Left was doing years ago on behalf of the victims of power. They will organize Free Calley Committees, march in demonstrations, and solicit signatures on petitions for your pardon. That’s what makes a cause célébre and puts you in the company of people whom your admirers hate if they ever heard of them.

There will be a difference, however, between their cases and yours. When the people of the Left were the victims, the Right yelled for blood. On the eve of the Rosenbergs’ execution, people of the Right marched with placards that read “We want fried Rosenbergs on Friday.” I am pretty sure that in your case there will be no “Hang Calley” demonstrations. And another difference. Had Sacco and Vanzetti or the Rosenbergs or any of the many black victims of racist frame-ups been acquitted, it is quite likely that they would have been lynched or assassinated. If you are exonerated or pardoned, you do not run nearly as great a risk. This is because the blood thirsty, the haters, and the racists are on your side. For the most part they are attracted to the Right, because nothing brings out the utmost cruelty in man as a feeling of insecurity in power. The most excessive mass murders, the most barbarous tortures, the most bestial atrocities against the helpless were perpetrated in defense of entrenched power, when the wielders of power began to doubt their omnipotence. Killing and destroying is a way of bolstering one’s faith in one’s own faltering power. This is the situation of the present American Right, which has rallied in your defense.

Of course not all of your admirers are themselves potential killers.

Many of them identify with you because you are “the boy next door.” You

represent “normal” America, that most Americans still imagine to be their

homeland. It is too much for them to bear to see a clean-cut American boy

condemned as a murderer when he did not murder any one whom “normal” Americans can picture as a human being. That is the great tragedy of your case. It has united the “normal” America with the sick America. “Normal” America defends you because you represent it. The haters defend you because you did what they would like to have done.

Yours is a strange cause célébre, Lt. Calley. Except for some believers in old fashioned military honor (who don’t count much), hardly any one is against you. The Left is not against you, first because clamoring for a small fry victim is not its style; second because the Left sees as enemies both those who made a killer of you and those who tried and condemned you. The Right is all for you. You are their boy. The establishment probably wanted to use you as a scapegoat for its own crimes, but even that scheme has backfired: too phony. You see the tremendous advantage you have over the traditional victims of miscarriages of justice. You have practically no enemies. Your chances are good. At worst, you will spend some years in prison and will come out still a young man. On the other hand, considering the President’s responsiveness to pressures from the Right, you may even be pardoned.

If so, you will have to face life without respite. Your soul is a closed book to me; so I don’t know whether facing life will present a problem for you. Maybe not, if after the usual flurry of publicity, you will slip into the mainstream of American existence. In that case, neither I nor anyone else who feels as I do about what you did and what was done to you can say anything to you. We would be speaking mutually unintelligible languages. However, if your experience did reveal something to you — a vision horrible but inescapable, then listen. Those who are loudest in rooting for you, those who acclaim you as a patriot are not your friends. Had you turned on your accusers, not just to pass the buck but to charge them with your crime; had you said to them as Dostoyevsky’s killer said to his half brother, “I did the killing, but you are the murderer,” your present admirers would now be shouting for your crucifixion. To them you are not a fellow human being in anguish, a victim of injustice, but the embodiment of their own murderous fantasies. If you have friends (of which I am not sure), they are among those who hate your deed and the deeds of those whom you obeyed and the “cause” you and they served but haven’t enough hatred left to hate a human being.

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