My Lai, Stella’s Game, and Tideline

By 1968, the conflict in Vietnam had lost any popular support that it had had in the US…and in Vietnam.

Unidentified women and children just before they were killed
Ronald L. Haeberle photo, Wiki Commons

On 16 March, 1968, soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, and Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry, both of the 23rd Division (also called the Americal Division), killed somewhere between 347 and 504 people in two hamlets called My Lai and My Khe in the Son Tinh district of South Vietnam. An unknown number of women were raped, some as young as 12; children were mutilated. It was the best known of several such atrocities in the entire conflict. It took place during Operation Muscatine, which started in December 1967 and went on until June, 1968, aimed at securing Chu Lai.

Gee…don’t that sound simple?

The first time the American public knew anything about these massacres was September 1969, in a vague press release from Fort Benning about charges of murder being filed against Lieutenant William Calley. In trickles, then in floods, photos, names, dates were revealed as more people came forward with more testimony, more photos. Several reporters and photographers had been there, had seen the aftermath; one even claimed to have stopped some of the killing. There was a Pentagon Vietnam War Crimes Working Group that investigated these and several other massacres, but “war crimes” were never brought against anyone.

Over a year later…

William Calley stood trial for murder on 17 November 1970. It was hard to get eyewitnesses to testify against Calley, but one did, and Calley’s defense team couldn’t shake the testimony. On 29 March 1971, Calley was found guilty of 22 specifications of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

No one else was ever convicted of anything related to these crimes…

Despite the protest marches and the riots and flag-burning in the streets of America, the general reaction over Calley’s conviction was one of mild outrage. Within the US Army, Calley was regarded as a victim of the war’s culture of body count: the higher the better. He and his men–over a hundred would have taken part–were also victims of the nature of the conflict. While most of the victims were women and children, many of these guy’s friends had been victims of women and children bearing satchel charges and grenades, using both their youth and their sex to get close to American targets before setting off their weapons. While the protesters could use the conviction to bolster their arguments of an “unjust” war, the paltry number that Calley was actually convicted of deflated their argument somewhat.

The most common name Calley was given was “scapegoat…”

Calley spent less than two weeks in prison; President Nixon ordered him placed under house arrest at Fort Benning on 1 April 1971. After numerous appeals, Calley was released in September, 1974. The biggest reason for the successful appeals was pre-trial publicity, lack of corroborating witnesses, and the refusal of both the Department of Defense and the US Congress to make available evidence that Calley’s defense team requested. That and the general outrage over the acquittal of Captain Ernest Medina–Calley’s boss–who had planned and ordered the sweep operation that, in part, resulted in the massacres. Despite the unpopularity of the war, there was a great stink of cover-up. I distinctly recall that the popular media at the time of his conviction was nearly schizophrenic.

But by then, US troops had been out of Vietnam for two years, and no one was interested anymore.

Stella’s Game...watch her deal

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, the characters react to the conviction of William Calley–and the crimes he was accused of committing–in significantly different ways. While one is outraged, others are resigned; most question why not others. Scapegoat, martyr, example are names Calley is given…but not baby-killer or murderer.

But this was the 70’s, and the characters are fifteen and sixteen, looking forward to a future with a war that does not appear to have an end, and a draft that may not, either. Though Nixon campaigned on an “end the draft” platform in ’68, it was renewed for two years in September ’71–while the Calley appeals were ongoing–though everyone knew it would not be renewed again.

They know all this, but the boy’s future was still a question mark, and the girls were concerned for them.

Tideline is Rising

Where Stella’s Game leaves off, Tideline: Friendship Abides picks up. Join JJ and Mike, Ann and Leigh after they leave school on their life adventures, from 1974 to 1986. Tideline is scheduled for publication by April, 2020.

Join in the adventure!