How big is too big?
Seymour Hersh is a longtime investigative journalist, hailed as a “scoop artist.” He broke the story of the My Lai Massacre in 1968 and reported on the abuse of detainees by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. And these are just two of the many major stories he’s covered in his career.
In May of 2015, Hersh published an article in the London Review of Books that said the Obama administration’s account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was false. The White House called it “utter nonsense,” and a number of news outlets criticized Hersh’s reporting. The Columbia Journalism Review called the reaction “disgraceful,”, writing that “instead of trying to build off the details of his story, or to disprove his assertions with additional reporting, journalists have largely attempted to tear down the messenger.”
Hersh has always been an iconoclast and he’s never shied away from controversial reporting.
Now, in his new book Reporter: A Memoir, Hersh reports on his own life and his field. His prognosis of the latter isn’t very sunny. “Yes, it’s a mess. And there is no magic bullet, no savior in sight for the serious media,” he writes in the introduction to Reporter.
- Seymour Hersh Author, "Reporter: A Memoir"; former staff writer, The New Yorker and The New York Times; he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting on the massacre in My Lai, Vietnam
Read an excerpt
Excerpted from “Reporter” by Seymour M. Hersh. Copyright © 2018 by Seymour M. Hersh. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
By the fall of 1969, I was working out of a small, cheap office I had rented— less than one hundred dollars a month— on the eighth floor of the National Press Building in downtown Washington. My neighbor a few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in the American automobile industry had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. He would grab a spoonful of my tuna fish salad, flatten it out on a plate, and point out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.
The tip came on Wednesday, October 22, as I was doing research into cost overruns on Pentagon projects. I had yet to find an innovative way into the Pentagon book. The caller was Geoffrey Cowan, a young lawyer new to town who had worked on the McCarthy campaign and was an old pal of Marylouise Oates’s. He’d been writing critically about the war for The Village Voice, and there was a story he wanted me to know about. The army was in the process of court- martialing a GI at Fort Benning, Georgia, for the killing of seventy- five civilians in South Vietnam. Cowan did not have to spell out why such a story, if true, was important, but he refused to discuss the source of his information. His words resonated nonetheless: He spoke with the authority of one who knew more than he was willing to say, or knew someone who knew more.
As I’ve made clear, I had learned while on the job in the Pentagon of the gap between what the men running the war said and what was going on. The lying seemed at times to be out of control, and there were reasons to believe the war was, too. Even those like Mark Hill, who supported the war, were troubled by the reliance on body counts in assessing progress in the war; it was clear that many of those claimed to be enemy soldiers killed in combat were civilians who may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just were there, living where their ancestors had lived for generations. My many speeches about the perils of chemical and biological warfare had put me in contact with leaders of the antiwar movement around the country, and I was familiar with the war crimes research that had been published by the Quakers and other church groups.
One of the most unheralded critics of the war was Seymour Melman, a Columbia University economist who became an expert on war crimes in Vietnam and directed the research for In the Name of America, an extensive summary of reported war crimes that was published in January 1968 by a group known as the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. The dense volume, which Melman pressed on me, reprinted many hundreds of excerpts from American newspaper and magazine reports in 1966 and 1967 that depicted war crimes, including the routine murder of prisoners of war and the killing by hand grenades of women and children who were cowering in their homes during American search-and-destroy missions. The volume included a 1967 New York Post dispatch that offered a helpful bit of Vietnamese slang for newly arriving American soldiers—Co di mo tom, feeding the lobsters. The newspaper said it meant killing prisoners.
After a speech in Berkeley in early 1969, I was approached by Joe Neilands, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California, who had traveled to North Vietnam in 1967 and participated in the questioning of three American GIs at the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal that took place that year in Stockholm and near Copenhagen. Neilands, who passed away in 2008, gave me a published copy of the tribunal’s proceedings, which included devastating testimony from the three American GIs. One of them, David Kenneth Tuck from Cleveland, Ohio, who served as a specialist fourth class with the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division, told of freewheeling raids on villages in suspected Vietcong (Vietnamese communist, or VC) territory in which there routinely were what he called “mad minutes” during which all Americans involved—including machine gunners on tanks—opened fire and poured “everything that they had into this village, because . . . we had assumed that until proven otherwise every Vietnamese was a VC.” Tuck’s public testimony was summarized by the AP and relayed around the world, but only a few American newspapers published the dispatch, and I found no evidence of any effort by the American media to follow up on Tuck’s assertions. More typical of the response was a venomous attack on the tribunal by C. L. Sulzberger, the Times foreign affairs columnist, that personally vilified Russell, a Nobel Prize–winning philosopher and mathematician, who was then ninety-four years old. Russell, wrote Sulzberger, had “outlived his own conscious idea and become clay in unscrupulous hands.” The tragedy of the tribunal, Sulzberger added, “cannot fairly be laid at the door of the wasted peer whose bodily endurance outpaced his brain.”
