I’m writing to you today not just as a fellow combat veteran, but as an American. I understand the legal concept of innocent before proven guilty, but our justice system has no tolerance for those who flagrantly ignore the established rules of international conflict. To deploy to a foreign nation with the express purpose of protecting the local people, only to betray their trust by murdering them in cold blood is completely unacceptable.
I too was a member of the U.S. Army. I had the privilege of serving in Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader, and at no time did I ever sacrifice my personal integrity or sense of honor for nothing more than a personal vendetta against a group of ‘hostile locals’. War isn’t just about killing, it’s about hearts and minds. That’s what I always told my soldiers; always double-tap their hearts and minds. That’s how you win a village over. You have to storm in, arms open, and deliver the sweet release of freedom to those people at a muzzle velocity of 3,110 feet per second.
Instead you just went in there with guns blazing — alone. That should have been your first clue that what you were doing was wrong. At no point did you get orders from your company commander to “kill all combatants and suspects” regardless of your personal thoughts on the matter. You didn’t go into that tiny hamlet supported by a platoon or more of your fellow soldiers, righteous in the knowledge that your decisions were correct because everyone was taking part. For this I condemn you. Your cruel and evil actions have set the war effort back years, and have contributed to an increased negative focus on our war effort overseas, something the troops definitely don’t need at this juncture.
The Geneva Convention is very clear, and states that unarmed civilians should never be targeted for any reason. And yet you seem to have declared yourself above the law. Who the hell do you think you are Staff Sergeant? Some helicopter pilot protecting enemy combatants who decides that he knows more about a situation on the ground than the veteran infantrymen under heavy fire? You think you’re some rogue platoon leader just running through a friendly village, shooting people and burning down huts?
I remember when I was in combat. I told my soldiers to always serve honorably. Never do anything you may regret or become infamous for years from now. I think your platoon leader should have told you that. If he had, maybe this entire tragic situation could have been averted. Men, women, even children close to a year old! What were you thinking? This is a failure in leadership if I’ve ever heard one. And don’t you dare try and claim you were just “following orders”.
No officer would ever consent to the wholesale slaughter of an entire village.
During an operation targeting a little place called Pinkville, I gave my men strict instructions on how to act once we entered the village and led by example, not allowing the troops to do anything until I had done it first. That’s real leadership, Mr. Bales. When the operation was over, there wasn’t a single person alive in the village who opposed our counter-insurgency strategy. That’s how you win a war against a brutal enemy, as we did in southeast Asia.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no left-wing peace lover. I’m a firm believer in the Army, the Constitution, the Bible, in that order. Defending freedom is what we do, and like I’ve always told my men, “have a plan to kill everyone you meet, and be polite and professional when you do it.”
Unfortunately, Staff Sergeant Bales, you have failed to meet the high standards we have set for our officers and NCOs in the most professional Army on earth, and for that I cannot forgive you. I hope that you find peace spending the rest of your life rotting in a military prison, since that is the only recourse for someone who has so blatantly committed mass murder in a war zone.
Don’t you think for a single minute that after you are convicted you’ll receive a presidential pardon down the road. That would absolutely never happen. I’ll pray for you.
2nd Lt. (Ret.) William Calley is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He served with distinction in the famed ‘Americal Division’ and is personally credited with at least 22 confirmed enemy kills. After his time in the army, Calley was influential in brokering a peace deal between Vietnam and the United States, and he now serves on the boards of Amnesty International, the National Association of Second Lieutenants, and the NRA.