The fortieth anniversary of “three days of peace, love and music” on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, continues to be celebrated, most recently in movie theaters this weekend when Taking Woodstock, the new film by Cold Mountain and Incredible Hulk director Ang Lee, opened to somewhat mixed reviews and brought in a disappointing $1.2 million. The film stars Demetri Martin, a comedian best known for his short-lived series on Comedy Central, and features, in the role of Yasgur, the eminent funnyman Eugene Levy in a rare dramatic role.
Still, the one moment during the past month’s boomlet in counterculture nostalgia that has stuck in my mind came on August 15, during a show billed as “Heroes Of Woodstock” at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, close by the original festival site. The performers included several acts from the hippie era that did not actually perform at Woodstock, such as Big Brother And The Holding Company (a band Janis Joplin had left well before she appeared at the festival). But several musicians who were there took the Center’s stage, including Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, Richie Havens, and Country Joe McDonald. Before reprising his “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag,” so familiar after countless rebroadcasts of the Woodstock documentary, McDonald, who served in the Navy from 1959 to 1962 and has been involved in veteran’s activities in Northern California, paused to read the names of the natives of Sullivan County, New York, where Woodstock took place, who died in Vietnam and have fallen so far in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And speaking of Vietnam reminds me of an event that occurred ten days ago in Columbus, Georgia, but, in the clutter of news in recent days (the health-care debate, President Obama’s trip to Martha’s Vineyard, the release of the two American journalists by North Korea, Ted Kennedy’s death) received comparatively little attention. A member of that city’s Kiwanis Club invited a veteran of the Vietnam War to appear before the organization, deliver some remarks about his experience, and take a few questions. Usually, this would hardly attract notice outside the local level, for countless veterans have spoken before chapters of fraternal organizations across America through the years. But when the veteran’s name is William Calley Jr., and he is appearing to speak about the massacre which he supervised in the hamlet of My Lai in what was then South Vietnam in March 1968, that’s another matter entirely.
It was September 5, 1969, that Lt. Calley was charged with the deaths of 104 Vietnamese civilians in the massacre; later estimates gave the death toll as high as 500, but the U.S. Army ultimately concluded that 347 died. Two months later, Seymour Hersh broke the story of the bloodbath, a scoop which made his name as an investigative reporter. For the next eighteen months, as two dozen other officers and enlisted men were charged but either acquitted or went untried, Calley became the focus of intense debate at dinner tables across the nation. For many of the young, and a large number who supported the war as well as opposing it, he was unquestionably a war criminal. But in the rural United States and especially the South, there were those who argued that it should be kept in mind that Calley believed he was acting in accordance with the orders of his superior officers to subdue a base of Viet Cong operations. (An example of such views is Terry Nelson and C Company’s record “The Battle Hymn Of Lieutenant Calley,” which figures prominently in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.)
Calley was convicted by a military court on March 29, 1971 – the only participant in the My Lai atrocities to be found guilty. Two days later, after Jimmy Carter and George Wallace had spoken on Calley’s behalf, and following a flood of letters and telegrams to the White House, President Nixon ordered the lieutenant’s release pending his appeal. When the appeal was upheld, Calley served three and a half years under what amounted to house arrest in Fort Benning, Georgia. Upon his release, he married the daughter of a prominent jeweler in Columbus, obtained a gemologist’s certificate, and went into the business of selling diamonds and other stones, from which he retired a few years ago. Through the decades, he avoided discussing My Lai.
But this month, Calley – now a portly, bald, bearded figure with little resemblance to the youth who was so much a part of the news nearly four decades ago – chose to finally break his silence. He told his audience at the Kiwanis Club: “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
During the q-and-a period afterward, he reiterated what he had stated after he was charged – that he acted as he had because he thought the orders he had received from Capt. Ernest Medina, which specified that My Lai’s habitations were to be destroyed and its livestock killed, implicitly included the killing of any persons found there. (Medina was also charged, but, after being defended by the famed attorney F. Lee Bailey, was found not guilty.) One wonders if the Kiwanis appearance was an isolated one or if Calley has anything more to say about the event to which his name is forever linked.