A question I’ve been asked again and again by others, and one I’ve asked myself, is why I pursued Cowan’s tip. There was not much to go on. I did not know Cowan. I had not been to South Vietnam. There had been no public mention, not a hint, of a massacre on the scale cited by Cowan. The answer came from my days in the Pentagon pressroom, where such a rumor, or tip, would be dismissed by all, so I believed, without a second thought. My colleagues had scoffed at Harrison Salisbury’s firsthand account of systematic American bombing in North Vietnam, and a few had gone further: They had worked with Robert McNamara and Cyrus Vance to undercut the Salisbury dispatches. I chased Cowan’s vague tip because I was convinced they would not.
I knew what I was up against: There was a huge difference between testimony at an avowedly antiwar proceeding in Europe and the tip I had been given. If Geoffrey Cowan was right, it was the U.S. Army itself that filed the murder charges. If so, there would have to be some official report somewhere in the military system. Finding it was worth a few days or so of my time.
I had renewed my Pentagon press credentials because my contract with Random House necessitated access to the building. My first step was to review all of the recent army courts- martial that had been initiated worldwide by the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the army’s lawyers. I did so, and found no case hinting of mass murder. I hurriedly went through the same process with criminal investigations that had been made public by the military. Once again, no luck. If Cowan was right, the prosecution he knew about was taking place in secrecy. I felt stymied and went back to collecting data for my book.
What happened next was, in a sense, a one- in a- million bank shot, but it grew out of my respect for those officers who did their job the way it was meant to be done. I was in the Pentagon a few days later, en route to an interview, when I bumped into an army colonel I knew to be a truth teller from my reporting on army training issues while at the AP. He had gone to Vietnam and had been wounded. He was limping as we walked together and he told me, with pride, that he had just learned he had been promoted to general. I teased him about taking a bullet in the leg just to get a promotion, and he laughed, as I knew he would— black humor is a military staple— and we kept on chatting. What was he doing now? I asked. He was assigned to the office of the army’s new chief of staff, General William Westmoreland, who had just returned from running the Vietnam War. Wow. If anyone knew about a murder case from Vietnam, it would be someone in that office. I asked the officer what he knew about the mass murder of civilians in Vietnam. I remember the gist of his angry, emphatic answer: “Are you telling me someone who kills little babies and goes around saying he’s killing Vietcong knows what he’s doing? He’s just crazy.” I want to believe I betrayed none of the excitement that flushed through me. “This Calley is a madman, Sy. He killed people that were no higher than this,” he said, slamming his hand against his right knee, the one that had been injured. “Little babies.” He whacked his knee again. “There’s no story in that.”
I now had a name. There was never more of a disconnect between an honorable military officer and a reporter on the hunt. The newly created general saw Calley as an aberration; I thought he was part of a hell of a story that needed to be told. Needless to say, I did not share my differing view with the officer. I did not want anyone in Westmoreland’s office to know I was onto the story.
It took hours of poring over newspapers on microfilm until I found a three- paragraph clip from page 38 of The New York Times for Mon-day, September 8, six weeks earlier, that quoted an information officer at Fort Benning, Georgia— the base Cowan had cited—as revealing that a twenty- six- year- old infantry officer named William L. Calley Jr., of Miami, had been charged with murder “in the deaths of an unspecified number of civilians in Vietnam.” The incident took place in March 1968, and the case, as the army was depicting it, involved the deaths of what was said to be more than one civilian. No one in my profession asked any questions at the time, because no reporter then, and now, so I thought, knew what I did about the enormity of the case.* News of the charges against Calley even made the Huntley- Brinkley evening news, a popular and highly regarded show on NBC, with the network’s Pentagon correspondent simply parroting the official press release. He told millions of viewers that Calley had been accused of the premeditated murder “of a number of South Vietnamese citizens. The murders are alleged to have been committed a year ago and the investigation is continuing. A growing number of such cases is coming to light and the Army doesn’t know what to do with them.”
* I learned later that Charles Black, an experienced military affairs reporter who’d gone to Vietnam five times for the Columbus Enquirer, the local daily that covered Fort Benning, had learned significant details of the case against Calley but chose not to publish what he knew until the army went public with the case. He was quoted as explaining after the My Lai story broke that he did not want to embarrass the military.
