In 1970, after my Viet Nam tour, I was reassigned to the squad because of my perceived combat experience. I was still not re acclimated to the New Jersey winter when riot-control drills began in early spring. One cold, blustery Saturday in late March 1970, the squad, now more like a company numbering around a hundred men, marched up to the Post Field House and were ordered to stack arms and file inside the auditorium. The result was four neat grids of rifles forming tripods five ranks by five columns on the packed gravel of the parking lot with one man standing guard. Thankfully, that wasn’t me. I was warm inside the field house.
The news of the My Lai massacre of March ’68 had been in the press since just before Thanksgiving ’69 when reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story. All of the stateside soldiers had fielded questions from family and friends while on leave over the holidays. I was in Viet Nam when the news broke so most of the story was new to me. Calley’s responsibility and that of his superiors and his men raised serious questions among stateside soldiers. There had been a military investigation of the events of that day and in early March 1970 the commission finished its inquiry. The brass had been following the story and once the commission concluded they knew it was only a matter of time till the stories filtered down the ranks. When riot-control season began the officers knew they had to respond to the grumbling amongst us permanent party on the riot-control squad.
We weren’t infantrymen. We were teachers at the signal school whose day-to-day concerns were how to get our students to understand the mystery of radio antenna theory and how radar waveguides worked. Most of us were educated, some with graduate degrees in math or engineering; yet here we were assigned to guard the post with fixed bayonets against the specter of hippies protesting the war and passing out leaflets at the front gate. Much ado about nothing, we thought. But the officers remembered Newark and Detroit and the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination two years before.
We sat uneasily in the field house. This event was entirely out of character. Any change in routine generated the silent question, “What new thing have they come up with to fuck us over? This was a big change.
After a review of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a colonel from the Judge Advocate General’s office brought it down to specifics as it related to Calley. Soldiers are obligated to obey lawful orders of their superiors. And they are subject to discipline under the UCMJ for following unlawful orders. The legal precedent, he said, was the conviction of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.
Nobody wanted to hear this. The implication was lost on no one. Calley’s case had yet to come to court martial but we knew it would. And he would not be alone. The lawfulness of an order would be decided ex post facto and we had no protection from being deemed to be on the wrong side of any decision.
At this point a crusty old master sergeant, whom we knew had served in WWII; and had been a First Sergeant in Viet Nam; and was due to retire within months, stood and said, “Sir, do you mean to tell us that in the heat of battle, like a fire fight in a village, with VC popping out of tunnels, with choppers in the air firing rockets at everything in sight, or more to the point a repeat of Newark……. You mean to tell us it’s up to the individual soldier to decide what’s a lawful order and ain’t?”
The colonel paused just a little too long before snapping, “Sit down sergeant, you’re out of order.” For what seemed like a full minute the sergeant stood at attention. There was not a sound in the room. Not a breath was drawn. Finally, the sergeant sat down. The colonel stepped aside as our commanding officer assumed the podium and said, “That’ll be all for today men. Fall in on your equipment.”