Crimes and Punishment (or Not)
The military judge in Pvt. Bradley Manning's kangaroo trial has announced his sentence, but right now I’m thinking about another soldier: William Laws Calley.
A Second Lieutenant in the Army during the Vietnam War, Calley famously was convicted of slaughtering 22 innocent men, women and children, including babies, during a day-long slaughterfest in which he and his men massacred over 500 unarmed Vietnamese.
It was an appalling war crime, and Calley, far from accepting his responsibility, initially tried to blame the atrocity on a helicopter gunship. But at least one of the men in his unit eventually told the truth and ratted him out. If Calley had any mitigating defense it was that he, like many other unit commanders in the field in Nam, were being ordered to do this kind of thing by their senior officers, who were getting promotions based on the “body counts” of “Viet Cong” that their men could rack up, and just as today the Pentagon calls every human being in Afghanistan or Yemen or Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province that it blows up or guns down a “terrorist,” back in the Vietnam War, killed Vietnamese, even those that were still too young to stand up, were labeled “VC.”
I’m thinking about William Laws Calley because, after he was convicted of killing those 22 human unarmed beings by a military court, he was sentenced to life in prison, doing hard labor at Leavenworth. But his trial was always controversial. The pro-war crowd had a “Kill ‘em all and let God sort it out” mentality when it came to the Vietnam War, and to many, Calley was a hero. Jimmy Carter, who at the time was governor of Georgia, was running for the redneck vote back in 1971, not the Nobel Peace Prize, and he protested the verdict by signing an order establishing a “American Fighting Man’s Day” and by calling on all red-blooded American Georgians to drive with their lights on for a week.
In fact, Calley never served a day of that richly deserved hard time. The following morning, President Richard Nixon commuted it to house arrest at Ft. Benning, pending his appeal of the conviction. Later, a general reviewing the sentence reduced it to 20 years, which was later reduced to 10 by the Secretary of the Army.
In the end, Lt. Calley’s incredible shrinking sentence was cut to three and a half years of house arrest. But even before that sentence was served out, he was released on appeal by a federal judge, who found that Calley’s trial had been prejudiced by negative pretrial publicity (see the photo, one of many, of the slaughter he oversaw and participated in personally), and by “inadequate notice of the charges” against him. In 1974, President Nixon (himself about to be driven from office after being impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors), granted a limited presidential pardon to Calley, and he was a free man.