There was an element of doubt, even with Calley’s name and its correct spelling. Geoffrey Cowan had said the mass murder had involved an enlisted man, not an officer. I called the library of The Miami Herald, Miami’s best newspaper, to see if the newspaper had anything on Calley. There was one clip: A William Calley Jr., then working as a switchman for the Florida East Coast Railway, had been arrested by Fort Lauderdale police in 1964 for allowing a forty- seven- car freight train to block traffic during rush hour for thirty minutes. He was later cleared of wrongdoing.
I owed my next step to what I had learned during my days as an AP reporter in the Pentagon. I’d written about cost overruns and pilot retention— issues that attracted the attention of the defense specialists working for the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. I was especially friendly with a senior aide on the House committee, then headed by Representative L. Mendel Rivers, a Democrat with a locked-in congressional seat from South Carolina. Rivers was an outspoken supporter of all things military, including the war in Vietnam, and I guessed that there was no way the Pentagon would not have given him a private briefing about the mass murders, if there were mass murders, in South Vietnam. Melvin Laird, the shrewd secretary of defense, had served in the House with Rivers for eight terms and had to understand the political importance of keeping a key player like Rivers up to date on the good, and the bad.
I managed to have a cup of coffee with my friend on Rivers’s staff. I had also learned from my AP days in the Pentagon that officials with top secret clearances were bored to death by reporters seeking to pry such information from them. (Gene McCarthy hated interviews for a different reason—because he was asked the same question again and again.) So I began my chat with my congressional friend not with a question but by telling him everything I knew about Calley and the charges against him. His response was not to deny the story but to warn me off it. “It’s just a mess,” he said, referring to Calley by name. “The kid was just crazy. I hear he took a machine gun and shot them all himself. Don’t write about this one. It would just be doing nobody any good.” I understood my friend’s concern, as a senior aide to the very conservative Rivers, but I was not about to stop my reporting.
The story, as I was piecing it together, still did not make sense. One young officer did all the killing? What happened next added to my confusion. I telephoned the public information office at Fort Benning and, as casually as I could, asked the officer on duty for guidance on the Calley court-martial. The duty officer said he would check and, after a few moments, returned to the phone with an out-and-out lie: The Calley incident, he said, involved a shoot‑up in a bar in Saigon after a lot of drinking. I understood that the young officer was simply doing his job and relaying what he was told to tell all who asked. Calley was the story, and my man, but something else was going on.
So I had to find Calley’s lawyer. The court-martial records for his case were sealed, and I got nowhere asking questions in the Pentagon. I was pretty timid, too, about doing so; I did not want any other journalist to get a sniff of what I was doing. I liked being the best, the leader of the pack, and I sensed there was a game- changing story that revolved around William Calley, wherever he was. I was going to be the first reporter to find him. In desperation I turned again to Geoffrey Cowan, who, so I learned, was a recent Yale Law School graduate who had played a major role in setting up the Center for Law and Social Policy, one of America’s early public interest law firms. I told him I was stuck and needed the name of Calley’s lawyer. It was a cry for help, a shot in the dark. Two days later, Cowan called with a name: Latimer. Nothing more. I did not waste time wondering what else Cowan could tell me, or where he was getting his information.
I found a lawyer named Latimer in the Washington, D.C., telephone book. He knew nothing about a murder case involving the Vietnam War but thought I might want to get in touch with George Latimer, a retired judge on the Military Court of Appeals who was once again practicing law. Latimer had joined a Salt Lake City law firm, and I got him on the phone. I told him I knew he was representing Calley and added, with some honesty, that I had a hunch his client was being railroaded. (I did not add that I thought he was a criminal.) Latimer, speaking very deliberately, as he always did, acknowledged that yes, Calley was his client and it was a miscarriage of justice. Touchdown. I told the judge I was flying to the West Coast soon and asked if he would mind if I arranged a stopover in Salt Lake City. We settled on a day in early November. I had no need to go to the West Coast but thought it best to hide my eagerness. I also spent half a day in the Pentagon library reading a number of the judge’s decisions, and even briefing a few of them; it was a reminder of what I did not do enough of during my underachieving year at the University of Chicago Law School.
I had an American Express card but did not have enough money to start flying around at the last minute doing interviews. I had heard that Philip Stern, an antiwar philanthropist in Washington, was thinking of endowing a fund for investigative journalism, and I called him, told him what I was chasing, and got a commitment within a few minutes for one thousand dollars. It was a relief to have that money in my bank account, but I would have found another way to fly to Salt Lake City, philanthropy or not. Stern eventually endowed the Fund for Investigative Journalism, an important foundation that continues today to finance innovative newspaper and magazine stories.
