Kill ‘Em All and Let God Sort Them Out

There’s quite a buzz this morning over research published by CBS subsequent to a long ongoing 60 Minutes investigation of the My Lai massacre of 1968 indicating that the White House may have sought to intimidate witnesses of the massacre to avoid prosecution of its perpetrators–most famously Lieutenant William Calley. While the “story” is of another in a long list of illegal activities of the sort that were exposed by the Watergate scandal, a sub-item was of particular interest to me, as someone who watched public reaction to My Lai in horror:

According to historian Ken Hughes, it’s the historical context that makes for a convincing argument. He calls My Lai “a political threat to Nixon,” and points out that a substantial part of Nixon’s support base refused to believe that killing civilians in a war zone was a crime. According to Hughes, Nixon’s approval rating dropped by 10 points after Lieutenant William Calley received a life sentence for murdering civilians at My Lai.

Nixon intervened, and Lt. Calley’s sentence was reduced. He was paroled after only three years under house arrest.

To be clear, it was association with the prosecution of Calley, not with the massacre itself, that was a “political threat” to Nixon. And approval rating numbers aside, I believe it. Maybe that’s because I was living in Georgia at the time, where “Ralleys for Calley” were all the rage, and he was treated as an adopted local hero (he was stationed at Ft. Benning).

The idea that once war begins, all foreign nationals (including children) are potential combatants, and all those “rules of warfare” are so much sentimental bushwa, is deeply rooted in this country, along with a disregard for “collateral damage.” But rarely has it been so clearly manifested, at least since the genocidal slaughter of native Americans, than in the days after it become clear what happened at My Lai.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.