12 November 1970: Calley Goes to Trial for Mỹ Lai Massacre

On 12 November 1970, 1st Lieutenant William “Rusty” Calley Junior of the United States Army went on trial at Fort Benning for his involvement in the Mỹ Lai Massacre.

As the platoon leader of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade (Light) of the 23rd (Americal) Division, Calley was charged with six counts of pre-meditated murder of unarmed civilians. In his defence, Calley’s attorney argued that he had acted on the orders of his superiors, quoting Calley’s company commander, Captain Ernest Medina, who reportedly ordered that “every living thing” be killed. Calley’s Attorney also charged that higher commanders on the ground and in the air observed the events but did nothing to stop them.

The trial, however, signified less the atrocities committed in Vietnam by individual American soldiers but more the moral and practical disintegration of the American war effort in general. In America, Calley was often regarded as a scapegoat for military victimisation; a lower ranked officer taking the fall for the mistakes and bad practices of his superiors. This type of support for Calley called into question reports by independent journalists from Vietnam that American and South Vietnamese forces were poorly trained and lacked the discipline instilled by professional leadership.

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