I took an early flight and arrived at Latimer’s modest office by ten o’clock on a weekday morning. I guessed the judge, who was an elder in the Mormon Church, to be in his late fifties. It was clear at first glance that he was not a man full of irony and whimsy. I masked my acute anxiety by telling Latimer that I had reviewed a number of his appellate decisions and asked him to explain why he did what he did in certain instances. He did so. It was an extreme example of the Hersh rule: Never begin an interview by asking core questions. I wanted him to know I was smart and capable of some abstract thought. And I wanted him to like me and, perhaps, trust me.
We got to the case in hand, and Latimer told me that the proceeding against his client was a gross miscarriage of justice but he was bound by the army’s version of grand jury rules and could not discuss specifics. He did say that the army offered Calley a plea bargain—one that involved jail time—and he had told the army, “Never.” The message was clear: He believed his client was a fall guy for the mistakes, if any, of more senior officers during an intense firefight. It also was clear that the judge was in regular telephone contact with Calley, wherever he might be, in or out of jail. At this point, for reasons I still do not understand, but perhaps having to do with Latimer’s sense that the army was piling on his client, I told Latimer that I understood Calley was being accused of killing 150 civilians during the army assault on My Lai. The only number I knew was the vague 75 deaths Cowan had cited, but the army officer and the congressional aide with whom I had discussed the case spoke of wild shootings and insanity. I also knew from my readings of the Russell Tribunal and other antiwar reportage that the senseless killing of hundreds was commonplace in American attacks on rural villages in South Vietnam.
That fictional number got to Latimer, who, visibly angered, went to a file cabinet in his office, snatched a folder, pulled a few pages from it, walked back to his desk—I was seated across from him—and flung the pages in front of me. It was an army charge sheet accusing First Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr. of the premeditated murder of 109 “Oriental” human beings. Even in my moment of exultation—I knew it was going to end the war and win prizes—it was stunning to see the number Calley was accused of murdering and the description of the dead as “Orientals.” Did the army mean to suggest that one Oriental life was somehow worth less than that of a white American? It was an ugly adjective.
Latimer quickly turned the charge sheet around and pushed it closer to him. I have very little memory of what happened next in our chat, because I spent that time—twenty minutes or so—pretending to take notes as we talked. What I really was doing was reading the document upside down, albeit very slowly, and copying the charge sheet word for word. At some point Latimer broke off the interview and refused to say where Calley was or in any way help me get to him. I was pretty sure the judge sensed he’d gone too far with me, and I did not dare ask him for a copy of the charge sheet, for fear that he would instruct me that I could not use what I had seen. At the door, I thanked him for spending the morning with me and said I assumed that Calley was still at Fort Benning, awaiting a court-martial, and I was going to hunt him down. If I was wrong, I added, he should please tell me. Latimer stared at me for a moment and said nothing, and I flew home. I had to find Calley, and Benning was the place to start.
I was riddled with regret by the time I got back to Washington. How could I not have asked Latimer for a copy of the army charge sheet? A story this big written by someone like me—a fringe player known to be antiwar—could only work if I had a copy of that document. I remember fantasizing about what would happen had I been a reporter for The Washington Post or the Chicago Sun-Times and called my editor after the Latimer interview to report that I had seen the charge sheet. He would ask if I had a copy of the document. I would say no and then be consigned to the obituary desk for my inability to get the goods.
I was afraid to go to The New York Times or any major newspaper with the story. I was a lone operator and feared being overtaken by the large staffs of skilled journalists available to the editors there. I did not see myself as a tipster. It was my story. David Obst, my fun-loving pal from the Dispatch News Service, was desperate for the story, but understood why I had to start at the top. I’d been contacted a month or so earlier by a senior editor at Life magazine, America’s most famed weekly, and asked whether I was interested in doing some reporting for them. I tracked down the editor and told him, cryptically, that I was working on a story that could change the course of the Vietnam War. Was he interested? Of course he was. We left it at that, and I took off very early one morning in the first week of November for Columbus, Georgia, the largest city adjacent to Fort Benning. The search for Calley was on.
