The Vietnam War on Trial

TheVietnam War on Trial

TheVietnam War on Trial

WilliamCalley faced a military trial for his involvement in the death ofmore than 500 Vietnamese citizens at My Lai. The revelations shockedmost people despite the fact that the controversial war divided them.My Lai account has been discussed by Michael Belknap through the lawprism and profound insights with extensive viewpoints into thefundamental issues regarding the conflict that remain controversialamongst most Americans today. The Calley trial occurred at a periodwhen demonstrations were increasing and intense. Regardless of theirknowledge about the situation, the Nixon government wanted to containMy Lai event by covering up the actions of military officers inVietnam to save their reputations and jobs. A reporter Seymour Hershand his counterpart, Vietnam veteran Ron Ridenhour exposed theatrocities carried on the Vietnamese and irritated the anti-warmovement. Their report resulted in the trial of Lieutenant WilliamCalley.

Belknapnoted that an American Task Force attacked a populated area of SouthVietnam and engaged the remnants of the People’s Liberation ArmedForces (PLAF) on 16 March 1968 (p. 69). The PLAF members were absentat the moment when the three-company task force destroyed numeroussub-hamlets and their occupants. However, rumors started about themassacre in April 1968 when a freelance reporter Ronald Ridenhourheard of the event and conducted an informal investigation for ayear. The shocking revelations prompted Ridenhour to write differentletters to politicians and military leaders hoping to instigate aformal investigation. The recipients ignored his letters although heremained persistent. An official investigation on My Lai massacrestarted in August 1969 where the troop leader Lieutenant WilliamCalley received the first charges.

Belknapunfolded the trial case by case, and indicated how the Americanmilitary justice system actually operated. Readers are invited to thedifferent stages of the trial through theatrical reenactment, such asthe pre-trial investigations and the actual court exchanges betweenjudges, prosecutors, witnesses and defenders (p. 144). Belknaprevealed the transformation of a legal event into a politicaldiscussion regarding the conduct of the combat after being conductedpublicly. The trial portrayed the profound division within the nationand the challenges faced by the court in delivering justice underdeep media reporting. Belknap depicted Calley as a victim andcriminal and cited him as an involuntary scapegoat of the militaryand as a willing party (p. 79).

Slightlyover three years after they attacked the Vietnamese village called MyLai, the court sentenced Lieutenant Calley and his soldiers. Somepeople felt that the military had betrayed them while others accusedthem of the crimes. Calley became a questionable hero after the deathof 22 Vietnamese, including a toddler. He became famous during thetrial as he represented the Vietnam War victims (p. 191).

Americancitizens were shaken by the explicit images and the brutality of thecharges against Calley. Belknap portrayed an image of a country thatcould not believe that one of them could be that inhuman. On theother hand, the case made Calley a celebrity overnight where somepeople ignored the atrocities committed against the Vietnamese byAmerican soldiers and focused on the injustices perpetrated onAmericans by Americans. The court found Calley guilty for themassacre and President Richard Nixon attempted to appeal. Thepublicity of the case ended without the media demonstrating theplight of the Vietnamese victims and survivors whatsoever.

Somepeople considered Calley a scapegoat as they thought that thenation’s military leaders and civilians had made him endure thedreadful consequences of their immoral and reckless decisions. Hissentence was barely exemplary. The court reduced his sentence twotimes. One and a half years later, the U.S. ground soldiers leftVietnam in 1974. Calley spent around three years in an army apartmentwhere he appealed his conviction. The appeal was successful as heserved few months in martial prison.

Asindicated by the book title, Lieutenant Calley’s trial is portrayedto be political as outlined by Belknap. He argued that the trial was“of the army that fought the Vietnam War and ultimately of the waritself” (p. 121). History students are provided with ample proofthat My Lai execution was not a dreadful aberration. Both sides hadcommitted atrocities in Vietnam. The incident garnered more attentionas many Vietnamese died in one incident.

Thenature and waging of war resulted in more deaths. The AmericanGeneral William Westmore imposed the search-and-destroy approachwhose success involved having many body counts rather than seizingenemy terrain. According to Belknap, “the mission was simply tokill people” (p. 61).

Thesoldiers failed to distinguish enemy soldiers and Vietnamesefarmworkers as the former did not wear army uniforms and lived withcivilians. American soldiers hated the Vietnamese and often usedracist remarks and called them “gooks.” The conditions made themview all Vietnamese as opponents. Commanding officers ignored theactions of the soldiers and did not oppose the assessment. Belknapwrote that a soldier told him, “if it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’sVC” (p. 51). The actual number of Vietnamese who died during theconflict remains unknown, but Belknap estimated it to be 100,000 and300,000, in 1965 and 1968 respectively.

MyLai massacre occurred in 1968, but the number of casualties remainedunknown. Belknap cited that most civilians died brutal deaths. March16thwas the dreadful day as the massacre took place within hours.Calley’s unit called Charlie Company invaded My Lai despite beinginhabited by children, women, and old men. The company shot, raped,and mutilated the whole village. Belknap wrote that the militaryinvestigative team arrived in My Lai after two years and said that“for all practical purposes…a dead village” (p. 150).

Belknap’sstory of all the problems during the war showed his criticism forCalley. He indicated clearly that Calley approved My Lai massacre. Hebelieved that Calley killed over 100 Vietnamese despite beingconvicted for killing only 22 civilians. Belknap believed that Calleykilled many Vietnamese than any other soldier that day.

Thedesolation of My Lai introduced the extensive story described in thebook that is portrayed in the subsequent enquiry, trial and politicaldirection comprehensively. Amazingly, people could have not noticedMy Lai given the amount and brutality of killings committed. Theconspiracy behind the massacre was what Belknap identified as “almostas shocking as the carnage itself” (p. 89). Nobody wanted to exposethe political and military leaders that allow the crime. Belknapmaintained that some heroes vowed to tell the truth and identifiedthem as pilot Hugh Thompson, who saw the massacre of Vietnamese andtried to save them before filing for a formal after-action reportabout the event. The second hero was soldier Ron Ridenhour whodecided to produce a formal investigation after hearing the accountfrom his friends who killed people in My Lai. The third hero was afreelance reporter named Seymour Hersh who published the events ofthe massacre in newspapers countrywide.

Fromthe book, history students get to know more about the challenges theless fortunate people faced in the past. For example, Belknap’sbook showed how Vietnamese peasants suffered at the hands of Americansoldiers. Students are exposed to a world they may not be used to andhelp them deduce some of the reasons of particular events. Moreover,history students can read the book and understand the whole story asmost chronicles of My Lai massacre start with a brief account of the16thMarch, 1968 events. Most Vietnam War historians lacked adequatematerials about the massacre and its aftermath, but Belknap’s bookhas provided the whole account.

Inconclusion, the My Lai massacre by American soldiers was one of themost horrific atrocities in history. Belknap used his book to educatehis readers about the events that occurred at that time. He discussedhow the soldiers used body counts to regard the event as a success.He also portrayed the cover-up and political direction of the event.However, it is evident that Belknap felt that Calley was not ascapegoat of the military as he killed many people than hiscolleagues. Moreover, one would argue that the American governmentdid not offer enough punishment to the perpetrators and ignored theplight of the victims and survivors. Lastly, upper-division historystudents used the book to understand the effects of war in anycountry.


Belknap,M. (2002). TheVietnam War on Trial. The My Lai and the Court-Martial of LieutenantCalley. Michigan:The University of Michigan.