The Vietnam War on Trial
The My Lai Massacre and the Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley
Michal R. Belknap
The military trial of William Calley for his role in the slaughter of five hundred or more Vietnamese civilians at My Lai shocked a nation already sharply divided over a controversial war. In this superb retelling of the My Lai story through the prism of the law, Michal Belknap provides new perspectives and keen insights into core issues about the war that still divide Americans today.
One of the most highly publicized trials of its day, the Calley case emerged at a time when protests against the war were growing larger, louder, and more intense. Well aware of this, the Nixon administration sought to downplay the My Lai incident, which military officers in Vietnam had tried to cover up in order to protect their own careers and reputations. It might never have come to light had it not been for the efforts of Vietnam veteran Ron Ridenhour and journalist Seymour Hersh. Their investigations revealed the full extent of the My Lai tragedy, further inflamed the antiwar movement, and brought to trial Lieutenant William Calley.
“More than a generation after the war, its legacy of mistrust, waste, and distortion reechoes all the more harshly as we confront what may yet become our new Vietnam quagmire in the Middle East. . . . Military justice remains an area all too remote from public scrutiny. Such a condition helps neither the system itself, nor the populace it is supposed to serve. All the more important, then, for his this study to receive the wide readership it merits.”
—Law and History Review
“Well researched, evenhanded, and recommended to all readers.”
—VietnamSee all reviews...
“Although many accounts about My Lai have appeared, The Vietnam War on Trial surpasses all of them in its coverage, research, and clarity. . . . An ideal supplement for courses on the Vietnam War, this book is a must read for those seeking to understand the My Lai massacre and its significance.”
“Anyone seeking an authoritative account of My Lai, anyone who thinks they know the full story of America’s worst Vietnam war crime, will learn much from this deeply researched and finely nuanced retelling. . . . No other Vietnam war crime approached My Lai’s magnitude, and its lessons should not be forgotten. Belknap’s outstanding account is well researched, evenhanded in its assessments, and very well-written. It is a book not to be missed.”
—Journal of Military History
“This is a well-written book which will introduce the general reader to one of America’s most controversial modern trials and its little know aftermath.”
—Review of Politics
“The unravelling of the intricacies of the military justice system is fascinating reading. Although balanced and judicious, Belknap’s portraits of Calley and other participants, including Captain Ernest Median, are damning. The travesty of Calley’s avoidance of just punishment, the Army’s primary goal of protecting itself, and Nixon’s political involvement are sad commentaries. This captivating book belongs in all libraries.”
“A wise, discerning, and powerful account of a notable trial that illuminates the larger meaning of the Vietnam War. Belknap’s extraordinary analysis of the My Lai story skillfully explores the atrocities, the cover-up, and the political manipulation of the affair, and takes us beyond contemporary journalism to the complex history of what happened—and why.”
—Stanley Kutler, author of The Wars of Watergate
“I thought I’d overdosed on books about Vietnam years ago, but this one is terrific. It somehow manages to maintain its balance without losing its power to mesmerize. Vietnam junkies and novices alike cannot help but be affected by it.”
—John Hart Ely, author of War and Responsibility: Constitutional Lessons of Vietnam and Its AftermathSee fewer reviews...
Unfolding the Calley case step by step, Belknap shows how our system of military justice actually works. His dramatic reenactment takes readers through every stage of the trial, from pre-trial investigations to actual courtroom exchanges among prosecutors, defenders, witnesses, and judges. In the process, he reveals how a court-martial conducted within the public eye transformed a purely legal proceeding into a political debate about the conduct of the war. Calley's trial clearly demonstrated both how deeply the Vietnam War had divided our nation and how difficult it was for any court to deliver justice under such intense media coverage.
Scrupulously fair to all parties involved, Belknap portrays Calley as both criminal and victim-guilty of the crimes of which he stood accused, but also an unintended scapegoat of the American military machine. His court-martial, for hawks and doves alike, epitomized all that was wrong with our involvement in Vietnam.
By reopening the Calley case, Belknap helps a new generation of readers better understand why the Vietnam War was so controversial and damaging to national unity. His book, however, also provides insights that apply well beyond events of a particular war, suggesting that the grim lessons of My Lai will continue to shadow the conduct of America's present and future wars.