Fort Benning, like most army bases in the United States, was an open facility, and I had no trouble driv ing onto the main post. I was stunned by its size. The base is roughly as big as all of New York City, some 285 square miles, with an airfield, a series of widely separate training areas, where live ammunition was being fired, and scores of living areas, known today as family villages. There were a hell of a lot of places to hide Calley, as the army apparently had chosen to do. I was undaunted; tracking down people who did not want to be found was vital to what I did for a living, and I was good at it. He was being held on a murder charge, and I assumed that meant he was in a prison, known in the army as a stockade or guardhouse, under the jurisdiction of the provost marshal, who was the equivalent of a chief of police for Fort Benning. My guess was that only a few of the most senior officers there knew about the Calley case, and so I began at the headquarters of the provost marshal’s main office. The soldiers working there were helpful and checked their records, but did not find a William Calley listed as a prisoner. Perhaps Calley was being kept under wraps at one of the many stockades that were scattered around the fort.
I got a good map of the base and began driving. The routine was the same at each of the prisons I visited: I parked my rental car in the spot reserved for the senior officer in charge, which was invariably empty, walked into the prison in my suit and tie, carrying a briefcase, and said to the corporal or sergeant in charge, in a brassy voice, “I’m looking for Bill Calley. Bring him out right away.” There was no Bill Calley anywhere. It took hours and more than one hundred miles to navigate just a few of the stockades scattered around the fort, and I was beginning to feel the pressure of time. It was just past noon by the time I returned to the main post.
I found a pay phone and a base telephone directory in a post exchange (PX) cafeteria and began calling every club I could find—swimming, tennis, hunting, fishing, hiking. No member by the name of Calley. None of the gas stations I reached on the base serviced a car owned by Lieutenant Bill Calley. I even checked the directory of officers at Infantry Hall, the office that handled all the training needs on the base, whose primary mission at the time was to produce infantrymen for the Vietnam War. There was no Calley booked at any of the army hotels or quarters for junior officers on temporary assignment at Benning. After a frustrating few hours, I still had no clue to Calley’s whereabouts, nor did I know if he was still at Benning. I was hungry, running out of daylight, and more than a little anxious. I decided to take a short walk and a huge risk by stopping by the main office of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, whose lawyers would be prosecuting the case against Calley, if he was on the base. It was long after lunch hour, but the office was still empty, except for a lone sergeant. He could not have been more friendly as I introduced myself as a journalist from Washington and said I needed some help. His smile disappeared when I said I was looking for William Calley. He asked me to wait a moment. I asked why. He said he was under orders that if anyone asked about Calley, he was to call the colonel right away. That was enough for me, and I told the sergeant not to worry about it and began walking away. The sergeant got frantic and told me I could not leave. With that I began running out of the office and down the street, going harder with each stride. I did not want a colonel kicking me off the base. The sergeant chased after me for a few dozen yards and stopped. It was a scene out of a Marx Brothers movie.
Judge Latimer had given me the name of Calley’s military lawyer, a major named Kenneth Raby. I figured what the hell; I had nothing to lose by trying to find him. Not only was he in the base telephone book, he was in his office at a nearby combat-training unit. He paled when I told him I was a reporter and wanted to find Calley. I remember the major as tall, thin, and most unnerved by my presence. He refused to talk to me, but I was reassured, nonetheless, by the meeting; Calley was somewhere at Benning, and I was not going home until I found him.
I had a hamburger and a Coke at a PX and wondered, as I chewed, what the hell to do next. Then I remembered that Judge Latimer had told me that Calley, still on active duty in Vietnam, had been ordered to fly back to Benning in late August 1969. I recalled from my AP days in Correspondents Corridor that the military produced updated telephone books for the Pentagon every four months, beginning in January. If Benning did the same, and why wouldn’t it— there was a war on, and troops were coming and going— the telephone book that I had used hours earlier should be dated September 1969. It was. I dialed the operator and asked for the supervisor on duty, and when she got on the phone, I asked her to check the last batch of new listings for the May telephone book for a Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr. The lieutenant, when he returned from overseas, had yet to be prosecuted, and he would have had to have been parked somewhere on the base— and duly listed as a late entry in the telephone book. After a moment or so, the operator returned, told me she’d found my man, and then quickly rattled off a phone number and an address before hanging up. I did not understand a thing she said, between my jumpiness and her deep southern accent, and wasted precious time reconnecting with her. When I did, she spelled out, letter by letter, Calley’s assignment at the fort and his phone number. I had no interest in reaching him or leaving word for him by phone, but I needed the information to be able to physically confront the man.
Calley was attached to an engineering unit located in one of Fort Benning’s satellite training camps. The building was only a few miles from the main post, but it took me nearly an hour, through a maze of streets, to find the goddamn place. It was the living quarters for trainees and consisted of two three-story barracks linked by a one-story headquarters office. It was midafternoon, a few hours before the workday would end, and I had a premonition that I would find Calley stashed somewhere inside. Why not start with the office? Its heavy wooden door was divided, military style, into separate upper and lower halves, with only the upper half open. Captain Charles Lewellen was listed as the officer in charge, and I leaned into the office and told a clerk that I was a reporter from Washington and wondered if the captain was around. He was, round- bellied and full of smiles that immediately evaporated when I told him I was looking for Bill Calley. He told me he was not authorized to speak about Calley, and, as had happened before, he picked up a telephone and asked for the colonel as I stood in front of him. Once again, I beat it onto the street. Lewellen followed me outside and asked for a word. He essentially begged me to stay away. He explained that he had been passed over for promotion to major a number of times and would be forced to retire if it happened again, as it would if I found Calley. “Give me a break,” he said. “If you’ve got any questions about Calley, take them someplace else.”
Lewellen’s bizarre behavior stemmed from the fact that on March 16, 1968, he had been in an operations center that monitored the My Lai operation as it took place and had made a personal tape recording of the carnage—one that he did not turn over to investigators for eighteen months. I knew nothing of that, and I interpreted Lewellen’s effort to slow me down as evidence that Calley was very nearby, probably tucked away in one of the barracks I had yet to search. I mumbled some words of acquiescence to the bedraggled captain and began to walk away. After a few moments of scuffling about, I found a back door into the nearest barracks and walked through row after row of double bunk beds on the first floor, all empty and all neatly made up. I raced through the upper two floors, peering into each bed in the hope of finding my man. Nothing. I crossed to the second barracks, avoiding Captain Lewellen by scrambling on hands and knees past the still-closed bottom half of his office door. The eureka moment came on the second floor in the form of a young man, in uniform, with tousled blond hair, dead asleep in a top bunk. It had to be Calley. I was all dominance as I raised a leg and banged my foot on the side of the bunk, and said, “Wake up, Calley.” The young soldier, not yet twenty years old, yawned and said, “What the hell, man.” I do not remember what the name tag on his blouse said—something ending in “ski”—but it made clear I did not have Calley. I sat down in disappointment on a bunk bed facing the GI. What happened next was a vestige of my hating basic training in the army and trying out in the middle of it for the Fort Leonard Wood baseball team, which I made. Doing so enabled me to leave my fellow trainees after lunch to go to practice. It also meant I was in my bunk, dead asleep from the exhaustion of picking up a few ground balls, by the time my colleagues marched back to our barracks. And thus, amid my disappointment, out popped a question to the GI: “What the fuck are you doing sleeping in the middle of the day?”
It was a sad story. He had been scheduled to be released months earlier from active duty, but the army had lost his papers and he was still awaiting them. He was from a farming family in Ottumwa, Iowa, and it was harvest season, and his dad and others were doing his share of the work. Getting released by the army was a day-to-day question mark; meanwhile, he was getting in a lot of sleep. I was curious—how could I not be?—and asked the sad sack if he had been assigned anything to do during the day. Yeah, he said, “I sort the mail.” For everyone? Yes. Did he ever get mail for someone named Calley? “You mean that guy that killed all those people?” Yes, that guy.
The farmer-to-be told me that he had never met Calley but had been ordered to collect the lieutenant’s mail and deliver it every so often to his pal Smitty, the mail clerk at battalion headquarters. I was flushed with excitement but played it cool. Where’s that? Couple of miles away. Take me there. No way, the kid said. Smitty had just lost his sergeant stripes—something to do with too much boozing—and was in no mood to talk to a stranger. I knew this was going to be easy; the kid had seen no action in weeks, and I was going to give him some. We synchronized our watches. It was nearly four o’clock, and I said that I had a rented Ford sedan that was a few hundred feet away and would pull up to the back door of the barracks in precisely seven minutes. Meet me then and take me to Smitty, I said. I raced off. He was where I wanted him to be, as I knew he would be, as I drove up. It took an excruciating fifteen or so minutes to drive to battalion headquarters, and the kid insisted on being driven back. I agreed to do so and hustled back to a parking lot in front of the headquarters.
It was an old one-story building that I knew from my days in the army—essentially a wooden shack with a small porch and a screen door. The door was open and a black sergeant was leaning against it in a chair, taking in the late afternoon Georgia sun, a toothpick in his mouth. I tucked in my shirt, drew my tie tight, grabbed my jacket and briefcase, and climbed out of the car, looking every bit like a lawyer, I hoped, and said, “Sergeant, get Smitty out here right now.” There was a big smile from the sergeant: He was probably thinking, what has that dumb fuckup Smitty done now? Out comes Smitty, not much older than my friend from Ottumwa, with threads hanging from the sleeves of his blouse, where his sergeant stripes had been. I say, “Get in the car,” and in he comes. He’s scared, but I quickly calm him down by telling him who I am and what I want. Smitty is apologetic and explains he knows little about Calley. Sure, he’s heard that the lieutenant had shot up a lot of people, but his contact with him is limited to collecting his mail and giving it to a courier who picks it up. He has no idea where Calley is living or where his mail ends up. I ask, resignedly, so there’s nothing on Calley in the battalion files? Well, says Smitty, we do have everyone’s 201 files. I knew that a 201 file is the military’s essential personnel folder that is kept for both enlisted men and officers. I say nothing. He adds, “I’d have to steal it to get it.” There’s a long pause. I say, “Well?” “I’ll try, mister.” Smitty goes inside—the sergeant looks at him but makes no move and asks no questions—and Smitty returns, suddenly much more animated, and slides into the seat next to mine. He opens his blouse and pulls out Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr.’s personnel file. I open it and the first page is the same charge sheet that I had seen days earlier in George Latimer’s office. There is more—an address, in nearby Columbus, where Calley is living. I take time to carefully copy the charge sheet, making sure I get every phrase right, and return the file to Smitty. He’s glad to have been a help—fuck the army. He leaves and I head for Calley’s new home.
It’s rush hour and, even with a street map of Columbus, it’s after five o’clock by the time I get to Calley’s condo in what seems to be a new housing development. The car in front of me pulls in to the driveway to which I am headed. Three young army second lieutenants, dressed in camouflage fatigues, climb out. I park behind them, get out of the car, and explain that I’m a journalist who is trying to find Bill Calley, that I understand he lives here. Not anymore, I am told. I tell them that I’ve just seen Calley’s lawyer and he believes the lieutenant to be guilty of nothing, but was in the wrong place at the wrong time. They invite me in for a drink, share a bourbon with me, and explain that they are June graduates of West Point who are finishing up combat training before heading off to Vietnam as infantry platoon leaders. They are polite, articulate, and very likable. Yes, Calley was their roommate for some weeks but no longer lives with them. Yes, they understand the seriousness of the charges against their buddy, but there is another side. Calley and his platoon were engaged in a horrific firefight with an experienced and tough Vietcong battalion, they say. Bullets were flying and of course civilians get caught in cross fire. It’s the inevitable consequence of war. It was the same line I’d heard from George Latimer. The young lieutenants are earnest, and we have another drink or two. Calley stops by occasionally to get his mail, one of them tells me. Of course they know where he’s living now, but they volunteer nothing and I ask nothing. It’s time to get some takeout, and they offer me another drink and dinner. I tell them I’ve got to keep on looking for Calley. It’s dark outside, and as I prepare to leave, one of them finally breaks ranks and tells me where Calley has been tucked away. (Of course I would have asked.) He’s in the senior BOQ—bachelor officers’ quarters—for field-grade officers, including colonels and generals who are on temporary assignment to Benning. I was stunned: a suspected mass murderer hidden away in quarters for the army’s most elite? I was going to hang around the fort until I got my man, but I never would have looked there. It would have been like finding Calley in a neonatal intensive care unit. I got the address and drove off.
The senior BOQ was a complex of two-story buildings, I think three in all, each housing about forty swank, by army standards, one-bedroom units, with a large parking lot. I got there by eight o’clock and began knocking on doors, calling out as I did, “Bill, Bill Calley?” I kept track of those rooms whose tenants answered—usually with a shouted “Get out of here” or “No one named Bill here”—as well as those doors that needed another try. I got through two buildings over the next few hours, with no luck and much exhaustion. I’d gotten up at five o’clock that morning in Washington and had little to eat and more than I needed to drink. But I was not at all discouraged. Calley was living in the complex, and I was going to find him if it took days. I needed to check into a motel, get an hour or two of sleep, and start knocking on doors again.
It was dark as I walked across the nearly empty parking lot. I noticed two guys working underneath a car a few hundred feet away, with the aid of a floodlight powered by a black power cord that ran the length of the lot. I vividly remember thinking to myself, you do not have to take the last run at the end of a long day’s skiing. But I did. As I got close to the car, I apologized for bothering the two guys but said I was looking for Bill Calley. One of the men, perhaps in his late forties, crawled out and asked what I wanted with him. I explained that I was a journalist from Washington and Calley was in a lot of trouble and I was going to write about it. He asked me to wait a second, wiped off his hands, and said something like, “He’s not here, but you can wait for him at my place, if that’s okay.” He muttered something to his pal, who was still under the car, and we walked off. His place turned out to be on the first floor of one of the units, and Calley lived above him. I was warned that it might be hours before Calley would show up; he had gone motorboating at a lake miles away. Motorboating? Yes, said my new friend, who said he was a senior warrant officer who flew helicopters in heavy combat in the war, he knew Calley was in a lot of trouble.
Drinks were offered as we waited; the U.S. Army clearly was running on bourbon. He understood where I was coming from, he said, and acknowledged, sadly, that Vietnam was a murderous, unwinnable war that was taxing his love for the army, which had educated him and taught him how to be an excellent pilot. Calley was frightened, as he should be, the pilot said. His story of a firefight would not hold up. I liked the pilot, and admired his honesty (he mailed me Christmas cards for years), but after an hour or so of pretending to sip a drink, I was done. I had to get some sleep. I said good-bye—I can still see the mosquitoes buzzing around a naked lightbulb outside his door—and began walking to my car. “Hersh,” the pilot yelled, “come back. Rusty is here.” I was not ready to meet a new friend and said so. “No. No. It’s Calley.” It turned out Bill Calley was known to all as Rusty.
We shook hands. I told him who I was and that I was there to get his side of the story. He said, as if my tracking him down had been a piece of cake, that yes, his lawyer told him to expect a visit from me. We went upstairs, I had another drink—this time a beer—and we began to talk. I had wanted to hate him, to see him as a child-killing monster, but instead I found a rattled, frightened young man, short, slight, and so pale that the bluish veins on his neck and shoulders were visible. His initial account was impossible to believe— full of heroic one- on one warfare with bullets, grenades, and artillery shells being exchanged with the evil commies. At one point Calley went to the bathroom to take a leak, or so he said. He left the door— with a full- length mirror in it— partially ajar, and I watched as he vomited bright red arterial blood, the result of a serious ulcer, I would learn.
Sometime after three in the morning, Calley took me to a PX where he bought a bottle of bourbon and some wine. The next stop was an all- night food store on the base, where he purchased a steak. Then we picked up his girlfriend, who was a nurse on night duty at the main hospital at the fort. She was enraged at Calley upon learning that he was introducing her to a journalist, but she drove back to his apartment with us and made dinner. There was more drinking, and as daylight broke, Calley was talking about going bowling. The nurse had fled by then and I’d had it. I had compiled a notebook full of quotes, much of them full of danger for him; his account of the assault at My Lai had become more and more riddled with contradictions as he went on. As I was leaving— by now it was early morning— Calley insisted that I stay and talk to his captain, Ernest Medina, who was in charge of the assault at My Lai. Medina, who would be found not guilty of premeditated murder, involuntary manslaughter, and assault after a court- martial two years later, picked up the telephone after a ring or two. He also was at Fort Benning, presumably going through the same process as Calley. I shared a phone with Calley, and he explained to Medina that he’d been talking with a reporter about My Lai and he wanted Medina to tell me that anything that took place was done under direct order of the captain. Medina said, very simply, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and hung up. Calley was stricken; at that moment he knew what I am sure he already suspected: He was going to be the fall guy for the murders at My Lai.
It was too late, or too early, to sleep, and I drove to the Columbus airport and took the first plane to Washington. I began outlining my story as I flew. I had a verbatim copy of a vital document and an interview with the main player. I understood that I had to keep my feelings about the war out of the story.
I was worried by how my story would be received, and remembered as I began to write that my family lived in the last years of World War II in an apartment across the street from the V— for victory— movie theater on Forty- Seventh Street in Chicago and on Saturdays my brother and I would be taken by our sisters to watch heroic war movies. In the best of those films, our guys, flying P- 51s in Asia, were in a dogfight with the Japanese, who were flying the hated Zeros. Our guys flew with their cockpits open, no headgear, long white scarves, and their thumb constantly giving the A- OK signal. The bucktoothed Japanese— we called them Nips, of course— flew in closed cockpits, with grim faces and wearing soft dark helmets that tied under their chins (the hated kind we kids were forced to wear in winter by our moms). At a critical moment, one of our heroes dramatically saves the life of another who is under imminent attack by unloading a barrage of bullets into a Japanese plane. We watched as the Zero, suddenly out of control, began its death descent, screeching as it went down. Just before it struck the water, a trickle of blood streamed out of the right corner of the Nip’s mouth. We were beside ourselves with cheers as the Zero slammed into the water and blew up.
I was going to try to sell a story that said Americans do not fight war more honorably or more sanely than the Japanese and Germans did in World War II. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
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